Carmel Mountain Preserve

Carmel Mountain Preserve, surrounded by dense housing developments, is home to a multitude of unique habitats including southern maritime chaparral, coastal sage scrub, and vernal pools. While the best time to visit is likely in winter or early spring so you can see the vernal pools, it’s also a good spot to visit in summer since its proximity to the coast means you’ll likely enjoy slightly lower temperatures than the rest of the county on a hot day.

We were looking for a hike that wouldn’t be too hot in the middle of August, and settled on Carmel Mountain Preserve. We parked in the lot for the Ocean Air Recreation Center, and followed a set of stairs in the northwest corner of the lot.

At the top of the steps we turned right onto a gravel service road, and found the entrance to the Preserve.

We followed the road up a short hill heading east. Below us on the right was the Recreation center, and cheers from a heated volleyball game floated up to us.

After only several hundred feet we came upon a “T” junction and turned left.

The path led through thick, waist-high brush, including sage, chamise, buckwheat, toyon, and lemonade berry.

Around .25 miles we came to a 4-way junction. We continued straight, crossing a wide service road that followed a line of utility poles running through the Preserve.

We were on the edge of a residential area, and a row of stucco-clad houses lay downhill on our left. On the right lay a brush-filled canyon.

At .5 miles we reached a viewpoint – a wooden bench sat atop a sandstone prominence.

From here we could see Penasquitos Lagoon and the sculpted cliffs in the Eastern side of Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve.

After enjoying the views, we found a path on the right side of the viewpoint. It was steep and heavily eroded, but we managed to carefully make our way down the path.

The path continued westward. Around .7 miles, the path made a sharp right and began to descend into the canyon we had been looking down into just a few minutes before.

We followed the path downhill to the edge of a eucalyptus grove just outside a gated residential area.

Near the edge of the trees we found a narrow single track on the right, leading into the canyon.

The single track was a deep, narrow rut full of soft, sandy dirt. The grade wasn’t horribly steep, but sinking down into the soft soil made it a bit more difficult.

The morning marine layer was quickly dissipating and the day was warming up.

Around 1.1 miles we came to a “Y” junction.

We took the left fork, ascending a steep and eroded path out of the canyon.

The short climb brought us to the canyon’s northern rim. Upon reaching the top, we could see the service road running along the power poles a short distance ahead.

We’d take that road in just a bit, but for now we wanted to check out another viewpoint we saw marked on the map. So at the top we made a hard left, turning almost 180 degrees onto another wide path. A sign reading “viewpoint” marked the trail, but it was partially obscured by overgrown brush.

We followed the path atop the northern canyon wall for about .25 miles to the viewpoint. Large houses lie just below us, and in the distance we could once again see Penasquitos Lagoon and Torrey Pines. To the south we could see the other edge of the canyon and the viewpoint we’d been standing on earlier.

This was just a spur trail so there was no going forward. We retraced our route back to the previous junction, then continued an extra few feet to the service road.

We turned left onto the road, and followed the course of power poles north.

We came upon an impressive dip in the road, and were once again glad to have our trekking poles.

At 1.9 miles we came upon a wide open area. The trail made a 90 degree turn to the right and continued on, but the open area was marked as a viewpoint on the trail map we’d gotten online, so we went over to the far edge to investigate the view. It was pretty much houses stretching as far as the eye could see.

We continued following the trail east. At a little under 2.1 miles we came to a “Y” junction and took the left fork.

After a short distance we encountered another “Y” junction that didn’t appear to be on the trail map we were attempting to follow. In fact, we weren’t entirely sure the trail we were on was on the trail map (turns out, it wasn’t) so we decided not to stress too much about following our planned route and just enjoy exploring the preserve. We turned right here, intending to find a trail that looped back towards our starting point.

The trail ascended gently.

At 2.2 miles we came to a “T” junction and turned right, aiming to start looping back towards the start.

This trail was much narrower, and the brush much taller than the previous section had been.

Around 2.3 miles we came to another junction and turned right, continuing to circle back towards our starting point.

The narrow trail continued to wind its way through the tall brush a short way to another “T” junction.

Here, we found a whimsical directional sign indicating Los Penasquitos Canyon lay to the left, and some slightly more distant points of interest could be found in another direction.

We turned right, going slightly downhill amid the tall brush.

Around 2.43 miles we found another narrow single track branching off to the left and followed it.

We had been hearing plenty of birds in the brush around us, and here we finally saw one clearly enough to get a picture.

We continued following the trail, and soon saw it was gradually leading us back towards the line of power poles that ran through the preserve.

Around 2.65 miles we came to a “T” junction. The power line service road we had been on previously was just to the left, but we continued straight so as to enjoy a different route as we headed back.

We headed east along the narrow trail, winding through more thick brush.

At 2.85 miles we reached another “T” junction. We turned right onto the wide dirt path along the edge of the preserve.

This was the same path we had begun the hike on, and we soon saw the Recreation Center below us to the left.

From here it was a short, easy stroll back to the Preserve entrance.

View the full photo gallery

Take I-5 to the CA-56 Bypass E exit. Take the Carmel Mountain Road exit and go east. After approximately .4 miles turn right to stay on Carmel Mountain Road. After another .8 miles turn left onto E Ocean Air Drive. Follow Ocean Air Drive until it ends at the Ocean Air Recreation Center. You can park at the rec center or on the street along Fairport Drive. map

Total Distance: 3.1 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Total Ascent: 348 feet
Dog Friendly?: Leashed dogs allowed
Bike Friendly?: Bikes allowed
Facilities: Bathrooms and water available at Recreation Center, hours may be limited
Fees/Permits: None

For more information, visit:
Trail Map
View route or download GPX from CalTopo

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