Tunnel 4 Trail, Del Mar Mesa Preserve, San Diego, CA

Del Mar Mesa Preserve

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Del Mar Mesa Preserve

  • Location: There are several access points to the preserve. This hike starts at the corner of Rancho Toyon Place and Toyon Mesa Court, near Carmel Valley in northern San Diego. From I-5, take exit 32 for Carmel Mountain Road. Head east for 0.5 mile and turn right to stay on Carmel Mountain Road. Follow it 3.5 mile, where it becomes Del Vino Court. Go another 0.2 mile and turn right onto Rancho Toyon Place. Follow Rancho Toyon for 0.2 mile to the intersection with Toyon Mesa Court. Park on the south side of Rancho Toyon Place where available, noting posted restrictions.
  • Agency: City of San Diego Parks and Recreation
  • Distance: 4.4 miles
  • Elevation gain: 300 feet
  • Suggested time: 2 hours
  • Difficulty Rating: PG
  • Best season: All year
  • Dogs: Allowed on leash
  • Cell phone reception: Good
  • Water: None
  • Restrooms: None
  • Camping/backpacking: Nearest camping is at San Elijo State Beach
  • More information: Trip description here; MTB Project writeup (different route) here; article about the preserve here
  • Rating: 5

The Del Mar Mesa Preserve is one of San Diego’s newest open spaces, having only become legally open to the public in 2015. Miles of trails cross through the preserve, which sits on the north slope of Los Penasquitos Canyon. This hike, which starts by passing a gated community before dropping into the solitude of Deer Canyon, is a nice example of how open space can survive even amid development. It is one of many possible routes in the preserve.

From the corner of Rancho Toyon Place and Toyon Mesa Court, head east on a bridle path. It runs for 0.3 mile alongside Rancho Toyon before circling the south side of the gated community. Stay left as another trail branches off south toward Los Penasquitos and arrive at a four-way junction with a kiosk at 0.9 mile. Head straight, slightly uphill, toward the mesa. (The Bowtie Rim Trail, an option for a slightly longer hike, heads off on the left).

At 1.2 miles from the start, just before a grove of eucalyptus trees, you reach a 4-way junction. The left route is the end of the Bowtie Rim Trail. Head straight (the route on the right is your return; doing the loop portion of the hike clockwise is easier and saves the most interesting part of the trail for last.) Head north across the mesa on a fire road, keeping an eye out for mountain bikers and an occasional maintenance vehicle. To the east, the landscape is dominated by the antenna-covered summit of Black Mountain; if visibility is good, you may see Iron Mountain and Mt. Woodson farther off and perhaps even the distant Cuyamacas.

At 1.8 miles, bear right onto a steeply descending trail called Cardiac Hill. The hike immediately takes on a wilder feel now as you descend into Deer Canyon. After crossing the stream bed, you ascend briefly and make a right on the Deer Canyon single-track trail (2.1 miles from the start). You follow it a total of 0.3 mile through Deer Canyon’s lush interior, ignoring the first two right-hand turnoffs. At the third junction, turn right on the unsigned but easily recognizable Tunnel 4 Trail, which ducks into an unusual scrub oak woodland. Tunnel 4 has arguably become the preserve’s signature trail. Other than an occasional aircraft overhead, all signs of civilization vanish as you enter the thick jungle-like confines. Though the scrub oaks are mostly between 10 and 15 feet tall, their sheer numbers provide a canopy of shade that rivals the live oak woodlands of the Cleveland National Forest.

After staying right at the first junction, head south and gradually uphill through the oaks with a few manzanitas thrown in as well. As you enjoy the solitude, keep an eye and ear out for mountain bikers, as visibility is limited and the trail is narrow. You emerge by the eucalyptus grove. Follow the trail back to the four-way junction (3.2 miles from the start) and retrace your steps 1.2 miles back to the parking area.

Photo Gallery (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

Del Mar Mesa Preserve, San Diego, CA
Descending Cardiac Hill
Del Mar Mesa Preserve, San Diego, CA
Deer Creek Trail
Del Mar Mesa Preserve, San Diego, CA
Scrub Oaks, Tunnel 4 Trail
Del Mar Mesa Preserve, San Diego, CA
Eucalyptus grove






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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