After accidentally stumbling upon photos of an intriguing slot canyon located in the San Diego area, it was only natural that we had to go and explore it for ourselves. It was not long before we knew that Annie’s Canyon Trail should be the next episode of the 52 in 52 series. Keep reading for the canyon’s location, when to visit it and our comprehensive hiking guide of the trail!
Getting to Annie’s Canyon Trailhead
Located just off I-5, Annie’s Canyon Trail is an easy and intriguing family-friendly hike! As part of the 979-acres San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve, the canyon can be reached through numerous trails. The most popular trailhead choice is from a residential neighbourhood situated on the East side of San Elijo Lagoon. You would need to get off I-5 and follow Lomas Santa Fe Dr for about 4 miles before taking a right along N Rios Ave. In less than a mile, you will reach the end of the street and the Rios Trailhead to Annie’s Canyon. Keep in mind that there is no actual parking on this side of the preserve and you will have to park along the street. The distance of the hike from here is less than 1.5 miles round trip.
While Annie’s Canyon was the main aim for our weekend hiking adventure, we also wanted to experience more of the San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve. In addition to that, we were also hoping to spend more time outdoors and soak in the beautiful sunny weather, so we opted for a Northern approach. We headed to the San Elijo Lagoon Nature Center and tracked approximately 4.5 miles round trip. If you are up for the longer hike as well, you would have to get off I-5 further North and follow Manchester Ave for about a mile, before you would notice the sign to your left indicating you have reached the ecological reserve! There are two parking lots on each side of the street here!
Both the preserve and the canyon trail are open year-round, so you can plan a visit anytime. There is a minimal amount of shade throughout the hike, so a morning winter or spring visit might be best to avoid the summer heat. The main factor to consider is that Annie’s Canyon is a very popular hiking spot in the San Diego area, so it gets extremely crowded!
Disclaimer: Once we reached the actual canyon it was fully blocked by crowds! We had to wait a few minutes to be able to squeeze ourselves in between the canyon walls and reach the top. We would have enjoyed the entire experience a lot more if there were fewer people, so strongly recommend visiting on a weekday!
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Distance: 4.5 round trip
Duration: 2 – 3 hours
Elevation Gain: 220 feet
Dogs: Allowed on Leash in the reserve, but cannot enter the canyon
One of the advantages of taking the Northern Side is that you will get to experience and explore more of the San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve. The trail is well maintained, flat and easy as it loops around the lagoon. You will cross a few bridges before you start following Pole Road for about a mile. For the most part, the trail follows a straight line and might seem a bit repetitive. It is a good spot to admire the peaceful waters of the lagoon surrounded by lush greenery.
After approximately a mile, the path curved to the left and a small but steady incline followed. Blooming yellow wildflowers were adding a beautiful contrast to the otherwise endless green scenery. As you continue up the hill, you will notice a small path to your left that descends steeply into the lagoon. It is a very short 0.16-mile path called the Peninsula Trail.
We decided not to follow it, as we could hear the crowds in the distance and wanted to hurry towards our final destination – the canyon! It was on top of the hill, where we found the Rios trailhead. The closer we were getting to Annie’s Canyon, the more congested the trail was. Even still, we really enjoyed this next section of the hike. Slightly less manicured, the path was lined with bushes and trees and occasional blooming flowers allowing for a slightly wilder and rugged atmosphere.
In the beginning, you will find yourself hiking through the deep lush greenery, the large trees soon transform into smaller lower growing bushes, rewarding you with stunning vistas of the wetlands in the distance! Small trail signs will point you in the right direction – it is best to follow them for now, and we will take one of the smaller paths to the side on the way back.
For the most part, the trail is flat and easy and suitable for smaller children, as well as the elderly. A few benches are spread along the way if you need to catch a breather or just want to admire the scenery for a little longer. Unfortunately, as you start approaching Annie’s Canyon, you are also getting closer to I-5. The traffic noise is definitely a distraction from what seems to be otherwise an ideal setting for a peaceful weekend stroll in nature!
Less than a mile away from the Rios trailhead, you will reach a wide opening and a sign pointing towards Annie’s Canyon to the right. The left trail would take you to the same viewpoint, following the switchback and avoiding squeezing yourself through the canyon walls. If you are visiting with your dog, you will have to take the left side.
We could catch glimpses of the steep canyon walls in the distance peeking behind the lush vegetation. Even though the passage is only 0.25 miles, we were excited to enter the canyon! The trail narrows almost immediately and you find yourself surrounded by the incredible smooth canyon walls. I have to admit that we joined a massive line only after the first bent. There were so many people that the canyon was absolutely packed! What takes less than 5 minutes, took us close to 20 minutes, as we were slowly scrambling behind the others. Once again, I definitely recommend visiting on a weekday, so you could fully experience the beauty of Annie’s Canyon without the crowds!
Almost at the beginning, you will notice a small cave to the left, which still carries the remnants of graffiti from the years when the area was vandalized heavily! It is incredible to think how much work has gone into removing the graffiti and cleaning the area. As a reminder, if you take it in, take it out. Do not leave any trash on the trails, stay within the designated paths and help to preserve and conserve our natural wonders!
The slot continues narrowing down until you actually have to squeeze yourself through the canyon. The path here is sandy and as it steadily climbs up, it might be a bit of a challenge to progress further into the canyon. Take your time – the tightest section will be over soon! The last part is the metal ladder, which once you climb up, will take you to the viewpoint on top of the hill. Make sure to fully soak in the panoramic scenery. Magnificent canyon walls and cliffs spread under your feet. The lagoon meanders between the green fields way in the distance. In good weather, hikers can even catch glimpses of the Pacific Ocean laying on the horizon!
For the way back, you can only take the switchback. Small stairs make the descent quite easy and it just takes a few minutes before you find yourself at the beginning of the canyon trail. We stopped for a quick, but well-deserved lunch break under the large Eucalyptus trees. Once we were ready to continue, we had two options – to follow the exact same trail or take the Gemma Parks Loop, which took us closer to the lagoon. The quietness and peacefulness, as well as the incredible scenery, made the small detour extra special!
Eventually, we rejoined the main trail for the remaining portion of our hike and walked along the same path until we reached the Nature Center. We also took a quick stop there to check it out, learn a little bit more about the history of the San Elijo Lagoon Preserve and find interesting facts about some of the wildlife in the area.
We loved our weekend hiking adventure to Annie’s Canyon, however, we both agreed that it was a bit too crowded for our liking and we would love to go back on a weekday, so we can fully experience the beauty and uniqueness of the slot! You can take just the short trail and head straight to the canyon, but we strongly recommend taking the longer route if you have the time and energy, for the chance to explore more of San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve!
Let me know in the comments below – have you been to Annie’s Canyon? Which route did you take? If you have not been yet, would that be a spot you would like to visit? In the meantime, do not forget to come back next week as the 52 in 52 series continues with another easy family-friendly trail in the San Diego County Area!