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3. Los Peñasquitos Canyon and Waterfall

A local favorite—especially among dog owners—Los Peñasquitos Canyon is a nature preserve in the middle of the northern San Diego suburbs. Los Peñasquitos means “little cliffs” in Spanish, referring to the series of big volcanic boulders that the small waterfall tumbles down. At 4,000 acres and over seven miles long, Los Peñasquitos Canyon is one of the largest urban parks in the world. This shady, multi-use trail is open to hikers, bikers, and horse riders.

The Los Penasquitos Trail crosses the river right above the waterfalls. Photo by Liz Thomas.
The trail crosses the river right above the waterfalls. Photo by Liz Thomas.

Pass Through a Canyon Rich in Plants and Wildlife

From the Los Peñasquitos Canyon trailhead, fill up your water bottles and head west on the dirt road. You’ll pass through a forest of giant California Live Oaks. The preserve is also home to over 500 plant species and 170 different species of birds. Native American history in the canyon goes back 7,000 years. Side trails lead to historic sites like an adobe ranch house, a museum, and a community garden.

Even when other trails feel too hot to hike, I like visiting this trail because it is shaded and relatively flat. It’s part of the Trans San Diego County Trail. This 140-mile long-distance hiking route goes from the eastern edge of the county at the Salton Sea, across Anza Borrego Desert State Park, over the Cuyamaca Mountains and Pacific Crest Trail, and down to the Pacific Ocean.

The “waterfall” on the Los Penasquitos trail tumbles over volcanic boulders.
The “waterfall” tumbles over volcanic boulders. Photo by Liz Thomas

A Great Trail for Hiking With Friends

The trail is wide enough to walk side-by-side with other hikers in your party, which also makes it one of the more dog-friendly hikes in San Diego. In this peaceful wooded area, it’s easy to get caught up in conversation with your trail buddies. Signs along the waypoint to side-trails. Mile markers make it easy to track your progress.

After about three miles, you’ll see a signed intersection for the waterfall. Head right towards some stone stairs to the top of the bouldery falls. The trail continues across the water, so bring sturdy shoes and get ready to get wet. You can keep going. But, for a moderate hike, this is a good place to turn around and return to your car.

About the author
Professional hiker and guidebook author

Liz Thomas is thru-hiker and guidebook author best known for breaking the women’s self-supported record on the Appalachian Trail. She’s the author of the National Outdoor Book Award winning Long Trails: Mastering the Art of the Thru-hike, which won the National Outdoor Book Award in 2017. When she’s not backpacking, Liz is a motivational speaker who has presented on Capitol Hill, corporate retreats, national non-profit donor events, and colleges and universities including Yale and MIT. You can find her at or @lizthomashiking
and Facebook.

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