Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Hills are Alive in the Santa Anas

Prairie atop the Santa Rosa Plateau.
The Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve is one rare find. Attracting more than 40,000 visitors a year, the 40 miles of trails were fairly empty the day I found my way there on the recommendation of a friend.

Tucked in the hills not far off Highway 15 west of Murrieta the 8,500 acre Reserve was a welcome surprise. Unlike so much hiking in SoCa, trails wind through gently rolling golden prairies and heavily shaded ancient oak groves with waterfalls and running streams providing habitat to more than 200 species of bird. Gladly, mutli use equestrian and biking trails are segregated from the hiking exclusive trails.

Englemann Oak woodland.
The Santa Rosa Plateau (a flat topped hill) consists of six mesas (smaller flat topped hills) –remnants of an ancient lava flow--and encompasses 20,000 acres cradled within the Santa Ana Mountains. Fault Line Road, one of the many dirt road trails within the preserve, reminds visitors that these hills are undeniably “alive,” although perhaps not with music. Three of the six mesas and numerous buttes (even smaller flat topped hills) are located within the Reserve. Thus, the three dollar day use fee affords hikers 360 degree soul southing vistas throughout the park, but particularly from Monument Hill, from sunrise to sunset.

In 1845, cattle rancher Juan Moreno displaced the native population when given a 48,000 land grant. His original adobe abode still stands shaded beneath the broad canopy of a 400 year old oak and is the oldest building in Riverside County. The historic adobe settlement is a mile from the popular road accessible vernal pools and is equipped with picnic tables. From there, the Adobe Loop Trail plunges hikers further into cool shadows within a stream fed oak grove before cutting through the Punta Mesa canyon.
Moreno and Machado historic adobes.

The seasonal vernal pools are some of the largest in the State and the trails to them are well worn, particularly by school groups and families with small children as they provide a plethora of educational opportunities. Numerous outreach programs are offered relating to the geological relevance of the Plateau, as well as the 49 endangered, threatened or rare species found within the Reserve. Wildlife abounds and signs posted everywhere warn hikers to be aware of roaming mountain lions. Hour and half long guided tours are available for groups of 12 or more.

The Plateau is the perfect picnic getaway, with three designated areas. Plan on spending the entire day in pastoral leisure among the breeze swept prairie grasses and wildflowers, watching the clouds and listening to birds. Run and twirl with outstretched arms, toss back your head. Play. It’s one of those places where you can’t help but smile, where peace and joy abound, and where you aren’t in any rush to leave.

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