A few minutes out of town, wilderness is abound.

For all the outdoor activities that take place in Southern California, we often feel disconnected to the land and the environment. It does not help that every direction you turn there are houses, stores, and miles of pavement. Running on a treadmill or spinning endlessly on a trainer while going nowhere is no way to connect with the outdoors. Going out for a bike ride or a jog around suburbia or the city in our purple colored air is not much better. A few minutes out of town lies one of the last natural, assessable bastions of green zone, the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve.

Rest area under a giant oak. Photo by Crispin Courtenay


The reserve is quite new, having been assembled in 1984 by The Nature Conservancy. It was previously used as grazing land, and many cattle fixtures remain and several foundations to old bunkhouses dating from the mid 1800’s. In fact, livestock have just been reintroduced this year as an attempt to mitigate fire risks and to help nourish and spread seeds. The reserve covers 8,300 acres of varied topography and vegetation ranging from ancient oaks growing amount boulder mounds to eroded magma chambers which now form the vernal pools.

Last of it’s kind

This is one of the last undeveloped tracts of such diversity in Southern California. Even though slightly rural, houses line the perimeter in every direction which is unfortunate, as the North portion of the preserve is separated from the Cleveland National Forest by only a few miles.

Oaks are abound on the Granite Loop trail. Photo by Crispin Courtenay

Something for everyone

A healthy ecosystem at work in the Vernal Pools. Photo by Crispin Courtenay.

The South side of the reserve is strictly for hiking, and enjoying the scenery. With over 40 miles of trails, most of which are divided up into short hops, there is something for everyone. Most hikes can be enjoyed by children, and it sure beats having them cooped up inside, playing on their X-Box.

The North side of the reserve is multi-use, with the trails open to horseback riders, bikers and hikers. A note about trail etiquette, horses always have the right of way, bikers yield only to horses, and hikers yield to everything. This is a little different than normal trail etiquette, where bikers yield to everyone, so be on your toes if you choose to hike this side. There are multiple trail-heads and paths leading off the reserve in multiple directions.

Leave no trace is in effect at the Santa Rosa Ecological Reserve, and all activities must take place on official trails or picnic stops. The delicate ecology of the reserve should not be disturbed, so the flowers are not to be picked, and everything should be left as it is. The reserve is kept in pristine condition, and other hikers were routinely seen picking up others trash and hiking it out.

What’s to see?

There are the famed vernal pools, formed from the remains of an ancient volcanic flow, and provide a unique wetland and marsh environment for several months every year. There are the the adobe remnants of the old bunkhouses. Many paths leading through ancient oak forests. There are wild flowers just about every direction you look, which make the reserve a feast for your eyes.

Have not been hiking in a while?

Trails are well marked making them easy to follow. Photo by Crispin Courtenay.

If you are in reasonable shape a three mile hike is easily accomplished with children in tow. Make sure everyone has comfortable footwear, pack a hat, sunscreen and a few bottles of water each. Long pants and closed toe shoes are recommended on most trails due to rocks, poising oak, thorns and anything else that will get you if you choose to wear your Birkensocks. Don’t forget trail snacks, and a camera, as every corner seems to offer a new photo opportunity.

Wildlife and other things to be weary of

Mountain Lions

Be very aware around the hours of dawn and sunset which is when they like to hunt. Jogging alone is asking for trouble, use some common sense, house cats likes to chase things, so do big cats. If you encounter one, do not run, back away. A dog is no match for a mountain lion so keep them on lead. Do not make direct eye contact, do make yourself as large as possible and get small children off the ground. If attacked, fight back aggressively.


Trust me on this, run away from a skunk! If your hit you will regret it. A tomato juice shower works a little, typically around your seventh shower you will only stink half as bad. After three days or so the smell will go away. Just burn any clothes you were in, they will never get clean. If your dogs get hit, it is time to buy a case or more of tomato juice and wash them down a couple times a day, eventually the smell will come out of their coat.


The reserve is home to multiple snakes including three varieties of rattle snakes. If you encounter one, determine where it is—it sounds just like on the movies, but quieter—the last thing you want to do is end up steeping on the snake. Once you see the snake or know it’s general direction, go the other way. Don’t try to kill it, poke it with a stick, touch it, just let it be. In a few minutes it will go on its way. Remember the most dangerous time for rattlesnakes is the spring, that’s when the juveniles hatch. They are more dangerous than adults, as they will excrete all of their venom in one strike. If you remember nothing else, never, ever reach where you cannot see.

Poison Oak

Poisin Oak. Photo by Crispin Courtenay.

If the critters don’t get you the plants will!

“Leaves of three, let it be.” Generally found throughout the reserve, most often near the base of trees. If you touch it by accident, wash it off with cool water and soap as soon as possible. Avoid touching the effected area until washed, as the oil will spread to other parts of your body. Cortisone, antihistamines and calamine lotion can all help to alleviate the symptoms.

Still want to go?

Have fun, it’s only two bucks to get into the park or $25 for an annual pass.

Getting there

Getting to the Santa Rosa is dirt simple, hop in the I-15 and head North until Clinton Keith Road. Head West until you are up in the hills and there you are. A smart camper would have called ahead to Boorman Vineyards and made an appointment to taste just after your hike or ride. They are reachable just prior to the reserve entrance (call for directions, it’s a little confusing).

Trail to the Vernal Pools. Photo by Crispin Courtenay

Last note: Cell phone coverage is intermittent to nonexistent…which is OK by me, nice to be off the grid every once in a while.

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