Los Peñasquitos Canyon Mountain Biking Guide

One of the largest urban parks in the United States, Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve, or PQ Canyon as it’s called by mountain bikers, encompasses 4,000 acres of undeveloped land in Peñasquitos and Lopez Canyons. 

Sandwiched between the hamlets of Rancho Peñasquitos and Sorrento Hills to the north and Mira Mesa to the south, the preserve stretches for approximately 7 miles east to west between Interstate 15 to Interstates 5 and 805.

PQ Canyon Mountain Biking overview map

The preserve is home to more than 500 plant species and 175 types of birds. A variety of reptiles and amphibians live in the preserve as do deer, bobcats, coyotes, and rabbits. Peñasquitos Creek runs through the middle of the canyon and Peñasquitos Creek is a popular destination for hikers, equestrians, and mountain bikers.

PQ connects with Del Mar Mesa Preserve and Carmel Mountain Preserve, and when mountain bikers refer to riding PQ, they are typically referring to these adjacent preserves. Together, these preserves offer a network of over 86 miles of trails.

PQ Canyon Trail Map

Given the sensitive nature of the habitat, it’s important to stay on the many trails designated for riding and not enter areas that are set aside for wildlife protection. Illicit trail riding and building is a significant problem, particularly in the Del Mar Mesa area, and threatens trail access for everyone. Also, after rains, the trails are often closed for several days until they dry out, which limits damage to the trails caused by riding and hiking in mud.

There are a number of trailheads for PQ Canyon. Living in Mira Mesa, I get to PQ canyon via Camino Ruiz Trail, a steep and narrow tree tunnel trail that starts at Camino Ruiz Park. This is a trail for intermediate and advanced riders.

A more popular and beginner-friendly trailhead is Peñasquito Creek Park, located on the opposite side of the canyon in Rancho Peñasquito near Park Village Elementary school. Other popular trailheads are located at Canyonside Community Park off Black Mountain Road towards the eastern end of the preserve and a dirt/gravel parking area off Sorrento Valley Road near the western end.

PQ connects with Del Mar Mesa Preserve and Carmel Mountain Preserve, and when mountain bikers refer to riding PQ, they are typically referring to these adjacent preserves. Together, these preserves offer a network of over 86 miles of trails.

Given the sensitive nature of the habitat, it’s important to stay on the many trails designated for riding and not enter areas that are set aside for wildlife protection.

Illicit trail riding and trail building is a significant problem, particularly in the Del Mar Mesa area, and threatens trail access for everyone. Also, after rains, the trails are often closed for several days until they dry out, which limits damage to the trails caused by riding and hiking in mud.

Mountain Biking PQ Canyon

If you’re looking to explore the canyon for the first time, a great first mountain biking route is to start at Peñasquitos Creek Park and head west along the north side of the canyon to the waterfall.

PQ Canyon Mountain Bike Trail
Simple PQ Canyon trail loop starting and finishing at Peñasquito Creek Park

A popular and beginner-friendly trailhead is Peñasquitos Creek Park (GPS: 32.939367, -117.151393), located on the opposite side of the canyon in Rancho Peñasquitos near Park Village Elementary School.

After you’ve checked out the waterfall (GPS: 32.926805, -117.177512), continue west and cross over the creek at either Sycamore Crossing (GPS: 32.923930, -117.186339) or Wagon Wheel Crossing (GPS: 32.915464, -117.202379) and head back east on the trail on the south side of the creek. To get back to where you started, cross back to the north side of the creek at Peñasquitos Creek Park Crossing (GPS: 32.936950, -117.148965).

This is just one way to explore the main canyon. There are tons of creek crossings and other trails to explore.

Del Mar Mesa Mountain Biking Trails

Once you’ve explored the main canyon, the many trails of Del Mar Mesa Preserve await. You can access Del Mar Mesa from the main canyon via a dirt service road that forks off near Carson’s Crossing (​​GPS: 32.933760, -117.167900) and winds north from the bottom of the canyon up to the mesa, which is around 400 feet in elevation. 

Del Mar Mesa Mountain Biking Trails Map
Del Mar Mesa moutnain biking trail map.

Wide dirt fire roads run along the top of the mesa, serving as the backbone for a network of mesa-top trails that includes Bow Tie Rim Trail, Rim Trail, and North Rim Trail. 

Tunnel 4 is a well-known technical single-track trail that plummets off the north side of the mesa into Deer Canyon (Trailhead GPS: 32.947423, -117.163163). The trail winds through a coastal scrub oak forest that forms a tunnel-like canopy. I use a bike bell so other riders, hikers, and equestrians can hear me coming on this narrow and twisty trail.

There used to be other tunnel trails off the mesa, but those were closed with the intent of ecological preservation. 

Tunnel 4 brings you down the mesa to Deer Canyon and Deer Creek which flows west through the valley. Deer Canyon Trail rolls up and down the hills on the creek’s north side.

There are two common ways to climb from Deer Canyon back to the top of Del Mar Mesa. The first you’ll come to when heading west from the bottom of Tunnel 4 is a steep fire road known as Cardiac Hill. Or further west along Deer Canyon you can take the Switchbacks Trail, which will bring you out of the valley via a series of steep switchbacks.

Duck Pond Area Mountain Biking Trails

Another area worth exploring is the trail network around the Duck Pond, which lies just to the southeast of Del Mar Mesa. The Preserve Trail and Shits Fire Road Trail will bring you from Del Mar Mesa along the rim of the canyon to the Shits Trail, a steep section of switchbacks that are reminiscent of an intestine.

Duck Pond Area Trails in PQ Canyon

Cobbles Trail, just to the east of Duck Pond, follows a dried creek bed filled with large cobblestones in places. This is a fun roller coaster downhill ride that will bring you back to the main portion of PQ Canyon.

This was a quick tour of some of my favorite trails. There are many other trails in PQ Canyon that we haven’t touched on here. Check out the guide on OutdoorSoCal.com linked in the description below for detail, including GPS coordinates and maps for the trails. 

Also, check out the link to the San Diego Mountain Biking Association, which has great info on trails in San Diego and does a lot to keep PQ Canyon trails and other trails throughout the county accessible for mountain bikers.

Further Reading

Guide to Hiking Los Peñasquitos Canyon Trail

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