Bakersfield is smack in the middle of the flat-as-a-pancake San Joaquin Valley. If you’re familiar with the city, you probably don’t think of it as a place for hiking and nature study. But that image will change when you pull into the parking lot at Wind Wolves Preserve.
You’ve just entered the largest nonprofit nature preserve on the West Coast, where you can walk for miles amid waving golden grasslands, catch a glimpse of grazing tule elk, or gaze at colorful carpets of wildflowers.
This remarkable preserve is funded entirely by private donations through the nonprofit Wildlands Conservancy. Wind Wolves’ 93,000 acres were once used for cattle ranching and oil drilling. Despite its location in the notoriously hot and dry San Joaquin Valley, the tract holds a surprising amount of water—creeks, marshes, wetlands, even a 15-foot limestone waterfall—plus groves of cottonwoods and other broadleaf trees.
Kit foxes, bobcats, coyotes, deer, and occasional black bears are at home here, but you won’t find wolves at Wind Wolves. The name refers to the tall grasses that sway in unison with the wind, making it appear as if animals are wandering through the prairies.
Springtime is the most dramatic season to visit, when Wind Wolves’ slopes explode in a fireworks display of colorful mule’s ears, poppies, lupine, goldfields, and blue-eyed grass. To see them, walk the short Wildflower Loop Trail near the entrance kiosk.
At any time of year, hikers can start at The Crossing picnic area and follow the Tule Elk Trail for about a mile to glimpse the preserve’s herd of more than 200 elk. More ambitious hikers can continue for three more miles to connect to the Reflection Pond Trail, where a historic cattle pond provides a watering hole for wildlife. From high points in the preserve, you’ll survey an immense sea of grassland—green in spring and gold the rest of the year. Complete a 7-mile loop by returning on the San Emigdio Canyon Trail. As you wander, keep your eyes peeled for the endangered San Joaquin kit fox, a cuddly, cat-sized creature with long ears and a pointy nose.
Hardy hikers who want to head deeper into the Wind Wolves wilderness can ride the weekend shuttle bus to the El Camino Viejo trailhead, five miles south of the main parking lot. From here, you can walk for miles along the historic wagon route used by early travelers between El Pueblo de Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Best Months to Visit: October through April
Info & Maps: Wind Wolves Preserve,16019 Maricopa Highway, Bakersfield, 661/858-1115, www.wildlandsconservancy.org/preserve_windwolves.html
Travel Tips: Tent camping sites at San Emigdio Campground are available by advance reservation (phone 661/858-1115).