Canyon Preserve Offers Historic Adobe, Unique Plants, Birds, Animals – and a Cascading Waterfall

It is so close – yet seemingly a world away from the freeways, the noise and the stress of suburban North San Diego County. Visitors can see a wide variety of birds, hundreds of different plant species, huge trees, all kinds of animals – and even a cascading waterfall.

Los Peñasquitos (which means “little cliffs”) Canyon Preserve is snuggled between Rancho Peñasquitos and Sorrento Hills to the north and Mira Mesa to the south. Stretching approximately seven miles from the I-5 and I-805 merge to just east of I-15; it encompasses some 4,000 acres of both Peñasquitos and Lopez Canyons. The Preserve is jointly owned and administered by the city and county of San Diego.

Only minutes from Santa Luz, Del Sur, 4S Ranch and other nearby communities, Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve attracts people with its natural beauty and rich resources. Native American history within the Preserve dates back as far as 7,000 years ago. Remains of the prehistoric culture can still be found. More recently the area was part of the first Mexican land grant in San Diego County – and the historic Santa Maria de Los Penasquitos Adobe is located on the east side of the Preserve off Black Mountain Road on Canyonside Park Driveway.

Los Peñasquitos Canyon and its tributary, Lopez Canyon, features an astounding 500 plant species, more than 175 types of birds, and a great variety of reptiles, amphibians and mammals.

But it’s the scenery of the canyon that makes the Preserve so special and unique. Perhaps surprising to many newer North County residents, visitors walking along the trails can experience:


  • Waterfall cascading through volcanic rock.
  • Streamside forest of giant California live oaks.
  • Groves of majestic sycamore trees.
  • A year-round stream populated by Pacific tree frogs, crayfish and largemouth bass.
  • A fresh water marsh hosting a variety of aquatic birds including great blue herons, egrets, mallard ducks and more.
  • Mule deer, bobcat, coyote, and raccoon (just a few of the mammals that can be observed throughout the Preserve).


The Preserve once was part of Rancho de los Peñasquitos, the first Mexican land grant in California. Granted to Francisco de Maria Ruiz, he built an adobe in 1815 (some of which still exists). In the 1840’s, the Lopez family homesteaded in the nearby canyon (which was named for them and where they tended livestock for the next hundred years).

Around 1860, Ruiz’s heirs built the elaborate Johnson-Taylor Adobe and its outbuildings near an artesian well in the east end of Los Peñasquitos Canyon. A series of owners used the rancho for cattle grazing during the following century, including Charles Mohnike, who built the Mohnike Adobe in 1910, east of what is now Black Mountain Road.

Later, in 1962, a company purchased the land and planned to develop the canyon for residential use before the city and county of San Diego secured federal funding to begin developing the area into a regional park.

Multiple trails traverse the park, and park rangers offer interpretive walks and host a variety of volunteer events. Tours of the historic adobe are also available. Contact the Park Rangers at (858) 538-8066 or (858) 484-7504 for more information.

Several convenient entrances exist to the Preserve. The east entrance is located at the intersection of Black Mountain and Mercy Roads. There is also a convenient northern entrance near Peñasquitos Creek Park at the intersection of Park Village Road and Camino Del Sur in Rancho Peñasquitos. Look for the information kiosks located at each of the entry points that designate the trail head and provide additional park information.

This article utilizes information from the City of San Diego Parks and Recreation Department website.