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Eleven miles of hiking trail lace through the 1700-acre Hellhole Canyon Open-Space Preserve, east of Valley Center. The San Diego County parks department acquired this former parcel of surplus public-domain land, one of several such parcels in the North County inland area, when the federal Bureau of Land Management sought to "dispose" of it in the mid-'80s. This disposed parcel of land will remain as a buffer of wildland between the mountainous interior of San Diego County and the metastasizing suburban spread of Valley Center.

To reach the preserve entrance, take Paradise Mountain Road 3.3 miles east from Lake Wohlford Road to Kiavo Drive, where you bear left (north). Continue another 0.5 mile north on Kiavo to the well-marked entry and parking lot on Santee Lane.

From the parking lot, a wide trail goes north down along a scruffy ridgeline, descending 0.8 mile to a secluded, shady spot along Hell Creek. This is a perfectly satisfying destination for small kids and anyone other than strongly motivated hikers. Starting perhaps this month, depending on rainfall, water spills over smooth boulders in the streambed, and the whole scene is agreeably shaded by spreading live oaks and twisted sycamores. Downstream from here, a century ago, travelers on the road between Escondido and Palomar Mountain often had a "hell" of a time getting their wagons across this creek when heavy rains struck.

Just past the creek crossing, the trail joins an old canal bed and passes through one of the most charming oak glens in the whole county. In the next half mile, the trail parallels the old ditch, which rises at an imperceptible grade across chaparral-covered slopes. At 1.3 miles from the start, you veer right, leaving the old canal, and soon reach a trail fork. There are a couple of options from this point.

1) Staying to the left from this point on takes you back toward Hell Creek, to a place where a large metal pipe --an "inverted siphon" --shortcuts the path of the original Escondido canal. The canal is in use today, shunting water from the San Luis Rey River over to Lake Wohlford, which lies on the Escondido Creek watershed.

2) By swinging right at either this point or the next trail junction ahead, it is possible to reach a looping route that attains elevations of more than 3000 feet on a scrub-covered ridgeline. Without tall vegetation to hinder the view, you can gaze north to Palomar Mountain and west over much of inland North County. By following this circular route and returning via the Hell Creek crossing, you cover a total of about eight miles. Be sure to bring along plenty of drinking water if you choose this option.

For more information on Hellhole Canyon Open-Space Preserve, call San Diego County's parks department, 858-694-3049.

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