Rolling grasslands, wildflowers, wetlands, oak savannas, and pinyon forests converge to create one of the most uniquely diversified nature preserves in California.
It’s part of The Wildlands Conservancy (TWC) who have established the largest nonprofit nature preserve system in California, comprised of fifteen preserves encompassing 143,000 acres of diverse mountain, valley, desert, river, and oceanfront landscapes.
Prior to the conservancy’s purchase of the land in 1996, much of the landscape was damaged by overgrazing and off-road vehicles. Oil field waste pits that would often attract small mammals, hawks and owls were also found on the property. With developers targeting the land for subdivisions, the conservancy acquired the property for $140 an acre, then got to work “re-wilding” it by covering waste pits, securing water rights, and restoring ponds.
The Wind Wolves Preserve is open to the public daily from 8am to 6pm for hiking, mountain biking, and picnicking. Tent camping is also available by advanced reservation.
While there’s no fee to enter the preserve, a $5–$10 donation is encouraged at the unmanned registration booth located just after the entrance gate. Donations help fund trail building, campground maintenance and expansion, education and family programs, and restoration projects that are provided free of charge to all visitors.
The conservancy’s dual mission is to fund free education programs that teach children about nature and to preserve the beauty and bio-diversity of the earth. More than 40,000 people visit the preserve each year; 25 percent of which are children.
The Administrative Hacienda/Visitors Center was one of our first stops after pulling into the preserve. It’s a great place to gather information and relieve yourself after a long drive.
Tule elk have been reintroduced to the Wind Wolves Preserve, the southernmost extension of their historic range. The elk herd has grown to more than 200 elk and the California Department of Fish and Game estimates the preserve can support up to 2,500.
Currently the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is placing stillborn calves on the preserve for the California Condor, which is still listed as a critically endangered species.
When the elk herd reaches 2,000, elk will die weekly of attrition, which will aid the condors in becoming free living once more.
In between the Administrative Hacienda/Visitors Center and The Crossing Picnic Area is a small pond, not to be confused with the reflection pond that is located further within the preserve.
This 15-foot limestone waterfall is located at The Crossing. Take some time to enjoy it because there is very little shade along most of the trails within the preserve.
Two of the larger trails within the park include the San Emigdio Canyon Trail (single-track) and the El Camino Viejo Bike Trail (a fire road).
We chose to take the San Emigdio Canyon Trail outbound to a short spur up to the Reflection Pond and then back down to the El Camino Viejo Bike Trail, for an approximately 9.1 mile long looped hike.
While the preserve is open throughout the year, October through April seem to be the best months to visit. Not only is the weather milder but you’ll also have a better chance of seeing beautiful rolling green hills covered with wildflowers.
Due to elevation ranging from 640 to 6,005 feet, the preserve has an impressive array of landforms and habitats that serve as a critical landscape linkage and wildlife corridor between the Coast Ranges and Sierra Nevada.
California Thistle blooms along the San Emigdio Canyon Trail.
Kit foxes, bobcats, coyotes, deer, and even black bears can often be seen at the preserve, but you won’t find wolves at Wind Wolves or anywhere else in California. The name refers to the tall grasses that sway in unison with the wind, making it appear as if animals are wandering through the prairies.
The entire preserve is filled with an immense sea of grasslands—green in spring and gold the rest of the year.
It’s an ecologically unique region where the Transverse Ranges, Coast Ranges, Sierra Nevada, western Mojave Desert and San Joaquin Valley converge.
“On the San Joaquin Valley floor, the preserve is a 30-square-mile veritable sea of grasslands with remnant stands of saltbush. These grasslands are home to the endangered San Joaquin kit fox and blunt-nosed leopard lizard, and one of the largest stands of the endangered Bakersfield cactus. Rolling grasslands rise from the valley floor and transition into classic California blue oak and valley oak savanna with extensive riparian wetlands. The oak savanna rises into juniper and pinyon forests that ascend into stands of ponderosa pine and big cone spruce.” – Source
This is what Southern California must have looked like a few centuries ago.
The San Emigdio Canyon Trail intersects with the Reflection Pond Trail.
The trail rises 767 feet up a hillside where it eventually ends at a seasonal reflection pond.
Sunny yellow hillside daisies added splashes of color along the trail.
The reflection pond was dry when we visited Wind Wolves back in April of 2016, which coincidentally happened to be the same day I launched Strayngerranger.com.
Heading back down the Reflection Pond Trail.
Lacy Phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia)
The 4-mile round trip Reflection Pond Trail eventually connects up with the El Camino Viejo Bike Trail further down the hillside.
The El Camino Viejo (The Old Road) was the oldest north-south trail in the interior of Spanish colonial Las Californias (1769–1822) and Mexican Alta California (1822–1848), present day California.
It became a well established inland route, and an alternative to the coastal El Camino Real trail used since the 1770s.
This low slung rock structure, hiding bathroom facilities along the El Camino Viejo Bike Trail, blended well with the surrounding landscape.
As we were heading back to the parking lot we came across two mule deer playing near the Tule Elk Trail, which is one of the other trails we didn’t have time to explore.
The Tule Elk Trail wasn’t the only trail we were unable to enjoy during our visit, there’s also the Wildflower Loop Trail near the main entrance and El Camino Viejo Wilderness Trail, which heads deeper into the preserve’s massive backcountry. While we were bummed we couldn’t fit everthing in during this trip, we at least have something new to look forward to on our next visit to Wind Wolves.