Explore the easy-going Highland Valley Trail at upper Lake Hodges near Escondido.

The Highland Valley Trail, in northernmost Rancho Bernardo, runs along a hillside just above Highland Valley Road, with good views of the currently dry upper arm of Lake Hodges and the broad, agriculture-dotted San Pasqual Valley upstream from there. You can spend an easygoing couple of hours covering the round-trip distance of four miles on this trail, rambling amid tangled patches of chaparral and picturesque coast live oak trees -- all thankfully unburned in recent years.

From the time of the first soaking rains this season and until early spring, Highland Valley Trail should appear at its freshest, with radiant greenery covering all but the thick brown leaf litter dropped by the oaks. Trailside wildflowers will probably peak in April -- somewhat later in the year than in most places because of the north-facing aspect of the trail's location.

The trail (for hikers, horses, and leashed dogs only) originates at a small dirt parking lot on Highland Valley Road, just east of Pomerado Road. The initial one-half-mile segment is an interpretive trail named the Ruth Merrill Children's Walk. After two miles, the trail comes to an end at Sycamore Canyon Road, near the northern edge of Poway.

Just one-third mile into your initial eastbound trek, you come to a bridged passage over a deep, densely wooded ravine -- an impressive destination for small kids first testing their hiking legs. Near the midpoint of the trail, look for the morteros, or grinding holes, on a sloping slab of granitic rock to the left. Here, Kumeyaay women rhythmically pounded acorns into meal using heavy manos, or hand stones -- a scene repeated here and at many hundreds of other sites around the county two or more centuries ago.

The Highland Valley Trail is one of several lateral or auxiliary trails built so far in the San Dieguito River Park, the 55-mile linear, open-space park slowly taking form between the mouth of the San Dieguito River at Del Mar and Volcan Mountain near Julian. The main "trunk" of the trail system, the Coast to Crest Trail, travels along the north shore of Lake Hodges and into the San Pasqual Valley.

Call the San Dieguito River Park office, 858-674-2270, for information about regularly scheduled guided hikes on this trail and several others throughout the park.

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