Gonzales Canyon is named for the landowner, Levi Gonzales, who, after emigrating from Portugal, constructed an adobe and planted a variety of crops in the late 1800s. The Gonzales Canyon Open Space was preserved in the 1980s and is part of the City of San Diego’s Multiple Species Conservation Program, which includes approximately 900 square miles from the Mexican border to the San Dieguito River Valley and from the National Forest to the Pacific Ocean.
The walk described here starts on the east of the road just south of the dog park, where a break in the shrubs allows access to the power-line dirt road for a right turn. A left turn at the Torrey Pines Loop Trail (TPLT) sign is the start of the trail that parallels the road for a short distance before descending to the bottom. Look for coyote bush, California sage brush, and lemonade berry along the trail. There is also bush rue, a California native of the citrus family with limited distribution documented along the SoCal coast and into Mexico. Identified by its white flowers and dimpled reddish fruit that matures to the color black, the bush is aromatic, with small robust pinnate leaves that can cause a rash and do not compare to orange or lime tree leaves.
Continue over a bridge to the base of the canyon, where there is a stand of green baccharis among summer deciduous shrubs. Bird’s beak, blue-eyed grass, tarweed, monkey flower, honeysuckle, redberry, and flat-top buckwheat are easily seen on the trail. Before coming to a second bridge, the trail crosses a small section of “white cliffs” that is composed of sandstone. Note the smell of licorice from fennel growing at the bridge, then look for bladder pod and morning glory. Further down the trail the plants are sparser with asters, everlasting, rabbit pellets, and Yucca schidigera, which have a noticeable trunk and blades with shredding edges. In summer, multiple elderberry trees have ripe purple fruit hanging from the branches.
Past the stand of elderberry trees there is a sandy service road where you turn left to follow along a riparian habitat with its indicator plants of mule fat, sycamore trees, and poison oak. A right turn-off to Lagoon Trail leads a short distance to a creek that is dry during low rainfall. Turn back to the service road and go left, then right, on the next trail to return to the TPLT, taking the right turn at the signed Y-junction.
Follow the trail to loop around the mesa, crossing another bridge, then turn left at the TPLT sign and continue south past multiple blocked trails that lead to the next mesa. The trail then starts an incline toward the football field, passing by Torrey pine trees that are found only locally in San Diego, although a variety grows on one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara. Pinus torreyana, or Torrey pine, is the rarest pine tree in the United States. At the football-field fence, turn left and pass through the dog-park gate to return to your car to complete the loop.
More information can be found at the City of San Diego website (sandiego.gov/park-and-recreation) and sdcanyonlands.org. Or search for Gonzales Canyon on the internet. Videos show the habitat starting from the west side to start the loop.
- Distance from downtown San Diego: 21 miles. Allow 30 minutes driving time to Carmel Valley. From I-5, exit east on Del Mar Heights Road for 1.4 miles, then left on Lansdale Drive. After 0.1 mile, turn left to Torrey Pines Highland (public) Park and park near the dog park. Facilities. There is a two-hour parking limit.
- Hiking length: approximately 3.5-mile loop from the Torrey Pines public park parking lot.
- Difficulty: Moderate, with steep descent to canyon floor, cobbles, and soft sand in places. Up to 500 feet elevation gain/loss. Trekking poles are useful at start and finish of the loop. Multipurpose trails for hikers, bicyclists, equestrians and leashed dogs. Bridges may be posted “No Horses.”