Green party at San Diego oasis

Special to The Times

"Mmmmm … " my friend DeNeice Kenehan of San Diego purred while stretching on our picnic blanket. "I think I'll take a little nap."

The sun peeked through a big hole in a mosaic of cumulus clouds. It warmed the air and, with the able assist of a glass of wine, leadened our eyes. As we reclined, a breeze brushed across the downy meadow and caressed us like satin. Engelmann oak limbs arched overhead while a painterly landscape of spring-green slopes and a reflecting pond spread at our feet.

That scene — ours to enjoy alone, save for a trio of distant hikers — opened up after a springtime hike in Love Valley, a pint-size meadow nuzzled into the lumbar of Palomar Mountain's long spine. Everything about this place oozes softness and serenity. Chalk it up to the most rainfall in decades.

Runoff filled two ponds in the bottom of the valley. The squishy parts of the meadow have started to dry and firm up, aiding access to a display of wildflowers.

But Love Valley offers more for the senses than wildflowers. An aerial parade of painted lady butterflies practiced touch-and-go maneuvers on the ponds, pausing for split seconds to sip water. These black, brown and orange insects wing toward the coast from the Anza-Borrego Desert and northern Baja California where the flora has already dried out.

Love Valley abounds in sound as well. We followed a tiny brook in a ravine on the valley rim. Each tiny cascade contributed to a percussive cacophony of different volumes, pitches and timbres. The throaty squawk of a scrub jay added a bombastic note to the more melodic and episodic phrasing of circumspect LGBs ("little gray birds" we could not identify). At first, we thought we heard a katydid, but discovered instead two brittle oak leaves chattering against each other in the breeze.

As we traversed the meadow uplands, new grass whispered underfoot, and the old crackled like logs in a campfire. A fat frog with a slimy green stripe thumped on the path ahead of us. After giving us the googly eye, it plopped into a hole under a hummock of bunch grass.

Most travelers on Palomar's East Grade Road do not notice this seductive valley. The trail is obscure; it begins at a deep turnout alongside the road where an unpaved former segment of East Grade Road starts curling down into Love Valley. Up ahead there is a gate to keep out vehicles, which you can step around. The trail starts there.

The route gradually descends 300 feet and reaches the valley edge after a mile. The 1999 La Jolla Indian Reservation fire partially singed the granite and chaparral landscape along the way, but green is starting to overwhelm the gray.

Around the first bend, Lake Henshaw pops into view, its shallow waters spreading wide over the Valle de San Jose. Geologists call that basin a sag pond. It was formed by a downward thrust alongside the Elsinore fault.

At the edge of the valley, less than a mile in, the path splits. The right fork leads a quarter-mile to a beat-up corrugated metal barn. Cleveland National Forest acquired the property in the 1980s. The left fork of the road follows the edge of the meadow for a short distance and then fades.

Here you have to marvel at the tenacity of the Engelmann oaks hugging the valley rim. The trees have endured multiple assaults by wildfire and persist despite their limited geographic range and a shrinking habitat — a testament to their affinity for hillside living. Maybe they like the view too.

The particulars Where: Love Valley, on the edge of Palomar Mountain in San Diego County.

What: Easy hike, 2 miles round trip.

How: From Interstate 15, take Highway 76 east about 30 miles to Lake Henshaw. Just before reaching the dam, turn left to head north on East Grade Road. Drive uphill 3.3 miles to the Love Valley trailhead on the left side of the road.

Details: Palomar Ranger District, (760) 788-0250.


Jerry Schad is a San Diego-based freelance writer and the author of "Afoot & Afield" Southern California hiking guidebooks published by Wilderness Press.

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