When yet another of those phenomenally clear mornings comes our way during the next month or two, head out to Dixon Lake Recreation Area above Escondido to enjoy one of North County's most refreshing hikes.
Recent rain showers have revived the chaparral and sage-brush vegetation on the hillsides overlooking the lake. Bathed in the warm winter sunshine, the new growth suffuses the air with a kind of wild and exotic perfume.
Newly constructed trail segments now make it possible to climb up and over a shaggy promontory just north of the lake, and then loop back to the start by way of an older, shoreline-hugging path. From the high point of the hike, 300 feet above the lake's shimmering surface, you may enjoy a stunning panorama stretching west to San Clemente Island and Santa Catalina Island, and south along the coast into Baja California.
Managed by the city of Escondido, the lake and the surrounding recreation area are open daily for use from 6 a.m. to dusk. A camping area with 45 units, three picnic areas with tables and barbecues, playgrounds and a concession offering boat rentals--plus the opportunity to fish along most of the lake's shoreline--are enough to draw a steady stream of visitors 7 days a week.
Getting there is easy: Simply follow El Norte Parkway 3 miles east from Interstate 15. Turn left (north) on La Honda Drive and follow it one mile uphill to the recreation area's entry station. The fee for day use is $1.
Just past the entry station you should spot the large, wooden sign marking the start of the Jack Creek Nature Trail. This half-mile-long, sometimes-steep trek down to the lake shore and back includes 15 numbered stops keyed to a self-guiding booklet you can borrow from the ranger station.
Along the way you'll become acquainted with several of the common native plants of the area--buckwheat, manzanita, chamise, California sagebrush, black sage, ceanothus, laurel sumac, toyon, willow and live oak--and some nonnative (planted) acacia and eucalyptus trees. Bright yellow blossoms should be appearing on the acacias by early February. Blue-flowered ceanothus (or "wild lilac") shrubs should color the hillsides with patches of blue in March and April, while the delicate, red monkey-flower plants will bloom dependably from late winter into early summer.
With some careful, hand-in-hand guidance over several rough spots, the Jack Creek Nature Trail can be a real adventure for toddlers. The jungle-like growths of acacia, jagged rock outcrops, and rugged little stair-step inclines were enough to keep my 2 1/2-year-old son fascinated the whole way.
If you're exercise-minded, and don't mind tackling a couple of steep, rough pitches yourself, you can try the following 2.5-mile-long loop:
Just beyond the entry station, turn left onto the paved road that leads toward two fishing piers on the north shore of the lake. Less than a hundred yards down, pull off and park in the dirt turnout on the left. From the far corner of this turnout, start walking on the unmarked trail (so new it hasn't been named yet) that darts through the chaparral in an east direction, parallel to the road. You descend slightly, traverse a patch of riparian bottom land along trickling Jack Creek, and then climb easily through more chaparral to a junction with an old dirt roadbed (0.5 mile from the start), now reverted to a hiking trail. Turn right, walk downhill about 100 yards, and pick up the narrow, unsigned Lake View Trail slanting up the slope on the left.
A short, but heart-pounding climb through a veritable tunnel of tall chaparral takes you to the brow of a ridge offering the aforementioned view of the lake--and perhaps the ocean, weather permitting. An equally steep, but more rugged and rocky descent lies ahead. At the bottom you come to a maintained, dirt road (1.0 mile from the start).
Turn right and follow the road about 300 yards down to a "port-a-potty" perched above the lake, not far from the dam. From there, follow a short path on the right to join the Shoreline Trail, where you veer right, heading away from the dam. Stay on the Shoreline Trail for the next mile.
You'll leave the Shoreline Trail alongside the narrow cove just beyond the second fishing pier. Look for the sign labeled TRAIL, referring to the Jack Creek Nature Trail, on the right. Climb up either branch of that trail to the paved road above, and turn right to return to your parked car.