Tucked into the northern suburbs of San Diego, Los Peñasquitos Canyon Trail follows a riparian forest through the 4,000-acre Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve. The preserve is a large open-space park that offers hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding removed from the hustle and bustle of the surrounding city and suburbs.
This mellow out-and-back trail starts at the park headquarters for the 4,000-acre Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve. The trail, as described here, parallels and sometimes crosses Penasquitos Creek, bringing you to a Peñasquitos Creek Waterfall before circling back to the park headquarter.
- Trail type: Out-and-back
- Difficulty: Easy
- Length: 7 miles round trip
- Elevation gain and loss: 520 feet, -520 feet
- Trailhead Coordinates: 33.182039, -116.214071
- Location: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
- Season: October – May
Getting to Los Peñasquitos Canyon Trail
Los Peñasquitos Canyon Trail starts at the park headquarters off Black Mountain Road, where it bisects the canyon. To the north is the hamlet of Rancho Peñasquitos and to the south is Mira Mesa. The entrance to the park headquarters on Black Mountain Road just across from the intersection with Mercy Road.
During the winter and spring, the park is often closed to protect the trail after rain, so it’s a good idea to give the park ranger office a call at 858-538-8066. Heavy rains also cause flooding and often damage the creek bridges, and you may need to alter your route if the bridges are out.
While we’ve mapped our favorite route here (just under 7 miles, without the extension outlined below), which brings you across some bridges, past a 19th Century Spanish rancho, and to scenic spots along the creek, it’s pretty easy to freestyle your way to the waterfall — just keep heading west from the parking lot along the main trail.
The trail starts as a wide sandy path at the northwest corner of the parking area and heads west into the preserve. After about a third of a mile take the right fork where the trail enters the forest. After crossing the small wooden bridge over the creek, known as Ranch House Crossing, take the left fork where the trail splits about 250 feet past the bridge.
This trail will bring you to Rancho de Los Peñasquitos, an adobe ranch house constructed in 1823 by the Commandante of the San Diego Presidio. The Spanish-style rancho is a pleasant place to explore and has a small museum inside that recounts its long history. On the north side of the main buildings are pens that hold goats and chickens pens.
When you are ready to move on, the trail starts again at the southwest corner of the rancho, past the stone spring house and a small fenced-in orchard. The trail will hug the south side of a large field for a few hundred yards before crossing a tributary of the creek. Stay left after you cross the creek.
For the next half mile or so, the trail can be a little confusing as several different parallel paths wind through the woods. Stay on the southmost trail nearest the creek. Even if you stray onto other paths, as long as you keep heading west (downstream) you’re headed towards the waterfall.
A little over half a mile from the rancho, you’ll come to Peñasquitos Creek Crossing, which is marked by a sign where the path crossing the creek meets the main trail. Head left here, across the long wooden bridge that crosses the creek. This is a nice spot to stop for a rest.
About 50 feet after the bridge, take a hard right to follow the path along the south side of the stream. This path parallels the main south side path, which is just a bit further south but stays in the shade of the trees. After about 1.2 miles, this path meets up with the main trail and the trail coming from Carson’s Crossing, another spot to cross the creek, which you’ll use on the way back. Stay on the southside of the creek and continue song the main trial for a little over three-quarters of a mile until you see a sign for the waterfall (GPS: 32.926706, -117.177442).
The amount of water in the falls varies a lot depending on the season. Be careful with dogs and kids during the winter months when the flow is higher.
When you’re ready to leave the falls, the most direct way back to the trailhead/park headquarters is head back to the southside trail and follow it for 3 miles east to where you started the hike.
If you want to extend the adventure a bit longer, you can head a bit further west (a little over half a mile) on the southside trail and cross the bridge at Sycamore Crossing to the northside trail. Head east on the northside trail (back past the waterfall, which will now be on your right) for about 1.3 miles and cross the creek again back to the southside trail at Carson’s Crossing. When you could to the main trail (you were here before) head east for 2.2 miles to return to park headquarters.
This is a great hike through this hidden natural gem in San Diego and there are many other trails to explore the canyon. If you feel like mountain biking, you could just ride to the waterfall and back on the southside trail. For other trail ideas, check out the map linked below.
The city park services created a handy map to Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve that you can download here. The city’s webpage on the preserve is a good place to check for up-to-date info on the reserve