Volcan Mountain is a prominent, rolling, oak-studded peak just north of Julian. Its rolling flanks are covered with wildflowers in spring, and its trees turn gold in the fall. The peak also features a great mixture of views, with Anza-Borrego to the east and the San Diego coastline to the west.
Elevation Gained: 1,200
Difficulty: Moderately Strenuous
On the second day of my jaunt at Cuyamaca, Taylor and I packed up our tents and headed north to the town of Julian. Just past Julian on Farmer Road are two excellent open space preserves – Santa Ysabel and Volcan Mountain. Both of these preserves feature lush, pastoral wild lands that look like they are out of one of the “happy cows come from California” commercials.
Whereas most of San Diego is rocky and shrubby, this place is all soft edges, grass, and oak trees. The few rocks here and there serve as punctuation for carpets of grass that ripples in the breeze. Miners lettuce grows underneath old knotty oaks and wildflowers occupy the sunny spots, particularly during a wet year (which this one is most definitely not).
The trail starts out as a no-nonsense chug up a fire road. After passing through the ornate wooden trail gate, the trail basically goes up and up until it flattens out a bit before reaching the gate that leads to the summit. There is a second trail, the Five Oaks Trail, that parallels this fire road, but that trail is best left for the return journey since it is more scenic, and it meanders liberally. It’s always best to get the climb out of the way.
After hoping over the locked gate that guards the summit trail, Taylor and I made our way up the last climb through a gentle slope covered in yellow-white wildflowers. This is as dramatic a display of wildflowers as I’ve seen in San Diego all year, and it appears to occur successfully even if there isn’t much rain. This is a lovely section of trail, especially since the views to the west open up. Right through this area, you’ll also see the ruins of a temporary site that astronomers set up to determine where they would house the Hubbel telescope. They ultimately put it on Palomar, but this section was considered for a time.
At the summit, you will find a small loop that allows one to enjoy views west and east. The contrast between the topography that the mountain divides is stark and dramatic. The west side is rolling hills and oaks. The east side is craggy peaks and beige desert. It’s a lesson in slope effect, in which mountains will soak up the moisture from passing storms and leave little for what’s behind them. As green and lush as Volcan is, the land behind it is dry as a bone.
After Taylor and I enjoyed a light lunch of hummus, pita chips, and blood oranges on a thoughtfully-provided bench overlooking Julian, we headed back through the Five Oaks Trail. I only counted four oaks, but I guess I wasn’t looking carefully enough. This trail meanders through oak woodlands that are mostly dominated by black oaks, but also feature canyon, coast, shrub, and presumably one other oak. This section is much more relaxing than the straight-forward fire road, and it’s a nice way to unwind on the way down.