Hanging out on a fallen tree, Maple Canyon Trail.
  • Hanging out on a fallen tree, Maple Canyon Trail.
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Like much of California’s coast, San Diego’s topography is unique. Mountains in the east give way to plateaus, which in turn give way to labyrinths of canyons that eventually find their way into the ocean. These canyons, thankfully, are difficult to develop, and they remained virtually untouched during periods of booming construction in San Diego. During those times, developers didn’t realize that they were leaving small treasures woven throughout the very tapestry of the city.

Exploring the dry creek bed.

Many of these unintentional green spaces fall in urban outcroppings, their emerald pathways and tangled flowers offering a brief respite to busy city dwellers.

Situated purposefully between Banker's Hill and Little Italy, Maple Canyon is one of my favorites. A late morning “urban hike” starting in Bankers Hill is the perfect lead-in to lunch and browsing in Little Italy, and recently our family decided to do just that.

Access the trail at Quince Street and Third Avenue, right under the beautiful Quince Street Bridge. You can’t miss the stairs leading down to the canyon bottom. Climbing up and down these stairs is the most difficult part; it's a nice hike for people of all ages. At the bottom of the stairs, head southwest and follow the broad trail along the creek bed. The dry creek is the perfect spot for little ones to explore – just make sure they bring good shoes and maybe a change of pants. Enjoy the peace as you meander through the house-rimmed canyon, and keep your eyes opened for native plants and small mammals.

Deer under the First Street bridge.

Soon you pass under the historic First Avenue Bridge, contributing some graffiti art (left) to your urban hiking experience. Tall eucalyptus trees keep a large part of the canyon shaded, making this hike enjoyable most of the year. After about a half-mile you reach the end of the unpaved trail and exit onto Maple Street.

Running down the trail, First Street Bridge above.

Continue straight on Maple and turn left on State Street. This is the toughest part with kids because it can get trafficky – just be sure to heed stop lights and cross safely. At Laurel, turn right and head under the 5 freeway and then left on India Street. Here, you're just north of the heart of Little Italy, and after a few blocks you'll find a slew of restaurants, cafes, bars, even the recently installed Ballast Point Tasting Room and Kitchen. If you decide to hike on a Saturday, keep walking until you hit Date Street and enjoy one of San Diego’s best farmers' markets. Be forewarned, however, that the farmers' market increases traffic to the area and may make your lunch wait a little longer.

After lunch, enjoy some of the cool, funky shops installed along India Street as you begin the return trip back the way you came. Enjoy the contrast as you slowly exit this hip urban neighborhood and meander your way back through the quiet canyon.

San Diego is full of urban hiking adventures; there's at least one in almost every neighborhood and they're an awesome way to explore this city.

Miles: 2–3, depending on how far down India Street you walk.

Time spent: 3 hours of quality family time, lunch included.

Difficulty: Easy

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