by Peter Jensen and Marianne Gerdes
A spacious patchwork of ranches unfurls across rolling hills dotted with oaks. While hiking, you hear a trickling creek tumbling like a silver ribbon from a mountain, and cows and even a few ranch buffalo wander contentedly through the pastoral landscape. Where are you?
Down by the sea, a new trail skirts a vast tidal lagoon/estuary, dips under an interstate highway, and continues inland, all the while providing orchestra seating as you train your binoculars on the huge population of wildfowl.
These are only two memorable experiences out of hundreds now easily afforded by the San Dieguito River Park and its Coast to Crest Trail, altogether a 55-mile greenway from the sea at Del Mar to the summit of Volcan Mountain. Naturalists, professional or amateur, dream of exploring and studying riches that this park offers in every mile.
So do artists. Long before it became the River Park, the land nurtured the lives and visions of many artists. James and Anne Hubbell built their homestead (Ilan-Lael) here in the 1950s not far from lands that became the park and the Coast to Crest Trail. An uncountable number of his paintings have featured these rolling hills, huge oaks, cloud galleons, and Volcan Mountain. More than that, living in the midst of nature proved to him the importance of art and nature in his and all our lives.
In this issue, James writes, “When testing something new, I try to remember to ask what nature would do. It is a good guide.” We believe it’s time to turn to this “good guide” and the inspiration it gives every creative soul. We share a few of our favorite people, activities, and some new places, and warn you that this is only the slightest of beginnings in a lifelong relationship. The River Park will draw you in, wrap its silver thread around you, and bring out the artist in all of us.
Two of California’s most iconic landscapes, now preserved
Cuyamaca Peak in the distance viewed from the rolling hills of the Santa Ysabel Preserve. PHOTO: Derek Loranger, 100peaks.com
For years, motorists on Highway 78 heading toward Julian could only dream of the prospect of wandering through the grasslands-, oak-, and boulder-clad landscapes visible from the road. Over the past few decades, San Diego County’s Parks and Recreation department has purchased two significant parcels of former ranch land in the Santa Ysabel watershed west and north of the town of Santa Ysabel. These two parcels make up the Santa Ysabel Preserve West, which contains one of the most scenic segments of the to-be completed Coast-to-Crest Trail.
Crossing Hwy 79 at the settlement of Santa Ysabel, the Santa Ysabel Preserve East is a separate but related open space park. This 6,347-acre parcel traverses native habitats of mountain chaparral, oak woodlands, and grassy meadows. Its trails climb from the Santa Ysabel valley to the base of Volcan Mountain following the drainage of the Santa Ysabel Creek. You can also trek east to west, starting at Volcan Mountain at a trailhead on Farmer Road that eventually leads you to Santa Ysabel’s newest visitor attraction, the Santa Ysabel Nature Center.
A new center honors and explains the backcountry
Sited up against a hillside, the center’s low profile and stonework help it blend in. PHOTOS: Courtesy Kit Fox Outfitters, Ramona, CA
The new Santa Ysabel Nature Center, part of the east preserve, opened in December 2019. Located at 22135 Highway 79, a few hundred yards from the intersection of 78 and 79, the large airy building is mostly hidden from the main roadway, tucked behind large stands of ancient Engelmann oaks.
Silver Fox welcomes visitors at the Santa Ysabel Nature Center PHOTO: Kit Fox Outfitters, Ramona, CA
This hidden gem of a backcountry gateway/nature center offers 6,000 square feet of innovative and energy-efficient space that showcases the great outdoors. Interactive displays make local history, habitat, and wildlife all the more intriguing. Interpretative and education exhibits chronicle the rich human history of this area, from the Luiseno and Diegueno peoples, to missionaries who founded Santa Ysabel Asistencia. Farmers, ranchers and traders also shared this picturesque valley.
Visitors can enjoy an outdoor nature playground, an amphitheater under the oaks, and 2 ½ miles of loop trails. The center is open daily 9am to 7pm in summer, and 9am to 5pm in winter.
Park champion: the legacy of Peter Bergstrom
Among the many activists and environmentalists responsible for saving wildlands from Volcan to the sea, the late Peter Bergstrom, who passed away last year, was a close friend of James and Anne Hubbell. His wife Vicki, also active in Volcan Mountain projects, sits on the Ilan-Lael Foundation Board of Directors.
Peter was best known for his lifelong work as executive director of Camp Stevens near Julian. Vicki, retired now, was always beside him. The two met when both were serving in VISTA in the late Sixties and married soon after. The Volcan Mountain Preserve Foundation (now Volcan Mountain Foundation) was formed in 1988 by Peter Bergstrom, Lynn Horton, Frances Hemsher, Clint Powell and Anne Hubbell. When news began circulating in the Julian area that a prime patch of land on the western slope of Volcan was about to be subdivided as luxury home parcels, Peter said, “If we lose this piece, we’ve lost the whole mountain.”
When asked why Volcan Mountain was important to preserve, he added, “Volcan Mountain is to San Diego as Alaska is to the United States. Most people don’t go there, but you don’t have to go there to appreciate the comfort it gives you to know that there is still wilderness, that something ‘whole’ is there that has not been defaced.”
It soon became clear that no amount of protest would stop the development. The only way to preserve it would be to buy the land. When San Diego County Parks officials offered to purchase the parcel for a County Wilderness Preserve, Peter Bergstrom called the landowner, Peter Ochs, on the phone and asked him if he would be willing to sell the land. Ochs replied that he was actually a member of Nature Conservancy and if the local people did not want this development, he was willing to sell it provided that he could get fair market value. A classic win-win!
There’s much more to the story of course, and the Volcan Mountain Foundation is your best source for one of the most successful citizen-led environmental efforts in California history.
A field of cream cups in bloom near the summit of Volcan Mountain PHOTO: Vicki Bergstrom
Exalting an artistic sense of place
Minutes from the new nature center, Santa Ysabel Gallery has been gathering and representing the region’s most celebrated fine artists for 29 years. Located in a wonderful old house, complete with creaky wood floors that sing with every footstep, at the intersection of highways 78 and 79, the gallery and its director Annie Rowley have represented James Hubbell since day one (his work always occupies at least one room).
Her “stable” of artists also includes Joe Garcia, Will Gullette, Larry Groff, Jane Culp, Pat Kelly, Margaret Larlhan, Johanna Hansen, Joan Boyer, Ollie Zinn, Adele Earnshaw, Althea Brimm, Warren Bakley, Eric Woods, Peter Mitten, and many more.
Recognize anyone? You should: Annie’s curatorial skills have enticed this group of master painters, sculptors, and photographers to exhibit far from the madding crowd of the big city. “Our gallery is different,” she says. “We tend to be more on the introspective side. We’re connected with the land around us … we’re really about place … and these artists who love beauty really need someone to exalt them.”
“Jim Hubbell was our very first show,” she adds. “He called it ‘Landscapes of the Heart,’ and he painted and drew mountains that looked like beautiful women.”
Yellow Path, 2019. Watercolor by James Hubbell. VIEW THE COMPLETE EXHIBIT from the Santa Ysabel Gallery: The Year It Rained In Wynola: 2019 Works by James Hubbell
Gateway to a heaven of oaks, ferns, and views
Volcan Mountain Gate, and public trailhead entrance. PHOTO by Michael Gerdes
Volcan Mountain has long inspired artistic expression, even if its name remains somewhat of a mystery (volcano or mythological god or a local family)? Just after the Volcan Mountain Preserve Foundation was incorporated in 1988, James Hubbell painted a watercolor of the mountain that he had made into a poster that was sold to raise money for the infant organization. Lynn Horton, Board member and past VMF president, designed a logo with the phrase “not your ordinary mountain” that was also used for a t-shirt design to publicize the organization and raise funds.
Once the first 220 acres had been secured for public use in 1989, the Board asked James Hubbell to design an entrance to the trail on the west face of the mountain that would celebrate the passageway to the 5,353’ summit and cause people to pause and appreciate that they were entering a special place. In 1990, with local volunteers spearheaded by Caryn Brause and Vicki Bergstrom, James built a beautiful gateway of native rock and cedar beams collected from and milled on nearby Palomar Mountain. (Note: The Volcan Summit Trail departs from here.)
Using James’s design, his son Brennan built the tall iron sculptures in front of the gateway. Bill Porter added the organic metalwork on the back and Mirko Mrakajic carved creatures on the massive wooden beams. When Mirko finished the carvings, a county official was not happy because he thought the carved figure of “Universal Man” looked too “demonic.” Mirko, in his humble way, said nothing but quietly turned it into a frog!
James and stonemason Vincent Guerrero trained volunteers to build walls and a kiva-like seating area with native stone gathered from nearby streambeds and road cuts. The group worked every Sunday morning for over a year to complete the project.
Enjoy a closer look at the Volcan Mountain Gate, and public trailhead entrance. CREDIT Gerdes Creative
A hiking trail less-traveled
Southwest view from the summit of Volcan Mountain. PHOTO: Laurie Dietter
On a sunny late-winter day, the Ilan-lael staff hiked one of the many ridgelines that comprise Volcan Mountain. Guided by Colleen Bradley and Susan Meyer, friends from the Volcan Mountain Foundation, we journeyed to one of Volcan’s many highpoints — but far different than the trail starting at the Hubbell-designed Gateway.
Starting from the Volcan Mountain Nature Center, hidden in a cedar grove, we soon crossed Santa Ysabel Creek, one of the tributaries of the San Dieguito River which empties into the ocean at Del Mar. The Kumeyaay called Volcan Mountain ‘Hahachepang’, which roughly translates to where the waters come from. At 44 miles from the Pacific Ocean, Volcan acts as a sponge that both causes rain and captures it. Rainfall soaks into the water table. The rest of it sheds into a multitude of creeks draining into four major rivers, all flowing through San Diego County to the sea. We like to think that these rivers symbolically connect mountain denizens to city dwellers, and are sources of life and inspiration for us all.
Where water flows, life abounds. We stop to examine ferns and cattails, dudleyas, native grasses, and incense cedars. We marvel at Coulter pine cones — the largest and heaviest pine cone in the world —littering the ground. We hike into a snag forest: burned tree trunks without limbs, the aftermath of wildfires that visited this landscape in the past 50 years. Up close, these charred remnants teem with woodpeckers, carpenter bees, and fungi. Among fallen logs are plenty of young trees, growing straight and strong from nutrients being returned to the soil and sunlight that now reaches them. Native chaparral shows the blush of spring: manzanita in blooms of pink and white; the fleshy leaves of miner’s lettuce; orange monkey flower; purple lupin; and white and blue ceanothus. We step over evidence (prints and scat) of bobcats and deer, porcupines, and foxes. And, of course, hawks keep watch, riding currents of air that swirl among these peaks.
At the summit, we stop at the Sky Island View Scope which helps us spot and identify far-away peaks. The scope (simply a metal tube) is mounted on a base built by Jim Hubbell and Bill Porter. We grew quiet as we took in mountains and valleys, forests and meadows, and streams that would soon become creeks and rivers.
Take a virtual hike up Volcan Mountain! Courtesy SDParks.org
How a day on Volcan can change your life
Visualize yourself in a suburban home in San Diego County, not far from tens of thousands of other homes, roads, interstates. We hope you will soon be heartened by your memories of a River Park experience, and the presence of Volcan. Whether hiking its flank or gazing up — like the Hubbells — at its full glory from Ilan-Lael, Volcan is the source and sustenance of life (and of so much of James Hubbell’s art). Thank goodness Anne Hubbell and other Julian residents banded together to preserve this valuable resource when they founded the Volcan Mountain Foundation in 1988.
And thanks, too, to every person and the multitude of planning agencies who have amassed a quilt of ownerships and entities that preserve and manage these lands: 37,000 acres so far and growing. Volcan calls to us all: a treasure — for waters that sustain, for an immense variety of life, and for its always-inspiring beauty.
We will hold hands and dance again!
With time on our hands, we find ourselves looking back at happier moments such as this luncheon under the oaks at Ilan-Lael for members of San Diego’s University Club. Folk dancing doesn’t come naturally to many of us, but with Anne and Jim’s (center front) encouragement, we muddled through. The genuine smiles and the trust shown in one another makes this an especially meaningful memory. You hear “We are in this together” a lot right now. To that we add “We are always in this together!’ It’s through faith and trust in one another — and in the future — that we will persevere.
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