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Troubled trail? Tour groups on La Jolla trail to Black’s Beach draw concerns

Ho Chi Minh Trail hiker Emily Miller says she worries about the effects of tour groups on plants and other surroundings.
Frequent Ho Chi Minh Trail hiker Emily Miller says she worries about the effects of tour groups on plants and other surroundings along the trail.
(Emily Miller)

A local guide’s offering of tours along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in La Jolla has raised issues about safety, proper permitting and care of the trail.

The Ho Chi Minh Trail, also called the Saigon Trail, begins across from 9883 La Jolla Farms Road and descends to Black’s Beach on what hiking website All Trails calls a “challenging” route.

“Use extreme caution when on this trail,” the site’s description reads. “Many ledges are slippery and unsafe. This is a fairly technical trail that includes a lot of rock scrambling and maneuvering through rock canyons.”

“Incredible Slot Canyons to the Pacific” is a guided tour posted on travel sites including Airbnb, Tripadvisor, Travelocity and Marriott Bonvoy.

The tour, hosted by Victor Runco, also is offered through his website, San Diego Tours, Experiences & Adventures.

Ho Chi Minh Trail
According to hiker Emily Miller, the woman pictured identified herself as a guide for the “Incredible Slot Canyons to the Pacific” tour and tied a rope to some trees on the trail to help tour patrons descend from the canyon walls.
(Emily Miller)

The tour runs in the mornings (it also has a currently sold-out sunset option) and costs $49 to $57. It’s described on Airbnb as a descent into “an incredible slot canyon with opportunities for one-of-a-kind photos and breathtaking views of the sparkling Pacific Ocean.”

The travel sites have hundreds of positive reviews of the tour.

But the volume of participants and the nature of the tour have alarmed Emily Miller, a former La Jolla resident who recently moved to Oceanside but returns often to hike the trail.

Miller said she has seen the “Incredible Slot Canyons” tour twice.

The first time, she saw a woman leading a group of seven or eight people “who were decked out with some kind of grippy handwear like fingerless gloves. She had a rope [and] she tied it around some trees and was helping people descend from the canyon walls,” Miller said.

Another time, Miller said, the woman asked her to leave a particular viewpoint so her tour patrons could take photos alone.

Miller said the woman identified herself as a guide for the “Incredible Slot Canyons to the Pacific” tour. The tour lists Runco and Shelley (last name not given) as guides.

Miller told the La Jolla Light that she is concerned about the effect on plants and other surroundings of large groups frequenting the trail, adding that the groups she saw went off-trail both times.

“It’s the same sensitive ecosystem as the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, without the protection and the maintenance and the regulation,” she said.

Runco told the Light that “as an outdoors person who cares about the environment, the last thing I would do or see is someone littering or desecrating our open spaces.” He added that he often removes trash from the trail.

Miller also wondered about the possible danger of the tour bringing hiking novices to the trail, given its challenges.

Monica Muñoz, media services manager for the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, said there were 57 cliffside rescues at Black’s Beach in 2021.

“Anecdotally, we would estimate three-fourths of the rescues at Black’s Beach as a whole are on the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” Muñoz said. “It is a very dangerous trail, and most people are rescued because they sustained an injury where they needed to be carried out or flown out via helicopter.”

Muñoz added that the fire department does not monitor tours on the trails or enforce rules related to them.

A sign at the Ho Chi Minh trailhead lists city of San Diego regulations for use of the property.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

A sign posted at the trailhead lists city of San Diego regulations for use of the property, but city spokesman Tim Graham said the “Saigon Trail/Ho Chi Minh Trail is not an officially recognized or developed city trail and we do not maintain or perform any upkeep on it.”

Since it is not an official trail, he added, “there would be no necessity to obtain a permit to use it.” However, he said a business tax certificate would be needed to collect fees for service provided on public property.

Runco said he is “in compliance with all city and county rules and regulations and am fully insured.”

But city spokeswoman Racquel Vasquez said Runco “does not have an active business tax certificate with the city of San Diego” for himself, “Incredible Slot Canyons to the Pacific” or San Diego Tours, Experiences & Adventures. His business tax accounts for previous ventures in San Diego were canceled in 2010, 2013 and 2018, Vasquez said.

Runco did not answer questions about that issue.

Airbnb, which says it does not “endorse or warrant the existence, conduct, performance, safety, quality, legality or suitability” of any host or host service, offers information about using public land for tours.

“Airbnb encourages hosts to think carefully about their responsibilities and how to be a responsible host, including by reviewing and complying with all local licensing requirements and rules,” said public policy and communications representative Liz DeBold Fusco. ◆