Cuyamaca Rancho State Park is home to an extensive network of trails that can be cobbled together into any number of different hikes. This loop combines several of those trails (Harvey Moore, Dyar Spring, Juaquapin, and the East Side Trail) to visit a variety of different habitats including chaparral hillsides, grassy meadows, and riparian stream sides. There is plenty of opportunity to spot wildlife as well – turkey and deer are quite common, and the occasional coyote might be spotted if you’re quiet.
We began from the Sweetwater parking area right off of Highway 79. The trailhead was on the eastern edge of the parking lot.
We turned right and began following the trail gently uphill.
At .14 miles the East Side Trail branched off to the right. We continued uphill to the left on the Harvey Moore Trail.
The trail climbed steeply through the oaks and blooming ceanothus. There was some pretty significant erosion in places, but it was easy enough to traverse.
We climbed steadily until about .65 mile where the trail leveled out. Brush covered in tiny white flowers lined the trail.
Around .9 mile the Oak Trail leading to the East Mesa Fire Road led off to the right. We continued straight along the Harvey Moore Trail.
We wound through more blooming shrubs and tangled oaks. The occasional pine tree could be seen poking up through the brush. At 1.22 mile we came upon another junction – the Pine Trail branched off to the left, bisecting the much longer loop we were taking. We continued straight along the Harvey Moore Trail.
We continued up the chaparral covered hill. Soon we had some great views open up, showing Cuyamaca Peak, Middle Peak, and Stonewall Peak in the distance.
We also spotted a friendly Turkey Vulture soaring above us.
We found a few sections of trail that were wet and muddy as a result of the unusually wet winter. Small vernal pools had formed along the trail and were draining onto the path.
We continued a gradual ascent, happy that the weather was pleasantly cool as there was little shade to be had.
At 2.22 miles, we came upon a “T” junction where a bunch of downed wood surrounded the trail. We left the Harvey Moore Trail, turning left onto the Dyar Spring Trail.
The first short section of trail had eroded badly, requiring us to skirt alongside the edge of the trail.
We came upon another enormous vernal pool that had formed right alongside the trail.
We were excited to see it was teeming with tadpoles, and did our best to step carefully across the wet section of trail as tadpoles were swimming across it.
Just beyond the boggy pool, we spotted a rabbit hiding in the bushes. It froze as we passed, trying to remain unnoticed.
The trail meandered along, winding through grassy fields and patches of thick, tangled brush. Tall oak trees occasionally poked up along the hillside.
Around 2.6 miles we reached the edge of East Mesa. The brush and trees began to disappear, giving way to an immense grassy plain. We kept our eyes and ears peeled for wildlife. We have often seen turkeys lurking under the trees that line the meadow, and deer or coyotes would not be unusual.
We made our way along the narrow path that through the grass. While we didn’t see any wildlife, we had some lovely views of Stonewall Peak in the distance.
We found some more muddy, sloggy patches that we had to pass through.
Around 3.17 miles we finally reached Dyar Spring. A pipe fed horse trough was half buried in the grass, and there were more muddy sections of trail to slog through.
Just beyond the spring was a beautiful, shady patch of oaks overhanging mounds of granite boulders. A metal hitching post stood just off the trail. It was a perfect place to sit down for a few minutes and enjoy a snack while taking in the quiet solitude of our surroundings.
Back on the trail, we passed between the oak grove and the grassy field as we left the open expanse of East Mesa.
We had one more wet section of trail to traverse as we left the mesa and transitioned to the hillsides above Juaquapin Creek.
From the trail on the hillside we gained some great views of the valley below.
As the trail wrapped around the hill, the slopes turned purple with blooming ceanothus.
We followed the trail down the hill, and at 3.65 miles came to a “T” junction and turned left onto the Juaquapin Trail.
From here, we descended gently through more brush and oak trees, noting the occasional charred remains of a tree trunk.
We came to the valley floor and briefly passed along the edge of another grassy meadow.
We then passed through more oaks and onto a chaparral covered hillside. From here we descended further along a narrow, rocky trail.
At 4.4 miles we came to another “T” junction where we found the other end of the Pine Trail. We continued straight, staying on the Juaquapin Trail.
The trail continued gradually downhill through thick growth. There were more patches of blooming ceanothus to brighten up the trail.
At 4.85 miles we encountered another “T” junction. To our left, the East Side Connector Trail led back towards the parking area. You can take this branch for a shorter return route (approximately 1.2 miles less), and it is in fact the route recommended in Afoot and Afield. We were in the mood for a slightly longer hike, however, so continued straight.
We continued downhill through the thick brush.
At 5.28 miles we came to a “Y” junction where the Juaquapin Trail ended as it met the East Side Trail. We turned left, heading towards our starting point at the Sweetwater Parking area.
From here it was a long, relatively flat stretch that paralleled the course of the Sweetwater River on our right. Another advantage to taking this longer route was an increased chance of spotting wildlife, as we had spotted deer, coyote, and turkey near the river here on several previous excursions.
We followed the trail across more wide, grassy fields, until we came to a crossing of Dyar Creek at a little over 6 miles. Once again we found far more water than we were accustomed to seeing in the area, thanks to the plentiful winter rains.
Just beyond the creek was the other end of the Connector Trail. We continued straight for the final stretch back to our car.
We passed through more oaks and even a few sparse pine trees, many of which appeared to have suffered some fire damage. There were also some small saplings that appeared to part of a reforestation effort.
Then we noticed some movement on the grassy hillside to our right. Finally, we found some turkeys!
The turkeys got nervous as we got nearer, and decided they needed to be on the hill on the other side of us immediately. We watched excitedly as they flew in front of us and disappeared into the brush.
From there it was just a short stroll back to the parking area.
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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 4.9 miles to the large Sweetwater parking area on your right. map
||Dogs not allowed
||Bikes not allowed
For more information, visit:
California State Parks – Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
View route or download GPX from CalTopo