Last Sunday (11/23), I took a trip out to Cuyamaca Rancho State Park to take a look at trail conditions up along the Cuyamaca Crest. I heard about an SDG&E project that was blocking access to the summit, which was of interest given Cuyamaca Peak’s inclusion into the San Diego Six Pack of Peaks. I also planned to re-scout a handful of trails to determine possible alternate routes that can get people up to the summit area without treading on closed trails or walking on a tedious fire road.
Lookout Fire Road Closed
Per the regional State Park Superintendent, Lookout Fire Road between Paso Picacho Campground and the summit will remain closed at least through Spring of 2020 – and possibly beyond. SDG&E appears to be tearing up the road to install new powerlines, and although the road was in tact when I hiked through, it may not be so for long.
If you’re thinking of bagging the peak despite the closure, be aware that SDG&E personnel will be up there most days of the week, and they will turn you back. Besides, if the road gets torn up, there won’t be many places to hike, so it may not be worth it to attempt the peak until after the closure gets lifted. However, I will note that this hike is very beautiful even if you don’t bag the peak; I skip the peak 3 out of 4 times that I come up here. But if you’re in it for the peak-bagging, best to hold off.
The Hual Cu Cuish (start of Milk Ranch Road) staging area is also closed, which means you won’t be able to use Milk Ranch Road to hike up to the start of the Conejos Trail (more on that later).
Hiking to the Peak
Most people hike to Cuyamaca Peak via the fire road. This steep, paved trail is noteworthy primarily in that it’s the only route in the park that allows dogs. However, that’s about the best you can say for it, other than perhaps that the fire road gets you up there the fastest.
Of course, the fire road is closed, making all of that moot. If you are interested in hiking up to the top – minus the peak, of course – here are two possible alternate route sthat delivers much of what makes hiking around Cuyamaca Peak so fun. Here’s a link to Caltopo with a custom GPX track that you can use for reference.
The West Mesa/Monument Route
From the West Mesa Trailhead, follow West Mesa Fire Road southeast past a long, narrow meadow for 1.2 miles. Turn right onto the West Mesa Trail, and continue climbing through a ravine until reaching a side path leading to the Airplane Monument. The monument commemorates a plane crash some 80 years ago, and from the spot you get a nice view north toward Stonewall Peak.
Beyond the Monument, the West Mesa Trail makes a sharp switchback (keep right at the Monument Trail) before climbing along pine-studded Airplane Ridge. Views south toward San Diego and Baja California open up at 2.8 miles, marking the beginning of a delightful stretch of hiking. The thick groves of Coulter pines along this route indicate that at least some of Cuyamaca’s conifers are making a robust comeback from the 2003 Cedar Fire, which burned almost all of the coniferous forest in the park.
At 3.2 miles, turn right to remain on the West Mesa Trail as it traverses a grassy meadow below Japacha Peak. After the trail finishes crossing the meadow, turn left onto the Burnt Pine Trail, which commences a series of gently graded switchbacks through stately black oaks spared from the Cedar Fire. Views here are outstanding, and the fall color can be quite good in early November.
The Burnt Pine Trail leaves the grassy meadows and oaks behind as it enters dense chaparral before passing Japacha Peak at 5.2 miles. From there, the trail turns north toward Cuyamaca Peak, passing through more patches of dense forest that escaped the Cedar Fire.
At 6 miles, keep left at a junction with the Conejos Trail (a possible alternative that cuts straight across to Lookout Fire Road and a continuation of the Conejos Trail to the north). The Burnt Pine Trail comes to an end at Lookout Fire Road at 6.8 miles. If the road to the summit is open, turn left and continue on a short, steep climb to the top.
All-in-all, this longer, out-and-back route covers 14.4 miles and gains 2,300 feet of elevation gain. You can also fashion a less-than-enthralling return loop once Lookout Fire Road re-opens by heading down the fire road, and then turning right onto Fern Flat Fire Road. Fern Flat will take you all the way back to West Mesa Fire Road and then back to the trailhead.
Azalea Glen-Conejos Route
This alternate route covers some of the prettiest parts of the park, including a picturesque meadow rife with morteros, a pleasant jaunt along a trickling stream, and a rocky climb along Cuyamaca Peak’s north shoulder. At 9.2 miles and 2300 feet of gain, it’s a more robust alternative to the fire road approach, and it’s far more scenic as well.
From Paso Picacho Campground’s day-use parking area ($10 fee required), follow the beginning of the Azalea Glen Trail northwest, and continue past a junction with the California Riding and Hiking Trail at 0.8 mile. Just beyond, you pass a meadow highlighted by a large granite slab pockmarked by morteros (circular grinding holes). The semi-nomadic Kumeyaay used this and many other sites in this area for summer residence, and the grinding holes attest to their activity in preparing their food.
At 1.1 miles, the trail turns to the west and follows a cool, shaded course through recovering forest along Azalea Creek. The eponymous flower grows along the banks, blossoming in June. The short stretch along the creek is quite pleasing, but it comes to an end with a rocky climb up to Azalea Spring through a dense corridor of ceanothus and dead trees. This climb ends at 2.2 mile at a junction with Azalea Spring Fire Road. Turn right, and continue north for another half mile to a junction with the Conejos Trail. Turn left.
The Conejos Trail winds up the north shoulder of Cuyamaca Peak on a steep, twisting, and very rocky tread. As you climb, the views across Lake Cuyamaca and north toward the Palomar, San Jacinto, and San Gorgonio Mountains impress, but you’ll have to pay a lot of attention to where you put your feet thanks to the rocks. The rocky section ends at 3.6 mile at an open meadow featuring jaw-dropping views east across Cuyamaca Meadows and beyond to the high peaks of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
At 3.9 miles, the trail levels out somewhat as it passes through another unburnt parcel of forest. The Conejos Trail reaches Lookout Fire Road at 4.2 miles, and from there you keep right to follow the road the rest of the way to the peak.