Horsethief Canyon


Like its name implies, Horsethief Canyon was once used by thieves to corral stolen horses before heading for the Mexican border. These days the area has a less notorious reputation, and is more frequently visited by hikers than criminals. This hike travels along the western section of the Espinosa trail, through some stunning oak woodlands to the beautiful Pine Creek. As with most water sources in San Diego, you’ll want to do this hike in winter or early spring to maximize your chances of actually finding water. Also note that this is a “reverse” hike – you’ll be doing the easy downhill hike into the canyon at the start, and the more rigorous uphill climb out of the canyon comes at the end.

We made the journey to the Horsethief trail head early on a beautiful day at the end of March. We found the trail head in the southwest corner of the parking lot, to the left of an information board.20160326_DSC9109-Edit_Horsethief_Canyon

Following the sign that said “Espinosa Trail to Secret Canyon Trail,” we passed through a metal pipe gate, then walked downhill a short ways to where we connected with the fire road. It was a beautiful, clear morning that was quickly warming up.20160326_DSC9112-EditHorsethief

We followed the road as it curved to the left, soon giving way to some gorgeous views of the valley below.20160326_DSC9115-EditHorsethief

At .2 miles we found the turn-off for the Espinosa Trail on the right and followed it downhill.20160326_DSC9117Horsethief

From here the trail began to descend into the canyon.20160326_DSC9118-EditHorsethief

We found some wildflowers starting to bloom along the trail side, including wild sweet pea, with long slender pea pods, and wild cucumber winding around the thicker shrubs.20160326_DSC9132-EditHorsethief

The wispy lavender of ceanothus bushes also added bursts of color.20160326_DSC9140-EditHorsethief

We were losing elevation quickly and even though this was a short hike, we were already somewhat dreading having to climb back up this slope on the way out. Hills always seem much more formidable when they’re at the very end of a hike, standing in between you and your air conditioned car.20160326_DSC9137-EditHorsethief

But we had a lot of enjoyable easy hiking to go, so we happily continued on, enjoying the beautiful day. Soon enough the trail leveled out as we reached the shelter of some oak trees.20160326_DSC9149-EditHorsethief

The trail bent right, paralleling a dry creek bed that ran along the canyon floor.20160326_DSC9150-EditHorsethief

Early spring was clearly the right time to hike this trail. We were surrounded by tall green grass which lined the canyon like Mother Nature’s shag carpet.20160326_DSC9159-EditHorsethief

Stands of small flowers lined the trail.20160326DSC_7134Horsethief

At 1.3 miles we crossed a dry creek bed.20160326_DSC9282Horsethief

Continuing on, there were some gentle ups and downs as we got closer to Pine Creek.20160326_DSC9195-Edit_Horsethief_Canyon

At 1.7 miles we came to a worn, wooden sign marking the beginning of the Pine Creek Wilderness.20160326_DSC9198-Edit_Horsethief_Canyon

From here it was a short descent to the creek. As we came down the hill we were pleased to see there was still some water in the creek. There was only a small stream flowing, but a wide pool of cool clear water remained, awaiting hot hikers.20160326_DSC9204-Edit_Horsethief_Canyon

Another group came down the hill from the west, and at least one of them had the same idea as me: wading through that nice cool water.20160326_DSC9224-Edit_Horsethief_Canyon

There was a use trail traveling upstream which we explored for a little bit, but soon got turned around by some prolific poison oak. We decided to take the hint and just enjoy the pool near the trail.20160326_DSC9252-Edit_Horsethief_Canyon

The Espinosa Trail crosses the creek here and continues on the other side, where it eventually reaches the trail head for Corte Madera and Los Pinos Peak. With two cars and some planning you can do a nearly 8 mile point to point along the trail. We were being less ambitious today however, and made this our turnaround point. After a relaxing break, we returned the way we had come.

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Take I-8 east to the Tavern Road exit. Turn right (south) onto Tavern Road. Continue on Tavern Road for approximately 2.8 miles where it will turn into Japatul Road. Continue on Japatul Road for approximately 7 miles. Turn right onto Lyons Valley Road and continue for 1.5 miles until you see the sign for the Japatul Fire Station on the left. Turn left onto the Forest Service Road 16S04 and the large parking area will be on your left. map

Total Distance: 3.6 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Total Ascent: 613 feet
Dog Friendly?: Leashed dogs allowed
Bike Friendly?: Bikes not allowed
Facilities: None
Fees/Permits: None

For more information, visit:
View route or download GPX in CalTopo

2 thoughts on “Horsethief Canyon

  1. Leslie Adams says:

    Hi there! I love reading your blog because of your great pictures and because you include your dog and info on whether a hike is dog-friendly (since I often hike with my dog). I wanted to contact you because we used this blog to hike Horsethief Canyon on the 4th of July, and had a few troubles that I think could be avoided with just a few changes to the text of the blogpost – I should have taken my copy of Afoot & Afield with me, but it was easier to just refer to your blog instead…and that got us off-track a bit. I ended up having to look up the trail info on the Forest Service website.

    There are several trailheads that leave the big parking lot, and several “metal pipe gates”, and they’re not all clearly-signed. I would note on your post that to get down into Horsethief Canyon, you should take the small trail on the left, immediately behind the trailhead info signs (we took the small gate on the right for 0.2 miles before we realized that it wasn’t going down into the canyon as it should). Then, at the point in the post where it says that the Espinosa Trail branches off to the right, maybe add that you should take that trail? I know that in the intro you say that you’ll be following the Espinosa Trail, but repeating the info in the directions might be helpful. We did make that turn, though. 🙂

    We had a lovely hike and the weather was perfect (we left the TH around 4pm), but our dog was awfully disappointed that there wasn’t one drop of water in the creek – she’d been looking forward to swimming like your dog did! 🙂

    Thanks for the service you provide in blogging about SD County trails!