Gonzales Canyon group in Carmel Valley hoping to make connections for park users

The Gonzales Canyon canyon enhancement planning group has started the process of putting an action plan together to improve the Carmel Valley canyon for public use and for the benefit of the wildlife and natural environment.

The group kicked off its work in late October as part of San Diego Canyonlands citywide goals to promote canyon access, restoration, conservation, environment-based education and ecologically sensitive recreation.

As Eric Bowlby, executive director of San Diego Canyonlands said, they are tasked with balancing conservation of resources and open space enjoyment.

“We could restore areas where unapproved trails have been established, which would reduce habitat fragmentation and erosion and provide a safer environment for wildlife,” Bowlby said.

On approved trails, they want to make better community connections for hikers, bikers and equestrians.

“The challenges are to decide on and get linkages to other trail systems,” said Bowlby.

At the canyon enhancement group’s first meeting, residents spoke about what an “incredible amenity” Gonzales Canyon is, stretching from communities around Torrey Pines High School out to Old El Camino Real and east to Pacific Highlands Ranch. The canyon is filled with a variety of habitats and meandering trails.

The Torrey Pines Loop Trail, accessed off the trailhead near Torrey Highlands Park off Lansdale Drive, is the most challenging with 3.5 miles of sometimes steep terrain.

The Sword Way Trail (with the trailhead on Sword Way off Lansdale Drive) is about two miles of level trail. It can be extended by taking a detour to the Lagoon Trail that winds through the canyon’s western end.

On Nov. 12, the group went for a field visit to the canyon’s western edge, a trailhead off Old El Camino Real, to see how this trail might be able to connect with existing and planned San Dieguito River Park trails.

The Alta Del Mar development, composed of 10 luxury estate homes, is under construction on the mesa top. The group hiked a trail being built along the edge of the development down to a potential connection with San Dieguito River Park’s 1.7-mile Dirt Devil Nature Trail on El Camino Real and the Coast to Crest Trail.

The group needs to find a safe way for people to cross El Camino Real to connect the trail from Gonzales with those trails.

On their field visit, the group checked out a wildlife under-crossing under El Camino Real. It used to be very dark and uninviting three-box culvert, but is now an archway with an open grate in the middle acting as a skylight, leading out onto San Dieguito River Valley.

Natalie Borchardt, San Dieguito River Park senior ranger, pointed out tracks that prove coyote, deer, raccoon and possum are using the under-crossing.

Borchardt has noted that the height of the under-crossing appears lower because of about 10 to 12 inches of sediment that has filled in the crossing floor. At one point it was thought that the under-crossing could be used as a trail connection, but the height would limit horseback riders and people might not find the passageway appealing, leaving it for wildlife’s use only.

As the group stood on the sidewalk on El Camino Real where the trail from the top of Alta Del Mar could meet, Shawna Anderson, principal planner for the San Dieguito River Park, discussed how community support is needed to make the El Camino Real bridge a safer passage for pedestrians, cyclists and horseback riders.

An environmental impact report is being prepared on the plans to widen and re-align El Camino Real from San Dieguito Road to Via de la Valle, which would include a new bridge to replace the aging, narrow bridge from the 1920s.

“People risk their lives every day crossing that bridge,” Anderson said. “The goal is to have safe passage, delineated from traffic.”

Anderson said the River Park would like to see not only a marked bike lane on the new bridge but also, a cantilever — a separated multi-use trail — on the bridge’s west side.

In 2012, the Carmel Valley Community Planning Board voted for the separated multi-use trail and Bowlby said that a cantilever is something their group would be interested in advocating.

Some of the issues that have come up for Gonzales Canyon include trail erosion, invasive species such as poison oak, ice plant and Pampas grass, areas burned by fire or used as party/hang-out spots, graffiti, and debris like old farm equipment.

Residents also requested better standards for developer-built trails, maps on the kiosks, railings for bridges over streambeds, and appropriate signage, as mountain bikes are allowed on all trails, but horses are allowed only on some.

The group is also looking to make the trail link by Cathedral Catholic that was supposed to link to Carmel Mountain but was never completed.

Most projects will be on City of San Diego Open Space Division land and will require agreement and approvals from community stakeholders and planning groups, the Parks and Recreation Department, Development Services Department and City Council. Resource agencies such as US Fish and Wildlife, California Department of Fish and Game may require permits for proposed enhancement projects.

SD Canyonlands is seeking a blanket “programmatic” permit for all San Diego canyon projects including trails, habitat restoration and other amenities. The permit will cut the time and cost in half for projects that meet the permit criteria.

The canyon enhancement group will continue to meet and host field visits. For more information on how to get involved, e-mail Freddy Arthurfreddy@SDCanyonlands.org.

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