Enjoy Bird’s-Eye View of Biodiversity on Trail

The Ridge Trail really earns its name in the Sycamore Canyon Preserve. CREDIT: Priscilla Lister

By Priscilla Lister Special to the U-T Feb. 16, 2013 10 AM

Hike the Ridge Trail in Sycamore Canyon to get a bird’s-eye view of an enormous swath of open space.

The trail is in the Goodan Ranch Sycamore Canyon Preserve, a 2,272-acre preserve, surrounded on all sides by open space lands, so the views extend much farther than just the preserve.

The trail goes up and down the ridgeline until it finally dips down to the valley where the old Goodan Ranch once was home to a hundred cattle. You’ll see the historical ranch below you as you wind through this undeveloped area.

Most of the preserve — 1,830 acres of it — is southern mixed chaparral with an additional 126 acres of coastal sage scrub, the dominant habitats you’ll hike through on this ridge. There are 10 habitat types, including oak woodland and riparian areas, that lie at lower elevations in the valley.

The preserve is managed by San Diego County’s Department of Parks and Recreation, which had a biodiversity study completed in 2008 to help develop management plans.

According to that study, 313 plant species were identified, as were 73 bird species, 30 mammal species (including types of 11 bats, 10 types of small mammals and nine species of medium and large mammals — the mountain lion was not included in the original survey but has been spotted here), 16 reptiles, including rattlesnakes, and 46 invertebrates.

On the Ridge Trail in late winter, I saw lots of black sage, a common and fragrant shrub in the coastal sage scrub habitat, as well as the distinctive felt-leaved yerba santa, which was just beginning to bloom. I also spotted chamise and buckwheat, both common in coastal sage-chaparral scrub. Typical plants in the chaparral habitat seen here include wild lilac (ceanothus), scrub oak and manzanita. Some of the manzanita were just beginning to bloom, too.

You can get a list of the plants here from the San Diego Natural History Museum’s Plant Atlas project, an impressive survey of the entire county’s plant species in undeveloped areas. Go to

sdplantatlas.org and you’ll find a wealth of information, lists and photographs of virtually every native plant in the county.

One especially cool feature of the museum’s Plant Atlas online is the ability to draw a small map on the countywide map to see what plants were collected there, or to see what plants were found in any given ecological region.

“The Plant Atlas project began in 2003 and has increased our knowledge of the flora in San Diego in ways never imagined,” says the museum on the project’s website. “Not only have we added over 55,000 specimens to our collection, but we now have amazing resources available to the general public.” Volunteers are trained to do all the collecting, if you’re interested in participating.

While you ponder the flora in the Ridge Trail, consider the history here, too. The Kumeyaay lived in this valley for thousands of years, according to archaeological evidence found, including mortero grinding sites, pottery remnants and arrowheads.

The Kumeyaay boiled black sage leaves and stems for use in bathing to battle the flu, rheumatism and arthritis, according to the San Diego Archaeology Center’s list of the ethnobiology of local plants. Yerba santa leaves were used to make tea, according to James Lightner’s “San Diego County Native Plants.”

In 1884, families began to file homestead claims in Sycamore Canyon, forming the town of Stowe, according to Carol Crafts and Kathy C. Young, who wrote a field guide to Goodan Ranch Sycamore Canyon Preserve in 2002.

Those early settlers were largely farmers of orchards, vineyards and grains. In 1889, a post office for Stowe opened; in 1890, the Stowe School opened. But the school was closed in 1903 and the post office shut in 1905.

Extreme weather with torrential rains and intermittent droughts during those years, as well as a decision to stop a railroad spur in the area, contributed to Stowe’s demise, Crafts says.

Among the historical buildings still on Goodan Ranch is the old caretaker’s house, which is said to be the old Stowe school that was moved there years ago.

When you’ve gone about 1.25 miles on the Ridge Trail, it takes a sharp right turn to go down into the ranch valley. After another 0.6 mile or so, it reaches the bottom and connects to the Stowe Trail, according to the post marker. But at the bottom, direction is given to a connection with the Western Trail — perhaps this was renamed as part of the historical Stowe Trail? Stowe Trail does not appear on Goodan Ranch Sycamore Canyon Preserve trail maps.

The Stowe Millenium Trail was said to be dedicated in 2003 and connects Sycamore Canyon with Santee and Mission Trails Park. It is said to be a 16-mile-long trail that follows the old survey road 55 once used to transport raisin crops in the area, part of it going through Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. Negotiations to use that part of the trail appear to be ongoing with the county.

I have not found any map of this trail or any official designation of its completion, and would appreciate hearing whether it is now open and exactly where it goes.