Some Interesting Tidbits about Agua Tibia
Sources and Other Information
Agua Tibia Mountain is the northwest part of the Palomar Mountain Range. Most of it is in the Cleveland National Forest, with the southernmost lower elevation part contained in the Pauma Indian Reservation. Nearly the entire Cleveland National Forest portion, 15,934 acres*, was set aside as a wilderness area, the Agua Tibia Wilderness (ATW), on 9 January 1975.
Being part of the Palomar Mountain complex, there are no clear boundaries for the Agua Tibia portion. Roughly, it is bounded by Highway SR-79 on the north, the Arroyo Seco River on the east, Fray Creek on the south, and Pala Road on the west.
The "peak" of Agua Tibia is a nearly-level ridge over 3 miles long that varies from 4400' at its northwest end to 5077' Eagle Crag at its southeast end. The low point along the ridge is Crosley Saddle at 3931'.
Until the 1987 Palomar Fire and the 16,000 acre 1989 Vail Fire, the entire Agua Tibia mountain had not burned for well over a century, not since at least 1877, which allowed century-old manzanita and ribbonwood plants to reach giant heights of up to 20'. Those two fires burned over 6800 acres, most of the eastern half of the wilderness, killing most, but not all, of those giant shrubs. The dead trunks still remain in a few places in 2000, with a percentage of them coming down each winter, often blocking trails.
The Agua Tibia Fire of August 2000 essentially burned the part of Agua Tibia that did not burn in the 1989 fire (the western and southern parts):
- north of the crestline, the burn area was mostly west of the Dripping Springs Trail, and
- south of the crestline, the burn area was mostly west of Eagle Crag.
Leona Rodreick, the USFS Wilderness Manager, said on 9/4/00:The trails that were affected by the fire are Dripping Springs and Palomar-Magee. The Fire burned the intersection of the Dripping Springs and Palomar-Magee and burned north to just above the second set of switchbacks on the Drip trail and burned east approximately 1 to 1 1/2 miles on the Palomar-Magee. It also burned out the blowdown that had fallen across the Palomar-Magee trail, which will make it much easier when it comes to trail work.
Permission was granted for dozers in the Wilderness and they created a dozer line south from the Crosley Homestead area and up a ridge above the trail to just east of the Crosley Saddle and then follows that same ridge line between Marion Creek and Agua Tibia Creek. Since then we have had mechanical excavators in there to mitigate and cover with brush the dozer lines, as well as to repair parts of the Wildhorse trail and Palomar-Magee trail that the dozers were on.
Agua Tibia is firmly in the Temecula Valley, weather-wise, and hence is very hot in the summer, with typical daytime temperatures exceeding 100° in most of the Wilderness, and even above 85° at the highest locations. There is very little shade except at the very highest elevations, and no sources of water in the summer at all. The ATW should thus be viewed much more as a desert environment than a mountain environment, at least in terms of visitor use. The best times to visit are November through April. During the rainy season, Agua Tibia receives far less rain (~25 inches) than its very close neighbor Palomar Mountain (~45 inches).
The 245 acre Emerson Oaks Preserve of UC Riverside is to the west of the Agua Tibia Wilderness.
Map: TopoZone Map
USGS 7.5' x 7.5' Maps: Pechanga, Vail Lake, Pala and Boucher Hill, coordinates: NW end: (33.42441° N, 116.99333° W, 4400'); SW end (Eagle Crag): (33.38726° N, 116.95647° W, 5077')
By Car: The only drive-in entrance is the Dripping Springs Campground, 11.2 miles east of I-15 on SR79, clearly marked with a "campground 1/4 mile" sign from both directions. The Campground is also easy to locate by noting that it is at the lowest elevation of the road in that area as the road crosses Arroyo Seco Creek. The Campground has recently begun to be closed in late spring due to the Arroyo Toad, but the trails are still open. In 2000, the Campground was closed in April and May.
By Trail: Agua Tibia is reachable by the Cutca Trail from the High Point Fire Road on the north slope of Palomar Mountain.
There are 31 miles of trail on Agua Tibia (25 miles of trail in the Wilderness Area):
- Dripping Springs Trail, 6.8 miles from DS campground to west end of Palomar-McGee Trail;
- Wild Horse / Crosley Trail, 9.7 or 10.1 miles from DS Trail to Palomar-McGee Trail at Crosley Saddle;
- Palomar-McGee Trail, 6 miles from the DS Trail to the Cutca Trail near Eagle Crag;
- Cutca Trail, 8.3 miles from Cutca Road to the Palomar-McGee Trail (2.3 miles in the Wilderness Area)
The Wild Horse Trail from the DS Trail to the Crosley Trail (7.0 miles) was built in spring 1992. The Cutca Trail (3.0 miles) was built in 1979.
The best time to hike Agua Tibia is the cooler part of the year, since temperatures at its base are similar to those of Temecula, with highs regularly reaching in the 100s in the summer, and temperatures at its summit often reach the 90s. I went on 9/12/99, and the temperature stayed quite constant from 89-91° as I hiked, despite this being a cool day in Fallbrook with an official high of 81° and relatively so on Palomar Mountain with an official high of 85°.
A Wilderness permit is needed only for overnight use. Day hikers can just sign in at the trailhead. There is weak cell phone reception at the trailhead, and better reception near the peak.
The Dripping Springs Trail
U.S. Forest Service's Wildhorse Trail (7/22/99)
U.S. Forest Service's Palomar-Magee Trail (7/21/99)
Tom Hill's Agua Tibia Peak, Eagle Crag, Brown Mountain (2/7/99)
Etreking.com's Palomar District Hikes.
GORP's Agua Tibia Wilderness
Jerry Schad's Sidewalk San Diego Agua Tibia Loop and North Palomar Traverse have been taken offline in 1999, but may reappear in the future at Signon San Diego. In Schad's 1998 book, he now says that the upper part of both of these hikes, the McGee - Palomar Truck Trail, "is completely impassable", and "there is doubt [it] will ever be passable again". However, the Forest Service says in the webpage above "a lot of down timber and brush makes passage extremely difficult".
Afoot and Afield in San Diego County, Jerry Schad, third edition, 1998, Wilderness Press, Area M-1, Trips 1 and 2, p. 127 and 129. The information about a Wilderness Permit is no longer applicable. In fact, several years ago I tried to get a permit at the Dripping Springs Fire Station, and no one there had any idea what I was talking about.
Some Interesting Tidbits about Agua Tibia
Some tidbits about the ATW from the 1977 Wilderness Management Plan and the 1993 Implementation Schedule:
- Previously, the wilderness area was originally established as a Primitive Area on April 21, 1931. The area set aside was 35,116 acres, including 8502 acres of "Mission Indian Withdrawal" and 507 acres of private land. A later recalculation of the area was 26,760 acres.
- After designation as Wilderness, a large number of drains (73 in the first 3 miles of the Woodchuck Road alone), culverts, steel pre-attack signs, and an old fire water system were removed.
- The ATW has no permanent streams, and hence there is no water available to hikers during most of the year.
- In 1977, about 69% of the ATW area is chaparral; 24% woodland; and 7% coniferous forest land. The coniferous land includes Coulter pine, big cone Douglas fir, incense cedar and white fir conifers, and black oak, live oak, alder, maple and sycamore broadleaf trees.
- The name comes from small pools of water which become warm in the summer before evaporating. These pools are few in number and usually inaccessible.
- Until ~1980 the Wilderness used to be completely closed to public use from July 1 until the first significant rain in the fall, typically around December 1.
- The area is not heavily visited. Visitor-day count estimates were 200 in 1965, spiked at 9300 in 1975 when the ATW was created and after the completion of the Pine Flats (now Dripping Springs) Trail in 1969, then declined to 5500 in 1986 and 3600 in 1988. After the fires, usage declined to 1600, 500, 1200 and 1900 visitor-days in 1989-1992.
- Like many remote National Forest areas, "numerous" marijuana plantations have been discovered and eliminated in the more remote areas of the Wilderness.
- In March 1991, heavy rains carried significant amounts of soil downstream from the burned areas. A wildlife population inventory was conducted beginning in 1992 on the southern end.
- Only limited grazing has ever occurred in the Wilderness, which primarily came from trespass from adjacent private lands.
- No mining claims have ever been filed here. After December 31, 1983, the area was closed to new mining claims.
- The geology of the area is described in Geological Survey Bulletin 1319-A.
- In 1977, the only trails were the Pine Flats (now Dripping Springs) Trail (1W03, 6.8 miles), the Palomar Divide Trail from the Mission Indian Reserve northerly to the north side of Agua Tibia Mountain (1W06, 5.4 miles), and the Arroyo Seco Trail from the Wilderness Boundary near the Crosley Homestead southwesterly to Crosley Saddle and a junction with the Palomar Divide Trail (1W07, 2.8 miles).
The Magee Trail, from Agua Tibia Mountain to the old Magee Ranch, was built before 1947 and was not maintained in the 1970s because there was no public access where it left the Wilderness, and hence "encouraging its use invites trespass".
Also in 1977, three primitive overnight camps were planned, all outside the Wilderness Area itself to minimize human impact in the Wilderness, in Deer Flats, Cutca Valley and Barker Valley.
Sources and Other Information
Agua Tibia Wilderness Management Plan, Cleveland National Forest, California, 1977.
Agua Tibia Wilderness Implementation Schedule, Palomar Ranger District, Cleveland National Forest, February 1993.
Rare plants found only in and near Agua Tibia:
- Nevin's Barberry
- Rainbow Manzanita
- Round-leaved Boykinia
- Vail Lake Ceanothus
- Federal Register Proposed and Final Listing.
Other rare plants: Prostrate spineflower (Chorizanthe procumbens)
Paleoseismology Of The Elsinore Fault At Agua Tibia Mountain Conclusions: major earthquakes along the Elsinore Fault at the flank of Agua Tibia occur every 550-600 years, with the last earthquake sometime between 1655 and 1810. Hence the probability of the next major earthquake in the next 50 years is only ~5%.
Total Escape!'s Cleveland National Forest has a small amount of information on Agua Tibia.
The Boy Scouts of Fontana's Dripping Springs Campground has the same small amount of information.
* Schad quotes 18,000 acres in the 1986 and 1998 Afoot and Afield in San Diego County, but I haven't been able to find any confirming references. The USDA Forest Service List of National Forest Wilderness Areas lists 15,394 acres, which is said to be the "official" acreage in the 1977 Wilderness Management Plan.
Links checked 4/30/00.
Go to Field Guide to San Diego County: Places
Copyright © 1999-2001 by Tom Chester.
Permission is freely granted to reproduce any or all of this page as long as credit is given to me at this source:
Comments and feedback: Tom Chester
Last update: 5 February 2001.