Barker Valley perches squarely in one of the more remote corners of the Palomar mountain range, right alongside an upper branch of the San Luis Rey River. Although it is not categorized as a wilderness area in the statutory sense (it’s too small to qualify for that status), Barker Valley has long been used as a destination for beginning backpackers. Dayhiking also works — just be prepared to spend an entire day, as the drive from San Diego alone takes at least two hours.
To reach the trailhead, turn west from Highway 79 at a point 6.5 miles northwest of Warner Springs (mile 41.9 according to the roadside mileage markers). Continue up the mostly unpaved Palomar Divide Road for 7.8 miles to the Barker Valley Spur trailhead on the left (west) side. This road is subject to closure during and after bad weather. Also note that since the trailhead and the hiking route lie within national forest territory, you must post a National Forest Adventure Pass on your parked car.
Start off by hiking west on the Barker Valley Spur Trail (an old fire road that is now a designated hiking trail). You make a gradual, oblique descent down a hillside. On your way down, keep an eye out for bald eagles in the sky. A number of these raptors roost in old snags on the shore of nearby Lake Henshaw.
Hike for a total of 1.7 miles until the old roadbed portion of the trail switches back sharply to the left. Continue around the U-curve, and within 0.1 mile veer to the right on a newer trail that lazily zigzags down a dry slope and into oak-rimmed Barker Valley, 3.1 miles from your starting point. If you’re backpacking and looking for a campsite, they’re abundant around here. Just remember to select one at least 100 feet away from the nearest water, i.e., the West Fork San Luis Rey River.
Barker Valley is notorious for cold air drainage at night. Once I had the interesting experience of sweating out an 85 degree July day, and awakening next morning to find frost along the stream.
A rugged set of falls and pools awaits adventurous hikers a mile downstream from the foot of the Barker Valley Spur Trail. These can be found just below an old stone weir and gauging station. By following rough paths traversing the steep, brushy, north canyon wall, it’s possible to reach hidden swimming holes worn in the water-polished rock. Wild trout can be found in the pools below the first falls. Don’t attempt to explore this area unless you’re adept at scrambling over steep terrain and across potentially slippery, water-polished rock. An ill-timed slip in a couple of places could result in a deadly, 50-foot plunge down a cascade.
When it’s time to return, go back the same way. You’ll gain 1000 feet of elevation to get back to your car. The consistently gradual trail is not in itself challenging, but it may prove difficult after many hours of exposure to the warm sun.
This article contains information about a publicly owned recreation or wilderness area. Trails and pathways are not necessarily marked. Conditions can change rapidly. Hikers should be properly equipped and have safety and navigational skills. The Reader and Jerry Schad assume no responsibility for any adverse experience.
Discover hidden Barker Valley, tucked into a crease of Palomar Mountain.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 85 miles
Hiking length: 6.2 miles round-trip
Difficulty: Moderately strenuous