Dripping Springs Trail

Trail Parameters
Trail Description
   Plant Guide
   Detailed Trip Log
   Picture Index
Hikes Using This Trail And Trip Reports
Links To Further Information


The Dripping Springs Trail on Agua Tibia Mountain leads from the Dripping Springs Campground to what is left of the Palomar-McGee Truck Trail along the ridge of Agua Tibia Mountain.

The Dripping Springs Trail is notable for the following:

But don't hike the full trail from mid-May through the end of Summer. Being on the north side of Palomar Mountain, the trail is firmly in the desert climate of Temecula, with clear cloudless skies nearly every day during this period. There is virtually no shade at all on the trail then, except when one gets very close to the top. Even if the temperature is not extremely hot, the intense sun beating down on you incessantly is very debilitating. I found that out by personal experience on 6/11/00 despite hiking in temperatures of 76-80°. Worse, very annoying bugs begin to appear in June, further adding to the misery. The bugs are especially vicious in what little shade exists, making it impossible to rest in those few patches of shade.

There is one big danger to the unsuspecting hiker: the roots of the chaparral were not removed, and hence the trail has some nearly-buried traps for the unwary hiker. I had the only accident I can recall in thousands of miles of hiking when my boot caught a root projecting only an inch or two above the ground. The root formed a trap for my boot, preventing me from recovering my balance by stumbling, and I went down hard, stopped by the rocks and gravel hitting my face and chest, with no time to use my arms to break my fall. When I sat up, I fully expected to spit out several teeth, just like in the cartoons. For some amazing reason, I survived with only two very fat lips, and a molar that died from the sudden closing of my mouth when I fell. But beware mile 3.60 (measured from the trailhead) coming down the trail....

Ticks are definitely seasonally present on this trail, mostly in tick heaven, the portion at mile 3.2 - 3.8 where the trail winds around the western part of the first ridge, coming from the annual grasses hanging over the trail in that area. On 6/2/95, Craig and I got too many to count there. On 2/20/99 and 3/12/99, I got no ticks, but on 3/28/99 I got two tick hitchhikers in that same area. Again in January and March 2000, I got one tick per hike on three out of four hikes.

All but the uppermost sections of the trail survived the August 2000 Agua Tibia Fire essentially unscathed. The burn area is a mile or two west of most of the trail in the lower portions of the trail. Although the rest of the burn area was mostly south of the Agua Tibia ridgeline, Leona Rodreick, the USFS Wilderness Manager, told me on 9/4/00:

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.

By the way, the namesake for the trail and campground is not found on the trail or at the campground! The Dripping Springs are found below the campground on the north side of SR-79, 1.11 miles away at a heading of 295° (WNW). See the topo map for the exact location.

Trail Parameters

Maps: The trail is not on the 1988 Vail Lake topo map (see TopoZone Map), but is shown on the topo map displayed at the trailhead and on page 127 of Schad. Here is a brief word description of where the trail is on that map:

From the southern end of the Campground, the trail crosses the Arroyo Seco Creek, then twice quickly crosses the unnamed creek that flows into the Arroyo Seco from below the 3329' peak. The trail heads southwest to just east of the corner of the Wilderness Boundary, then due south along the ridge to the west of the unnamed creek. The trail rounds the 3329' peak to the west and south of the peak, then crosses the unnamed creek flowing west just south of the 3329' peak. The trail heads south toward the "D" in "RIVERSIDE CO" and turns to go through the "S" in "SAN DIEGO CO". The trail continues southwest through the "7" in "4157" and hits the McGee - Palomar Truck Trail between the "i" and "a" in "Tibia".

Season: October to mid-May.

Trailhead and directions to trailhead: The trailhead is at the southern end of 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 (4/1 to 6/2 in 2000) due to the arroyo toad, but the trails are still open.

Parking for the trail is just before the entrance to the Campground, 0.4 mile north of the trailhead. There is no vehicle access to the upper end of the trail.

An Adventure Pass or a daily fee is no longer required as of February 2005.

Length: The trail is 6.8 miles long according to the information posted at the trailhead and in Schad's Afoot and Afield in San Diego County. One must hike another 0.4 miles in the campground from the trailhead parking to the trailhead, giving a total hiking length of 7.2 miles. My pedometer read 7.0 miles each way, consistent with the 7.2 miles within the accuracy of my pedometer. Measurements from "Topo!" on the route posted at the trailhead gives 6.0 miles from the trailhead parking, considerably under the more accurate 7.2 miles.

Elevation Changes: Dripping Springs Campground is at ~1620' and the junction with the Palomar-McGee Truck Trail is at ~4400'. There is an additional ~100' of up and down along the trail each way, giving the roundtrip an altitude gain and loss of ~3,000'. Schad claims a total elevation gain and loss of 4100', which is probably a typo and should have been 3100'.

Users: All except the first tenth of a mile is in the Agua Tibia Wilderness, restricting users to hikers and horseback riders. Bicycles are prohibited.

Trail Condition: The entire trail is in great shape as of late 2002. The Sierra Hotshots spent Spring 2001 and Spring 2002 in clearing the trail to a width of ~10'. However, one can easily see how quickly the brush grows back. Some of the chamise and other plants have become 1-2' high just from April to December 2001, which were cleared again in 2002. In another couple of years, the regrowth will make the trail brushy again.

The section just beyond the 5.0 mile point, just before the 3800' ridge, is troubled by carcasses of the giant manzanita and ribbonwood burned in 1989 that are blown down each winter. On 4/29/00, someone had sawed the portions of ~3 trunks that had fallen across the trail, and I pruned away most of the crushed shrubs that brushed the path on that day and again on 6/11/00. Unfortunately, those trunks have continued to fall onto the trail. The trail was blocked again on 11/8/00 by several trees. (See picture - the 7" diameter trunks span about 3' from the ground.) The trail was cleared last in Spring 2002 and remains clear as of October 12, 2002. Only a short section of trail near the top still has some brush hanging into the trail.

Trail Maintenance: According to Leona Rodreick, the ranger in Oak Grove until August 2001, the Forest Service hired a crew to clear the trail sometime in the mid-1990s. Schad says that volunteer crews cleared the trail. Alan Coles of the Sierra Club said that some AmeriCorps workers and occasionally fire fighters do some work on the trail. Some volunteer clearly takes a saw up the trail regularly to clear the tree trunks that fall across the trail. Since 1999, I have been pruning the brush off the trail each time I hike it.

Leona got a CIP grant from USFS region 5 (about $200,000) to repair the upper end of this trail and some damage on the Crosley Trail. Places where the trail needs repair were marked on 11/8/00 with orange tape, and the Sierra Hotshots worked on the lower five miles of the trail in Spring 2001.

History: The trail was built sometime in the 1970s. The Vail Fire of 1989, which burned nearly the entire wilderness area, was disastrous for the trail, since the chaparral grew vigorously back, making the trail virtually impassable in the early 1990s.

Craig Cheetham and I hiked it on 6/2/95. The trail was in great shape for the first couple of miles, but then quickly degenerated into bush-whacking after four miles, and we gave up after an unpleasant mile of being attacked by sharp-thorned ceanothus.

The trail was cleared by the time John Lee and I tried it on 2/20/98. The trail was quite passable, although there still were a lot of ceanothus thorns ready to spear anyone who did not move agilely enough around the branches growing across the trail.

The Sierra Hotshots cleared the lower five miles of the trail in Spring 2001, and the rest of the trail in Spring 2002.

Trail Description

Here's a brief overview of the trail. Park at the signed trailhead parking immediately on the right after you turn south of SR-79. The mileages below are measured from that parking lot. An Adventure Pass or $5 daily use fee is required. Walk through the campground to its end at 0.43 miles, where you sign the register on the left. The trail immediately crosses the Arroyo Seco next to the fence that was erected in 1999 to protect the arroyo toad. All the area behind the fence is closed to use for that reason, but the trails are ok.

At 0.54 miles from your car, you enter the Agua Tibia Wilderness Area and at 0.59 miles, the Wildhorse Trail goes off to the left. Continue ahead at a gentle climb for the half mile to reach the surface above the stream canyon at mile 1.05. The first ridge at ~3,200' is easily visible to the south as the trail turns south, 1600' above the beginning of the hike. You can see the switchbacks of the trail climbing that ridge on its right hand side. At mile 1.2, there are patches of taller chamise (8-10'), followed by 20' burned tree trunks at mile 1.56, probably chamise remnants.

A bit before you begin the switchbacks up the ridge, Vail Lake can be seen to the north, visible until you cross to the south side of the ridge. As you climb the ridge, you gradually begin to see over the hills to the west and can see more of the Santa Margarita Mountains. Finally, just before you reach the ridge you can see the ocean, with San Onofre Mountain in Camp Pendleton being the series of three bumps at the shoreline. The Fallbrook / De Luz area is ringed by the Santa Margarita Mountains on the west and the Santa Rosa Plateau on the north, and the marine layer over Fallbrook, ending at those peaks, is often clearly visible.

As you pass around the right hand side of the ridge at about mile 3.0, note the steepness of the canyon on your right. The stream will rise to meet you on the north side of the ridge. You are now in tick heaven. You make two switchbacks to gain a bit more elevation, then descend a bit to meet the stream at mile 3.8. The very-small streambed seems insignificant compared to the steep canyon it has cut immediately to the west.

You now see the next ridge that stands between you and Agua Tibia, at ~3,800'. Just the western edge of Agua Tibia is visible, marked with its cover of trees that escaped the 1989 fire that burned most of the north slope of Agua Tibia. On the north side of the ridge, you can also see the ghostly remains of the giant manzanita and ribbonwood burned in the same fire, as well as a few living specimen. The chamise has been replaced by its relative ribbonwood above this point. High Point comes into view, followed by the gleaming white dome of the Palomar 200" telescope, as you see more and more of the main ridge of Palomar Mountain.

You cross through 1/5 mile of whitethorn ceanothus. Just before the crest of that next ridge, you pass through the remains of the giant manzanita and ribbonwood that had escaped fire for a century, growing to ~20' tall. These giant remnants continue to fall on the trail each year even a decade later, which may partially block some of the trail. Fortunately, some of these old plants survived the fires, and are still magnificent specimen of very old manzanita.

At 5.2 miles you reach the crest of that ridge and finally see the entire Agua Tibia Mountain. The next half mile is fairly flat until you reach the stream crossing at 3760' and the first real shady part of the trail. The climb up resumes there. A number of switchbacks later, at 7.1 miles, you reach a patch of forest unburned in the 1989 fire and the trail becomes obscure, at least in the fall and winter when it is completely covered with leaves. Head directly south and at 7.2 miles you quickly reach the McGee - Palomar Truck Trail, marked with a simple wooden sign with an arrow to the left for Eagle Crag and an arrow to the way you've come for Dripping Springs. (Note that this last part of the trail may have changed due to the Pechanga Fire in summer 2000.)

The Truck Trail is now clear for hiking, after the fire burned away the huge tree trunks that formerly blocked it. Unfortunately, the Truck Trail hugs the north side of the ridge, and there are only a few places where one can overlook the Fallbrook area. One is 0.2 miles southeast.

Plant Guide

Immediately past the Arroyo Seco, elevation ~1700 - 2000', the hard chaparral consists mostly of hoaryleaf ceanothus, short chamise (~3'), tall yerba santa (thickleaf yerba santa, Eriodictyon crassifolium, ~8'), black sage, California buckwheat and scrub oak. At mile 1.28 and ~2000', the chamise becomes tall (~8-10') and the yerba santa becomes short (~2')! The chamise has some dead trunks up to 20' from before the 1989 fire.

The first tree poppies occur in the middle of the first switchbacks at about mile 2.5 and elevation 2500'. Between the top of the switchbacks and tick heaven is the first whitethorn ceanothus at about mile 3.15 and elevation 2800'.

Along tick heaven, at about mile 3.2 to 3.4, elevation ~2900', are spike moss plants that appear dead most of the year but turn green and vibrant after rainfall. This section is lovely with California buckwheat in late spring.

The stream crossing at mile 3.8 and 3120' marks the transition to a much different plant community. This is probably a combined altitude and topography effect. At this point, the trail has left the lower-elevation mountain slopes and entered an area of gentle-relief consisting of an extensive bowl surrounded by gentle peaks. The dominant plants here are ribbonwood (red shanks), manzanita and whitethorn ceanothus. Ribbonwood is a cousin of chamise, with similar foliage but with bark that shreds into long ribbons, making quite a mess around its trunk. The trail is choked in places with whitethorn ceanothus, which you will become intimately familiar with the rest of the way if the trail hasn't been pruned recently. Some of the whitethorn forest areas have California peonies alongside the trail.

At about mile 6.4, the first (small) pines appear. At 7.1 miles, the remnant oak forest suddenly appears, and the trails ends at 7.2 miles.

Detailed Trip Log

This log gives the mileage and time up the trail to features along the route from the trailhead parking lot to the Fallbrook overlook 0.2 miles from the top of the trail, along with the altitude and the time back down from a given feature. The mileage is from TJC's pedometer readings on multiple trips, adjusted upward by 2.7% in order to agree with the accepted 6.8 mile length of the trail itself. The individual mileages are accurate to ~3%, which is the standard deviation of multiple measurements, an error of 0.1 mile in 3.3 miles. The mileages are given to 0.01 mile to prevent adding rounding errors and to preserve the accuracy of the differences between closely-spaced points. The altitudes are from the topo map.

The times are based on my actual measured times including stops, and correspond closely to an average of 1.5 mph on the way up and 2.0 mph on the way down. The round-trip time given by these times is 8:13 plus whatever time is spent at the top before coming back, close to the 8 hours given by Schad for the trail itself (1.2 round-trip miles shorter than this trip). Your times may be shorter since I spent a lot of time looking at the plants, topographic features and views along the way. My shortest time for this trip is 7:20, but I know a fast hiker who made the round trip in 6 hours and a group of tigresses who made the round trip in 5 hours, an average of 3 mph!

#LocationMileageTime UpTime DownElevation (')
1Trailhead Parking Lot0.000:000:001560
3Enter Wilderness Area0.540:120:111680
4Jct. Wild Horse Trail.0.590:150:131690
5Last low stream crossing0.650:170:151690
6Upper end of rock vandalism.0.910:260:231780
7North end of trail on slope above stream banks (1)1.050:300:271900
8North end of switchback (2)1.360:370:322000
920' remnant burned trunks1.560:440:372160
10First good view of Vail Lake1.920:550:462240
11West end of switchback (3)2.020:570:482280
12Begin switchbacks up first ridge2.080:580:492280
13Final switchback at top of climb (4)2.941:501:202740
14First whitethorn in moist area3.152:031:282800
15Switchback on west end of first ridge. Begin tick heaven.3.202:041:292840
16First switchback just before stream crossing3.652:171:353040
17Achieved first ridge3.792:221:393130
18Creek crossing (usually dry). End tick heaven.3.832:231:403120
19End ceanothus4.032:311:433200
20Jct. blocked-off trail to west.4.142:351:473300
21Offending stump that felled me in February. High Point and 200" visible from here.4.212:381:493360
22Trees down5.032:592:133740
23West side of final ridge5.243:052:183780
24Jct. little trail to right.5.463:132:283740
25Low Point5.543:152:303720
26Stream crossing5.703:202:353760
27Trail end7.234:103:294380
28Fallbrook overlook.7.424:273:464380

Picture Index

0.8Annual Wildflowers Along Trail29Apr00 12:30
1.1Field of Yerba Santa29Apr00 12:40
2.8Field of Black Sage (camera rotated by 30° from horizontal)29Apr00 18:10
3.9Trail through California Lilac before pruning29Apr00 15:10
4.0Field of Wild Peony In Bloom below California Lilacs29Apr00 17:10
5.1Tree Across Trail08Nov00 14:00

Hikes Using This Trail And Trip Reports

When available, the date of the information is given in parentheses for each link.

T. Chester's Trip Reports for Dripping Springs Trail hikes.

John's Recollections.

Neil and Kim Silcock's January 12, 2002 hike.

Jay Hoffman's October 12, 2002 hike.

See Agua Tibia Mountain for more information, including other trail writeups.

Links To Further Information

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Copyright © 1999-2005 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: 7 March 2005.