Los Penasquitos Creek - I-15 to I-5

Los Penasquitos Creek, California, US


I-15 to I-5

Usual Difficulty III+(V+) (for normal flows)
Length 9 Miles
Avg. Gradient 25 fpm
Max Gradient 83 fpm

Gauge Information

Name Range Difficulty Updated Level
usgs-11023340 250 - 2000 cfs III+(V+) 00h48m 10 cfs (too low)
Range for best boatability uncertain. Please help your fellow paddlers by providing a comment or report.

River Description

This reach mostly appears to be a brush-battle access, to a short (1/4 mile or less) intense falls sequence (likely a portage of at least the first falls by most), followed by a 2.5 mile (mostly flat swift-water) paddle-out. I'm hard pressed to figure that too many people will try it more than once.
Mile-by-mile gradient approximations 45 45 40 30 30 70 33 17 25


It had started raining the previous evening, and by the morning most of the rain had fallen - appx 0.5-1.5 inches in the San Diego city region. Looking at Carrol Creek by Sorrento Valley Rd I decided Los Penasquitos must have a lot of water in it. Los Penasquitos Creek drains most of Poway and lies between the San Dieguito River (to the north) and Rose Creek (to the south). From I-15 down to I-5 the creek flows 9 miles and crosses only one road. This is the Penasquitos Preserve, a natural park area with a trail the entire length popular with local bikers and runners. The creek drains approximately 50-80 square miles, emptying into the ocean at Torrey Pines State Park. The gradient is probably around 20-30 fpm most of the way except one small gorge area a couple miles up from I-5.

I started at Sabre Springs Road just east of I-15 off of Poway Rd at 8:15 am. Here there was probably 300 cfs in the creek. A small lake is created by a low head dam just a couple hundred yards downstream from the put-in. Inspecting the dam from the road I thought it best to portage, but decided to paddle up to it and have a closer look. The water is very calm above and I got within 2 feet from the lip of the drop. A lot of reeds prevented taking out on the right, so I got out on the left side and observed the drop - approximately 8-10 feet, slightly sloping, and an ugly recirculation for 8-10 feet. Perhaps on the far right or far left one could escape the grasp of the backwash, but these routes were obstructed by rocks downstream or branches/reeds above. Being alone, I didn't risk it and portaged (very easy). Below here for a couple hundred yards there is some brush but not so bad, until just before the I-15 bridge. Then the brush got so thick that I had to get out and walk around a very small part (only about 30 feet). Below the I-15 bridge the paddling is very enjoyable with the characteristic fast flow and just a few obstructions for about 1.5 miles to the Black Mountain Rd bridge. Along this stretch, as well as further down, one passes several ranches, some with horses in stables. I had started with a wetsuit on, but was so hot that I removed it when I reached the bridge, exposing my legs to the nasty plants should I have to portage.

Below Black Mountain Rd the creek gets obstructed with trees and brush in about two to three dozen places in the next 5-6 miles. Though I didn't have to portage any of these, in most cases I did have to move branches out of the way or lay down on the deck of the kayak to get through. Some of the nastier ones were fan palms with sharp spines on the leaf stems. Several times I had to paddle through date palm fronds as well. These aren't so bad. I must caution anyone undertaking an obstructed creek like this: it requires lots of skill, experience, and courage to get through without portaging. Often one must go down a channel that looks the least obstructed, only to find that it gets too bad, then have to move through trees to the other one. The water is swift and it would be very easy to get stuck on some branches and swim. Usually the water is not too deep so getting out and to safety is not hard, but occasionally it is deeper than one can stand up in. So please do excercise caution when undertaking an adventure such as this.

On the AAA map (North San Diego), it shows another small lake about 1.5 miles below Black Mtn Rd, which I thought would be another low-head dam. No such lake was encountered, and no dam. I believe what the map refers to there is an area where the creek gets very wide and breaks into two or three channels. Here it was best to start in the middle then get back with the main flow over on the right. It was quite forested. All the brush slowed me down a lot, and I was going as fast as possible because I intended to be done by 10 am (for other engagements). I knew if such brush kept up, it would take longer than that. Unfortunately it did keep up.

Almost 5 miles downstream from Black Mtn Rd, in a particularly well obstructed section of the creek, I heard what sounded like a large fall ahead. I thought it was probably a side creek entering, so kept on moving through the brush. It got louder and louder. Soon I was right above it where I could see the brush choked rapid where the creek probably dropped 10-15 feet. I was in the middle of the creek at this point, with most of the water. A little was to the right of me, and a good portion to the left. The left channel was completely obstructed. I didn't see what was on the right, but where I was it looked marginally possible, with perhaps a couple pinning spots (under trees) where the channel makes a left bend to meet the other water on the left side. I couldn't see what lay near the end of the rapid. I went over the first 2-3 ft drop and then missed the spot I intended on moving, ending up stopped on the right side of the channel. From this perspective I saw that the stuff below looked too bad, so I got out to portage. The brush was thick and movement was difficult and slow in this area. Though I didn't see the poison oak, I know it was there because now I have a horrible case on my legs (three days after)!! Perhaps the leaves were gone and the oils only remained on the twigs of the dormant vile weed.

After a 10-15 minute portage I put back on the creek just below the rapid and saw that the exit of the rapid was very obstructed and it would be virtually impossible to get through. Just below this rapid the creek had no obstructions for 100-200 yards, but then a roar is heard and it drops out of sight through a narrow granite gap. I exited on the right and scouted the rapid. The trail crosses the creek here and there is a sign posted stating "Keep Out - Revegetation In Progress". In about 3-4 close falls the creek drops about 30-40 feet. The amount of water flowing over the rapid was impressive - I'd say about 400-500 cfs. It was runnable - a class V+ drop, absolutely no branches or trees or brush - just an awesome rapid. The first fall was the worst (about 10-12 feet) where the water boils up midway down in a hole-type thing, then plunges over the rest into another nasty looking hole. The next couple drops look better but still have some dangerous holes and pinning spots - hydraulics were a consideration here. I almost put in and ran the last two parts of the rapid but decided not to - maybe another day, with someone else around.

For another mile or so below here the water is pleasant. A couple small class II drops are encountered. In the last two miles there is a lot of open country with green grass covering the hills, and also some spots with trees and brush to paddle through, though it's not very dangerous, since the water is very mellow. I made it to I-5/I-805 (the creek hits the freeways just south of the merger) by 10:30 am, and made a call at the Sorrento Valley Train Station to be picked up. This is only 1.5 miles from where I live at UCSD. Carrol Canyon Creek enters Los Penasquitos from the left here, then it flows out to the ocean in another 2-3 miles through a swampy area. Last year I tried paddling through here (on a first descent of Carrol Canyon Creek, where I started about 3 miles above the confluence with Penasquitos), but the flowing water just disappeared into the swamp, and I ended up running down to the beach (barefooted) to get my brother who was waiting for me there. Maybe with a lot of water this stretch would be possible.

James "Rocky" Contos
Neuroscience PhD program
a crazy nut looking for others!
StreamTeam Status: Not Verified
Last Updated: 2004-10-27 15:56:53

Rapid Descriptions

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