Hiking through Horsethief Canyon near the town of Alpine, California, it’s clear why the spot has long been popular among outlaws. Tucked among the chaparral-covered mountains of Pine Creek Wilderness, in Cleveland National Forest, the oak groves, streams and cool valleys offer seclusion and a reprieve from the dry, rugged terrain.
Back in the late 1800s, thieves used to keep their stolen horses here before taking them across the Mexican boarder, just to the south. More recently, the area has been used by illegal immigrants and smugglers. Because of this, the Forest Service encourages hikers and equestrians to stay on Espinosa Trail and Pine Creek Trail, the two major paths in Pine Creek Wilderness, and to hike in a group.
The most popular hike here is a 1.6 mile up-and-back that takes you along the Espinosa Trail down into Horsethief Canyon to a large pool and small waterfalls Pine Valley Creek. The hike starts along a forest service Route 16SO4, and turns right onto Espinosa Trail after less than a quarter mile.
Even in winter, this can be a hot area and the pool is a nice cool place to sit and listen to the gurgle of the stream. Just downstream of the pool is a flat grassy grove that is perfect for overnight camping (with a permit from the Forest Service). The best times for hiking here are in the winter and spring, when the flowers are blooming and the temperatures reasonable.
From the pool, you can bushwhack upstream along the creek, where it squeezes through the increasingly narrow canyon. Heading downstream along Pine Valley Creek is easy walking and offers even more seclusion. Watch out for poison ivy and rattlesnakes.
To get to the parking area for the hike, get off Route 8 at the Tavern Road exit, about 30 miles east of downtown San Diego. Head southeast on Tavern Road, which will become Japatul Road, for about 10 miles. Turn right at Lyon’s Gate Road. The Forest Service Parking lot will be on your left in 1.6 miles.