High above Escondido, enjoy the bucolic splendor of the Engelmann Oak loop hike in Daley Ranch.

This trail highlights the Engelmann oak (or mesa oak) -- a somewhat rare evergreen oak tree found only in parts of inland Southern California. Along the way you'll also see the ubiquitous coast live oak, with its characteristic dense and dark green foliage. Engelmanns, with sparser foliage and grayish-green leaves, tolerate dryness better and tend to thrive on high, as well as low, ground.

The starting point for the Engelmann Oak loop hike is Daley Ranch's west-side (Cougar Pass) trailhead. To get there take the Highway 78 freeway east from Interstate 15. After only one mile, the freeway ends at Broadway. Turn left on Broadway and drive 4.8 miles north to unpaved Cougar Pass Road on the right. Follow the winding Cougar Pass Road 1.4 miles to the Daley Ranch trailhead on the right.

From the trailhead, enter Daley Ranch property on Cougar Ridge Trail (a dirt road). You traverse a grassy flat and soon plunge into coast live oak woods, where perpetual twilight reigns. A small stream trickles through here during the wetter half of the year. At 0.7 mile ignore the first road on left, the northern leg of the Engelmann Oak Trail. At 0.9 mile stay right, avoiding the lesser trail on the left (this Bobcat Trail will be your return route). You climb more briskly now, reaching a saddle. Stay on the main road, which angles east upward along a ridge, and negotiate your way over a steep section with loose rocks underfoot. Most of the city of Escondido lies in view below, nestled in a bowl surrounded by rounded hills. You can understand how Escondido (Spanish for "hidden") deserves its name.

At the next junction, 1.5 miles, bear left on the Engelmann Oak Trail. Continue climbing and don't miss the old stock pond on the right, which brims with water after winter rains. Continue through a park-like spread of coast live oaks -- where, on a warm spring day, sweet, toasty aromas rise from the drying grass and oak leaf litter.

Next, you skirt the south base of Burnt Mountain, a rounded, boulder-studded promontory guarded by thick chaparral. The newly opened Burnt Mountain single-track trail intersects on the left -- a rougher alternate and slight short-cut route along the base of the mountain. For easier walking or riding, stay on the Engelmann Oak Trail, which soon curls left and goes northward. You catch sight of the rolling mesa to the northeast occupied by the rural community of Valley Center.

At 3.3 miles (about 0.4 mile past an old water tank on the right), in a grassy vale, turn left on the narrow Bobcat Trail. A delightful one-mile descent down a shallow ravine ensues, first through swaying grass, then amid fragrant chaparral, then under densely clustered live oaks whose intertwining limbs nearly blot out the sky. When you reach the next trail fork, bear right, hook up with Cougar Ridge Trail, and return to the Cougar Pass Road trailhead.

This article contains information about a publicly owned recreation or wilderness area. Trails and pathways are not necessarily marked. Conditions can change rapidly. Hikers should be properly equipped and have safety and navigational skills. The Reader and Jerry Schad assume no responsibility for any adverse experience.

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