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, with the extension outlined below), which brings you across some bridges 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.
Long stretches of the trail are in the open and offer no shade, so it’s a good idea to bring sun protection and plenty of water. While ocean breezes sometimes make their way up the canyon from the coast, the bottom of the canyon often seems warmers than surrounding areas. I personally avoid the canyon on days when temperatures are around 80 degrees or hotter.
The trail starts as a wide sandy path at the northwest corner of the parking area and heads west into the preserve. As you head west, the trail becomes more wooded with oaks, sycamores and other trees providing shade
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 right here, across the long wooden bridge that crosses the creek. This is a nice spot to stop for a rest.
Once you cross the bridge, you’ll come to a trail that runs along the north side of the creek and will bring you all the way to the waterfall.
Follow this west trail for 1.8 mile to the waterfall. It splits in places, but as long as you keep heading west down the canyon, you’ll eventually come to the waterfall. You’ll see signs for the waterfall on the left side of the trail.
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 the way you came 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 southside trail.
Head east on the south side trail (back past the waterfall, which will now be on your left) for about 2.2 miles to return to park headquarters and parking lot.
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 south side trail. For other trail ideas, check out the map linked below.
Rancho de Los Peñasquitos
If you feel like exploring a bit more, on your way back from the waterfall you could 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.
To get there, look for the creek crossing located about 1,500 feet from the from the park headquarters trailhead (GPS: 32.937460, -117.135529). Cross over the creek and follow the signs for the ranch house.
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