Annie’s Canyon Trail (San Elijo Lagoon)

For years, the area known as “The Mushrooms Caves” in San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve was off-limits. Of course that only prevented responsible, law-abiding hikers from going there. Vandals and ruffians still frequented the location, defacing the delicate sandstone canyon walls with graffiti and carvings, and using the area as a party spot.

Thanks to a generous donation by someone known only as “Annie,” as well as tremendous effort by volunteers, the area has been cleaned up and a new trail known as “Annie’s Canyon Trail” has been established. The hope is that by opening the area to the public it will no longer be a desirable hangout for illicit activities. As the trail has become instantly popular with San Diego hikers, it appears this will be an effective tactic.

The Annie’s Canyon Trail is located about halfway between the N. Rios Avenue trailhead and the Solana Hills Drive trailhead in the southwest region of the Reserve. Official trail maps have yet to be updated, but the new trail is pretty simple to find.

We decided to start from the Solana Hills trailhead since it appeared to have more parking and more hill climbing than the N. Rios Avenue trailhead. If you want a slightly easier route, I think N. Rios Avenue is your best bet. If you’re looking for a much longer excursion (8 miles or so round trip), you can start at the La Orilla trailhead at the opposite end of the Reserve.

We got an early start since we knew it was going to be a hot day, and were the only car parked near the trailhead when we arrived. The entrance to the Reserve was easy to spot at the end of Solana Hills Drive.20160626_DSC5364-EditAnniesCanyon

We made our way uphill along the wide, gravel path. We could hear traffic noise from I-5 down the hill on our right, but it was otherwise a beautiful and peaceful morning.20160626_DSC5365-EditAnniesCanyon

Honeybees buzzed lazily through the flowering buckwheat.20160626_DSC5368-EditAnniesCanyon

At the top of the hill we found an informational kiosk where another neighborhood access trail joined from the left. We continued straight.20160626_DSC5377AnniesCyn

The trail descended briefly, then climbed another small rise.20160626_DSC5383AnniesCyn

From here, we had a long downhill trek, with views of the freeway and the Lagoon beyond.20160626_DSC5386-EditAnniesCanyon

Around .4 mile, a narrow single-track branched off to the left. This would reconnect with the main trail again shortly so you can go either way, but we stuck to the wide, main path and continued straight. In another .1 mile there was another branch to the right, this one leading to the eastern half of the Reserve. We continued on the main trail as it bent left.20160626_DSC5395AnniesCyn

The trail soon entered a thick grove of Eucalyptus trees, providing some much appreciated shade on a warm summer morning. There was fresh mulch on the ground here, and we suspected we were getting close to the new trail.20160626_DSC5400AnniesCyn

At just over .6 miles, we found the first of two entrances to the Annie’s Canyon Trail.20160626_DSC5402-EditAnniesCanyon

We went about 20 feet up the trail to the second entrance, just because we wanted to see everything, but both routes will take you to the same spot.20160626_DSC5404-EditAnniesCanyon

We came to a green sign at the entrance of the canyon. To the left was the out and back route up to a view point for those who don’t want to traverse the narrow canyon. As we’d soon find out, the canyon is a bit more challenging than your average San Diego hike, so it’s nice to have the view point option if you’re not up to the full route. If you have a dog with you or a baby carrier, stick to the view point. The route through the canyon is a one-way loop – there’s NO room for people to pass, so make sure you travel counter clockwise here if you want to do the full loop.20160626_DSC5405-EditAnniesCyn

We were going for the full experience, so followed the path to the right. At the start, the trail was nice and wide with brush on either side.20160626_DSC5406-EditAnniesCanyon

As we continued, the brush disappeared and the canyon narrowed. 20160626_DSC5412-EditAnniesCanyon

You could still see bits of paint and carvings along the delicate sandstone walls on either side if you looked carefully, but a lot of work had clearly been done to clean up the area and try to restore its natural beauty. It was easy to know which way to turn as the wrong paths were blocked with chains and colorful signs reminding us to share this beautiful spot with its natural inhabitants.20160626_DSC5413-EditAnniesCanyon

The canyon continued to narrow, but so far we could walk normally along the trail.20160626DSC_8948-EditAnniesCanyon

We came upon a trail marker pointing to the left and dutifully followed it.20160626DSC_8949-EditAnniesCanyon

It started to get a little bit tight here, but we were able to squeeze through with only a little effort.20160626DSC_8950-EditAnniesCanyon

On the left we found a small cave we could climb in and explore. Here some painted graffiti was still intact, giving us an idea of exactly how distressed the canyon had been before the cleanup process.20160626_DSC5424-EditAnniesCanyon

We continued squeezing our way up the ever-narrowing canyon, quickly reaching a spot where we had to use indentations in the canyon walls as foot and hand holds to make our way through.20160626_DSC5426-EditAnniesCanyon

While this was definitely more challenging than a normal hiking trail, it was really pretty short and we were able to get through without too much drama. Keep in mind though, this trail has quickly become quite popular and there is zero room for passing, so make sure you exercise some patience and consideration if you get stuck behind a slower hiker (or some hiking bloggers who stop periodically to take pictures. Sorry!) By this point it was clear that this was not a good hike to bring a dog on.20160626_DSC5427-EditAnniesCanyon

Before long we came upon a metal ladder which assisted us up and over a high wall.20160626_DSC5431AnniesCanyon

From there it was just a little more squeezing and pulling ourselves through until we eventually emerged at the view point area.20160626_DSC5436-EditAnniesCanyon

From here we could see down into the canyon through which we’d just come.20160626_DSC5438-EditAnniesCanyon

We could also admire the tops of the sculpted sandstone cliffs.20160626_DSC5441-EditAnniesCanyon

After taking in the views, we continued down the trail, getting some great vistas of the western side of the lagoon and Pacific Ocean beyond.20160626_DSC5445-EditAnniesCanyon

This side of the trail was a bit narrow in spots, but had sturdy stairs and was nothing like the squeeze through the canyon had been.20160626_DSC5449AnniesCanyon

We made our way down several steep switchbacks. The sides of the trail had new plantings in many spots that had not yet grown in, but I expect this will be an even more awesome trail once everything is established.20160626_DSC5458AnniesCanyon

We quickly finished the descent and found ourselves at the start of the loop. From here, we retraced our route to our starting point.20160626_DSC5459AnniesCanyon

View the full photo gallery

From I-5, take the Lomas Santa Fe exit and head west on Lomas Santa Fe. Turn right onto Solana Hills Drive and follow it to the end where you will find the trailhead. Park along the street. map

Total Distance: 1.6 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Total Ascent: 540 feet
Dog Friendly?: Leashed dogs are allowed but not recommended through the canyon
Bike Friendly?: Bikes not allowed
Facilities: None
Fees/Permits: None

For more information, visit:
San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy – Annie’s Canyon Trail
San Diego County Parks and Recreation – San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve
Virtual Tour of Annie’s Canyon
View route or download GPX in CalTopo

3 thoughts on “Annie’s Canyon Trail (San Elijo Lagoon)

  1. Robert Silverman says:

    Just hiked this today and it’s a good one! Parts of the trail through the limestone canyon are extremely narrow, steep at times and not for the claustrophobic or out of shape individual. There is a sign clearly marking a fork directing the hiker to either the moderate or the more difficult trip through the narrow canyon. As the article says, the latter is not for dogs. From Solana Hills entrance it was less than an hour, round trip. But, you’ll get a workout and it’s a real gem! I recommend starting early as it gets busy. Enjoy!

  2. Sally M. Gall says:

    Just there this morning. Hadn’t seen your post before going; wonderful photos. At age 75, I took the moderate switchback side. I notice you say go clockwise for the full loop, but I think you mean anti-clockwise? At least today one could only head UP the slot canyon, rather than down. So glad to see what the “strenuous” trail looks like! Thanks!