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Blazing Trails : New Mt. Gower Open Space Preserve Now Beckons Hikers

March 19, 1992|Jerry Schad | Jerry Schad is an outdoor enthusiast, educator and author of books on hiking and cycling in San Diego County

Out past Ramona, tucked against the western border of Cleveland National Forest, San Diego Country Estates sprawls in isolation across the San Vicente Valley. For more than 20 years, this suburb in the country has been swelling to where it now has about 2,500 housing units.

As in any suburban neighborhood, automobiles are much in evidence here. But you will also see golf carts gliding down the back streets, horses ambling down oak-shaded paths, and people on foot. Hikers seeking new trails have a good excuse for a visit to this neck of the woods, now that San Diego County's new Mt. Gower Open Space Preserve has opened nearby.

The 1,574-acre Mt. Gower preserve is one of several parcels of surplus land being transferred from federal (Bureau of Land Management) to San Diego County jurisdiction. The preserve is being managed primarily for protection of the natural vegetation and wildlife, but public use is mandated as well. The county has been busy building facilities such as a parking area and trails (but no rest rooms) for the convenience of visitors. Five of a projected 8 miles of trail have been constructed so far. The unfinished links of trail may eventually lead to two proposed trail campgrounds on the west shoulder of Mt. Gower, a rocky promontory that serves as a local landmark.

To reach the preserve from Ramona, take San Vicente Road 6 miles south and east to Gunn Stage Road. Turn left (north) there, and continue 1.8 miles to the preserve entrance. Drive another quarter of a mile on a graded dirt road to the main parking (equestrian staging) lot on the right. An informational kiosk marks the start of the trail system at the far end of the lot.

The trail system has two main branches. The meandering west trail leads to a viewpoint (elevation 2,310 feet) on top of a barren ridge two trail-miles away. Along the way, you'll pass rather dull-looking chamise-chaparral vegetation, but this season's expected bumper crop of wildflowers in March and April should brighten things. On clear days, there's definite reward at the end of the trail--a spectacular view, with the Coronado Islands, Point Loma, Mt. Baldy in Los Angeles County, and a long roster of San Diego County high points in view around the compass.

The more difficult, rambling trail to the south and east now runs 3 miles. A more heterogeneous and attractive mix of chaparral, nearly all of it in fragrant bloom this month and next, graces that route. If a short hike is to your liking, a mere 1 1/4 miles of walking takes you to a pleasant rest area overlooking oak-lined Swartz Canyon. From there, you can follow a short spur trail up to a 1,976-foot peak perched strategically over the Country Estates and San Vicente Valley.

Past the rest area, the main trail descends to cross Swartz Canyon and then ascends on zigzags to a ridgeline. After following the ridge top for a while, the trail descends and dead-ends in a shady ravine, 3.0 miles from the start. A granite-ribbed summit gleams ahead. This is the northernmost of three summits--of almost exactly the same height--that top off Mt. Gower's broad bulk. Any further travel in the direction of this summit is fruitless now, though that will change with trail construction.

Local hikers have forged a path to Mt. Gower's northernmost summit by way of a southern route that doesn't start in the open-space preserve. A marked equestrian trail starting from Bellemore Drive, 0.45 mile east of Welcome Way, skirts a couple of houses and then enters Cleveland National Forest as it ascends a hillside.

A side trail contours east and enters a narrow canyon cut by San Vicente Creek, while the main trail continues to rise toward another trail junction atop a saddle 0.9 mile from the start. The trail to the left (west) continues on a more or less level course for 0.7 mile, then it swings sharply right (uphill).

The rest of the now-obscure trail, which continues north and finally east to reach the summit, is marked in places by red and orange ribbons tied to bushes. Don't try to follow it unless you're a glutton for adventure and are absolutely sure you can retrace your route.

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