Cuyamaca Peak (Cuyamaca Rancho State Park)

Cuyamaca Peak, the second highest point in San Diego County, looms tall on the western edge of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. There are many trails and fire roads that can be used to craft different routes up the summit, but the most direct and popular course is to climb the Lookout Fire Road, starting at Paso Picacho Campground. This road, being entirely paved asphalt, is also the only hike in the park that dogs are allowed on.

It had been over a year since we’d last climbed Cuyamaca Peak, when we did a slightly more extensive route combining the peak with the Conejos Trail, and we were hankering for another ascent. We were hoping that the weather would be a bit clearer this time around, as we almost always seemed to hit this trail on cloudy or hazy days. So we headed out early on a weekend morning, hoping for clear skies.

We strolled through the campground towards our starting point on the southern edge. The campground, usually a quiet and peaceful place, was full of large trucks and construction equipment. There was some serious maintenance work going on, including renovating campsites and bathrooms. It was good to see our beloved State Park being taken care of, but at the same time I was grateful we hadn’t chosen this week to go camping.

Across the way from campsite #69 we found our trailhead.20160401_DSC0370CuyamacaPeak

A short dirt path led us to the Lookout Fire Road. The tall pine trees that shaded the campground disappeared, a stark reminder of the 2003 Cedar Fire that dramatically altered the surrounding landscape. When we reached the asphalt road, we turned right to begin our climb.20160401_DSC0372-EditCuyamacaPeak

There were still charred remnants of trees standing along the side of the road. Ceanothus and other chaparral shrubs had grown thick on the hillside, and the occasional pine sapling could be seen.20160401_DSC0376-EditCuyamacaPeak

A little under .2 miles, the West Side Trail crossed the fire road. We pressed on, climbing up the road.20160401_DSC0377-EditCuyamacaPeak

Like most fire roads, this one was designed with vehicles and not hikers in mind, so the ascent was rather steep. We took advantage of the beautiful views as an excuse to pause and catch our breath. Just across the highway behind us, Stonewall Peak rose up.20160401_DSC0379-EditCuyamacaPeak

Around .8 miles we encountered another junction. The Azalea Spring Fire Road branched off to the right, and just beyond the Fern Flat Fire Road led off to the left.20160401_DSC0396CuyamacaPeak

Just past the intersection was a log bench, inviting weary hikers to take a break.20160401_DSC0398CuyamacaPeak

But we continued without stopping. As we continued to gain elevation, our views steadily improved. Soon we could see Lake Cuyamaca to the north, looking considerably less dry and sad than the previous year.20160401_DSC0405-EditCuyamacaPeak

It was a beautiful warm day out, and we were joined on the trail by the occasional butterfly. One finally cooperated by posing on a branch for us.20160401_DSC0420CuyamacaPeak

We also spotted some less desirable Poodle Dog Bush growing deep in the trailside brush. Poodle Dog, like Poison Oak, is a plant that contains oils which cause severe rashes, itching, and other unpleasantness. It was well off the trail though, and we almost didn’t even see it growing amid the other brush. It would be nearly impossible to accidentally come in contact with it on this road.20160401_DSC0687CuyamacaPeak

The condition of the asphalt road deteriorated as we climbed. We’d been noticing spray paint markings on the road as we climbed, obviously a harbinger of some kind of work. Perhaps they’ll be repaving the road soon. Personally, I prefer the post-apocalyptic look, but I guess workers driving up to service the antennae on the summit would disagree.20160401_DSC0426CuyamacaPeak

Around 1.3 miles the road turned to the left, and we started to see an increase in the number of young pines along the road. Someday, this would once again be a shady, forested road.20160401_DSC0435CuyamacaPeak

The views continued to impress.20160401_DSC0534-EditCuyamacaPeak

Even further ahead we found some full grown trees that survived the fire.20160401_DSC0532CuyamacaPeak

Finally, we felt we were in a proper forest.20160401_DSC0542CuyamacaPeak

At 1.8 miles, the Conejos trail crossed the fire road. Just beyond a small use trail led off to the right, where we found a scenic overlook, complete with bench.20160401_DSC0545CuyamacaPeak

The views from here towards San Diego were impressive, but we were expecting even better from the summit.20160401_DSC0593-EditCuyamacaPeak

We continued up the fire road. In the shade of the tall trees, some of the snow that had fallen a day or two previously still blanketed the ground.20160401_DSC0601CuyamacaPeak

The road wound its way up the mountain, and soon we spotted an antenna sticking up through the trees.20160401_DSC0610CuyamacaPeak

We followed the road to the very end, past a handful of buildings. On a clear day, you can see just about everything from here to the ocean. Today was not that kind of day, unfortunately, with a healthy marine layer hiding much of the distant landscape. We still had plenty of view to enjoy, however.20160401_DSC0616CuyamacaPeak

The buildings and antenna at the summit preclude any kind of 360 degree view, and you have to walk around a bit to see all there is to see.20160401_DSC0619-PanoCuyamacaPeak

We found another good sized Poodle Dog Bush near one of the buildings, so keep your eyes open and don’t touch any plants if you’re unsure of what it is.

After taking a break and enjoying the views, we headed back the way we had come.

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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: 5 miles
Difficulty: Moderately Strenuous
Total Ascent: 1539 feet
Dog Friendly?: Leashed dogs allowed (stay on the fire road)
Bike Friendly?: Bikes allowed
Facilities: Bathrooms and water at campground
Fees/Permits: $10 per vehicle parking fee

For more information, visit:
California State Parks – Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
Cuyamaca Rancho State Park Interpretive Association
View route or download GPX in CalTopo

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