I mentioned a couple of posts ago that my twelve-year-old son is into photography and cameras—so much so that he goes by the name of CameraKid online. Since my photos of the Wilderness Gardens Preserve aren’t nearly as good as his, I thought I would dedicate a post to his photos from our hike.
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.
Nearly seventy feet above the highest peak on Palomar Mountain sits a 13 x 13-foot structure. With six flights of stairs in a switch-back design leading to the top, reaching this small space—the cab, as it’s called—isn’t easy. The 6,140-foot elevation at which High Point Lookout Tower’s base resides is a contributing factor to the oh-my-gosh-I-can’t-breathe experience that accompanies the climb.
But once the climb is over (and you catch your breath), it’s worth it. The 360-degree view overlooking forests, valleys, faraway mountain ranges, and desert communities is one that few get to experience.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I am a forest fire lookout volunteer with the Forest Fire Lookout Association, San Diego-Riverside Chapter. The breath-taking views, fresh air, and solitude of the tower are perks of the job; and that’s all they are—perks. Being a forest fire lookout is more than sitting at the top of a tower, surrounded by the beauty of the mountains and waiting for a fire to start somewhere. It’s about vigilance, dedication, professionalism, and partnering with local agencies to keep the area safe from wildfires.
Before I started my training, I had my own ideas as to what I would be doing as a volunteer lookout. I envisioned sitting at a small table, my laptop plugged into the nearest outlet, and using the solitude to work on my sure-to-be bestselling novel. Of course I would need to look up from time to time to make sure the county wasn’t burning down, but how hard could that be? You see smoke, you call 9-1-1, right?
My romantic visions of being a weekend J.D. Salinger were quelled during the orientation meeting. It was then that I learned I would be responsible for weather recording and reporting, learning landmarks, and how to use the azimuth/Osborne Fire Finder.
Most importantly, I would be expected to report any smoke I see—along with its location, distance away, and nearest landmarks. Being a forest fire lookout is a lot of work! And that’s fine by me. I like a challenge and this one is rewarding for so many reasons! The hours I’ve spent training so far have confirmed that this is my kind of “job.”
Palomar Mountain in San Diego County has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Camping, fishing, hiking, winter camp … these activities have been the source of most of my favorite childhood memories.
A couple of years ago, I discovered a new-to-me mountain treasure—the Boucher Hill Lookout Tower. There has been a tower located on the site since 1921, so why I had never been there nor heard of it before then, I don’t know.
One day when I brought my boys to the lookout site, there were a couple of people working in the tower who called down to us that we could come up and take a look around.
I was amazed. Really? We’re allowed to go to the top of the tower and maybe even walk along the catwalk? Heck, yeah! I pushed aside my natural reluctance to make small talk with people and dragged my boys up the three flights of stairs to the cab of the lookout tower.
I was smitten. The view, the history, the location … does it get much better than this? I knew we’d be back.
On our next visit, we waited to be invited up by the tower lookouts. This time, I was in a more talkative mood. When I found out that the lookouts were married to each other, I had to ask: Are you both rangers?
They said people often mistake them for park rangers because of their uniforms, but they are actually volunteers. Wait—volunteers? Yep. And the organization was always looking for more. I knew from that moment that I wanted—needed—to be a volunteer forest fire lookout. So the couple gave me a phone number and email address and I went went down the mountain, head filled with visions of dressing up like a forest ranger and spending time in the fire tower.
I had to wait almost a full year; the training for the season had just ended and the next session wouldn’t be held until the following April. I was disappointed, but I didn’t lose interest.
I began my training this past April and I learned pretty quickly that there is a lot more to being a volunteer fire lookout than the uniform and sitting in a tower, looking for smoke. But I’ll have to save all that for another post.
Smokey the Bear photo by Forest Service, United States Department of Agriculture, in cooperation with the Association of State Foresters and the Advertising Council [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A Quetzal is a type of bird found in Central America and Mexico. They have beautiful feathers. I don’t want to use someone else’s copyrighted image of a Quetzal; that would be wrong. I also can’t take my own photo of a Quetzal because I don’t live in Central America or Mexico. But don’t worry! Luckily for you, I have a paint program on my computer, and with it, I can “paint” Quetzals. Without further ado, I present to you my very own rendition of a Queztal.