Day Hike: Hellhole Canyon County Preserve
Distance 5.0 miles (out-and-back)
Hiking Time 3 hours
Elevation Gain/Loss 700'/700'
Trail Use Dogs allowed
Directions: Exit I-15 at Valley Parkway. Go east through downtown Escondido. At 4.8 miles east of I-15, Valley Parkway becomes Valley Center Road (at the Washington Avenue intersection). Continue another 0.8 mile to Lake Wohlford Road and turn Drive, where you bear left (north). The preserve's staging area and trailhead is 0.5 mile ahead.
Hellhole Canyon County Preserve, east of Valley Center, features a wide-ranging system of trails throughout most of its 1,712 acres. The county acquired this and other parcels of surplus Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property in North County when the BLM sought to dispose of them in the 1980s. Much of the preserve burned during the 2007 Poomacha Fire, but the vegetation has made a robust comeback.
From the trailhead, follow the trail leading down along a scruffy ridgeline to the north. The boulder-studded west rampart of 3,886-foot Rodriquez Mountain lies to the east; on humid days, the mountain sometimes creates its own cloud cap.
You then round a switchback and descent more quickly. At 0.8 mile, you arrive at a secluded spot along Hell Creek that can only be described as enchanting. During winter and early spring, water happily spills over smooth boulders under a canopy of spreading live oaks and twisted sycamores. Downstream from here, more than a century ago, travelers sometimes had a hell of a time getting their wagons across the rain-swollen creek while traveling the Escondido-toPalomar road-hence the stream's colorful name. Curiously, there's no connection nearby upland area called Paradise Mountain. The latter was apparently christened by a couple of hot and thirsty prospectors after they discovered a cold spring there.
Just ahead, the trail joins the old, rocklined bed of the original Escondido Canal, which was built to transport water from the San Luis Rey River into upper Escondido Creek. On this agreeable stretch, you pass through one of the most charming oak glens in the whole county. Succulent live-forevers cling to the crumbling canal walls. For another 0.5 mile, the trail sticks with the abandoned canal, which strikes a nearly flat course across a sunny, chaparral-covered slope.
At 1.3 mile, the trail veers uphill, leaving the old canal. Keep left at the trail fork 100 years ahead, staying low. (The right branch climbs to the mountainous, east part of the preserve, and troops back down to join the trail ahead.) On that lower trail, you traverse a grassy slope dotted with redolent wild onions. You then start descending back to the canal bed, join it for a short while, and descend further to reach Hell Creek right at the point where a large metal pipe crosses over. The pipe-an inverted siphon-shortcuts the path of the original canal you were walking along earlier. Water flowing through the siphon has come from an intake on the San Luis Rey River in the La Jolla Indian Reservation, and it is bound for Lake Wohlford, which supplies water to Escondido. Park literature advises that you should not trespass on the privately owned siphon. You've now traveled 2.5 miles from the start, and this is a good place to turn back and return the same way.
Variation: If you have time and energy, you can press on past the siphon on an undulating trail that continues another 1.5 miles . That trail ends at a viewpoint overlooking the valley of Paradise Creek and property in the adjacent Rincon Indian Reservation. Ambitious hikers willing to trade a considerable amount of calories for more impressive views may ascend sunny, south-facing slopes to a ridge atop Rodriguez Mountain along the Paradise Mountain Trail.