Exploring San Diego’s backcountry

CHANCES ARE, WHEN YOU PICTURE SAN DIEGO’S natural beauty, your mind rushes to the beach. And for good reason! These rolling surf, long-stretching beaches with golden sunsets are awe-inspiring. But close your eyes and listen. San Diego County’s backcountry, just 50 miles northeast of downtown San Diego, is calling. 

Set in 4,600 acres of gently rolling hills dotted with oak trees, fields of native grasses and wildflowers, and hawks soaring overhead, the Santa Ysabel Preserves is a fabulous place to start. Besides trails for hiking, cycling, and horseback riding, there is the fascinating family-friendly Santa Ysabel Nature Center, complete with an engaging outdoor playground to enjoy. The headwaters of the San Diego and San Dieguito rivers lie within the preserves, and there is an array of wildlife, including deer, wild turkeys, red fox, and even an occasional horned lizard and mountain lion. You’ll find a few picnic areas, markets, and delis along our route, as well as a few restaurants nearby in the town of Julian. 

Plan to start your day with a hike. There are more than 15 miles of trails through both the East and West Preserves including two loops that traverse through unique habitats. Each trail starts at one of three staging areas (trailheads), so before you head out, go online to decide which trail you’d like to take so you can set your GPS for the proper trailhead. Not up for exerting yourself too much? Plan to follow a short trail upward from the Santa Ysabel Nature Center to enjoy exhilarating vista views. Regardless of the trail you choose, be sure to bring plenty of water, dress in layers, and wear sunscreen and appropriate footwear.

The Santa Ysabel Nature Center’s beautiful, brand-new 6,000-square-foot LEED Gold and Zero Net Energy facility features interactive exhibits and displays and a large community room for special meetings and events. Although it’s geared toward the youngest nature enthusiasts, the center is a great educational resource for all ages. Exhibits teach us about the history of the area, the importance of watersheds and dark skies, how to identify monarch butterflies and the Preserve’s rare Engelmann oaks, and much more. Plan to spend about 45 minutes to fully appreciate all the displays and activities. More fun awaits outdoors at the play area where most of the equipment resembles hollowed tree trunks and branches.


When appetites stir, the answer lies less than a minute away, where CA-78 and CA-79 intersect. Open every day but Tuesday, Farmhouse 78 Country Eatery serves country-style breakfasts until 11 followed by lunch and supper fare. If you want to picnic, most of the items on Farmhouse 78’s menu are available to-go, or you can order sandwiches, pastries, cookies, and fruit bars at Dudley’s Famous Bakery and Deli across the parking lot. Also, if you’re planning on taking home a Julian pie or two, the Santa Ysabel location for The Julian Pie Company is located here. The line tends to be shorter at this location than the lines you may find later in the town of Julian.

With picnic provisions gathered, continue your journey on CA-78 East. Inaja Memorial Park is an excellent place to stop with a dedicated picnic area and beautiful lookout point. At an elevation of 3,440 feet, the park provides clear views of the San Diego River canyon, Palomar, and the Volcan Mountains. To fully appreciate the views, take the short loop trail.

Just about four miles past Inaja Memorial Park, you’ll reach the sign for Wynola Road. Turn left and follow this enchanting, winding mountain road. At this point of your journey, you will know for certain that you are in backcountry. It’s not uncommon to drive all the way to the outskirts of Julian without seeing another vehicle. 


Before you know it, you’ve reached the charming mountain town of Julian. If the cute shops and galleries on Main Street tempt you to rejoin civilization for an hour or more, go ahead. In fact, the Julian Visitor and Nature Store is home to the California Wolf Center, where you can learn about wolves and wolf conservation. On weekdays, if you make an advance reservation online at reservations@californiawolfcenter.org, you can also take a public or private tour of the conservation’s wolf habitat located about five miles from downtown Julian.

When you’re ready to head for home, follow 79 South. Pretty Lake Cuyamaca offers a couple of easy-access picnic areas in case you want to pause, nibble on something, and enjoy the scenery. A little farther down the road in Descanso, watch for Pam’s Place, where you can buy wildflower honey made right across the street, jams made from old family recipes, and fruits from neighboring orchards and fields. Stop and gather some tasty reminders of the glorious day you spent connecting with nature in San Diego’s stunning backcountry.

Lake Cuyamaca
Lake Cuyamaca


Sometimes the GPS isn’t accurate in these parts, so take these directions with you.

Downtown to Santa Ysabel
Take I-8 E to CA 67 N
CA 67 N to CA 78 E
CA 78 E to CA 79 N
Turn left, the Nature Center is on right.

Nature Center to Julian
Take 79 N (stop: Inaja Memorial Park) to Wynola Rd
Turn left on Wynola Rd and follow
the winding route to Hwy 79
Turn right on Hwy 79 N and follow into downtown Julian.

Julian to Home
Take Main Street out of town to 79 S
Turn right on 79 S
Follow 79 S (stop: Pam’s Fruit Stand) to I-8 W.


Santa Ysabel East Preserve
East Gate/West Gate
500 Farmer Rd/22550 Hwy 79
Julian/Santa Ysabel
Mon–Sun 8 am to sunset

Santa Ysabel West Preserve
29300 Hwy 78
Santa Ysabel
Mon–Sun 8 am to sunset

Santa Ysabel Nature Center
22135 Hwy 79
Santa Ysabel
Mon–Thu 10 am–5 pm
Fri–Sun 9 am–5 pm

Inaja Memorial Park
30839 Old Julian Hwy
Santa Ysabel

Julian Visitor Center and Nature Store
2775 B St

Wolf Conservation Facility
Tall Pine Rd & KQ Ranch Rd

Pam’s Place
9300 Hwy 79