Cuyamaca Peak and Conejos Trail (Cuyamaca Rancho State Park)

20141116CuyamacaPeak_DSC1212-EditCuyamaca Peak is the second highest peak in San Diego County, topping out at 6512 feet. It’s distinctive shape, like a cresting wave, is a familiar landmark that can be seen from atop many of the peaks throughout San Diego. Add in the fact that its extremely easy to get to, and has a convenient paved road leading to the top, and you have a must-do trek for any serious hiker in San Diego.

The Lookout Fire Road, which leads from Paso Picacho campground to Cuyamaca’s summit, also has the rare distinction of being one of the few hikes in the park where dogs are allowed. It’s certainly not the easiest climb in the county at 1700 feet, and the route his hot and exposed during the summer. Make sure the weather is cool, you have lots of extra water, and your pup is in proper shape before you lead him up the mountain.

If you’re bringing your dog or just interested in bagging the peak, you’ll go up the fire road and then come back down the same way, for a 5 mile out and back. We decided to take a longer, but more scenic route down the mountain because that’s just how we roll… er, hike.

We arrived at the campground, paid our fee at the entrance, and parked in the day use lot. From here, we made our way to the southern end of the campground, and found the path leading to our the trailhead just across from camp site #69. Its a bit of a walk from the day use parking, but the campground is a beautiful area filled with tall pine trees and chirping birds so it made for a very pleasant stroll.
Finding the trail head to Cuyamaca Peak

We walked a short ways along the dirt path until we reached the paved Lookout Fire Road and turned right. This road would take us all the way to the peak. Like most fire roads, it was steep, and we began climbing almost immediately.
The Lookout Fire Road

This area was badly hit by the 2003 Cedar Fire, and the devastation was noticeable all around us. Burnt remains of trees lined the trail sides and just about everywhere outside the immediate vicinity of the campground.
Surveying damage from the 2003 wildfires

A few oak trees seem to have survived, but most of the vegetation around us was thick chaparral and impenetrable tangles of ceanothus.
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Here and there, we did notice the occasional pine sapling, some as high as 8-10′ tall.
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At .17 mile, the West Side Trail crossed the fire road, disappearing into the thick ceanothus on either side of us. We continued climbing the paved road.
Intersection with the West Side Trail

We paused periodically to take in our surroundings. Behind us, Stonewall Peak rose majestically.
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At .3 miles we passed an unsigned dirt road that branched off to the right, beckoning for further exploration. Perhaps another day.
An unsigned dirt road

As we continued to climb, we noticed that the small pine trees along the hillside disappeared, and the ceanothus took over. We huffed and puffed up the steep incline, our ankles and calves strongly protesting the gross injustice we were subjecting them to. At .75 miles, the trail leveled out briefly but mercifully.
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At .83 miles we passed the Azalea Spring Fire Road on our right, and our path began to climb steeply again. On the left side of the trail were some benches cut out of old logs, offering a bit of respite for weary hikers.An inviting rest stop along the road to Cuyamaca Peak

A little past 1 mile, we caught a glimpse of Cuyamaca Lake to the north. The effect of the drought was evident as we gazed at the tiny puddle-like lake.
Cuyamaca Lake was very dry due to the drought

At 1.25 mile the trail leveled out and descended ever so briefly across a wet patch of pavement. A spring on the left side of the trail was draining into the washed out patch of asphalt, creating a small pool. Birds hopped in the puddle and flit through the nearby bushes.
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Again the road climbed steeply upwards. The chaparral surrounding the trail begins was lower growing, and we started to see a wider variety of plants. Once again, small pine saplings made an appearance along the trail.
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Around 1.75 miles we reached what appeared to be the edge of the severe fire damage. Full grown pines and cedars towered above us providing the first shade along the trail since we left the campground.
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At 1.93 miles we reached another intersection – to our left was the Burnt Pine Connector trail, and to the right was the Conejos trail. We’d be taking the Conejos trail on our way down, but for now we continued up the paved road to the summit.

Just around a bend in the road we found a wide dirt path on the right leading to a scenic overview complete with bench. We could just make out the distinctive form of El Cajon Mountain, but everything else was a bit difficult to distinguish through the day’s haze.
View from overlook near the top of Cuyamaca Peak

We continued on, our destination close at hand. We passed another junction for the Burn Pine Trail on our left. The road made a few more switchbacks, winding up through the trees. Suddenly, as I looked up to the left, I saw an antenna poking up through the trees and knew we were almost there.
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We followed the pavement to its end at 2.57 miles. There were a couple of buildings and many antennae occupying the top of the mountain, making it difficult to determine the actual “peak”, but we did discover a survey marker in the ground at the very end of the pavement. We wandered around the top of the mountain, surveying the vast landscape around us. The hazy weather made for less than ideal viewing conditions.
More hazy views from Cuyamaca Peak

It was considerably colder and windier at the top than it had been even just a little bit down the road, so we snapped a few quick pictures and headed back down the road.
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We retraced our route back to the Conejos trail junction we noted on our way up. Turning left, we abandoned the paved fire road and found ourselves on a proper single track dirt trail with trees towering above us and pine needles and cones scattered along the ground.
The Conejos trail

Around 3.5 miles the trail emerged from the cover of trees, as we reentered a recovering burn area.
More fire damage can be seen along the Conejos trail

Before long we found ourselves amidst a grove of pine saplings that converged along the trail. The trees were jammed so close together it was almost like walking through a Christmas tree lot. This will be quite the forest in another 20 or 30 years!
Thick groves of pine saplings along the Conejos trail

The pines began to thin out somewhat as the trail descended the northern flank of Cuyamaca Peak. The soil and rocks were an amazingly deep deep red. We had a great view of Middle Peak, with North Peak poking out behind.
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The trail switchbacked down the mountain, and by 4.8 miles we were back in thick chaparral with dead burnt trees poking through.
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At just under 5 miles we reached the Azalea Spring Fire Road and turned right.
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The road immediately began to ascend, but after the trek to the peak we barely slowed for this mild climb.
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At 5.43 miles we found the branch for the Azalea Glen trail to our left. We could have stayed on the fire road for a slightly shorter trek back to the campground, but decided to take the more intimate trail and turned left.
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The trail was rocky and travelled gradually downhill. We found more tall chaparral, burnt trees, and gorgeous red soil.
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By 6.2 miles we began to see small cedar trees growing again, and could hear the unfamiliar sound of running water to our left. As we continued, we encountered increasingly lush growth, and were soon among full size cedars. To our left we could now see the unnamed creek we had heard earlier, and were delighted to find a respectable flow of water considering how little rain we’d had at this point.
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We made our way down to the creek’s edge to admire the water as it trickled down the rocks.
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After exploring the creek we continued on through the cool, dark woods. We headed uphill for a brief stretch before emerging from the trees into an open, grassy area surrounded by oaks. Once again, the prominent form of Stonewall Peak could be seen rising in the distance.
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At 6.73 miles we passed a cluster of oak trees with some large, flat boulders beneath and noticed a bunch of morteros (grinding holes) in the rock. With the nearby creek and cool, shady oaks around us, it was easy to see why the Kumeyaay would choose this spot for an outdoor kitchen.
Kumeyaay morteros at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park

At 6.83 miles the trail crossed a tiny spring and just beyond was a junction with the California Riding and Hiking Trail on our left. We continue right along the Azalea Glen trail.
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As we crested a small rise, we found an absolutely devastated burn area laid out before us. Apparently, this was the result of a recent controlled burn by the Park. As we surveyed the scorched earth around us, it dawned on me that the charred stumps and blackened trunks sticking out of the hillside bore a striking resemblance to a page from The Lorax.
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As we hiked on though, it became apparent that someone did in fact care a whole awful lot, for we found a number of tiny seedlings that had obviously been deliberately planted. Perhaps someday, these hills would once again be covered in towering pine trees.
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At just over 7 miles passed a branch for the Paso Picacho Loop trail to the left. Continuing straight we soon came to a small wooden bridge, and were on the homeward stretch back to the campground.
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We encountered one more trail split, both sides labeled “Azalea Glen.” The left fork was marked as heading towards the “To Park Entry,” while the right fork said “To Paso Picacho Camp.” In retrospect, the left fork probably would have brought us back to the parking lot, but we were a little unsure, so took the right fork back towards the campground.
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We soon reached the end of the major burn zone and found lots of full size trees as we approached the campground.
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A short stroll through the trees took us to the end of the Azalea Glen trail, and we found ourselves back in the campground near campsite #79.
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Directions:
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 about 9 more miles to Paso Picacho campground on the left. Pay the parking fee at the kiosk and park in the Day Use parking on the right. map

Total Distance: 7.5 miles
Difficulty: Moderately Strenuous
Total Ascent: 2976 feet
Dog Friendly: Dogs are only allowed on the paved fire road section of this hike
Bike Friendly: Bikes are not allowed on all trail sections of this hike
Facilities: Bathrooms and water available at campground
Fees/Permits: $10 per vehicle parking fee

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