Daley Ranch: Boulder Loop

Hike among dramatic granitic boulder displays and enjoy spectacular panoramic views near urban sprawl.

The entrance to the Daley Ranch and the Boulder Loop Trail
  • The entrance to the Daley Ranch and the Boulder Loop Trail

Distance from downtown San Diego: Allow one-hour driving time to Escondido. From I-15, exit east on El Norte Parkway. Turn left (north) on La Honda Drive. The parking area for the Daley Ranch is on the left. To the right is Dixon Lake with restrooms, water, and picnic areas.

Hiking length: 4 miles round trip. Allow 2 hours.

Difficulty: This moderately strenuous hike has approximately 750 feet of elevation gain/loss.

The Daley Ranch in northeast Escondido has over 3000 acres in a natural setting. Settled by English immigrant Robert Daley in 1869, the ranch remained in the Daley family until recently. There were plans to develop the property, but fortunately the City of Escondido purchased the ranch in 1996 to preserve it as a natural habitat and a place for outdoor recreation.

North San Diego County’s expanding developments are never far from this preserve. It is a treasure for anyone who likes to hike, run trails, mountain bike, ride horses, or just experience nature. The hills are clothed with coastal sage and chaparral, while in the valleys you will find ponds, oak woodlands, and grassy meadows. Many of the trees are the increasingly rare Engelmann oaks. It is a great place for vigorous outdoor exercise, to learn about our natural environment, and to experience the beauty of nature.

An intricate network of trails winds through the Daley Ranch. In fact, there are at least 20 miles of trails and hiking possibilities with hundreds of ways to plan a day’s adventure on the ranch. A few of the trails are single track but most are actually dirt roads maintained by a bulldozer for passage of emergency vehicles. However, other than bicycles, hikers won’t encounter vehicles on any of these roads, barring an emergency. The one exception is the Ranch House Trail, but here vehicle traffic is limited to a shuttle bus that travels from the parking lot to the ranch house and only operates on Sundays. Equestrians have the right-of-way and mountain bikers are supposed to yield the right-of-way to all users, but this is not always possible. Be alert for mountain bikers on the trail.

Map of Boulder Loop Trail

Map of Boulder Loop Trail

Boulder Loop is one of the many trail routes. It is at its best after the wildflowers make their appearance, usually in January and continuing into July, although the trails can become hot and dusty from June on. Starting from the dirt parking lot off La Honda Drive, hike through the Daley Ranch gate and up the road toward the ranch house, a structure built in the 1920s and now being restored. Look for a road to the left before reaching the ranch house and follow it up over a small hill and down through an oak grove with views of some of the ponds that were once used for livestock grazing. The southern end of the Boulder Loop Trail is on the left about 0.7 mile from the parking lot. Proceed up the steep, eroded Boulder Loop Trail to the top of ridge. Pause to catch your breath and enjoy the vistas: south to Dixon Lake and beyond to Escondido; east to the Daley Ranch ponds with Stanley Peak rising above them; and west and southwest to suburbia sprawling over the neighboring valleys and crawling up the hills.

The first mile is almost all up a sometimes steep grade, but eventually you reach a grassy, boulder-strewn ridge with easy hiking as you proceed over a series of low rolling hills. There are two other trails that branch off Boulder Loop. The first one is the single track Rock Ridge Trail that veers to the right, and, later, the Cougar Ridge Trail branches off to the left. These are well marked. Stay on the Boulder Loop Trail that goes back down to the Ranch House Trail, rejoining it after 3.2 miles. At this point there are two options. Going left up the Ranch House Trail leads to the historic ranch house in less than half a mile, which is a good place for a picnic in the shade of some magnificent oak trees. Or, turn right and return to your vehicle in the parking lot in 0.8 mile.

Canyoneers are San Diego Natural History Museum volunteers trained to lead interpretive nature walks that teach appreciation for the great outdoors. For a schedule of free public hikes:


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That is an excellent hike that offers some interesting scenery up close. There are many other loops within Daley that are equally interesting. One hike that a group might decide to take starts at the western entrance to Daley, on Cougar Pass Road, and heads along the Cougar Ridge Trail until that one intersects the Boulder Loop. The hike can then take either of the two sides of the loop out to the Ranch House Road and thence to the La Honda entrance opposite Dixon Lake. Two vehicles would be necessary to do that hike one way. Spot one at one end, then take the other with all the hikers to the other end and start walking. At the end, drive back and pick up the first vehicle. Complicated but sometimes preferable to heading back the same way you went in.

Please comment on the bicycle option.

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