Del Mar Mesa Ecological Preserve

Hikers, bikers and equestrians love the Del Mar Mesa Ecological Preserve, offering a variety of trails and natural resources.
Del Mar Mesa Ecological Preserve
Explore the Preserve
History of the Preserve
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Enjoy Nature
Tunnel Trails a Must
Location Information
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Explore the Del Mar Mesa Ecological Preserve

Although open space is at a minimum in busy San Diego, tucked within the residential neighborhoods of Carmel Valley. The Del Mar Preserve is a treasured open space and nature reserve enjoyed by local bikers, hikers, runners and equestrians. Nature lovers enjoy the mesa, canyons, a scrub oak forest, vernal pools and a variety of wildlife and vegetation.

Situated south of Torrey Highlands, The Del Mar Mesa Preserve is located west of Rancho Penasquitos and east of Del Mar. Together with the connected Los Penasquitos Canyon, the Preserve is a major stop along the Pacific Coast migration corridor. The views are unparalleled, with the Pacific ocean to the west and mountains to the east.

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History of the Preserve

The Preserve has a strong history, with Native American roots. Stone Age artifacts have been recovered, dating back over 9,000 years. The area was closed to the public prior to 2015, and since then its beauty has been enjoyed by many, although the most delicate vernal pools remain off-limits.

The Friends of Del Mar Mesa is an organization that plans, preserves and protects all the natural wonders and recreational resources of the Preserve. They have an admirable record of maintaining the integrity of nature, while simultaneously opening it up to the public. They advocate for preservation through education and fundraising, and take a stand on threats to nature, such as building developments that encroach onto the ecosystems of the Preserve.

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Enjoy Nature at the Del Mar Mesa Preserve

The Del Mar Mesa is protected under the city’s Multiple Species Habitat Plan. There is also quite a variety of topography throughout the preserve, including a freshwater marsh, waterfalls, various types of trees and a stream.

With over 900 acres of protected open space, the Preserve is home to dozens of endangered and threatened species of wildlife and plants. Throughout the Preserve, birds, mammals, fish and reptiles thrive, including Pacific tree frogs, great blue herons, largemouth bass and coyotes. There are over 175 types of birds, many of which are unique to the San Diego area.

Don’t Miss the Tunnel Trails!

Perhaps the most popular draw to the Del Mar Mesa Preserve is the series of trails known as the ‘Tunnel’ trails. Hikers, bikers, runners and equestrians can enter via Rancho Toyon Place as outlined below. These trails offer a full experience of the variety of nature that the Preserve has to offer!

The Tunnel trails at the Del Mar Mesa Preserve are the result of 20 years of activists and community members working alongside local governments and conservationists. Both hikers and mountain bikers will enter the trails off Rancho Toyon Place, and keep straight at the kiosk, noting the coastal chaparral and vernal pool habitats along the way. The Preserve is home to many vernal pool habitats, which are shallow, temporary bodies of water that shelter interesting creatures, such as ephemeral fairy shrimp that appear and disappear along with the vernal pools.

After traveling for a mile, hang left at the junction, and start heading north towards a flat area of red sandstone. Soon you'll encounter a steep trail, which is known as "Cardiac Hill". The trail splits, and to the right leads into Deer Creek Canyon.

Local Tips
Remember this is a Nature Preserve
Users of these trails should keep in mind that the area is a nature prerserve. Stay on legally defined trails, clean up after animals and take everything brought in out.

Deer Creek is a single-track trail, and runs through a forest of scrub oak, which closely resembles a twisty fairy woodland! Lichens cover the scrub oaks, giving them a beautiful green hue. It is easy to feel like you are in a haunted fairy tale when passing through this contorted forest!

After passing the scrub oaks, the trail curves towards the left and becomes the Tunnel 4 Trail, which is a major attraction for mountain bikers. It is a single-track trail, and visibility can be poor. Bikers are encouraged to use the bell system when passing hikers, and all should remain aware of their surroundings and share the trail!

The Tunnel 4 Trail climbs in the beginning, up to 11' elevation! It is quite rocky and windy, and should be reserved for intermediate/advanced riders. Bikers should also be aware of tree roots, rocks and tree branches that graze riders. Tunnel 4 can also be muddy after rain, and most local bikers wait a full 48 hours after rainfalls before riding.

After passing the eucalyptus grove, visitors will see a sign protecting the vernal pools. Please respect this boundary and do not cross! Development and regrading of land threaten vernal pools and their inhabitants, and the Preserve is doing a great job in keeping these areas pristine and safe.

Finally, you will reach a junction that will lead you back to the bridle trail that ultimately sends you back to the Rancho Toyon entrance. This loop was recently created in 2019, at the request of mountain bikers who were frustrated with the previous out and back trail. These well-planned trails are frequently enjoyed and well loved by hikers, nature seekers, equestrians and mountain bikers!

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Location Information

Free Parking
Free Parking
Neighborhood Parking
Neighborhood Parking
Street Parking
Street Parking

The Del Mar Mesa Ecological Preserve is located near the San Diego Coast between Carmel Valley and Mira Mesa. It is easily accessible via I-5 and there are multiple access points into the preserve. From San Diego, take I-5 North to exit 32, Carmel Mountain Road.

After exiting, follow Carmel Mountain Road for about five miles, where you will cross a bridge. After crossing, the name will change to Del Vino Road. Continue on this road, until you find Rancho Toyon Place on the right.

You’ll reach the trailhead on the right, before the gated community. Park along the south side of Rancho Toyon Place, abiding by local parking ordinances. From here, you’ll see a sign that simply says “Del Mar Preserve” and you’ll follow the signage on the bridle trail to the east.

Be Prepared!

Plan ahead!

Although this trail is frequented by hikers, bikers and equestrians, there are no restrooms for public use, and there are also no water fountains. Plan accordingly, and bring bottled water with you. Of course, all visitors should take their trash with them. If you are bringing your dog or horse along with you, be prepared to clean up their waste. All dogs must remain leashed on the preserve.

What to wear

Sturdy hiking shoes with a grip are highly recommended, as the elevation of the mesa is 400 feet and can be a bit strenuous on the ascent and descent. Protection from the sun, hats or sunglasses, is also a smart move!

Prohibited activities

Many visitors bring picnic lunches with them, but there is no alcohol or glass containers permitted on the preserve. Smoking is also strictly prohibited. Visitors are expected to observe signage for private property, and hike or bike only where permitted. For example, the city owns the northeast corner of the preserve, and it’s off-limits to the public.

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Stay Nearby

La Valencia Hotel
Luxury Hotel
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La Valencia Hotel
from $325 / night
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Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa
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Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa
from $235 / night
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The Lodge at Torrey Pines
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The Lodge at Torrey Pines
from $343 / night
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Hyatt Regency La Jolla at Aventine
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Hyatt Regency La Jolla at Aventine
from $137 / night
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