Horsethief Canyon offers one of the quickest escapes into a designated wilderness area available to urban San Diegans. The canyon is a major entryway into the 13,000-acre Pine Creek Wilderness, south of Descanso and Pine Valley. As national-forest wilderness areas go, this one is perhaps unique: it has in recent years become more popular with migrants from south of the border than with recreational-type visitors. Cleveland National Forest, which has jurisdiction over the area, advises that visitors travel in groups for safety.
Substantial rain (which hopefully we will get in the next few weeks) will transform the place into a foothill garden, with water dancing down the larger ravines and careening off boulders in Pine Valley Creek -- the large drainage bisecting the wilderness area. The tough chaparral vegetation coating the slopes should soon look feathery soft and green, and the drought-stressed live oaks, sycamores, and cottonwoods should once again send out new leaves and branches.
The parking area for Horsethief Canyon can be found off Lyons Valley Road, 1.5 miles south of Japatul Road, 10 minutes from Alpine by way of Tavern and Japatul Roads. From the parking lot, walk north along a gated dirt road for about 300 yards. Veer right on the path to the right and start descending the steep Espinosa Trail. After a no-nonsense 400-foot elevation loss, the path bends right (east) to follow oak- and sycamore-lined Horsethief Canyon. True to its name, this corral-like canyon was used in the late 1800s by horse thieves to stash stolen horses in preparation for their passage across the international border. After another mile and not much more descent, you reach the sandy bank of Pine Valley Creek, which hopefully will soon brim with runoff from the creek's headwaters in the Laguna Mountains. The large pool just ahead is swimmable but chilly in winter.
Upstream from the pool, you can make your way alongside or over a jumble of car-sized boulders and past several small cascades. Tangled willows and "mule-fat" (a willow look-alike) impede your progress. Watch your step on slippery slabs of rock, and be aware of poison oak, rattlesnakes (later in the season, when it warms up), and fast water if your visit comes immediately on the heels of a big storm. You can continue in this manner -- straight up the canyon bottom -- for three picturesque miles or more.
Dayhiking the Pine Creek Wilderness requires no permit or reservations, though you must obtain a wilderness permit for overnight backpacking. You will need a National Forest Adventure Pass ($5 per day) for parking. Mountain biking in the wilderness area is not allowed. Call Cleveland National Forest, Descanso Ranger District (619-445-6235), for more information.