Map to Hellhole Canyon.
  • Map to Hellhole Canyon.
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Hellhole Canyon Open Space Preserve east of Valley Center is a valuable resource for wildlife, hikers, and equestrians, with running water, a scenic canyon, and spring wildflowers. It is a place to learn about the early history of water transport while observing ecological changes during fire recovery.

Hell Creek, which flows into Paradise Creek, runs for about three miles through the preserve. Despite its name, Hell Creek is a delightful bubbling stream lined with sycamores, coast live oaks, and willows. It is a welcome refuge for thirsty animals, horses, and hikers on hot days. The preserve’s terrain is fairly rugged, with a major part of the preserve on the southwest facing slope of the 3886-foot-high Rodriguez Mountain. The majority of the preserve is clothed with chaparral and coastal sage scrub, although there are patches of oak woodland in several of the smaller canyons leading into Hell Creek as well as a riparian community along Hell Creek. The 1907-acre preserve is run by the San Diego County Parks and Recreation Department.

Construction of the Escondido Canal, or Gamble Flume, began in 1895 to bring water from the San Luis Rey River to Escondido and originally passed through Hellhole Canyon. It consisted of long sections of a hand-dug ditch connected with a wooded flume. The canal still functions today, but it has been replaced by steel and concrete and now bypasses most of Hellhole Canyon via a steel siphon constructed in the early 20th Century. The Hell Creek trails follow the route of the old canal on the east of the canyon for over a mile.

From the staging area, the first quarter-mile of the trail is a gentle self-guided nature trail with signs identifying some of the major chaparral plants. The next half-mile leads down to Hell Creek and has some steep places where trekking poles would be useful. The trail along the creek is nearly flat as it follows the contours of the hills for the next 1.3 miles, angling progressively further from the creek. The trail ends two miles from the staging area. Older maps show the trail continuing for an additional 0.5 mile. It has since washed out. The trail going down to the creek and to the siphon is currently closed for habitat restoration. Those wanting a much longer and more strenuous hike can take the Canyon View Trail leading steeply up the hill.

Hellhole Canyon Preserve was completely devastated by the Paradise Fire in 2003 and parts of the preserve were burned again in 2007 in the Poomacha Fire. A visit to the preserve shows how the coastal sage, oak woodland, and chaparral plant communities can recover from fire. While charred, twisted branches of the burnt brush are still visible, the preserve is alive with vigorously growing sage, manzanita, toyon, scrub oak, ceanothus, and many other species that have sprouted from stumps not killed by the fire. The fire also opened up the thick brush, giving seeds that had been lying dormant a chance to sprout, thus providing fresh new forage for wildlife and a great annual wildflower display in spring.

The preserve is open only Friday through Monday from 8 a.m. to sunset for hikers and equestrians. No bicycles or motorized vehicles are allowed. The preserve is closed during the entire month of August.

Distance from downtown San Diego: Allow 75 minutes’ driving time. (Valley Center) From I-15, exit east on Valley Pkwy. (S-6) for 6 miles to Lake Wohlford Rd. (Valley Pkwy. changes to 2nd St. and back to Valley Pkwy.) Go east (right) on Lake Wohlford Rd., then right on Paradise Mountain Rd., then turn left on Kiavo Dr. Continue to the preserve entrance and park in the lot. Chemical toilets and water available.

Hiking length: Four miles total, returning on the same route • Difficulty: Easy to moderate with steep decent at start of trail; Elevation change up to 500 feet

*Canyoneers are San Diego Natural History Museum volunteers trained to lead interpretive nature walks that teach appreciation for the great outdoors.

For a schedule of free public hikes:

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