Trail biking in a north San Diego canyon seems to be running up against its own popularity. Deer Canyon is part of a new preserve in the City of San Diego’s open-space system, whose management is guided by the Multiple Species Conservation Program. The protected area, called Del Mar Mesa Preserve, is located north of Los Peñasquitos Canyon and south of the Ted Williams Freeway. Deer Canyon lies north of and below the eastern section of Del Mar Mesa. The City has been acquiring much of the land for over ten years. It is home to the horned toad and barrel cactus as well as several endangered species.
The City hired Recon Environmental Inc. to write for the new preserve a “resource management plan,” which has been in production since 2002. Over the summer, the company unveiled a final version of the document, which the Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve Citizens’ Advisory Committee immediately rejected. The problem? In the committee’s view, the plan failed to describe an adequate trail system for the newly dedicated area. The Peñasquitos Canyon group has also been overseeing trails planning for Carmel Mountain Preserve, immediately to the west.
San Diego’s open spaces are intended to protect ecologically sensitive lands and make them publicly available for the enjoyment of beautiful scenery and natural peacefulness. For trails, Recon’s management plan relied primarily on San Diego Gas and Electric Company access roads into Del Mar Mesa and Deer Canyon. To allow passage by SDG&E trucks, the roads are much like regular streets, except that they are dirt and about 20 feet wide. They tend to be located on the new preserve’s perimeter.
Some members of the committee suspected that Recon was largely ignorant of an existing interior system of trails in Deer Canyon. Or Recon may have simply wanted to exclude the trails as too environmentally intrusive. Together with nearby McGonigle Canyon, Deer Canyon was long the make-do, outdoor home for multitudes of migrant farmworkers. In 2002, local media shone a light on the encampments, embarrassing the Carmel Valley and Del Mar Mesa communities’ more affluent members. Shortly thereafter, federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents drove the migrants out of Deer Canyon, and they have not returned. (Hundreds of migrants still live in McGonigle Canyon, however, in close proximity to the houses of well-to-do San Diegans.)
While living in Deer Canyon, the migrants created numerous trails for entering, exiting, and moving around the lower areas. The trails cannot be seen from the canyon’s higher reaches because the branches and foliage of abundant Nuttall’s scrub oaks cover them. The trees grow to be only about 12 feet high, but they are 12 feet wide at their crests. When they grow close together, the trees form a dense blanket over the ground.
Erik Basil is a member of the Peñasquitos Canyon citizens’ advisory committee and president of an advocacy group called the Multi-use Trails Coalition. “Although these canyons have always had ‘jeep roads,’ motorcycle trails and SDG&E access roads carved through them,” writes Basil in an email, “the itinerant workers…created a vast network of organic pedestrian and bike trails in and among the low, coastal scrub oaks that fill the arroyos there. As [the migrants] moved out, runners and bikers in the know began to move in and, after the fires of 2007 that closed major running and biking trail areas, the kids and families running and riding these trails have grown to immense numbers. Until recently, all this land was private property and, prior to the owner’s transfer of the parcels to the City…comprised the largest ‘permission’ trails network in the County. The trails are unique in that…a significant number wind through the scrub oaks under ‘full canopy’ for miles of narrow, shaded, quiet [passageways] near a gurgling stream. They have become famous in the running and cycling community under descriptive but unofficial names, such as the ‘Shire,’ ‘Hobbit Trails,’ and the ‘Penasquitos Tunnels.’ ”
But some local property owners resent the runners and bikers. Until recent and widespread residential development, Carmel Valley was horse country. “Now there may be as few as 50 horses stabled in the area,” Basil tells me. But a horse-country frame of mind still persists. There is strong feeling among a few property owners living close to the new preserves that trail use should be limited to horseback riding. The bikers’ presence seems to announce that long-established neighborhood life is ebbing away.
Some ranchers of yesteryear are also unhappy about how much residential development now surrounds them. “But many of them made fortunes by selling land to the developers,” argues Basil. “Now they want to keep the Del Mar Mesa and Deer Canyon as their own little private backyards.”
Real estate broker Bunnie Clews, whose son Christian owns Clews Horse Ranch, gives me an equestrian’s point of view. Both mother and son are members of the Peñasquitos Canyon committee — and ardent horseback riders. “I was totally unprepared,” she says, “for the number of trails that are down in Deer Canyon when I first walked it in August of this year. I saw probably 50 cyclists that day. And I know that some horses have been down there because I saw evidence.
“But horses and cyclists cannot use the same trails very successfully,” continues Clews, “because the bikes are so fast and they’re quiet. They come zipping up on you, and a horse just blows up. Depending on the horse and rider, that can have disastrous results. Some of the horses recover and some don’t. They’re frightened and they take off. They’re prey animals and they have a fight-or-flight mentality, mainly flight.
“So the two groups cannot use the trails together. If they make the Deer Canyon tunnels part of the trail system, they need to research them and allow bikes on some and horses on the others. I will tell you that I have never ridden down in the tunnels of Deer Canyon on a horse. As it is right now, the tunnels are really low. I’m pretty short and so is my horse. And I would be bent over, not that that doesn’t happen on trails, but most of the ones in Deer Canyon are really not used by horses. I saw one pile of old poop. And it was old. I do agree that horses shouldn’t have to be confined to roadways. There’s nothing pleasant about riding down a big fat fire road.