Have you ever wondered what Southern California looked like before the freeways, houses, and Starbucks showed up. How about what it looked like before Europeans came on the scene with cattle, plows, and agriculture? One of the best examples of native California landscape can be found at the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve. The Reserve is perched on the southern end of the Santa Ana Mountains, west of the City of Temecula. The landscape consists of native bunch grass prairie, oak woodlands, and lush riparian habitat. It is also the home of several large vernal pools which fill with water in the winter creating a completely unique habitat. The Santa Rosa Plateau is home to several endangered and threatened species including the Santa Rosa Plateau fairy shrimp, which is endemic to the reserve and occurs nowhere else in the world.
The Santa Rosa Plateau began to form nearly 10 million years ago when oceanic floor spreading of the Pacific plate and the San Andres fault pushed up the area now known as the Santa Ana Mountains. Later this movement forced lava up onto the earth. This lava covered an area 20 miles across forming the base for what is now the Santa Rosa Plateau. Evidence of its geological past can be seen in the Reserve by examining volcanic rocks that are scattered throughout the landscape.
Native Americans first arrived on the plateau about 8000 years ago. Within the reserve there is evidence of village sites and grinding stones which indigenous peoples use to process acorns. The indigenous people in this area likely resided in the plateau in the warmer months and moved down towards the coast in the winter. They hunted and harvested many of the same animals and plants that can be found on the plateau today. Around 1798 a new mission was built between San Juan Capistrano and the Plateau and the indigenous people of the area were labeled as the Luiseno by the mission fathers. In 1846 a large portion of the plateau and lower valley, which included present day Temecula, was sold by the Mexican governor of California to private interests. Rancho Rosa, as it was called at the time, passed hands throughout the years, many of which were less than accommodating to the indigenous population. By the early 1900s much of the valley and adjacent plateau were actively grazed by cattle. The open landscape would not last however, by the 1970’s much of the Temecula Valley was slated for development. The Plateau was not immune to this onslaught of growth and a plan to place 4,000 homes was created. Luckily environmental groups stepped forward to protect the unique landscape which led to formation of the nearly 10,000 acre reserve that exists today.
Today a large portion of the Plateau is managed by Riverside County Parks, and offers a variety of ways to enjoy the landscape. The Reserve has 40 miles of hiking trails, a visitor center, interpretive trails, and educational programs. Throughout the reserve there are opportunity to learn about the history, and flora and fauna of this unique landscape. There is nowhere else like it in Southern California. Looking out across the oak woodland, with bunch grasses and native plants swaying in the wind, you can almost imagine what this landscape was like for humans showed up.