Difficulty PG Distance 2.1 to 5 miles General information: Dogs allowed General information: Hikes with free parking Rating: 7-8 San Diego County - Mountains & Eastern county Season: Fall/Early Winter Season: Late Winter/Spring

Horsethief Canyon via Espinosa Trail (Cleveland National Forest)


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Pine Valley Creek, San Diego County, CA
Pine Valley Creek, Cleveland National Forest
Horsethief Canyon, San Diego County, CA
Horsethief Canyon

Horsethief Canyon via Espinosa Trail (Cleveland National Forest)

  • Location: Cleveland National Forest, eastern San Diego County. From Interstate 8 in Alpine, take the Tavern Rd. exit (30). Head southeast for a total of 9.8 miles (Tavern Rd. becomes Japatul Rd.) Turn right on Lyons Valley Road and drive 1.5 miles to the Japatul Fire Station on the left. Park in the large lot immediately on the left. Some sources (including the guidebook) indicate that a National Forest Service Adventure Pass is required for parking here, but no signage at the trail head indicates that. Hikers who want to be sure can find the passes ($5 per day or $30 for the year) online here.
  • Agency: Cleveland National Forest/Descanso District
  • Distance: 3.4 miles
  • Elevation gain: 500 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG
  • Suggested time: 1.5 hours
  • Best season: October – June
  • USGS topo maps: Barrett Lake; Viejas Mountain
  • Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield San Diego County
  • More information: Trip descriptions here and here; article about the hike here; Map My Hike report here
  • Rating: 8
Espinosa Trail Head, San Diego County, CA
0:00 – Trail head (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

The Pine Creek Wilderness area in the southern end of the Cleveland National Forest offers some terrific opportunities for backpacking and long day hikes an hour or so from San Diego. However, if you are pressed for time, the short trip through Horsethief Canyon to a tributary of Pine Valley Creek is a very enjoyable hike that can be done in a couple of hours. The canyon’s name comes from the thieves who used it to stash stolen horses in the late 1800s.

Espinosa Trail, San Diego County, CA
0:05 – Turnoff for the Espinosa Trail (times are approximate)

From the parking area, head north on either the dirt road or a single-track paralleling it, which soon merges. Follow the fire road north, taking in striking views of Corte Madera Valley. In about one-sixth of a mile, the signed Espinosa Trail, a single-track, branches off with a hard right. Follow it as it descends steeply, dropping over 300 feet to the floor of Horsethief Canyon (0.7 miles from the start.) The trail bends east and descends gradually through the sycamore and oak lined canyon. Virtually all sights and sounds of civilization are blocked out at this point; it may be hard to believe that you are still in the boundaries of the fifth most populous county in the U.S.

Horsethief Canyon, San Diego County, CA
0:20 – Floor of Horsethief Canyon (turn right)

At about 1.5 miles, a sign indicates the official Pine Creek Wilderness boundary. Shortly after, the trail descends to the water (1.7 miles.) This beautiful spot is a perfect place to rest and enjoy the solitude; in season, the stream trickles energetically over the rocks, through pools and down some mini-waterfalls.

Pine Valley Creek, San Diego County, CA
0:50 – Pine Valley Creek (turnaround point)

Text and photography copyright 2016 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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