Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve is a popular 4000-acre recreational area administered by the city and county of San Diego. It stretches seven miles in length from east of I-15 to the I-5 and 805 merge. It encompasses both Peñasquitos and Lopez canyons and has over 37 miles of multi-use trails. There is a great diversity within the preserve, with 14 different habitat types that support a varied collection of flora and fauna.
The natural resources of the preserve include over 500 plant species, more than 175 species of birds, and a great variety of reptiles and mammals. Peñasquitos Creek, which flows year round, runs through the heart of the preserve. Scenery includes a streamside forest of coast live oaks, groves of majestic sycamores, a fresh-water marsh, and a fresh-water pond that attracts great blue herons, egrets, mallard ducks, and more. There are mule deer, bobcat, coyote, and raccoon.
Los Peñasquitos (“the little cliffs”) was the first land grant in San Diego County. Rancho Santa Maria de Los Peñasquitos was granted to Francisco María Ruiz in 1823 and encompassed 8,486 acres, which is now the communities of Mira Mesa, Carmel Valley, and Rancho Peñasquitos. The original adobe ranch home is located within the preserve and is open for tours on weekends. The area has archaeological sites with artifacts found showing that indigenous people lived here for over 6,000 years.
This hike includes one of the newer entrances to the preserve — from the north side, leading to a cascading waterfall through volcanic rocks. The easy walk is a typical canyon hike with the downhill at the beginning and the return with a gentle uphill grade. The trail starts in a small eucalyptus grove and enters a chamise and scrub oak chaparral. There is an opportunity to do some birding at the fresh-water pond before the trail opens onto non-native grassland. There is some shelter from the sun in an oak grove a little east of the waterfall; a nice place for a snack before making the trip back to the trailhead.
This hike is best done early in the morning before the mountain bikers take over the trails. Dogs are allowed on the trails on a leash with a maximum length of eight feet.
Distance from downtown San Diego: About 22 miles. Allow 30 minutes’ driving time. Take I-5 north, exit onto the SR-56 local bypass north, continue to SR-56 east, and exit onto Carmel Country Rd., turning right (south). Turn left onto Del Mar Mesa Rd. and drive east. At a slight turn to the right, the road becomes Little McGonicle Ranch Rd. Turn right onto Del Vino Ct. and park at the end of road. The trailhead is on the left. No facilities or water.
Hiking length: About 2.5 miles round trip. Allow 2 hours. Difficulty: Easy, with elevation gain/loss of 500 feet. Best to do in the early morning before the mountain bikers are out.