Run With Me: In Search of Waterfalls (Los Penasquitos Canyon)

Run With Me: In Search of Waterfalls (Los Penasquitos Canyon)featured

Last weekend, Onyx and I went out for a little jaunt through Los Penasquitos Canyon. It’s a very popular hiking/running/mountain biking spot (with good reason) that’s sort of right smack in central San Diego County (even though I’ve never heard anyone refer to it like that), in between Mira Mesa Blvd. and Hwy. 56, stretching pretty much from I-15 all the way to the 805/5 split (roughly 7-ish miles). It’s got around 4,000 acres and over 10 miles of multi-use (hiking, biking, equestrian) trails. And it’s frickin’ gorgeous.

The trails aren’t really named, but Onyx and I started from the parking lot off Sorrento Valley Blvd. about a mile east of the 805. My goal was to make it to the waterfall that’s roughly in the center of the preserve for a 6-ish mile trail run.

Run With Me: In Search of Waterfalls (Los Penasquitos Canyon, San Diego) {the ponytail diaries}

We got up a little later than I would have liked and it was already on the warm side when we started. The trail starts at the end of the parking lot, and almost immediately splits into opposite directions. Now, if your sense of direction is anything like mine, you’ll want to go right here and start heading east right away. DON’T. If you want to get to the waterfall, at least. If you go right you’re actually following a trail through Lopez Canyon, which is lovely (and less crowded), but there will be no waterfall sightings. Go left.

(I may have tried this trail last year and wound up running through Lopez Canyon past where the trail ended, according to the maps, for a mile or more. It was quite the adventure that left me only mildly frustrated with the city/county’s lack of signage and park upkeep…until I got home and realized, d’oh, I’m the moron who went the wrong way. The correct trail is pretty obviously marked.)

San Diego Trail Running: Los Penasquitos Canyon

You’ll go under an overpass (crossing Sorrento Valley Blvd.) and then start to veer right and up. This is probably the hilliest section of this portion of the trail (I should mention that this post covers only the western half of the main Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail, the one that runs south of the creek).

San Diego Trail Running: Los Penasquitos Canyon

You’ll then descend a bit into the canyon and from there, you’re mostly on gentle rolling hills and flats. The trail is plenty wide and a mix of hard-packed dirt, gravel/rocks, and some patches of softer, sandy soil. Every so often, you’ll find single-tracks just to the side of the trail that are great for avoiding some of the rocky portions — just watch out for mountain bikers coming through.

San Diego Trail Running: Los Penasquitos Canyon

Portions of the trail are completely exposed, so definitely wear sunscreen and if you’re going long or running in the summer (or, you know, a random day in February) you might want to carry water. There are some shady spots as well, and parts where the brush is high enough on the sides of the trail to provide shade if you’re running early, before the sun is completely overhead.

San Diego Trail Running: Los Penasquitos Canyon

There are a couple spots where a trail splits off. These lead to creek crossings and will also take you to the waterfall, just on the north side. I am absolutely going to back and explore the rest of the trails.

Crowd-wise, this wasn’t bad at all. I think the western portion is a little less-used than the eastern portion (if you Google “penasquitos canyon trail” or “penasquitos canyon parking” the first hits are for the trailheads and lots on the eastern side, where the ranger’s office is). We saw a few other runners, some small groups of hikers, and a good number of mountain bikers that were in groups ranging from 2 to 15 or so. No horses or riders, although I did have to dodge some signs of them. Onyx is much better at reacting to bikers than me — she hears them coming before I do and they freak her out, so I usually hold her still on the side of the trail until they pass.

San Diego Trail Running: Los Penasquitos Canyon

I don’t think you can call our last rains that “recent” anymore, but it was still so gorgeously lush and green. Like I mentioned, it was warm, but not overly so for me. Onyx was feeling it a bit more and I let her dictate the pace and stop when she wanted to.

(Number one tip for running with a dog: Throw out all expectations for your run and put your dog in charge of the pace. I almost always wear my Garmin because I like knowing my precise distance for every run, but dog runs are good chances to go watch-less if you’re the type to think “13:34 mile? What the hell? MUST GO FASTER.”)

San Diego Trail Running: Los Penasquitos Canyon

You’ll see the turn for the waterfall just under 3 miles in. There are trash bins right there, which is the best thing ever if you’ve been carrying a bag of your dog’s poop like a responsible owner for the past 2.3 miles. (Confession: when she goes right at the beginning of an out-and-back run, I have been known to bag it and then hide the bag so I can just pick it up on the way back, rather than carry it the entire time. Maybe not the 100% correct behavior, but sure as hell better than just not picking it up at all.)

(Number two tip for running with a dog: Always bring more bags than you think you’ll need.)

San Diego Trail Running: Los Penasquitos Canyon

You’ll go down some steps to get to the waterfall itself, which isn’t so much falls like Cedar Creek — it’s much smaller, more like a series of mild rapids than cascading water into a basin. Which doesn’t make it any less pretty or peaceful.

San Diego Trail Running: Los Penasquitos Canyon

San Diego Trail Running: Los Penasquitos Canyon

How much the creek/falls will be flowing depends on how much rain we’ve gotten. On this day, there was a decent flow. A group of kids were wading and climbing on the rocks and boulders both in and next to the creek. Either way, if you’re hiking or on a relaxing long run, it’s a great spot to rest with a picnic or some snacks, with lots of options to find a perch on the rocks.

Or you can take a triumphant selfie before moving on, because all the kids and other dogs there are making your dog nervous.

San Diego Trail Running: Los Penasquitos Canyon

I tried to get Onyx to pose with the falls in the background but she wasn’t having it. She can be a bit of a diva around cameras.

Then you can cross the creek and head back on the north trail (how doable that is probably depends on how high the creek is and how much you mind getting wet), or just turn around and retrace your steps on the south trail.

San Diego Trail Running: Los Penasquitos Canyon

You should take some breaks to marvel at the landscape and that you’re completely surrounded by civilization but really can just see natural open space in all directions.

Then go home and make some pancakes.

Official info on Los Penasquitos Canyon:

A surprisingly detailed and well-labeled trail map of the preserve.

Official city and county sites.

Friends of Los Penasquitos Canyon, a non-profit group dedicated to preservation and management of the preserve. They host guided hikes, volunteer opportunities (trail maintenance and restoration work), and other events that are usually free for the public. Support your open spaces and conservation groups! (No seriously. These are usually small, community-run groups working with the city or county and picking up when those resources fall short. If you value trails, parks, and open/natural/preserved spaces, they are fantastic recipients of your volunteer hours or charity donations. I’ll be getting off my soapbox now.)

Go run!