If you’ve driven through Pala on Highway 76 (in north east San Diego County), you may have seen signs for the Wilderness Gardens Preserve. The signs don’t look like they would lead to anything special; all I ever saw was the side of the road.
A couple of weeks ago, we decided to drive the ten minutes or so from our house to see what the place was all about. I’m glad we did.
The Wilderness Gardens Preserve is a surprisingly beautiful area. The reason I could never see the preserve from the road is because it is tucked away, in a tree-covered stretch of land to the west of the highway.
According to San Diego County Parks and Recreation, the Wilderness Gardens Preserve was acquired in 1973 and is the oldest County Parks and Recreation open space preserve. Its 737 acres offers four miles of trails, ranging from easy to moderate. It looked to me as though most of the trails would fall into the “easy” category. The trail that we took, the Upper Meadow Trail, might be considered moderate by some, but I’m willing to bet most hikers would find it easy to traverse.
The views from the Upper Meadow Trail are nice. From near the top, we were able to see much of the Pala area and the San Luis Rey River corridor. Palomar Mountain and the Boucher Hill Fire Tower are visible in the east.
My favorite part of the Upper Meadow Trail was flora. Everything was green, thanks to the large amount of rain we’ve been getting this season. The ferns were thriving, moss clung to the rocks in the shade, and lichen had settled onto the trunks of many of the oak trees along the trail. Parts of it reminded me of being in the Pacific Northwest.
After cresting the trail, we looped down toward the pond, where we connected with a wide trail that forked off in three directions. I have to admit that the road-like trail took away from the whole hiking atmosphere. It looks like it might be there solely for the use of the rangers’ utility vehicles.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover some history in the park. Not too far from the pond, and off of the rangers’ trail sits the remnants of an old grist mill. The sign at the site tells the story of the Sickler brothers, who came from Kansas in 1868 and built a state-of-the-art grist mill.
The mill was the first in north San Diego County. Local farmers brought their grains to the mill then camped out on the land while they waited for their grains to be ground. This could take a couple of weeks, so the families who congregated at the mill used the time to socialize and trade goods.
It was designated a county historical site in 2006. Visit the links below to learn more about the Sickler brothers, the mill, and the history of the area.
I will visit the Wilderness Gardens Preserve again. My son and I tried to explore the river bed, which was dry while we were there. We didn’t get far because we had to leave. I want to look for the grinding rocks made by the Luiseño Indians that can supposedly be found in the park.
A couple of things to keep in mind if you decide to visit the preserve … it costs three dollars to park (at the time of this post), the park is closed in the month of August because of the heat, and it’s not open every day of the week. Check the San Diego County Parks and Recreation website for details.