Monserate Mountain offers a workout of a hike, beginning just off Interstate 15 in the Northern San Diego County city of Fallbrook, just ten miles south of Temecula in Riverside County. There is 1,200 vertical feet between the trailhead at the base of Monserate Mountain and the panoramic summit at the top, tackled on a 1 2/3-mile ascent. You can turn around at the top for a 3 1/3-mile out-and-back hike or explore more of Monserate Mountain Preserve on a 4.4-mile loop. The loop adds sweeping views as it ventures south from the summit on a Ridge Trail to a water tank, before circling back to the start. You’ll work up a sweat on either hike, achieving views that stretch from the Agua Tibia Mountains to the east to a sliver of the Pacific Ocean to the west.
Start from a trailhead on Pankey Road, just east of Interstate 15, where there is a large dirt parking area and a wide dirt trail heading up the western flank of Monserate Mountain. After passing through a gate, the rough and eroded trail wastes no time climbing up the mountain. One benefit of this rapid ascent is that the noise of the freeway fades away faster than you would expect. You’ll also discover views south over a fertile valley nourished by the San Luis Rey River. The trail is lined by chaparral and a few large orange boulders that you can use to take a break on if you need to catch your breath.
After 0.75 miles, in which you’ll gain 550 feet, you will come to T-junction with a paved one-lane service road. This is the start of the loop for those opting for the 4.4-mile hike and there is a tall wooden marker directing you to the left to reach the summit. To the right (south) the road descends along the mountainside before climbing to the water tower, which is visible on the ridge above.
Turn left to continue the climb to the summit. The pavement ends after a tenth of a mile, where you’ll pivot right to resume hiking up a rough dirt road. Hiking north, you will pass junctions with two marked side trails. Stay to the right past Red Diamond Trail and Canonita Trail at 1.05 miles and 1.35 miles from the start respectively.
Just past the junction with Canonita Trail, the trail up Monserate Mountain makes a sharp turn to the right. The trail gets rough around this bend, which will point you east toward the summit. The expanding views will spur you up the final climb. At 1.55 miles from the start, the trail plateaus below the summit and you will come to a junction that does not have a tall wooden marker. To the right, the Ridge Trail heads south toward the water tank. Bear left at the junction to hike a short distance up to the summit of Monserate Mountain.
After 1/8 of a mile, the spur trail ends at the 1,567-foot summit of Monserate Mountain. Hop up on a pile of boulders at the top to get clear round-the-compass views over the chaparral. To the west, you’ll spot a reservoir atop the ridge on the other side of I-15. Beyond that, on a clear day, you’ll spot a slice of the Pacific Ocean. Red Mountain rises to the northwest, backed by the Santa Ana Mountains. Rolling farmland stretches to the north, meeting boulder-strewn hills that flank the east side of Rainbow Valley. Beyond a row of ridges to the east, you’ll spot the hulking mass of the Agua Tibia Mountains, which rise to 5,077 feet at Eagle Crag. To the south, there are two farm-filled valleys on both sides of Monserate Mountain, but that view is partially blocked by the mountain itself. To really get a view in this direction, you’ll have to continue with the loop to the water tank.
When you’ve taken in the view from Monserate Mountain, hike back to the junction below the summit. For the 3 1/3-mile return hike, turn right and hike back the way you came, remembering to turn right down the trail to Pankey Road shortly after you reach the pavement. For the 4.4-mile loop, turn left and take the ridge trail south toward the water tank and additional views from Moserate Mountain.
The Ridge Trail descends approximately 335 feet over the next 0.8 miles and is fairly gradual, with one steep section assisted by wooden steps. As you head south, you’ll enjoy broad views west off Monserate Mountain. The trailhead and the valley to the south look far beneath you. As you continue, the views expand to the south and east, where the Agua Tibia Mountains again dominate the view.
After half a mile, cross a crest where the Ridge Trail leaves the ridgetop and descends to the left (east) down a flight of wooden stairs. Continue down the trail to the water tank, which is impossible to miss at the south end of the ridge.
You will pass through a gate at the end of the Ridge Trail and come to a paved road that goes up to the water tank, 2.6 miles from the start. Turn left down the paved road, which immediately curves to the southwest. If you’re not thrilled to be hiking down pavement, you’re in luck. After 0.15 miles, take a path breaking off the right side of the road, which serves as a shortcut and a reprieve from the pavement (if you stick with the road, be sure to make a right turn when you reach the intersection below). The rocky shortcut path crosses the ridge and descends a quarter mile to rejoin the road.
When you reach the road, Pala Mesa Mountain Drive, swing to the right and pass through a white gate marked with a Monserate Mountain Preserve sign. Head north now, closing down the loop. The paved road heads downhill on the mountainside below the water tank, and you will have views north toward the summit. After crossing a low point on the road, you will climb again, ascending 225 feet over the last 0.4 miles to close out the loop. When you reach the marked junction, turn left and hike the last 0.75 miles down to the trailhead on Pankey Road. If you somehow miss the junction, the end of the pavement in another tenth of a mile will clue you in that you’ve gone too far and are heading back to the summit.
There are two downsides to hiking the loop on Monserate Mountain, the extra 0.8 miles of pavement and the extra 225-foot ascent at the end of the loop (can that qualify as a downside) when you’re probably not in the mood to hike uphill again. There are added views to compensate for this though, so if you have the time, it is worth converting the 3 1/3-mile out-and-back hike into a 4.4-mile loop. No fee or permit is required to hike in Monserate Mountain Preserve, but the Fallbrook Land Conservancy, which maintains Monserate Mountain Preserve, appreciates donations and volunteers. Dogs and mountain bikes are welcome, so get out and enjoy!
To get to the trailhead: From the north, take Interstate 15 south, seven miles past Temecula to exit 51 for Mission Road. Turn right at the end of the offramp, followed by an immediate left to head south down Highway 395. After 1.8 miles, turn left on Stewart Road. Pass under the freeway to reach Pankey Road. Turn right and park in the dirt lot on the right. The trailhead is on the east side of Pankey Road.
From the south, take Interstate 15 north of San Diego for approximately 80 miles to exit 46 for Route 76. Turn left at the end of the ramp onto Route 76 and make the next right onto Old Highway 395. Drive 2.6 miles north and turn right on Stewart Road. Pass under the freeway to reach Pankey Road. Turn right and park in the dirt lot on the right. The trailhead is on the east side of Pankey Road.
Trailhead address: Pankey Road, Fallbrook, CA 92028
Trailhead coordinates: 33.365934, -117.159113 (33° 21′ 57.36″N 117° 09′ 32.80″W)
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