Los Penasquitos Canyon

Penasquitos Canyon Trail

Distance: 11 Miles
Elevation Gain: 300 feet
Time: 3:50
Difficulty: Moderate
Critters: A coyote, woodpeckers, various vermin

– Close to urban and suburban areas of San Diego
– Long stretches of oak and riparian woodland
– Nice waterfall stop halfway can cut the distance in half
– Accessible on the the east and west ends
– Surprisingly remote feeling despite how close it is to civilization

– A lot of noise pollution for the first mile
– Views are occasionally marred by houses
– Very popular, and therefore very crowded

The Details:

This is a trail for which I had very low expectations. On the map, Penasquitos Canyon is a thin line of green (indicating protected land) amidst a sea of suburban development in north San Diego county. From my previous experience at Lopez Canyon, I knew there were going to be a lot of signs of civilization. The rule of thumb is that the hiking gets better the further away you are from large populations. I have experienced very few exceptions to that rule.

And with those low expectations in tow, I found myself very pleasantly surprised by Penasquitos. Perhaps it had something to do with such low expectations; after all, it is impossible to be disappointed with something if you aren’t expecting anything from it. It may also have something to do with the fact that Penasquitos Canyon is very beautiful, and that emphasis is deserved. The beauty is all the more appreciated and special due to its location and ease of use. That the canyon is protected is a blessing. It would be easy to imagine massive developments not dissimilar from areas like what you encounter on the San Dieguito river parks.

For the first mile, you don’t experience anything too remarkable, and the trail seems like it will be a mediocre, partially urbanized “park hike” (I made that term up. Runyan Canyon is a park hike; it is to hiking what frozen burritos are to Mexican food, in my not-so-humble, mildly insufferable opinion). After the first mile though, the trail bends behind a hill and the noise from I-5 subsides. A ridge is gained, and you earn views of a green valley bisected by a meandering green stream that supports the usual riparian suspects – willows, cottonwoods, sycamores, oaks, and a plethora of smaller plants.

At various points, you can cross the stream and travel on either the north or south trails which parallel each other from one end of the canyon to the other. At 2.7 miles, you come across a waterfall that is accessible from either side. The waterfall is a little hard to see, since it is partially blocked from view by rocks, but it is a great place to have a picnic or to turn back if you are interested in a shorter hike.

However, if you are taking the west approach, it is after the waterfall that the trail really gets interesting. Up to this point, the trail is double track, and you are obliged to share the trail (cheerfully, now) with mountain bikers and horses. However, a few tenths of a mile beyond the falls, a single track trail splits from the main trail and plunges into the riparian woodland. This trail will meander in and out of the woodland. Sometimes, the trail comes close to the stream, and you walk under sycamores and willows that are scattered throughout open, grassy meadows. Other times, the trail ventures further into dryer ground, where you’ll wander in the shade of oak woodland. The trail alternates between these two microclimates often enough that one never gets bored.

Because I had to work, my time was limited, and so I didn’t make it to the eastern parking lot like I had hoped. I did make it to a grave site for a person whose name I don’t recall – he was an original settler at the ranch that previously occupied these lands. I turned around at this point, making it a round 11 miles. This is an incredibly easy 11 miles though, so don’t be daunted by the large number.

This is a surprisingly rewarding trail, given its proximity to Del Mar and La Jolla as well as its popularity among joggers, hikers, equestrians, and mountain bikers. I enjoyed it so much that I hope to take it bi-weekly as a convenient way to earn some mileage. Furthermore, it is very close to where Kelly teaches yoga on Friday mornings, so I have the benefit of grabbing a thorough stretch before I hit the dirt.

February Miles: 39.1
Year-to-date: 165.1

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