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Hiking San Diego

Elfin Forest Hike to Lake Hodges Overlook

  • 7 miles - Moderate Effort
  • 3-4 Hours (Total)
  • 1,500 Total Feet of Climbing
  • Max Elevation of 1,270 feet
  • Leashed Dogs Allowed

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.

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

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

Gear That I Love Right Now

Nothing is sponsored or promoted, just the actual gear that I use.

Gear Inreach Mini 2
Garmin InReach Mini 2Hit SOS or just tell loved ones that you're running late where your cell phone has no service.  Review here.
Gear Topo Pursuit
Topo Pursuit 2The best hiking footwear I've ever owned. No blisters. Get them wet, they dry quickly. Lots of cushion and comfort.
Gear Epix Pro Up Ahead
Garmin Epix ProHiking maps, route info, and fitness stats on my wrist. Review here.
Hikelite 26 Gear
Osprey Hikelite 26Lightweight, carries all your gear, and your back doesn't get sweaty. Oh yea, it's also one of the most inexpensive packs you can get.

Check out the complete list here. ( Updated July 2024)

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

Use This Map:
View in CalTopo | PDF Map | GPX File

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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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.

Need More Info?

This Guide Was Written by Cris Hazzard

Cris Hazzard 4 Mile Trail Yosemite
Hi, I'm Cris Hazzard, aka Hiking Guy, a professional outdoors guide, hiking expert, and author based in Southern California. I created this website to share all the great hikes I do with everyone else out there. This site is different because it gives detailed directions that even the beginning hiker can follow. I also share what hiking gear works and doesn't so you don't waste money. I don't do sponsored or promoted content; I share only the gear recommendations, hikes, and tips that I would with my family and friends. If you like the website and YouTube channel, please support these free guides (I couldn't do it without folks like you!). You can stay up to date with my new guides by following me on YouTube, Instagram, or by subscribing to my monthly newsletter.