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Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail

Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail Guide

In This Guide
  • Video and Turn-by-Turn Directions for the Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail
  • Parking for the Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail
  • Insider Tips and Recommendations for the Hike
Total Distance (?)7 miles (11.3 km)
Hike Time3 Hours (Total)
Difficulty (?)Easy
Total Ascent (?)200 feet (61m)
Highest Elevation250 feet (76m)
Fees & PermitsParking Fee
Dogs AllowedLeashed
Alerts & Closures (?)Los Penasquitos Canyon County Preserve
Park Phone858-484-7504
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This mellow hike on the Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail takes you to the highlight of the park, a waterfall plunging through volcanic rock. Along the way you’ll encounter a forest of giant California live oaks and sycamores, the grave of European royalty, and a year-round stream that many endangered species call home. Nestled in a valley insulated from surrounding development, Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve is not only one of the most bio-diverse areas in SoCal, but it’s also one of the largest urban parks in the USA.

Los Penasquitos means “little cliffs” and is named after the cliffs that flank the park.

Where is Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail?

Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve stretches about 5 miles between I-5 and I-15. For this hike, we’re going to start at the main entrance on the east side. Use this trailhead address:
Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve, 12020 Black Mountain Rd, San Diego, CA 92129

Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail Directions 2
There’s an entry fee for the park, cash only.
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There’s a medium-sized parking lot once you enter. The park is popular can fill up, try to come early or on a weekday. The trail starts at the very end of the parking lot.
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The only bathrooms on the hike are here, so take care of any business before you hit the trail.
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Take note of the closing time when you start your hike. If you arrive after closing, your car will get locked in.

Make sure you check the park website before you leave, trails can be flooded or closed based on conditions.

Gear For the Hike

Garmin Inreach Mini Beacon

Garmin inReach Mini
If you’re not familiar with the Garmin InReach technology, it allows you to send and receive text messages where you don’t have cell phone signals. You can also get weather reports and trigger an SOS to emergency responders. Even if you don’t have an emergency, sending a quick message telling a loved one that you’re okay or are running late is well worth the cost.

Latest Prices: Amazon | REI 
My Review & Guide
How is this Different than a GPS?

Lone Peak 5

Altra Lone Peak 5
For most people, the Altra Lone Peak is a solid choice that will leave your feet feeling great at the end of any hike. The feel is cushy and light, and if it had a car equivalent, this would be a Cadillac or Mercedes Sedan. The grip is great and they’re reasonably durable for this type of trail runner, which I think is better in most conditions than a hiking boot, and here’s why. The downside of this shoe is that it won’t last as long as something like the Moab 2 (see alternate footwear choices at the bottom of my gear page). I’ve been using mine for many miles and my feet always feel great. Watch my video explaining why they are a great shoe here.

Women’s Latest Prices: REI | Amazon 
Men’s Latest Prices: REI | Amazon 

Black Diamond Ergo Poles 2

Black Diamond Trail Ergo Cork Trekking Poles
I’ve gone back and forth on trekking poles, but I think for most people they are a good investment. They help you dig in on the uphills, provide stability on loose downhills, act as a brace when crossing streams, and can probably poke away aggressive wildlife in a pinch. The Trail Ergo Cork poles are a good balance of light weight, durability, affordability, and ease of use. If you want something ultralight and a little more pricey, I’ve had great luck with the Black Diamond Z Poles too.

Trail Ergo Poles: REI | Amazon 
Z-Poles: REI | Amazon 

Here’s my complete gear list that I personally use, have tested, and recommend, updated January 2022.

My January 2022 Top Gear Picks

No company pays me to promote or push a product, all the gear you see here is gear I use and recommend. If you click an a link and buy gear, I get a small commission that helps keep the website ad and promotion free. There is no cost to you.

Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail Maps

There are over 12 miles of trails at Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve, and this hike guide will take you down the main South Side Trail to the waterfall. A few notes on the trails here:

Click Here To View

Explore Map on CalTopoView a Printable PDF Hike MapDownload the Hike GPX File

If you try to download the GPX file and your browser adds a “.txt” or “.xml” extension to it, simply rename it as a “.gpx” file.

Gaiagps

How Are You Going to Navigate This Hike?
If you are a hardcore hiker and/or hike in extreme conditions, I recommend getting a dedicated GPS like a GPSMAP 66sr or 66i, or a wrist-based GPS with maps like the Garmin Fenix 6. If you only hike in fair weather and a touchscreen is fine, or just want a solid tool, I highly recommend downloading the smartphone app, Gaia GPS. It’s a piece of cake to use and very powerful, just make sure your phone is in airplane mode so the battery doesn’t drain. You can also check for wildfires, weather, snow, and choose from dozens of map types with a premium membership (HikingGuy readers get a big discount here). Note that I also carry a paper map with me in case the phone dies or gets smashed.

Hike Brief

Long Tailed=weael
The Preserve has over 500 plant species, more than 175 types of birds, and dozens of reptiles, amphibians and mammals, including this elusive guy, the Long-Tailed Weasel. Unfortunately, as more people hike here, less animals use it as a refuge. Photo Will Wilson

Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail Hike Directions

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Video Directions

Watch This Video In 360/VR Why 360/VR Is Great

Turn by Turn Directions

Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail Directions 6
The trailhead is at the end of the parking lot. Hike through the gate.
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Stay straight on the wide South Side Trail.
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Go straight past the Ranch House Crossing.
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The trails here are well-marked and generally the intersections by crossings have signs. When you come back you can take the North Side trail and cross back over at one of these if you’d like.
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About 0.1 miles past the Ranch House Crossing junction you’ll see the sign for Eichar’s Grave. Let’s pay it a quick visit before continuing up the trail.
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John Eichar, buried here, came here from Pennsylvania to work as the cook at the ranch. He is descended from a Bavarian prince, who fled to the USA in 1750.
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When you rejoin the trail, you’ll notice Peñasquitos Creek is visible. We’ll be hiking close to it all the way to the waterfall. The creek drains into the ocean right by Torrey Pines, another hike you should try if you haven’t already.
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Okay, here’s the first of our detours onto the smaller scenic trail. Make the right.
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There’s a trail marker to tell you that you’re in the right place. Also, no mountain bikes on these small trails, which is nice when you’re hiking.
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The trail is narrow and passes under oaks and sycamores.
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Rejoin the main South Side Trail when the small trail ends.
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As you hike along, housing developments up on the cliffs remind you that you’re only minutes from suburbia. It feels a million miles away in here.
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And soon after that, look for another right turn onto the smaller trail.
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And again, this trail is peaceful and intimate, yet only a few dozen feet away from the busier South Side Trail.
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You’ll see some official and unofficial connector trails to the South Side / Sea to Sea Trail. Stay on this small trail.
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Keep hiking as the trail winds along the creek. There’s all kinds of fauna here, including some huge prickly pear cacti.
Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail Stream Crossing
There are some small stream crossings as you hike.
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Keep your eyes open on the left hand side, about 3 feet off the trail, for this marker which delineates the border of San Diego City. Welcome to the city! This park is jointly run by the city and county of San Diego.
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Shortly after that last border marker, the trail dog legs around and it can get confusing. First, avoid the small side trail to the right.
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Then make the hard right on the bigger trail at the junction.
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Right after that make the left at the sign to continue hiking toward the waterfall.

If you want to do a small side trip, go straight at that last junction to visit the Carson’s Crossing boardwalk over Peñasquitos Creek.

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Go straight past the Camino Ruiz Trail.
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Rejoin the South Side Trail.
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A sign at that junction lets you know it’s not far to the waterfall.
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As you hike down the wide trail, there’s one more side trail you can take if you’d like. It’s not as pretty as the last ones, so if you just want to get to the falls, you can go straight too. The side trail will rejoin the main trail shortly.
Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail Directions 31
Avoid any turns and keep heading straight.
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There’s a small hill at the 3-mile marker. Only a few more minutes left.
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After that last hill, you’ll see a turnoff for the waterfall. Make the right.
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And then past the waterfall sign, bear to the left.
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And after going downhill for a second, you’ll see the waterfall. If the water is this high, you probably don’t want to cross over, but usually it’s lower and you can hop over.
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You can climb around the use trails to get a better view of the waterfall. Be careful as you climb around.

From here just go back the way you came, or take the South Side Trail the whole way, or cross over and take the North Side Trail back.

This guide last updated on September 12, 2021. Did something change on this hike? If so, please contact me and let me know. I'll update the guide.

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