One of San Diego County’s sublime beauty spots lies at a confluence between two canyons: Pine Valley Creek Canyon and Horsethief Canyon. At this confluence, the two canyons open up into a spacious mini-valley shaded by live oaks. Pine Valley Creek runs through the heart of this confluence (at least during the wetter half of the year), and a small watering hole shaded by sycamores and cottonwoods and featuring a handful of old Kumeyaay grinding stones lies just past a spot where the Espinosa Trail crosses the creek.
Although there are longer and more challenging ways to reach this spot (Secret Canyon or the Espinosa Trail from the Corte Madera Saddle), the Espinosa Trail departing from the Horsethief Canyon Trailhead on Japatul Valley Road is the easiest way to get here. Since this route runs through Cleveland National Forest’s Pine Creek Wilderness, backpacking is also an option at any one of the shady campsites near Pine Valley Creek. This relatively easy hike into and out of the canyon coupled with easy access to water make this route a perfect opportunity for novice backpackers to get their first taste for the activity.
As your imagination might suggest, this canyon does have a history with horses and the men who steal them. The canyon frequently hosted a number of purloined equines thanks to its favorable geography and proximity to the Mexican border. Thieves would hold the horses here until they sensed that the coast was clear, then they’d lead the horses south into Mexico perhaps into questionable or nefarious service.
After parking and displaying your Adventure Pass, follow the wide, dirt trail east past a gate. At 0.2 mile, the Espinosa Trail branches away on the right from what becomes Bancas-Horsethief Canyon Road. Turn right here to begin a switchbacking ascent through dense chaparral in a tributary ravine that feeds into intermittent Horsethief Creek.
The trail bottoms out after 0.8 mile, and bends to the east to follow Horsethief Creek along its south bank. Numerous live oaks shade the trail, although a percentage of these trees have succumbed to the Gold-Spotted Oak Borer, an invasive pest from Mexico that has attacked and killed a large number of oaks in southern San Diego County. Despite the sporadic dead oaks along the trail, the going is quite pleasant, especially during spring, as you make a gentle descent toward Pine Valley Creek.
At 1.5 miles, the trail veers away from Horsethief Creek and approaches Pine Valley Creek. Once you reach the banks of the creek at 1.6 miles, look to the left to see the medium-sized pool bounded by granite boulders and shaded by sycamores and cottonwoods. Adventurous hikers can pick their way upstream to find numerous small waterfalls (and a lot of poison oak). Otherwise, repose and relaxation are in order as the gentle trickle of water plays counterpoint to a cool west breeze fluttering the heart-shaped leaves of the cottonwoods overhead. The handful of Kumeyaay grinding holes (morteros) are on a large, flat boulder on the west side of the pool.
Campers can scout around the banks of the creek or along social trails emanating away from the Espinosa Trail to find a number of different camping spots. You will need to obtain a permit in advance of your stay through Cleveland National Forest’s antiquated permit system. Fill out this form, fax it to the Descansco District, and wait for them to mail it back to you.
Odds are pretty slight that you will encounter any Forest Service rangers on the route, but you can expect possible encounters with the Border Patrol. Historically, the trail network through the Pine Creek Wilderness has seen sporadic migrant traffic with periods where the passages are more frequent than others. Most recently, I’ve heard (and observed) that instances of migrant traffic are light here, and some of that accounts for Border Patrol presence in the area.
The trail is in good shape. It is will traveled, and there is only one junction (marked) requiring your attention.
Horsethief Canyon is a good place for backpacking, and information on getting a wilderness permit can be found in the text. For car campers, the nearest campground is probably Boulder Oaks or perhaps Green Valley Campground in Cuyamaca Rancho. Since Boulder Oaks is first-come, first-served, I've also included a link for Green Valley Campground
Exit Interstate 8 at Highway 79/Japatul Valley Road, and turn right to head south on Japatul Valley Road for 5.5 miles. Turn left onto Lyons Valley Road, and continue south for another 1.5 miles. Turn left into the Horsethief Canyon Trailhead staging area, and display your Adventure Pass.
Learn about new trail guides, outdoor news, and be the first to learn about events in the free Modern Hiker Newsletter. All original content and guaranteed not to flood your inbox -- new issues usually come every 2-3 weeks.
Because the situation on the ground is changing rapidly and so many different jurisdictions and land agencies are involved, we will no longer be updating individual parks, trails, or regions for closures. We strongly recommend you stick with neighborhood walks to support efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19. Please read this post for more information.