On Cuyamaca Peak’s southern slopes, a gently rolling meadow overlooks the Laguna Mountains on one end and San Diego on the other. In addition to the views, a hiker might find gently swaying grasses, fluttering oak leaves, a reborn pine forest, and, during fall, a striking mixture of fall colors.
It’s been just over ten years since the Cedar Fire destroyed most of the coniferous vegetation in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. The chaparral has made almost a complete comeback, while a majority of the oaks are either in advanced stages of regrowth or are regenerating from their stumps. Evidence of the fire remains omnipresent, as evidenced by ghostly pillars of trees, stumps, and trunks lying strewn over the ground. However, the post-fire recovery seems nowhere as strong as it does on West Mesa.
The mesa, which is more of a gentle slope, perches on the flank of Cuyamaca Peak across a valley from the wider, flatter East Mesa. East Mesa itself is a fantastic destination, but West Mesa has plenty of its own charms. After the initial climb up a pair of fire roads, the West Mesa Trail winds through a mess of fallen trees and wild regrowth before reaching a contour at 5,200′. The trail, the views, and the vegetation are at their best at this contour, and this section of Cuyamaca State Park is one of the nicest areas in the region.
The West Mesa Trail also passes through one of the few un-burned patches of forest remaining. A sunny, open stand of black oaks, cedars, and pines offer a welcome respite from several miles of recovering vegetation. Hopefully, this whole area will once again look this way, but it will likely take over 100 years and more rainfall than we’ve been getting.
In spite of the sense of sadness that comes with considering the loss of what was such a beautiful habitat, the recovering vegetation is instructive and beautiful in its own way. It was only ten years ago when this slope was a blackened, desolate mess. While many dead trees dot the landscape, new growth is emerging everywhere. Dense thickets of black oak branches cluster around the bases of old trees. Those branches will replace the dead trees in time. 6-10′ tall pine trees cluster in scattered patches, indicated that there will soon be a sunny, open pine woodland here once again. Patches of buckwheat provide splashes of red, while young manzanita displays its polished red bark and sea-green leaves. Nature is a great self-resurrector, and it is well evidenced at West Mesa.
Finally, I recommend this hike on a clear day. There comes a point on the trail where the contour reaches a bend and can go nowhere but down. From this point, a quick jaunt off the main trail onto the mountain’s shoulder reveals encompassing views of San Diego and the mountains to the south. The view isn’t as complete as from the summit of Cuyamaca, but this hike is gentler and more rewarding than that summit hike. This is a good way to get a unique eagle-eye view of downtown.