Cactus Hill Loop

Sweetwater Summit Regional Park has 15 miles of trails to explore, open to hikers, bikers and equestrians. The nearby Sweetwater Reservoir provides a scenic backdrop to the park’s rolling grass-covered hills. The park is also prime territory for vernal pools – temporary pools of water that form only during the wet season and provide important habitat for endangered and threatened species like the San Diego fairy shrimp.

There’s a considerable trail system to explore around the park – the California Riding and Hiking Trail passes through, and its actually possible to connect from here to the Steele Canyon Bridge at the neighboring San Diego National Wildlife Refuge. Today however, we were going to a comparatively modest 5.2 mile loop to the Cactus Hill Viewpoint, where a wooden shade structure known as the “Tiki Hut” can be found.

The trail began just north of the campground entrance kiosk, behind the firewood storage.

We followed the wide utility road west. A fence ran along our side to the left, and on the other side was another path with some bird watchers. In the distance, the imposing form of Mount Miguel rose up.

Around .12 mile we crossed a road that led to a parking area and reservoir access point on our left. We continued straight as the dirt road turned to gravel.

We followed the road as it passed the rocky edge of the reservoir wall.

A little past .25 mile we came to a “Y” junction. The wide gravel road continued straight, but a small trail marker pointed us to the right along a somewhat narrower trail.

The trail led us to another gravel road crossing. On the far side of the road, another trail marker indicated our path between a chain link fence on the right and a wooden rail fence on the left.

While all the gravel roads and fences weren’t exactly idyllic, it was a quiet, peaceful morning. Birds were chirping and flying about, and the views of the reservoir and mountains in the distance were quite scenic.

Around .65 mile we came to another junction. The trail made a sharp left, while a path straight ahead appeared to lead towards the road. We turned left.

We crossed the first of several wooden footbridges that took us over a dry vernal pool. These don’t look like much during the dry season, just a cracked depression in the dirt, but after some rain they fill with water and are an important and fragile habitat.

The trail made a series of 90-degree turns until the chain link fence finally came to an end. At 1.3 miles, we came to a “Y” junction. A less prominent looking trail continued on the left along the wire fence – this is the direct path to the view point, so if you’re looking for a shorter out and back you’d want to go that way. We took the right fork here for a slightly longer loop.

The trail climbed a short but steep hill.

From the top we had some beautiful views of the reservoir and Dictionary Hill beyond.

The trail bent southeast across the grassy hilltop.

Slowly the trail turned eastward. We could see Mother Miguel Mountain in the distance, with Mount Miguel further beyond.

Around 1.8 miles we came to a “Y” junction and took the left fork.

We headed east until another “T” junction at 2 miles, and turned left again.

We were now heading northwest, traveling gently downhill.

We passed the remnants of an old building and some type of cistern on our left.

There was a small hill in the distance, and as we got closer we began to see the triangular wooden form of the shade structure atop it. This was the “Tiki Hut” we were aiming for.

We followed the trail as it wrapped around the far side of the hill and began to climb.

At the top of the hill was the Tiki Hut with a picnic table, and some fabulous views.

After a quick break to admire the scenery, we followed the trail down the southern side of the hill.

The trail switchbacked down the hillside. Loose rocks and a steep grade made the footing a bit treacherous, and some large stands of pencil cholla along the trail made us particularly leery of slipping.

We descended the hill without incident, and continued along as the trail leveled out and headed for a small copse of trees.

As we got near the trees, an owl, startled by our approach, suddenly flew out of one tree and landed in the thick branches of the larger tree on the right.

We waited around awhile watching him, but he remained hidden in the branches.

We gave up on getting a clear picture of the owl and continued on. The trail turned west, heading towards another hill.

Once again, we had some lovely views of the reservoir.

The trail wound its way up the hill, running alongside the wire fence.

After a few more ups and downs, around 3.85 miles we found ourselves at the start of the loop. From here we turned right, retracing our route back to the campground.

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Take CA-54 to the Briarwood Road exit, head southeast on Briarwood Road. After approximately .6 miles turn left onto Sweetwater Road. Follow Sweetwater Road for approximately .4 miles and turn right onto Bonita Road. Take the next left onto San Miguel Road. Follow San Miguel Road for approximately 1.2 miles and turn left onto Campground Road/Summit Meadow Road. Follow the road up the hill until you see a park with a water play area on your left (Eastview County Park), just before the entrance kiosk for Sweetwater Summit Park and Campground. Turn left and park near the water play area – parking here is free (there is a fee for using the water park facilities). map

Total Distance: 5.2 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Total Ascent: 792 feet
Dog Friendly?: Leashed dogs allowed
Bike Friendly?: Bikes allowed
Facilities: Bathrooms and water near parking lot
Fees/Permits: None

For more information, visit:
View route or download GPX from CalTopo

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