Penasquitos Canyon features a year-round creek surrounded by a gorgeous riparian woodland that is bounded on both sides by cliffs fringed with development. This protected canyon features some wonderful surprises, as well as an easily accessible respite from the noise and bustle of San Diego.
Distance: 6.5 Miles
Elevation Gained: 200′
Critters: 4 mule deer, hawks, rabbits, squirrels
Note: If you park in the regular lot on the east end, there is a $3 fee. The gates are open between 8:00 AM and 6:00 PM. You can circumvent these time constraints by parking at the park north of the creek on Black Mountain Road.
There are few places west of the 15 in San Diego that surpass the natural beauty of Penasquitos Canyon. Sandwiched between four extremely busy freeways, the canyon runs from Poway to the sandstone bluffs of Torrey Pines State Park and Beach. Through this broad, flat canyon runs a year-round creek that supports some of the lushest and most serene riparian woodlands in San Diego. Despite the presence of millions of people on all sides, this canyon frequently offers the sensation that you are alone – if you use a little imagination.
Imagination will have to do as this is a popular and well-traveled place. On any given day and at any given time, you will likely see other hikers of all ages and sizes, mountain bikers, and runners taking advantage of the smooth, nearly flat trail network. While you will never really be alone, you will usually experience long stretches where you are on your own, especially early in the morning or in the afternoon.
Penasquitos is the sort of place that anybody would enjoy hiking. It’s flat, scenic, trails are well-marked, and the trail network comes without the isolation of some of the far flung locales. For a person who is curious about hiking but thinks that it’s all rattlesnakes, mountain lions, and terrible inclines, this is the place to fall in love with nature. However, there are mountain lions and rattlesnakes here. Fair warning.
The canyon can be taken as one long 12 mile hike or split in half roughly at the waterfall into the 5.6 mile west section and the 6.4 mile east section. The west section is sunny and open, with rolling grasslands and more expansive views. The east section – easily the more attractive – features a ton of trees. Both sections are comfortable to hike through year round, although the shady east side is more comfortable despite being further inland. For the even more determined hiker, one can also tack on an additional 3 miles to Knott Grove or an additional 4 miles to Lopez Canyon. Or both, depending on your level of masochism.
A few words of warning about some of the hazards present at Penasquitos. First, poison oak grows here in an abundance that is unparalleled at any other location in San Diego. This is largely due to the cool, humid shady sections that poison oak just loves. It almost never intrudes onto the trail, but it would be extremely helpful to be able to recognize it in all its forms (it is deciduous and still poisonous without leaves) unless you wish to spend a few weeks resisting the urge to tear your own skin off.
Second, Penasquitos is very popular with mountain bikers. Now, the mountain bikers are required by law to stay on the main fire road that runs the length of the preserve. This is clearly marked and obvious to anybody who can read English or understand a picture of a bike with a red line through it. Unless of course that person is on a mountain bike, which must have adverse effects on literacy and comprehension, as many mountain bikers seem to struggle to understand signs telling them to stay out. I mention this as a hazard because the trails upon which they are not allowed have a lot of blind corners and tight spots, which are frequently blanketed in poison oak. All it takes is one jerk on a mountain bike to startle you out of a serene reverie and expose you to the risk of walking into poison oak. I’m not kidding. It’s nearly happened to me several times.
I mention this not to take a swipe at mountain bikers but because the most appealing section of the trail, which is a single-track that runs between the creek and the main fire road south of the creek, is closed to mountain bikers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been walking along, peacefully and blissfully lost in my thoughts or the sounds of crickets, birds, and frogs, only to have some asshat zoom up on me without warning. That’s bad enough, but for somebody to do that when they shouldn’t even be on that trail really chaps my hide. Believe it or not, I really do try to be fair, understanding that everybody has their passions and loves. However, I really don’t like mountain bikes. I struggle with the people who ride them, at least when they are actually riding them.
Anyhow, Penasquitos is still likely the best hike east of the 15. Some may say Torrey Pines is better, but I don’t share that sentiment. Penasquitos is lush and gorgeous, with tons of hidden secrets. If you go, make sure to stop at Carson’s Crossing. This beauty spot is one of the loveliest nooks in all of San Diego.