One way to ruin a perfectly good hike, is to hike with the goal of seeing an infrequently seen mammal in the wild, like a bobcat, lion, or even a fox. It is much better to hike with the goal of enjoying a hike, and be pleasantly surprised if you see wild animals like these. I came to this conclusion after not seeing a tiger in the Chitwan Reserve in Nepal. I was terribly disappointed, even though I knew seeing a tiger, even in a reserve known for tigers was a rare event. Then I realized it was kind of silly. I enjoy being in the forest in a place I’ve never been, seeing birds and other animals in the wild… why should not seeing one rare animal ruin it? So, just to let you know. Consider yourself lucky if you actually see a fox at Fox’s Field.
Fox’s Field is not the real name of this field. It is actually called Robert’s Ranch. I had to look this up because I never can remember if it is Robert’s or Roger’s. It is much simpler to call it Fox’s Field since we saw a fox there once. It was sitting on a fallen tree in the early morning sun in the oaks at the beginning of the trail. We have named the trail in honor of this fox. We hope to see it again, but so far we haven’t.
But that’s OK. It is still a nice hike. After crossing a field divided by a row of buckwheat, the trail goes through a short stretch of peaceful oak forest before ascending into the field. The field is dotted with islands of oaks and boulders. These make nice places to rest, have a snack, and otherwise hang out. But today, it was a bit damp, cool, and cloudy. Ours was a hike for the sake of hiking. Jerry Schad’s book has this trail as a short walk into the field and then back out. In fact, if you walk across the field you get to a rutted dirt road. This goes into the chaparral covered hills, giving expansive views of the mountains which were a sea of green from the rain.
Although we didn’t see our friend the fox, we saw some tracks and scat. Apparently, the coyotes are eating manzanita flowers which they don’t seem to digest very well, dotting the trail with very strange purple piles of flower filled poop. We didn’t see a lot of life. The cloudy weather cast a silence over the bird world. Only occasional jays and crows called out. When the sun peeked out for a moment, a hummingbird appeared.
The trail dipped down into an oak filled gully and then rose back up. A loud crack of thunder, made us consider turning back, but I wanted to check the swallow nests under the freeway. Apparently it is still too early for swallow nests since those that remained were abandoned and many that had been there before had disintegrated.
We headed back the way we came, encountering some cows on the way. Back in the field, Rowshan spotted something moving near some oaks. “Bobcat! It’s limping.” he announced as he took off running towards the area. I could only get a few brief glimpses of the animal moving between rocks and trees. Even though the bobcat had a limp, Rowshan and I weren’t able to get close enough for a good look. Rowshan could see blood on one of its back legs in a photo he’d snapped. I wondered if one of the local ranchers had shot it. “What else would attack a bobcat?” I asked. Though upon further thought, I guess a bull could have gored it.
Since the bobcat had disappeared into an area beyond the fence boundary of the park, we decided to walk along the fence to see if we could see it anywhere. The fence turned a corner, bringing us to a side of the field we hadn’t been to.
Rowshan, who was ahead of me, suddenly said. “There’s a bear over there.” “Bear?” I asked looking over at an area surrounded by several layers of high wire fences.
“Yes. There’s a black bear and a brown bear,” he clarified. “Oh. And a grizzly, too.” Sure enough, there were several bears visible from where we were. A black bear paced closest to us, a brown bear was towards the other end of the fence, and farther in another section of the compound, was a grizzly. We wondered what the place was. “Maybe it is some part of the San Diego Zoo.” I suggested. I imagined it as a kind of mountain, get away spot for bears in the zoo when they needed a break from the lowland heat, crowds and bustle at the zoo. “Or maybe it is some animal training place for movie animals.” I also worried that if it was the ranch of some eccentric rich person who was keeping them as exotic pets and would come running out waving a gun at us at any moment. I walked up to the nearest fence. It was plastered with “No hunting”, “no trespassing”, and “electric fence.” One of the signs had a logo that said, “Lions, Tigers, & Bears.”
I had to wait until I got home to figure out just what Lions, Tigers, & Bears is. My first guess about it being a mountain get-away spot for bears was not that far off. Lions, Tigers, & Bears is a non-profit organization devoted to the rescue of big cats and exotic animals. The bears we saw were just a few of the bears who reside in the sanctuary. They had been rescued from bear petting tourist traps, private zoos, private owners with insufficient resources to properly care for them, and certain death by being sold to hunting parks. A few of the bears had been captured by the Fish and Game Department because they were frequenting areas too close to humans (The “A fed bear is a dead bear” message you see at National Parks is true unless a sanctuary rescues the bear).
The wild cat residents include lions, tigers, a serval, bobcats, and a mountain lion. You can read all of the animals’ stories and see their photos at lionstigersandbears.org. The reserve offers visits to members and “members-for-a-day”, but arrangements must be made in advance. In addition to rescuing animals, the organization works on passing legislation to prevent wild animals from being subjected to exploitative and substandard living conditions such as petting zoos and traveling circuses.
We went back to looking for the injured bobcat but couldn’t find it. Returning to our car I told Rowshan, “Not a bad hike at all. We saw a bobcat… and bears!”
Lions, Tigers, & Bears
Cleveland National Forest: Robert’s Ranch is part of the Cleveland National Forest.
Take the Japatul Valley Road exit from I-8 (same exit as hwy 79) and go south on Japatul Valley Road for about a minute. On the left side of the road across from the turnoff for Campbell Ranch Road, there is a gate and some Caltrans maintenance buildings. You can either park by the field gate or on Campbell Ranch Road. Go through the gate and follow the path to the oak forest beyond the buckwheat plants. When you reach the field, stay on the larger tracks that curve to the left and go roughly parallel to the highway (not the small one that goes to the right). About 3 minutes across the field, these tracks fade. At this point look for another set of stronger tire tracks to the right running along the edge of some oaks. Follow this trail. If I remember correctly, the other trail goes roughly to the same place, but along a different route for a bit. These tracks go roughly south. Walk on this a bit and eventually you’ll get to a very rutted dirt road This is Forest Rte 16S04. Follow this east. This is the trail into the hills. Apparently if you follow it the other direction, it becomes Horsethief Rd.