There are some trails in San Diego that must be visited at least once to say that you’ve been there and snap a few epic pictures. Horsethief Canyon is one of these hikes. Relatively easy to get to, about 30 miles away from from downtown San Diego in Cleveland National Forest, this spot has long been popular – stemming all the way back to the late 1800s when thieves used to keep their stolen horses here before transporting them across the Mexico border.
Horsethief Canyon may be located near a fire station, yet it is still tucked away from the hustle and bustle of San Diego and is a nice getaway for a weekend afternoon. Nestled among the chaparral-covered mountains of Pine Creek Wilderness, the oak groves, rock formations, and cool valleys offer seclusion, from dry, rugged terrain often found on other San Diego trails.
This relatively short hike is 1.6 miles downhill into Horsethief Canyon and 1.6 miles back along the Espinosa Trail. Horsethief Canyon used to feature a large watering hole and small waterfalls until the recent California drought, now it is quite barren. Five years ago this hike used to be a popular destination for hikers wishing to take a dip in a large pool of water, however now the trail is more desolate due to the lack of water.
The hike starts along a forest service Route 16SO4 and turns right into Espinosa Trail after less than a quarter mile. Espinosa Trail is easy to follow, a clearly marked path that leads downhill all the way to a dried up watering hole. Once you reach the watering hole, take some time to explore the large rocks and with caution, test your rock climbing skills. After you’ve had your fair share of rock climbing, follow the same path back up to where you parked.
Although people aren’t stealing horses at Horsethief Canyon anymore, horses are still allowed on this trail and you may even come across a few along the trail. Equestrian groups often gather here and ride their horses along the trail instead of hiking. I didn’t see any horses on my hike however I did see plenty of their droppings left behind which brings me to my next point to exercise caution while walking along the trail to avoid ruining your shoes and trek.
Horsethief Canyon Tips
Tip 1: The Forest Service encourages hikers and equestrians to stay on the Espinosa and Pine Creek trails – the two major paths in Pine Creek Wilderness – and to hike in a group due to immigrants and smugglers that have been found in the vicinity of this hike.
Tip 2: The ideal time of year to visit Horsethief Canyon is in the winter when temperatures are cooler or in the spring when the flowers are blooming.
Tip 3: Watch out for poison ivy and rattlesnakes. Luckily, I didn’t encounter any rattlesnakes on this trail however I did see plenty of poison ivy along the trail.
Tip 4: Plan 2-3 hours to complete this trail, especially if you will take some time out for rock climbing or pictures.
Tip 5: There is little shade along this trail and with the drought there is no longer a way to cool off in the watering hole. Pack plenty of water and a protein-packed snack.
Tip 6: If you have a horse, horses are allowed! Equestrian groups are limited to 8 horses and no special permit is required.
Tip 7: Cell phones do not get service in this area and there are no restroom facilities. Plan accordingly.
Total Distance: 3.2 miles
Trailhead address: Horsethief Canyon, Cleveland National Forest, California 91901
Driving directions per USDA.GOV: Japatul end: I-8 east from San Diego to Japatul Road. Go South on Japatul Road to Lyons Valley Road. Turn South on Lyons Valley Road to the Japatul Fire Station turnoff. The trailhead is located to the left just after leaving Lyons Valley Road. Corral Canyon end: I-8 east from San Diego to Buckman Springs Road. Drive south on Buckman Springs Road 3.6 miles to Corral Canyon Road. Turn right on Corral Canyon Road and drive 4 miles to the trail. Vehicles should park near a green gate on the right side of Corral Canyon Road. The trail is reached by going around the gate, walking down the road 1/2 mile to an obvious place where the trail takes off to the left.