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Murrieta's Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve: Vernal Pools and Local History

Photo by David Lockeretz of Nobody Hikes in L.A.
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By David Lockeretz of Nobody Hikes in L.A. / Special to LAist

There aren’t many hiking trips in Southern California will show you both a rare natural phenomenon and some of the state’s history, but the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve does just that. Located near Murrieta in southwestern Riverside County, the park is one of SoCal's most scenic, especially when rain clears the air. If the visibility is good, the park offers great views of both San Gorgonio Mountain and San Jacinto Peak.

Spring rain also brings to life one of the park’s most unique features: vernal pools, which consist entirely of rain water and are dry by mid summer. The pools here are among the only ones in Southern California, and they can be reached with a short, half-mile walk from the road. A boardwalk (which may be closed depending on the season) allows visitors to explore the surface of the pools more closely. During the spring, California Golden Poppies are in bloom and garter snakes can be found on the banks of the pool.

The vernal pools are the Reserve’s most popular attraction, but the trail continues past them to another worthwhile site: the historic adobe buildings. These structures are said to be the oldest in Riverside County, dating from the mid-19th century. The mile-plus from the pools to the adobes is very attractive, passing through stands of oaks and wide meadows before descending to the buildings.

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Photo by David Lockeretz of Nobody Hikes in L.A.
After visiting the adobes, you can return either by the same route, or for variety, you can make the hike into a loop by taking the wide Hidden Valley road to the Trans-Preserve Trail. Turn left and follow the Trans-Preserve Trail back to the Vernal Pools Trail, and retrace your steps to the trailhead.

The trip to the pools and adobes is just one of many possible routes in the 8,000-acre Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve. While the route described here may only take two or three hours, it’s easy to spend a whole day at the park, exploring the many trails.

To get to the Vernal Pools trailhead, take I-15 to Clinton-Keith Road in Murrieta. Head southwest on Clinton-Keith for a total of 7.6 miles (the road changes its name to Tenaja Road and Via Volcano along the way, and there are some sharp curves to watch out for) and look for a parking lot on the left. The fee is $3 for adults and $2 for children ages 2 to 12. Note that on the way to the Vernal Pools trailhead, you will pass by the visitor’s center and an alternate trailhead; both are good spots to start if you want to explore the rest of the reserve.

There’s no question that the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve is an important natural and historic resource. It provides interesting scenery, quiet corners and wide views that are hard to find in SoCal, especially anywhere near developed areas. For more information, visit the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve’s site.

Interested in staying closer to home? We have many more hikes where that came from.