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.
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, rabbits, and other mammals. 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.
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.
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 Penasquitos Creek Park and head west along the north side of the canyon to the waterfall.
A popular and beginner-friendly trailhead is Penasquitos Creek Park, located on the opposite side of the canyon in Rancho Penasquitos near Park Village Elementary School.
After you’ve checked out the waterfall, continue west and cross over the creek at either Sycamore Crossing or Wagon Wheel Crossing 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 Penasquitos Creek Park Crossing. See the link in the description below for GPS coordinates of these crossings.
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 await. You can access Del Mar Mesa from the main canyon via a dirt service road that winds up from the bottom of thecanyon up to the mesa.
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 and North Rim Trail.
Tunnel 4 is a well-know technical single track trail that plummets off the north side of the mesa into Deer Valley. 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 Valley and Little Deer Creek which flows west through the valley. A fun trail follows the creek on the rolls up and down the hills it’s north flank.
There are two common ways to climb from Deer Valley 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 Valley you can take the switch back trail, which will bring you out of the valley via a series of steep switch backs.
Duck Pond Area Mountain Biking Trails
Another area worth exploring are the trails around the Duck Pond, which lies just to the southeast of Del Mar Mesa. The Duck Pond connector trail will bring you from Del Mar Mesa along the rim of the canyon to the Duck Pond Trail, which is also known as the Shitz, an allusion to a steep section of switchbacks that are reminiscent of an intestine.
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.
Guide to Hiking Los Peñasquitos Canyon Trail