Hellhole Canyon County Preserve is a San Diego managed park that sits in Valley Center, California. The small town lies just above the large city of Escondido and is a large open space preserve. Hellhole Canyon has over thirteen miles of trails. The area is one of San Diego’s lesser known hiking preserves but it’s great for it’s views of San Diego’s mountains, coastal views, wildlife viewing, and wildflowers. Despite the preserve’s name, those that visit this canyon are greeted with some amazing views.

Hiking Hellhole Canyon County Preserve

Nestled below Palomar Mountain in the small town of Valley Center, California lies a large open space of land called Hellhole Canyon County Preserve.  The canyon lies in the northern part of San Diego County and offers 2,023 acres of open space, 13.5 miles of hiking trails, an equestrian-friendly staging area, potable water at the trailhead, camping sites, vault restrooms and even an amphitherter.

The preserve was created in part because of the unique topography of the canyon. The area lies below Palomar Mountain which is one of San Diego’s wettest areas. Palomar gets as much rain during the year as areas of the Central Sierra range further up to the north. The mountains naturally attract a significant amount of wildlife and have used the canyon to move across parts of the county.

Hellhole Canyon County Preserve Views

The preserve offers several views typical of those of San Diego valleys. In the heart of Hellhole Canyon runs Hell Creek which flows sporadically through the winter months with heavy rainfall. The creek bed takes quite a bit of rain to get going but if it does, there is an adjacent creek that can have a waterfall. The canyon offers a riparian landscape with about the only trees throughout the preserve.

Rising above Hellhole Canyon are loop trails that ascend to the top of the park. The park’s highest point is Paradise Mountain which tops out at 3,261 feet followed by a shorter, Rodruigez Peak. From the top of Paradise Mountain there will be phenomenal views of Palomar Mountain, northern San Diego County, and the infamous Escondido Canal. The canal was constructed in the 1800’s and runs through the southern end of Hellhole Canyon. The canal still provides water from the San Luis Rey River south to Lake Wohlford in Escondido. On a clear day views of San Clemente island off the coast can be seen as well as some of the San Gabriel mountains in Los Angeles like Mount Baldy.

Hellhole Canyon County Preserve Must Know Facts

The park has hiking trails for all levels of hikers. Hellhole Canyon is open Friday through Monday 8 a.m. to sunset. There is no vehicle or restroom access on 12/25. The preserve also features an outdoor amphitheater. Here the county offers a variety of speakers and presentations. An example of some presentations that are held here are stargazing events. For more information on events held in Hellhole Canyon County Preserve, check out their website.

On A Personal Note:

The trails here have a lot of variety to offer. The full loop can be quite a leg burner to the top of Paradise Mountain and the views of Palomar Mountain are rewarding. This is a great area to catch spring flowers and chaparral blooms. Difficulty of these trails range from easy to expert depending on how far much you’re wanting to explore. To get the most of the views, head up out of the canyon towards Paradise Mountain or Rodriguez Peak. If you’re lucky enough there will be a chance to see various birds of prey, snakes, quail, wild turkeys, deer, bobcats, coyotes, and mountain lions to name a few.

Do you have any updates to the hiking trail or want to share your hike/pictures? Please leave a comment below.

  • Overall Difficulty: 65% 65%
  • Overall Views: 85% 85%
Hellhole Canyon County Preserve Quick Facts:
  • Elevation: 3,115 feet.
  • Elevation Gain: 1,655 feet.
  • Estimated Distance: 13.5 miles.
  • My Actual Distance: 8.44 miles.
  • Estimated Time: 1-5 hours (depending on route taken).
  • My Time: 4 hours 10 minutes total; 3 hours 23 minutes moving.  
Hellhole Canyon County Preserve Directions:
Open in maps. The preserve is located in the heart of Valley Center in the northern tier of San Diego County. There is a large dirt parking lot available for parking with enough room with those hauling trailers for horses as well. Hellhole Canyon is closed on Christmas Day and open 8 a.m. to sunset Monday through Friday. The area is closed during the entire month of August because of excessive heat. There is no fee to access the preserve but there is a small donation box at the trailhead. Feel free to contribute to the park fund for maintenance if you wish.
Hellhole Canyon County Preserve Pictures:
Who Hellhole Canyon County Preserve Is For:
Novice Hikers: Hiking Hellhole Canyon is one of those areas that is suitable for all levels of hikers. Newer hikers may want to stick to some of the preserve’s shorter trails. But, choose your own adventure and when you feel tired head back. Keep some energy for the walk up the canyon. Time things right during the year and you’ll have a nice creek to see as well as the possibility of viewing some wildlife.

Advanced Hikers: This is a great trail for those who consider themselves advanced. The loop up to Paradise Mountain is a decent amount of elevation gain in a very short distance. The views overlooking Palomar Mountain are quite rewarding.

Expert Hikers: Those that fall into this category will enjoy the trails of this preserve.  The 8+ mile trail network that explores the entire preserve will make for the feeling of an accomplished day.

It’s always a good idea to be aware of what type of hiking level you’re at.

Best Time Of Year To Hike Hellhole Canyon County Preserve:
Any one of San Diego’s cooler days will be the best time to visit this park. The ideal window for visiting this preserve will be through around mid-Fall to near the end of Spring. Don’t even bother with these trails during the hot days or summer months. Because the area gets so hot during the summer, the preserve is closed for the entire month of August. But check the weather before and after that month to avoid the excessively hot days.

The best time to visit this area would be after a good rain to possibly catch the creek flowing. Late winter and early spring would be ideal. The cooler weather will make for a pleasant hiking experience. It’s during that time that blooming chaparral and wildflowers will be at their peak and fresh growth will be attracting more wildlife.

Hellhole Canyon County Preserve Trail Conditions:
Generally speaking, the trail is in good condition and is maintained by the County of San Diego and Friends of Hellhole Canyon – a non-profit group who help to maintain the park. The trails nearest to the parking lot are in the best condition. All trails are easily to navigate with trail markers. Trails are composed of dirt and loose granite.

Some portions of the trail can succumb to erosion after heavy rainfall. For this reason, some of the steeper grades can be a little tougher on the knees and ankles with runoff debris. The trail does narrow the further away from the parking lot one gets. The trail is almost completely exposed to the elements with hardly any trail overgrowth. The only chance of shade is near Hell Creek where trees common to Southern California’s canyons grow. At the top of Paradise Mountain there is a small stretch of some head high to overhead Manzanita patches that can offer a small break from the sun.

The only chance of poison oak will be near Hell Creek. Steer clear of any growth hanging out near the bottom of any trees. Otherwise the area gets too much sun and too little water for the plant to grow. Rattlesnakes can be common along the trail. With that said, keep your eyes peeled and if you have Fido with you, make sure they don’t get too curious.