Since Bakersfield doesn’t have alpine lakes or redwood forests, you might not see it as a place for hiking and nature study—until you pull into the parking lot at Wind Wolves Preserve. Here, at the largest nonprofit nature preserve on the West Coast, you can walk (or mountain bike) for miles amid waving golden grasslands, grazing tule elk, and colorful carpets of wildflowers.
The reserve—which is funded entirely by private donations through the nonprofit Wildlands Conservancy—encompasses 93,000 acres near Highway 166 south of Bakersfield, beyond the orchards and the oil fields that were once used for cattle ranching. The tract holds a surprising amount of water—creeks, marshes, wetlands, and even a 15-foot limestone waterfall—plus groves of cottonwoods and other broad-leaved trees. Kit foxes, bobcats, coyotes, deer, and even 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 firework display of colorful mule-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 along this hike, you’ll survey an immense sea of grasslands—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 cute, cat-size 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.
Mountain bikers are welcome too. The preserve’s most popular biking route is the El Camino Viejo Trail, which parallels San Emigdio Creek. If you want to spend the night, tent camping at the preserve’s San Emigdio Campground is available by advance reservation.