Hike into the Pine Creek Wilderness east of Alpine for a look at Secret Canyon

The ambitiously constructed Secret Canyon Trail, circuitously nosing its way down the canyon walls of Pine Valley Creek for 14 miles, traverses nearly the entire length of the Pine Creek Wilderness in Cleveland National Forest. Vehicles are banned from the area, so the trail bears only the footprints of boots and running shoes, the imprints of horseshoes, and the occasional discarded piece of litter of across-the-border origin. The migration of illegal aliens traveling northward though the wilderness area has been greatly stemmed over the past couple of years, but in fact this activity likely goes a long way toward keeping open a pathway that otherwise would be overgrown by chaparral in a mere year or two.

On a recent Saturday-morning reconnaissance of the south end of the Secret Canyon Trail, my companion and I ran into just three other travelers -- a young couple jogging and a man sitting on the bank of Pine Valley Creek reading and sunning himself in the altogether.

Begin your exploration at the forest-service trailhead at mile 16.4 on Lyons Valley Road. This is 1.5 miles south of Japatul Road and about 10 miles southeast of Alpine. You'll need a National Forest Adventure Pass ($5 daily, $30 yearly) to merely park at the trailhead. A wilderness permit is required for overnight backpacking. Call 619-445-6235 for more information.

From the trailhead parking lot walk north past a gate for about 300 yards, and then veer right through a pipe gate and follow what is known as the Espinosa Trail. A fast, 400-foot elevation loss takes you to oak-lined Horsethief Canyon, where you bend right and follow the canyon's trickling brook toward Pine Valley Creek. Crossing the creek itself at 1.5 miles (which may prove to be foot-wetting if our expected winter rains actually arrive), you pick up the eastward-ascending Espinosa Trail on the far side. Walk a short distance up that slope and then veer left on the unsigned Secret Canyon Trail.

Now you traverse, with little elevation gain, the dry, east canyon wall of Pine Valley Creek, reaching after some 30 minutes the oak-draped-ravine-with-trickling-stream called Secret Canyon. Lou Stein's San Diego County Place Names notes that "This folk-type name designation in Descanso district implies a site that is not readily accessible." And so it was before the trail was pushed through here in 1992.

You might want to turn back where you first strike Secret Canyon's creek, retracing your steps to the trailhead. Or you can spend another 40 minutes following the trail north toward the canyon's uppermost reach. My companion and I opted to exit via the brush-choked lower end of Secret Canyon and thence through the canyon of Pine Valley Creek. This pleasantly engaging mini-adventure earned us both a week's worth of poison-oak rash

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