Los Penasquitos Canyon (West Approach)


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  • Location: Sorrento Valley, San Diego. From the north, take Interstate 5 south to exit 33A (local bypass). Then take exit 32 (Carmel Mountain Road). Turn right onto Carmel Mountain Road and follow it 0.1 miles to Sorrento Valley Road. Turn left and go 1.4 miles to Sorrento Valley Blvd. Turn left and follow Sorrento Valley Blvd. for 1.1 miles. The parking area will be on your right. From the south, take Interstate 5 to exit 30 (Sorrento Valley Blvd.) Turn left onto Roselle Road and then make a quick left onto Sorrento Valley Blvd. The parking area will be on your right in 1.1 miles.
  • Agency: Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve
  • Distance: 5.6 miles
  • Elevation gain: 250 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG
  • Suggested time: 2.5 hours
  • Best season: Year round (check with park for hours of operation)
  • Dogs: Allowed on leash (exercise caution on warm days)
  • Cell phone reception: Good at the trail head, weak to none in the canyon
  • Water: None (the creek can retain water into the summer following wet winters, but since this is a day hike, it’s not worth the effort of bringing a filter)
  • Restroms: Chemical toilet at the trailhead
  • Camping/backpacking: None
  • More information: Trip descriptions here, here and here; Yelp page here
  • Rating: 5

Updated August 2019

The western approach to the waterfall in San Diego’s Los Penasquitos (“little cliffs”) Canyon is more crowded and less scenic than the eastern route, but it is still a worthwhile hiking destination if you are in the area, especially if there have been recent rains. Even if the creek and waterfall are dry, hiking through the rolling hills and pockets of shade is an enjoyable experience, especially on cool days, or if you can visit on a weekday and avoid the weekend rush. If you have set up a car shuttle on the eastern trail head, you can make a one-way, 6-mile traverse.

From the parking area, follow the trail a short distance to a junction. The Lopez Canyon trail continues straight while your route, the Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail, makes a U-turn and briefly heads back to the parking lot before turning to head under the road bed. In 0.7 mile, you reach Wagon Wheel Crossing, where you will have your choice of continuing on the south side of the creek or crossing a footbridge to the north side. If you are hiking early in the day, consider heading out on the north side (as described below) which is less shaded, allowing you to return with less exposure to mid-day sun.

On the opposite side of the footbridge, turn right and continue east, taking in views of the hills above the canyon and Black Mountain’s pyramid-like shape in the distance. Along the way, several spurs branch off on the left, leading north up into the hills. The lack of signage can be a little confusing, but just remember that your route stays fairly close to the creek bed.

At about 2.5 miles, you’ll get your first glimpse of the waterfall which either cascades or trickles down a series of rocks, depending on the time of year and the amount of rain. A use trail leads down to the banks of the stream while the main route sticks to the bluffs above. A more established spur leads down to the creek above the top of the falls. After carefully making your way across the stepping stones and stopping to enjoy the sights and sounds of the stream, begin your return by heading up a rock staircase to the south side of the canyon.

Follow the trail back toward the parking area, passing through an attractive grove of sycamores en route. In two miles, you return to Wagon Wheel Crossing. From here, retrace your steps 0.7 mile back to the trail head.

Western trail head, Los Penasquitos Canyon

Heading toward Wagon Wheel Crossing

Footbridge at Wagon Wheel Crossing

View of Black Mountain from the north side of Penasquitos Creek

Los Penasquitos Falls

Looking west down Los Penasquitos Canyon from above the falls

Boulders in the stream bed, Los Penasquitos Canyon

Oaks and sycamores on the south side of Los Penasquitos Canyon (return route)

Text and photography copyright 2019 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

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