Sunny Ego MTB: Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve

September 13, 2022 § 3 Comments

This is my happy place.

Peñasquitos. The Canyon.

The place I honed my love of mountain biking in the 1990s and the place that is my go-to ride venue today. If you live in San Diego county and like to mountain bike, this should be on your radar. This venue was, and remains, mostly a place for XC style trail riding for people that want to put on some distance, ride some hard climbs, zoom down flowing descents, see some of our local natural beauty and/or get a workout. It is not great for those seeking high thrill jumps, drops and immensely difficult terrain. It is also a very popular multi-use set of trails so don’t be a jerk to hikers, joggers and, yes, the occasional equestrian.

Peñasquitos Canyon

In the 90s I lived about 3.5 miles away, although almost a mile and a half of that could be on an unobtrusive dirt utility service road, which is now the not so “secret” route to Sorrento Valley. This made it easy to get to Peñasquitos riding out of my door, although that mile and a half climb out of Sorrento Valley could be a bit of a drag after a hard ride. Now, the Canyon is about a 20-30 min drive away from my doorstep, which still feels very close.

The San Diego Parks and Rec Department has a handy trail map [PDF] which marks out most of the main features I am talking about here. The TrailForks link or All Trails link may also be useful, if you use those apps. You will definitely need one of these sources to fully explore the tremendous offerings on the Del Mar Mesa and off into Deer Canyon on the Carmel Valley side.

West entrance: On the west end of Peñasquitos proper, there is a large and official parking lot. This is the safest bet and it has a portapotty, which can be a nice feature. The trail entrance is obvious, just make sure to hang a left and go under the road, rather than going right out Lopez Canyon.

Other west entrance: Back in the day there was no parking lot or trailhead on the west side so we would park in the last bit of office park. In the 1990s this was the location of the Cantina bike shop which was the meeting place for the Wednesday night rides. (There is now a bike shop located one set of buildings to the west called North of the Border Bike Shop.) I’ll have to write something about the Cantina rides one day but man were they fun. 15 or 20 riders, maybe a few more, and we’d take off into the canyon for adventures. The businesses located here were, and still are, fairly low traffic so there never seems to be any problem with weekend parking. This is for those who don’t like to start or end on the hill near the official lot, and are willing to risk the threat of being towed that is on signage in the lot. Ride east toward the canyon on the north sidewalk and the turn into the canyon will be obvious after about a quarter mile.

East entrance: There’s an official parking lot for the Canyon trailhead off Black Mountain road, at the east end of the main trail but this requires a fee. I am less familiar with alternate free parking within a half mile but I’m sure the creative types can find something.

Other East Entrance: There is a public park here, Penasquitos Creek Park, with (I think?) free parking, that gives access to the north side trail on the east end of the canyon.

The main trail on the south side of the canyon floor is a service road sized dirt, sand and gravel path all the way from west to east ends. It is beginner level in terrain, and does not feature much sustained climbing. About 7.5 miles from one end to the other with the waterfall destination right about in the middle. This trip is perfect for beginners, meaning both the terrain and the distance to the waterfall and back. (See this post for my unhelpful thoughts on mountain bike trail difficulty.) From either west end parking area the trip is about 3.9 miles, so the round trip would be just about an hour of riding time if you are a fairly good cyclist. Maybe a little longer if not. Note that this is still mountain biking. It is not for total noob beginner cyclists. There are hills to climb and descend! The terrain is dirt, gravel, sand and loose rock.

The north side trail along the canyon floor is even more fun. You can cross at a (small) number of places along the creek with Wagon Wheel, Sycamore and Carson’s Creek as the most useful. If you are starting from the west end, Wagon Wheel is the place to cross. It is not advised to try to cross at the waterfall.The north side trail is service road in size but the lack of maintenance cuts it down to single or 1.5 track in a lot of places. It is mostly beginner level terrain with a few trickier bits. The two bridges trail, just west of the waterfall, is single track and offers intermediate level of difficulty. From the east, it’s mostly broad service road, north or south side, and there are not any hills of note. The single track on the east end past Carson’s Crossing on both north and south sides of the creek is, officially, hikers only / off limits to bikes. Officially. These are all great introductory rides in Peñasquitos, start from either end and just go to the waterfall and return.

If you are riding from the west entrance and want to add about two more miles past the waterfall, keep heading east for a mile, and cross to the other path at Carson’s Crossing for the return leg.

The north side trail also accesses the trails up to the Del Mar Mesa. This is where the fun REALLY begins. Back in the day there were no housing developments and we would ride all over what appeared to be undeveloped utility land and agricultural fields. In the 1990s it was pretty much illegal to ride bikes north of the canyon creek but there were permitted equestrian trails in places. So….yeah.

This is next level riding because there is about 200 feet of vertical distance from the canyon floor to the Mesa. The two easiest climbs are Telephone Poles (“Poles”) and Cobbles. They differ a little bit in how they divide up the altitude gain, so it is hard to say which is harder or easier. Poles is a 0.79 mile trip on well graded service road, rises 191 feet, at a 4.4% average gradient. However it is pretty flat for the first half, has a little descent and then gets steep for sustained sections near the top- it reaches 13.8% at the steepest. Cobbles is a 0.78 mile trip, and rises 219 feet at 5.2% average gradient. It is steadier in gradient and only reaches about 10.7% at the steepest part, but the lower sections can involve some rocky terrain (the Cobblestones for which it is named) at the bottom. There is a technique to this so think of it as a difficulty feature, like a steep climb/descent or a drop or something. Cobbles is the most scenic route, since there is a pond half way up. The turnoff to Cobbles is just to the east of the waterfall. Poles is farther east by just under a mile, and starts right about where the Carson’s Creek crossing is.

Some guy mapped the fun trails in the 1990s

From the top of Poles or the top of Cobbles, there are many options, although sadly most of the stuff depicted to the north and west of Cobbles on my 1990s map is now housing development. The next thing to learn is how to connect the tops of the two climbs. There is a walking/equestrian trail that skirts the housing development “The Preserve at Del Mar” to the west from Poles. There are some blind corners so use your bell and slow down, there’s nothing worse for user relations than startling a horse. The path eventually runs into Rancho Tonyon Place, from there you go west on Del Vino Court and it turns into Carmel Mountain Road right around the top of Cobbles. Descend on Cobbles and, congratulations, you’ve made a classic Penasquitos loop. As a variant, there is a service road in the middle of this loop, that takes you to one of the more fun descents; The Shits (or, Duck Pond Connector) starts here next to the power pole, and returns you to the pond in the middle of the Cobbles trail. It is an intermediate level trail, and features fun switchbacks at the very end, currently supported by trail pavers like a bike park run.

Back in the day only the utility service roads (Poles, and one at the west end marked LOIboy) were legal for bikes. The long advocacy work of SDMBA and others means that most of the established climbs are now open for mountain bikes. I’m grateful for that, believe you me. But I also take this current state of affairs to validate how totally horseshit it was to ban bikes back in the day. Ahem.

You can do a lot of fun loops that involve climbing up one trail and descending another, while staying close to the Canyon proper. The only slight trick these days is connecting up the tops by navigating the paths, sidewalks and roads through the housing development. The next two on your list are Waimea and Sidehill.

Waimea is, technically the wide open trail just a bit farther east, but some call the more shrouded trail right at the Wagon Wheel turnoff Little Waimea (Trailforks). It’s termed Wagon Wheel Connector on SD Parks map. I advise climbing on Little Waimea [descent video], which is single track plus, and descending on Waimea proper. Little Waimea rises 189 feet over 0.3 miles, which is pretty steep. Gradients are in the mid to high teens. Waimea itself used to be the highest speed bombing run in the park, but that was when it was a better maintained access road. It can, however, still be taken quite fast, although it has a little more of a terrain challenge what with looser gravel and more ruts. But it’s steep and has good visibility so the brave can go fast. The steep pitch at the bottom (23.2% grade), with the resulting G force at the end is quite the thrill ride. As with everything MTB, if it seems too much for your current skills, just get off and walk it. The top of Waimea connects to trails heading north into the Carmel Mountain area, so it is a good route for that. It is not so good for heading to the east Del Mar Mesa trails along the top since there is so much housing development to navigate.

Sidehill, known as Lucas’ back in the day, rises 284 feet over about 0.7 miles. The first pitch is incredibly steep (16% grade) and a good challenge for maintaining drive traction in low gear climbing. It then slackens off for a bit of nice single track before connecting to service road at the very top. This latter kicks up a bit. You end the climb with another highly challenging steep pitch to the power pole landing. This makes for a very fun descent [video] if you choose to return to the canyon floor this way. From the top of Sidehill, you can ride on well maintained dirt paths all the way to the top of Cobbles.

There are a few additional descents around the Cobbles region but they are more advanced, harder to describe access and/or not really totally legal so I won’t mention those.

From the top of Poles, however, there are additional trails on the north side of the mesa and even more after dropping down into Deer Canyon on the other side. Up top you can tool around on Bowtie Rim [video], West Rim and North Rim trails, these are fun singletracks. This is getting into a fairly long ride territory and especially, perhaps obviously, adding another ~200 foot climb to get back up on the Mesa if you visit Deer Canyon. If you come from the west end, this is getting up on a 2 h or more ride. I do not recall these being trails we rode in the 1990s, although it is possible I am just forgetting. Tunnels 4 [video] and Switchbacks are the legal trails, along with Cardiac Hill which is a maintained utility road- these are referenced in the SD Parks map and on TrailForks. The ride east along Deer Creek at the bottom of Tunnels 4 is a particularly lovely ride through low trees and should not be missed. There are a few trails which head to the north which are well worth exploring and you can do a loop around the perimeter of this area north of Deer Creek.

The ride west (of Tunnels 4 and Cardiac Hill) on the Deer Canyon trail is more open and descends gradually from east to west. This trail ends on a dirt road skirting some agricultural land. From the end of the trail, it is possible to loop around south on the roads and head back east on another trail to reach the switchbacks climb that takes you back up to the Mesa. One additional escape climb exists at the west end of the Deer Canyon Trail where it is possible to take a vestigial paved road called the Del Vino connector back up to the housing. It’s a climb, with some 15% gradient in places, but it is probably the easiest way to get headed back home if you are starting to feel like you bit off more than you can chew. From here, Del Vino Court takes you right back to the top of Cobbles. Easy peasy.

[Hat tip: I put in some time-stamp links to videos created by Chris Wessels and posted to his “MTB Trail Review” YouTube. These are from his “intermediate Penasquitos” video. He created a lot of these as a relative newcomer to the San Diego trails and the sense of discovery is entertaining.]


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