Hellhole Canyon Preserve

Hellhole Canyon County Preserve in Valley Center is much nicer than the name might imply, at least in winter and spring. The Preserve is closed during the month of August due to heat (and is also closed Tuesday – Thursday, so keep that in mind when making your plans). It is a ruggedly beautiful spot with a mix of riparian, oak woodland, chaparral, and coastal sage scrub.

There are several choices of trails and loops you can take in Hellhole Canyon Preserve, allowing for hikes of varying lengths and degrees of difficulty. All of those choices begin with a descent of several hundred feet to Hell Creek, and a subsequent climb out that can be difficult at the end of a long hike, so keep that in mind as you plan your route.

It had been a while since we had done a long, challenging hike, so we opted for the longest route we could think of – taking the Paradise Mountain Trail across a ridge along the shoulder of Rodriguez Mountain (the actual summit of Rodriguez Mountain lies just to the east, outside of the Preserve), then down the far side, with side trips to two viewpoints along the way, before looping back along the canyon.

From the staging area, we followed the trail north through the chaparral. There were a handful of interpretive plaques identifying the different plant species.

The trail quickly began a steep descent down into the canyon, and we took in the sweeping views of Hell Creek below and the towering ridge on the other side that we would be climbing before long.

Around .7 miles we came to Hell Creek. A small flow of water crossed the trail and went on to cascade down the rocks downstream. We carefully stepped across the shallow stream and up the hill on the far side.

The trail here was cool and shady, a dramatic contrast to the exposed downhill trek that led us here. Thick tangles of riparian brush obscured much of the view of the creek on our left, but we could hear the water running down the canyon, and occasional breaks in the foliage gave us views of the creek.

The trees and shade ended all too quickly as the trail bent away from the watercourse. We were glad to have gotten an early start as the morning was still cool and cloudy. The Preserve can be abysmally hot in the warmer seasons.

The trail wound its way along the canyonside. On the far side of the creek we could see a level cut where the Escondido flume used to run, carrying water from the San Luis Rey river to Lake Wohlford.

At 1.3 miles we came upon a “Y” junction – this was the beginning of our loop. We took the right fork following the sign for the Horsethief Trail. We’d be returning from the trail on the left.

We quickly came upon another junction, and once again took the right fork, this time for the Paradise Mountain Trail. The left fork makes a small loop of a little over a mile, so if you’re looking for an easier hike that would be a good route.

We made our way up the rocky trail. Black sage was beginning to bloom all around us, and the sweet smoky scent of the plant filled the air. In the distance, Rodriguez Mountain was shrouded in clouds.

The trail climbed up the steep, rocky slope.

Around 1.75 miles we came upon a “T” junction. The Rodriguez Trail, marked only by an “R” on the trail marker, led to the left. This is yet another shorter loop option you can take if climbing up to the ridge isn’t sounding like fun anymore.

We kept soldiering uphill, following the marker on the right marked “P.”

The trail leveled out for stretch, and we had loads of more flowering Black sage adorning the path.

But before long, the climbing resumed.

Of course we were rewarded with some fantastic views of the canyon behind us.

And to the east, we had beautiful views of the cloud-topped mountains.

The clouds seemed like they were burning off for a while, making it quite warm as we pushed ourselves uphill.

We had slowly made our way up the southeastern flank of the ridge, and the trail had begun to turn back westward as we continued.

We enjoyed a short, relatively level stretch winding through manzanita and chamise.

But soon enough, there was more climbing to do.

At 3.75 miles the trail made a sharp left. There appeared to be an old use trail heading to the small hill straight ahead, but the main trail would soon have us at the ridge’s high point, so we stayed on the official path.

The trail finally led up to the ridgeline. On the northern side, we could see down into the Pauma Valley and Rincon Indian Reservation. The towering building below was Harrah’s Resort.

The trail continued along the ridge, descending briefly and then climbing again to the next promontory.

According to the topo map, the Ditch Benchmark survey marker should be up here right around 4.3 miles, but we neglected to stop and look for it.

Our eyes were already on the next destination, Viewpoint 1.

We gratefully travelled downhill to just shy of 4.4 miles where we encountered a “T” junction. The main trail continued to the left, but we took the right fork heading towards the viewpoint.

Around 4.7 miles we reached the viewpoint. The cloudy skies impeded the view a bit, but it was still a lovely vista.

After taking in the views, we retraced our route back to the main trail and turned right.

The trail descended sharply.

Around 5.2 miles we came to a “T” junction. The main trail continued to the left. We took the right spur leading to Viewpoint 2.

The rocky trail quickly became overgrown.

We could see the overlook which was our destination to the south.

While the trail was a little hard to discern in some spots, we could generally pick out the proper route without too much trouble.

At 5.6 miles we came to a well-marked clearing – Viewpoint 2. We took a longer break here and ate our lunch.

After a decent rest, we headed back uphill to the main trail, this time taking the right fork along the Rodriguez Trail.

We greatly enjoyed a brief level stretch of trail, giving our quads and calves a welcome break from steep ascents and even steeper descents.

The relief was short lived, however, as we soon began some steep and rocky downhills. I was very glad to have trekking poles, as they saved me from slipping and falling on my ass at least once.

Again, the Black sage was blooming like crazy.

We continued downhill to another “T” junction at approximately 6.65 miles. The left fork is the other end of the Rodriguez Trail – a slightly shorter route back towards the start. We took the right fork.

The descent continued down towards the canyon.

There was a brief stretch where tall brush grew up around us.

We emerged at a dry creek bed full of rock. The trail continued on the opposite bank.

The trail gradually wrapped around, turning southeast, as we finally began our way back to the start of the loop.

Around 7.25 miles there was unmarked trail that branched off to the right. We continued straight, following the signs for the staging area.

The trail here was wonderfully, mercifully flat.

Around 7.45 miles the Horsethief Loop branched off to the left. We continued straight, taking the easy route back to the start.

We passed what looked like an old remnant of the flume that once carried water through the canyon.

We also noticed large growths of Witch’s Hair (Cuscuta), a parasitic plant that attaches itself to a host plant for nutrients.

At 8 miles, we finally came upon the “Y” junction that was the start and end of the loop. From here, we took the right fork and retraced our original path back to the staging area.

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From I-15, take the Valley Parkway exit and head east on Valley Parkway. Heading east, Valley Parkway will briefly turn into Grand Ave, Crescent Road, then 2nd Ave before turning back into Valley Parkway. Approximately 5.4 miles from the freeway, turn right onto Lake Wohlford Road. Follow Lake Wohlford Road for 5.9 miles and turn right onto Paradise Mountain Road. Follow Paradise Mountain Road for 3.3 miles, turn right onto Los Hermanos Ranch Road, then make a quick left onto Kiavo Drive. Follow Kiavo Drive for .5 mile and turn left onto Santee Lane where you will find the entrance to the preserve straight ahead. map

Total Distance: 9.3 miles
Difficulty: Moderately Strenuous
Total Ascent: 2314 feet
Dog Friendly?: Leashed dogs allowed (not recommended in warm weather)
Bike Friendly?: Bikes not allowed
Facilities: Vault toilets and drinking fountain at staging area
Fees/Permits: None

For more information, visit:
County of San Diego – Parks and Recreation: Hellhole Canyon County Preserve
Friends of Hellhole Canyon
Brochure and Trail Map
View route or download GPX from CalTopo

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