On December 7, 1922, a twin-seat model biplane carrying Col. F.C. Marshall and Lt. C.L. Webber crashed into a ridge near Cuyamaca Peak. Despite extensive searches, the wreckage and pilots’ remains weren’t discovered until May the following year. A monument to the two men was built and today is an interesting bit of history residing in the western portion of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.
There’s a trail leading directly to the Monument (aptly named the Airplane Monument Trail) that you can use for an efficient but steep trek if you’re just interested in seeing the Monument. But we prefer the longer, more meandering route outlined by Jerry Schad in Afoot and Afield San Diego. As with many of the longer loops in Cuyamaca, there’s a lot of junctions and turns to take, so be aware. I highly recommend this Tom Harrison Cuyamaca Rancho State Park trail map if you frequent the park.
Our adventure began at the lage parking area near the Sweetwater Bridge, a little past the Green Valley Falls Campground. From the parking area, we crossed the highway and carefully walked along the road across the bridge. Just north of the bridge where the guardrail ended we found a narrow single track trail and followed it west.
It was just a short way to a “Y” junction where we turned right onto the West Side Connector. From here the trail traveled north through the tall, dry grass, paralleling Highway 79.
The connector trail soon joined up with the main West Side Trail, and we continued north.
At .3 mile we encountered another junction as the West Side Trail forked off to the right. Staying straight we proceeded onto the Japacha Fire Road.
Here we had a modest ascent through the oak trees as the trail turned westward.
The prolific buckwheat was in bloom and numerous bees buzzed lazily among the flowers. There were also large swarms of gnats, which naturally chose my head to orbit.
As we continued we were able to get some fantastic views of the surrounding area.
Around 1.1 miles we began to hear the faint sound of running water as we approached Japacha Creek. The creek was on our right, well below the trail so we couldn’t actually see any water, but thick growth throughout the area confirmed the presence of water.
Around 1.4 miles we crossed Japacha Spring, currently just a damp patch of vegetation.
We started up another small hill heading westward, skirting the edge of a grassy plain.
At 1.65 mile we came to a “T” junction. The West Mesa Fire Road went to the right. We turned right onto the West Mesa Trail towards Airplane Monument.
We passed through some thick swathes of fern, then found ourselves surrounded by tall-growing ceanothus which made for a pleasantly shady stretch.
Around 2.1 miles the ceanothus receded and we found a rocky outcropping on the left. We took a few minutes to check out the view.
Back on the trail we found some tall grass encroaching the trail. Fortunately it didn’t seem to be tick season.
At 2.75 mile we found a “Y” junction with a trail marker directing us to the right for Airplane Monument. We dutifully complied, turning up the hill on the right.
A short uphill climb brought us to a small clearing where we found the monument: an airplane engine mounted on a stone pedestal.
Behind the monument was a stone bench built into the hillside. Honeybees have built a nest inside of the engine however, and even though they seemed pretty mellow, after taking photos and watching a few bees drift in and out of the engine we decided it was best to keep moving.
The trail continued on the far side of the clearing so we headed uphill through more ceanothus and tall grass.
At 2.86 miles we came to a “T” junction and rejoined the West Mesa trail, turning right to continue along the ridge.
Once again the trail was lined by towering ceanothus, but there were some spots where we could enjoy the views, including some glimpses of Stonewall Peak to the northeast.
At 2.93 miles we came to a “Y” junction. To the left, the Airplane Monument Trail headed downhill, back towards our starting point. If you’re looking to cut things short, you can take this more direct route back. We were just getting warmed up, however, so took the right fork heading uphill on the West Mesa Trail.
We enjoyed another section of tall grass and ceanothus as we ascended Airplane Ridge. As we climbed, we started to see some smaller pine trees here and there.Around 3.25 mile the trail began to level out. We were right on the edge of Airplane Ridge which offered some rather stunning views.
We were also treated to the powerful scent of white sage which was flowering.
The trail headed uphill again through enormous buckwheat bushes which encroached upon the trail.
At 3.75 miles we came upon another “Y” junction. The West Mesa Trail continued uphill to the right. We turned left onto the Arroyo Seco Trail.
At 3.85 miles we turned left onto the Fox Trail. You can stay straight and follow the Arroyo Seco Trail as it loops around and reconnects to the other end of the Fox Trail, but we wanted to stick to Schad’s original route.
The Fox Trail (part of the California Riding & Hiking Trail) descended quickly. We passed in and out of shady oak trees and found large patches of more fragrant White Sage.
We also spotted a cooperative Swallowtail who paused for a few moments so we could get some pictures.
Towards the bottom of the hill we passed through a wide grass area.
At 4.62 miles we reconnected with the Arroyo Seco Trail and turned left, heading towards the Arroyo Seco Trail Camp.
At 4.75 miles we came upon the campground. It looked like there are about 3 campsites here, plus a spot for horses and some bathrooms. Arroyo Seco Fire Road was on the right, winding through the campground, and we continued on it.
We followed the wide dirt fire road through the campground and continued south. It was starting to get pretty warm out, and there wasn’t much in the way of shade.
Around 5.3 miles the South Boundary Fire Road branched off on the right. We continued straight on the Arroyo Seco Fire Road.
We found a little more shade as we continued.
We also saw a lot more blooming buckwheat, brightening up the side of the road.
Around 6 miles we left the fire road, turning left onto the West Side Trail towards the Monument Trail.
We had a short uphill stretch that was a bit of a shock to the system after the easy, flat fire road we’d been enjoying for the past mile.
But the trail soon leveled out again, and we once again found ourselves in the midst of tall growing ceanothus.
At 6.4 miles we came to another junction. The right fork led to the Green Valley Campground, we turned left to continue on the West Side Trail.
Another tenth of a mile and a short uphill brought us to the next junction where the Monument Trail rejoined the West Side Trail. We continued straight on the West Side Trail towards Highway 79.
We descended a bit towards the bank of the Sweetwater River and found much denser foliage. The highway was on the far side of the river, and we started to hear occasional traffic as we hiked.
Right around 7 miles we came to another “Y” junction, with the trail marker almost obscured by the brush. We were just about back to the start however, and turned right heading towards the highway.
From here it was just a short stroll back to the highway and over to the parking lot.
View the full photo gallery
Take I-8 East to the CA-79 N/Japatul Valley Road exit. Turn left and follow 79 north (towards Julian). After 2.7 miles, there is a sharp left to stay on 79 – make sure not to miss this turn (follow signs for 79 and Cuyamaca Rancho State Park). Continue on 79 for 4.9 miles to the large Sweetwater parking area on your right. map
||Dogs not allowed
||Bikes not allowed on all sections of this hike
For more information, visit
California State Parks – Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
View route or download GPX from CalTopo