Elfin Forest Hike To Lake Hodges Overlook

Elfin Forest Hike to Lake Hodges Overlook

In This Guide
  • Video and Turn-by-Turn Directions to Lake Hodges Overlook
  • How to Get to the Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve
  • Insider Hike Tips and Recommendations
Total Distance (?)7 miles (11.3 km)
Hike Time3-4 Hours (Total)
Difficulty (?)Moderate
Total Ascent (?)1,500 feet (457m)
Highest Elevation1,270 feet (387m)
Fees & PermitsFree
Dogs AllowedLeashed
Alerts & Closures (?)Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve
Park Phone760-632-4212

A favorite of San Diego hikers, this hike in the Eflin Forest to Lake Hodges Overlook offers a lot. Starting in a quaint valley along Escondido Creek, believed to have been a meeting point for neighboring native tribes, you’ll ascend the picturesque Way Up Trail until you reach the shores of Olivenhain Reservoir. After circling the reservoir, you’ll arrive at Lake Hodges Overlook, where panoramic views of the lake and mountain peaks are a feast for your eyes.

Elfin sounds like something from Lord of the Rings, but it’s not like exotic. Elfin Forest is a synonym for Dwarf Forest, the name for the heavy cover of coastal scrub found here.

Where is the Elfin Forest Hike?

The hike starts in the Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve, just outside of Escondido, CA. Use this trailhead address:
8833 Harmony Grove Rd, Escondido, CA 92029

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The parking lot is not big and fills up quickly. This is a popular hike. There’s an overflow parking lot you can use if the main lot is full. I’ve marked it on the interactive map that follows.
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There’s an interpretive center at the end of the parking lot. The sculpture in front represents the Native Kumeyaay creation story.
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There are water fills at the interpretive center.
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You can find toilets at the trailhead area next to the parking lot.

Who Runs the Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve?

Why the water company, of course! The Olivenhain Municipal Water District, which built the reservoir and dam that we’ll see on the hike, runs and maintains the trails. They do an excellent job. There are lots of trail signs and the trails are in great condition.

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Check the park website before you go (link at top) to confirm opening times and conditions. The park sometimes closes during rain and extreme temperatures.

There are 11 miles of trails over 734 acres in the Reserve. This hike takes you on what is probably the most popular route to Lake Hodges Overlook, but there are other trails as well. The Reserve website has a trail map if you want to explore more of the area.

Gear For the Hike

Lone Peak 5

Altra Lone Peak 5
For most people, the Altra Lone Peak is a solid choice that will leave your feet feeling great at the end of any hike. The feel is cushy and light, and if it had a car equivalent, this would be a Cadillac or Mercedes Sedan. The grip is great and they’re reasonably durable for this type of trail runner, which I think is better in most conditions than a hiking boot, and here’s why. The downside of this shoe is that it won’t last as long as something like the Moab 2 (see alternate footwear choices at the bottom of my gear page). I’ve been using mine for many miles and my feet always feel great. Watch my video explaining why they are a great shoe here.

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Latest Price on Men’s ShoeREI | Amazon

Garmin Inreach Mini Beacon

Stay Safe Out of Cell Phone Range
If you’re not familiar with the Garmin InReach technology, it allows you to send and receive text messages where you don’t have cell phone signals. You can also get weather reports and trigger an SOS to emergency responders. Even if you don’t have an emergency, sending a quick message telling a loved one that you’re okay or are running late is well worth the cost. The Garmin InReach Mini (REI | Amazon | My Review) fits in your palm and weighs next to nothing.


Gaia GPS Mapping App
Smartphones are not backcountry instruments, but almost everyone has one today. And they all have GPS onboard. So I recommend getting a good GPS hiking app like Gaia GPS that supports offline maps. Just make sure to put your phone in airplane mode so the battery doesn’t drain. GaiaGPS not only has smartphone and tablet apps, but also an online planning tool. You can drag the GPX hike tracks from my (or any) guides into the online map and they will sync to your phone. You can also check for wildfires, weather, snow, and choose from dozens of map types with a premium membership (HikingGuy readers get up to 40% off here). Note that I also carry a paper map with me in case the phone dies or gets smashed.

Here’s my complete gear list that I personally use, have tested, and recommend, updated July 2021.

My July 2021 Top Gear Picks

No company pays me to promote or push a product, all the gear you see here is gear I use and recommend. If you click an a link and buy gear, I get a small commission that helps keep the website ad and promotion free. There is no cost to you.

Elfin Forest Trail Maps

Overall the trails are well-marked and easy to follow, you shouldn’t have a hard time navigating this hike as long as you read this guide.

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The first trail you’ll take, the Way Up Trail, has these cool mileage and elevation markers along the way. Many folks hike this trail to Harmony or Escondido Overlook only, and the beginning of the hike can get busy.
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There are emergency markers as well. If you need to call 911, give them the closest marker number and they’ll know where to find you. It’s a smart system that’s used extensively in San Diego County.
Click Here To View

Explore Map on CalTopoView a Printable PDF Hike MapDownload the Hike GPX File

If you try to download the GPX file and your browser adds a “.txt” or “.xml” extension to it, simply rename it as a “.gpx” file.

Fenix 6 Pro

How are you going to navigate this hike?
To start, you should always have a paper map and compass. And it helps to print this guide out or save it on your phone. I highly recommend a GPS as well. I use the Garmin Fenix 6 Smart GPS watch ( REI | Amazon | My Review) with maps (or the more affordable Garmin Instinct). The GPS smartwatch is nice because it’s rugged, works if your phone dies, and also has a billion other features like sleep tracking, workout recording, etc.

Elevation Profile

Elfin Forest Hike Elevations
The main climb is up to Escondido Overlook, and then there’s some up and down as you hike along the reservoir to Lake Hodges Overlook.

Landmarks on the Hike

Harmony Overlook1.01000
Escondido Overlook1.751250
Lake Hodges Overlook3.41230

3D Map

Elfin Forest Hike 3d Map
After climbing to Escondido Overlook, the hike winds around Olivenhain Dam up to Lake Hodges’ overlook.

Elfin Forest Hike Directions

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Video Directions

Watch This Video In 360/VR Why 360/VR Is Great

Turn by Turn Directions

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From the trailhead at the parking lot, make the left at the trail board.
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Check for any notices before you start.
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Continue left past the trail boards.
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And then make the first right and cross the bridge over Escondido Creek.
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Escondido Creek is beautiful here, thanks largely to parks like this and the work of the Escondido Creek Conservancy. Eventually the creek flows into the ocean at Encinitas.
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Right after the creek you’ll start on the Way Up Trail.
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As you might infer from the name “Way Up,” you’ll be hiking uphill right from the start.
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Enjoy the views and natural beauty as you climb.
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And check your progress with the trail markers.
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At the intersection with the Botanical Trail, make the right to continue uphill.
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The views get better and better as you climb the switchbacks.
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After about a mile in, you reach Harmony Overlook. Enjoy the views and keep hiking uphill.
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The gradient gets a little easier after the overlook.
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And soon you’re on the flat again. Keep straight on the wide, main trail, avoiding any trails off to the right.
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At the big intersection, make the left turn.
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I love the trail sign at this big intersection. It reminds me of the ones that say “Tokyo 4030 miles, North Pole 8738 miles, etc.” If you need to go to the bathroom, there’s one in the picnic area straight ahead.
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From the left at the last intersection, you’ll be going uphill.
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Look back and enjoy the views of Olivenhain Reservoir and Dam as you hike uphill. The dam was completed in 2003 and supplies water (via gravity) in case of an emergency. Most of the water consumed in San Diego county is piped in from the Sierras and Colorado River.
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Avoid any side trails to the left as you climb.
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At the top of the hill, hike to the right.
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And soon you’ll arrive at Escondido Overlook. You can see Escondido off to the left from here.
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After the overlook you’ll see the trail winding down along the side of the water.
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In the distance you can see Woodson Mountain (Potato Chip Rock) on the left and Iron Mountain on the right.
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Continue along the reservoir.
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Look for this turn off onto a smaller trail to the right.
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The trail winds around and has some fenced sections.
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The trail is smaller but easy to follow as it climbs up above the reservoir. The area from here to the overlook has all grown back since the 2007 Witch Fire.
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Keep your eyes open for a small turnoff to the left.
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The turnoff has a trail marker pointing to the overlook.
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As you hill you’ll begin to see Lake Hodges over the ridge.
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And soon you’ll see the pavilions at the overlook.
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Enjoy the sweeping views down to Lake Hodges, which is actually connected to Olivenhain Reservoir with a pipeline.

If you want to walk the shores of Lake Hodges, check out the Bernardo Bay Trail. There’s lots of great birding along the lake.

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From here you can do a little loop around the overlook area, or just go back the way you came.

This guide last updated on March 14, 2021. Did something change on this hike? If so, please contact me and let me know. I'll update the guide.

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