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‘Loved to death’: An increase in visitors raises concerns at Los Peñasquitos Canyon

A crowd of people at the Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve waterfall last year.
(Courtesy)

During the first few months of the pandemic when everyone was stuck inside and beaches and parks were closed, many people fled to the natural beauty of San Diego’s open spaces. Many found their way to the Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve and its destination waterfall, a peaceful respite in the canyon with water cascading through a cluster of rocks.

While the preserve continues to be a great place to experience nature, exercise and relieve stress, San Diego City and County rangers as well as the Friends of Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve have shared concerns that the preserve is suffering from too much love. As visitation at the canyon has risen substantially over the past year, unfortunately so has damage to the preserve, they said.

Los Peñasquitos Canyon is a 4,000-acre preserve, saved from development in the 1980s and frequented by hikers, bikers, trail runners and horseback riders. The popular waterfall can be reached via several trails including from north via the Del Vino Court trailhead in Del Mar Mesa (about a 2.5 mile round trip hike) or from trailheads to the east like Canyonside Community Park in Rancho Peñasquitos or from the west at Carmel Mountain Preserve.

“The Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve is here for habitat preservation, recreation is a secondary use,” said San Diego Parks and Recreation Senior Ranger Gina Washington. “The preserve requires a much more sensitive and thoughtful visitor.”

While most people are respectful, Washington said some of the newer visitors this past year do not know the outdoor etiquette and rules that were designed to minimize human impact on wildlife and native plants in the preserve.

The summer months were the most crowded at the waterfall. At its peak, Les Braund, president of the Friends of Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve, counted 72 people at the waterfall at one time.

Washington said people brought large floaties into the creek and some even dammed the creek to create swimming holes. Swimming and wading is not permitted for safety purposes as the water is urban runoff. The waterfall area has become a popular spot for rock climbing, also not permitted.

“People came here with coolers and chairs and you could tell they planned to be there for the day,” Washington said. That level of use is not what the preserve is intended for and there aren’t facilities to support such use, as evidenced by what has been left behind. Washington has found food wrappers and drink cups, dirty diapers and, disturbingly, human excrement at areas where people were relieving themselves and discarding toilet paper.

Vandalism has also occurred in the preserve, such as graffiti. Last week Washington said she painted over big, ugly graffiti on a flat-faced rock that has already been painted over multiple times. They are also having issues with fencing—in some areas the fencing has been cut, others it appears the fence was damaged from people sitting on it.

For all visitors, Washington stresses the importance of staying on the marked trails.

“Off-trail is off-trail for a reason,” Washington said. Going off trail in the grasslands not only disturbs the homes of wildlife but also puts visitors at risk for snake bites, ticks and poison oak.

Areas that are roped off are meant to protect nesting birds or sensitive wildflower species.

“The extra traffic has had an impact on some species of concern around the waterfall,” Washington said, noting as one example the California Adolphin. Native to Baja California and no farther north than San Diego County, the plant is spiny and prickly with a fragrant cream-colored flower that makes the waterfall smell like soap. “It’s been trampled to death,” Washington said.

The Los Penasquitos Creek Preserve waterfall.
(Crystal Hoyt)

With only three staff members tasked with patrolling the some 5,000 acres of open space land in the area, the rangers can’t always be on hand for enforcement, which is mostly user education. As a result of the increased use and damages, the rangers have put up barriers and posted additional handmade signs near the waterfall to remind visitors of the rules.

With warmer weather ahead and pandemic restrictions loosening, Washington said she is hoping that this summer is not going to be as bad as last year’s. For those who do visit: enjoy the respite but be responsible.

“When you visit open space, it’s different from visiting a park,” Washington said. “You have to adjust your behavior. This is home for the plants and the animals. We are the guests so we have to act like that.”

Peñasquitos Preserve 101

  • Plan ahead—Remember there are no restroom facilities.
  • Stick to the trail—when in doubt, pack a map
  • No swimming or wading in the creek
  • No amplified music
  • Leave nothing behind but footprints

For trail maps or more information visit sandiego.gov/park-and-recreation/parks/osp/lospenasquitos


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