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Rangers’ Picks: Instagram-worthy San Diego park locations

These are San Diego County park rangers’ picks for 12 picture-perfect parks to explore in 2020
Credit: San Diego County
Lake Morena is a welcome oasis in East County

SAN DIEGO — San Diego County park rangers have selected 12 picture-perfect parks for you to visit. Each has a picturesque spot for you to find and document.

Some of the photo spots are easy to get to, like a trailhead. Others require an eagle eye and a few miles of trekking on moderate to hard trails. However, all are scenic.

Before hitting the trail, consider the difficulty of the hike, the weather, and your own physical fitness level. No matter if you are a novice or looking for a new hiking challenge, bring plenty of water, dress properly, stay on marked trails and make sure you let someone know where you are hiking.

These are the rangers’ picks for most Instagram-worthy parks to explore in 2020:

Wilderness Gardens

Address: 14209 Hwy 76, Pala, CA 92059
Phone: 760-742-1631
Hours: 8 a.m. – 4 p.m., Thursday – Tuesday. Closed Wednesdays and August.
Trails: 4 miles of non-motorized multi-use trails
Parking: Day-use parking is $3.
Facilities: Staging area, restrooms, picnic tables

Located in the San Luis Rey River watershed, the 737-acre preserve was the first in the County system. It offers beautiful views and a variety of easy-to-moderate hiking trails without the chaos of large crowds.

Photo Spot: Take the Upper Meadow Trail 3.2 miles to a large grassy expanse with seasonal wildflowers. Also, look for the foundation of an old grist mill on the County Historic Resource Board’s list of historic places. The foundation is about 0.8 miles into the hike.

Agua Caliente

Address: 39555 Great Southern Overland Stage Route of 1849, Julian*, CA 92036 *Address is officially Julian, but it’s located at the base of the mountain, west of Anza-Borrego State Park
Phone: 760-765-1188
Hours: 9:30 a.m. to sunset, daily
Trails: 4 miles of trails
Parking: $3
Facilities: Campgrounds, cabins, restrooms, three hot spring pools (additional fee for springs)

Agua Caliente is nestled in Anza Borrego Desert State Park about 100 miles east of San Diego. This park is popular during the winter months for both hiking and camping. On a clear night, the darkness also makes for great stargazing opportunities.

Photo Spot: Keep your eyes open for bighorn sheep as you walk along the Marsh Trail, and snap a selfie about a half a mile in at a palm grove. The trees are sure to please.

El Capitan

Address: 13775 Blue Sky Ranch Road, Lakeside, CA 92040
Phone: 619-561-0580
Hours: 8 a.m. – sunset, daily; closed in August due to extreme summer heat.
Trails: 10.6 miles of trails
Parking: Parking lot
Facilities: Staging area

This hike up El Cajon Mountain at El Capitan County Preserve is considered one of the most strenuous hikes in the county. It can easily take up to 6 hours to complete. Come prepared with lots of water and proper attire.

Photo Spot: You’ll really need to work for this photo. Take the main trail up, up, up. Feel rugged and pose next to an abandoned Jeep located near mile 5.

Mt. Gower

Credit: San Diego County

Address: 17090 Gunn Stage Road, Ramona, CA 92065
Phone: 760-788-3326
Hours: 8 a.m. – sunset, daily. Closed in August.
Trails: 8.92 miles of multi-use trails
Parking: Parking lot
Facilities: Staging area, restrooms

Although hiking along the 8 miles of multi-use trails in this nearly 1,600-acre preserve is the most typical way to experience Mt. Gower, the preserve is also very popular with equestrians and has a staging area.

Photo Spot: Take the challenging Mt. Gower Ridge Trail to the summit, look for a granite boulder outcrop that mimic fangs. They are located around the 3-mile mark. Take a fangtastic photo!

Lake Morena

Address: 2550 Lake Morena Drive, Campo, CA 91906
Phone: 619 579-4101
Hours: Sunrise – 1/2-hour before sunset
Trails: 8 miles of non-motorized multi-use trails
Parking: $3 parking lot
Facilities: Campground, cabins, restrooms, pavilion, playground, Track Trails, fishing and boating

Lake Morena is a welcome oasis in East County. It’s popular because it’s a hop, skip and jump away from the Pacific Crest Trail; the lake is regularly stocked with a variety of freshwater fish; and there is camping.

Photo Spot: Head out on the 3.4-mile out-and-back dam access trail. At the scenic turnaround point, there is a gate to a historic dam that was constructed at the turn of the 19th century.

Santa Ysabel East

Address: 500 Farmer Road, Julian, CA, 92036
Phone: 760-765-4098, 760-814-0208
Hours: 8 a.m. – sunset, daily
Trails: 20 miles of non-motorized multi-use trails across the East and West preserves
Parking: Parking lot
Facilities: Staging area, portable restrooms, picnic tables, nearby nearby Nature Center

Hikers, cyclists and equestrians can enjoy an adventure within this combined 6,347-acre sanctuary. Go over the river and through the woods – there are miles of trails through both the east and west preserves including two loops that traverse through unique habitats.

Photo Spot: From the Farmer Road Staging Area, hike 2.3 miles to the Kanaka Loop junction and turn right. Following the Coast to Crest Trail 1.5 miles to a picnic table shaded by a stately oak. Enjoy the views of Palomar Mountain to the north and Cuyamaca Peak to the south. BYOB lunch and camera.

Ramona Grasslands

Address: Trailhead and staging area are on Highland Valley Rd., just east of Archie Moore Rd. in Ramona
Phone: 760-788-3326
Hours: 8 a.m. – sunset, daily
Trails: 4 miles of non-motorized multi-use trails
Parking: Parking lot
Facilities: Staging area, portable restrooms, picnic tables

Nature lovers, rejoice! This biologically diverse preserve supports 23 butterfly species, 21 reptile species, six types of amphibians, 37 mammals, over a hundred types of birds and 408 plant species.

Photo Spot: In addition to the usual animals you might expect to see at a County park, the Grasslands are home to cattle. If you see one, mooove to the side of the trail, keep your distance and snap a pic.

Volcan Mountain Wilderness

Address: 1209 Farmer Road at Wynola Road, Julian, CA 92036
Phone: 760-765-4098, 760-814-0208
Hours: 8 a.m. – sunset, daily
Trails: 5.4 miles, plus connections to numerous other trails
Parking: Street
Facilities: Portable restrooms, picnic tables, benches

Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve offers approximately 2,900 acres of mixed conifer forest. Hike to the summit for spectacular views from the desert to the coast. This roughly 5-mile round-trip hike is considered moderately difficult, with steep inclines.

Photo Spot: Stride through an art installation at the Volcan Mountain Preserve trailhead to start this pictorial hike. Then trek 2.5 miles up to a telescope, and continue on for about a quarter of a mile to the historic Lightway Beacon Tower – used in the 1920s by airmail carriers. Take all the pictures.

Heritage Park

Address: 2454 Heritage Park Row, San Diego, CA 92110
Phone: 619-232-7275
Hours: Sunrise to sunset
Trails: None
Parking: Parking lot
Facilities: Grassy lawn, restrooms, historic structures

This charming County park in Old Town San Diego features several restored Victorian homes and the city’s first synagogue. The large lawn is a great place for a picnic or to bring takeout from a local restaurant.

Photo Spot: Capture the history of Temple Beth Israel and its well-preserved 1800s-era style architecture.

Tijuana River Valley Regional Park

Address: 2721 Monument Road, San Diego, CA 92154
Phone: 619-428-2946
Hours: 8 a.m. – sunset, daily
Trails: 22.5 miles of multi-use, non-motorized trails
Parking: Parking lot
Facilities: Community garden, restrooms, sports fields, Bird and Butterfly Garden

Tijuana River Valley Regional Park offers more than 1,800 acres of diverse habitats – from dense riparian forests along the Tijuana River to coastal maritime sage scrub on top of Spooner’s Mesa, which is along a 3.3 mile trail loop.

Photo Spot: Spooner’s Mesa offers panoramic, international views of the coast; look south into Mexico and north across miles of San Diego County coastline. The mesa sits above the river drainage – a little over 1.5 miles from the trailhead off Monument Road.

Louis A. Stelzer

Address: 11470 Wildcat Canyon Road, Lakeside, CA 92040
Phone: 619-561-0580
Hours: 9:30 a.m. – sunset, daily
Trails: 2.5 miles of multi-use trails
Parking: $3 parking fee
Facilities: Picnic areas, barbecues, playgrounds, restrooms, special event space, Track Trails, fitness equipment, horseshoe pit

Stelzer County Park is made up of 420 acres of oak woodland and coastal sage scrub. In the spring, you will encounter the vibrant colors of wildflowers in the meadows. The trails are short, but they pack a punch!

Photo Spot:  Pass the westernmost playground to climb the 0.6-mile Stelzer Ridge Trail, and veer right to the Kumeyaay Promontory – or continue on to Stelzer Summit to see the most spectacular landscape views.

Los Peñasquitos Canyon

Address: 12020 Black Mountain Road, San Diego, CA 92129
Phone: 858-484-7504
Hours: 8 a.m. – sunset, daily
Trails: 12 miles of trails
Parking: Parking lot
Facilities: Staging area, community garden, ADA accessible restroom, event space, historic adobe ranch house

There are approximately 12 miles of trails in this 3,700-acre preserve, which also connects to a historic adobe ranch house featuring a museum, community garden and small collection of farm animals.

Photo spot: Visitors may see a small waterfall at the west end of the preserve. Just follow the easy 6.8-mile Los Peñasquitos Canyon loop trail. Snap a pic at the falls. Also, stop by to meet to two goats with big personalities. Popcorn and Base, who have their own Instagram account, are in a pen near the adobe.