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The ambitiously constructed Secret Canyon Trail, circuitously nosing its way down the canyon walls of Pine Valley Creek for 14 miles, traverses nearly the entire length of the Pine Creek Wilderness in Cleveland National Forest. Vehicles are banned from the area, so the trail bears only the footprints of boots and running shoes, the imprints of horseshoes, and the occasional discarded piece of litter of across-the-border origin. The migration of illegal aliens traveling northward though the wilderness area is not taking place at the level it used to be. Still, it is a good idea to travel in groups for safety here or anywhere else near the international border.

Begin your exploration at the Horsethief Trailhead at mile 16.4 on Lyons Valley Road. This is 1.5 miles south of Japatul Road and about ten miles southeast of Alpine. You’ll need a National Forest Adventure Pass ($5 daily, $30 yearly) to merely park at the trailhead. A wilderness permit is required for overnight backpacking into the wilderness area ahead. Call 619-445-6235 for more information.

From the trailhead parking lot walk north past a gate for about 300 yards, and then veer right through a pipe gate and follow what is known as the Espinosa Trail. A fast, 400-foot elevation loss takes you to oak-lined Horsethief Canyon, where you bend right and follow the canyon’s trickling brook toward Pine Valley Creek. At 1.5 miles, you cross the creek (you’ll get your feet wet in this post-rainy season) and pick up the eastward-ascending Espinosa Trail on the far bank. Walk a short distance up that slope and then veer left on the Secret Canyon Trail, which may or may not be designated by a trail sign.

Now you traverse, with little elevation gain, the dry, east canyon wall of Pine Valley Creek, reaching after some 30 minutes the oak-draped-ravine-with-trickling-stream called Secret Canyon. Lou Stein’s San Diego County Place Names notes that “This folk-type name designation in Descanso district implies a site that is not readily accessible.” And so it was before the trail was pushed through here in 1992.

You might want to turn back where you first strike Secret Canyon’s creek, retracing your steps to the trailhead. Or, if the spirit moves you, you can spend another 40 minutes following the trail north toward the canyon’s uppermost reach.

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.

Secret Canyon Trail
Explore the south end of the Secret Canyon Trail, in the Pine Creek Wilderness near Jamul.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 40 miles
Hiking length: 4+ miles
Difficulty: Moderate

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