Kelley’s Ditch Trail is a trail through a remote park of the Cuyamaca Mountains that connects Cuyamaca State Park and William Heise County Park. The route travels through forests incinerated by the 2003 Cedar Fire along the west slopes of North Peak before dropping down into Heise Park. The views, though partially obstructed by dead trees, are excellent, and the solitude is superb. This hike is best taken as a point-to-point shuttle hike as it would be tedious going to hike the full trail there and back.
10 years ago on 10/25/2013, a lost hunter lit a signal fire in order to help rescuers find him. Santa Ana winds picked up the flame and it rapidly spread into the surrounding brush. Before its containment nearly 10 days later, the Cedar Fire had burned 280,000 acres of land, including the forests of Cuyamaca State Park, making it the most destructive fire in California history.
10 years after this forest was left a smoldering, blackened ruin, there are signs of a healthy comeback, especially in the more fire-adaptive species such as chaparral, oaks, grasses, and ferns. The conifers of this region, which included cedars, firs, Jeffrey, Coulter, and sugar pines, are staging a much slower comeback, although numerous 10 year old trees dot the landscape where fire-following ceanothus allows enough space and light for sprouting. In another 10-20 years, the oaks will make a pretty substantial recovery. It may take 100 years or more for the coniferous forest to return, if it returns at all.
Kelley’s Ditch Trail is a great place to witness the rebirth of all of this vegetation. The trail itself travels on an old ditch that was engineered to collect water draining from the west slope of north peak. This water was diverted into the Cuyamaca Reservoir, but was left abandoned many years ago. Evidence of the ditch remains, as the trail actually lies in the ditch for the first 2 miles. However, this ditch won’t be shuttling any water any time soon as plants and trees have reverted the construction to a wild and primitive state.
The going on this trail is relatively slow, as it is frequently overgrown and blocked by fallen trees. That gives the trail a wild, adventurous character not commonly found on the trails in Cuyamaca, which are usually well-maintained outside of Harper Canyon. I hiked this from the Reservoir heading north to William Heise Park, which I recommend since the climbing is less substantial and the grade is much easier compared to taking this route in a North to South direction.
After reaching the border of Heise Park and descending into a narrow ravine with a trickling stream, I took an extra side trip along the Cedar Trail, which added about 3/4’s of a mile to the trip. The Cedar Trail includes a dense thicket of incense cedars growing along the headwaters of Cedar Creek. This parcel of land was hit by the Cedar Fire, but the damage was relatively slight due to the abundance of water in the area. Deciduous riparian plants here put on quite a color show.
The Cedar Trail eventually spit me out into a loop of the Heise Park Campground, through which I walked to return to my car and make my way back home. This hike capped off a wild 27 miles of hiking over two days. My muscles are still a little stiff, but I can’t complain. Late October in the San Diego mountain areas is a beautiful time.