El Cajon Mountain, or “El Cap” as its often referred to, is a major landmark in Eastern San Diego. The prominent granite ridge can be easily identified from many of southeastern San Diego’s trails and draws your attention as you drive east on Interstate 8. Located in the the County’s El Capitan Open Space Preserve, the trail up El Cajon Mountain is one of the most challenging in San Diego. It is often frequented by individuals training for adventures such as hiking Mount Whitney or competing in Iron Man triathlons, as well as ambitious day hikers.
The main trail travels over 5 miles along a former mining road through thick chaparral and piles of boulders. In the spring and early summer, numerous flowers brighten the trailside. Hikers often describe this trail as “uphill both ways” due to the numerous steep ups and downs that make the return trip almost as hard as initial outing. At the end of the 5 mile stretch, you’ll find a four-way intersection and choice of two final destinations. The El Cajon Mountain Summit is the most popular choice (no doubt due to it being the highest point), and that is the route described in this write-up. Your other choice is a short climb up the El Capitan Trail to a lesser peak. Remnants of an old, heavily eroded road bed lead straight to the “nose” of the mountain, however this is not a publicly accessible trail. It is owned by the San Diego River Park Foundation, who acquired it as mitigation land, so it is set aside for wildlife conservation.
This hike is best done in the winter when the weather is cool, and if you’re lucky, recent rains will have dampened and compacted the soil, improving your traction. This trail is completely exposed, and it can get extremely hot during the summer months. In fact, the Preserve is closed during the entire month of August due to the high temperatures. Regardless of the season, get an early start so you can beat the heat and make sure you’re back to your car before they lock the parking lot gates at sunset, and carry a minimum of 3 liters of water. Leashed dogs are allowed on the trail, but please consider your pet’s physical condition when deciding whether to bring him along – this is not a trail for the average dog. If you do take your dog, make sure you have LOTS of water for him as well.
The first time I summited El Cajon Mountain, I was completely wrecked for several days afterward. But after repeating the trek on multiple occasions I’m proud to say I can now do this hike and still walk normally the next day! We decided we’d tackle this beast again on Easter morning, so we packed up our chocolate bunnies and headed out to the trailhead.
From parking area, the pain began almost immediately as we trudged uphill along the mix of paved and dirt road. We passed by several private ranches, and tried to be quiet so as not to disturb the residents’ Sunday morning. We quickly warmed up climbing the steep road and knew it was just a taste of what was to come.
Continuing on the wide road we found a sign marked “trail” directing us to turn left. We passed another picnic table where we spotted a rabbit grazing in the grass – the Easter Bunny! He froze when he saw us, and then scampered away when we got close.
From here the trail made a series of switchbacks up the hillside through thick chaparral, with periodic views of the Barona Valley and surrounding areas.
Just shy of 1 mile we encountered an intersection with a wide dirt road. The right branch returns to the trailhead area. We turned left to head towards the mountain.
We passed the 1 mile marker. A small elevation profile sign was attached to the bottom, courtesy of Adventure 16, forewarning us of the steep inclines that awaited us. Shortly after, the Pata Ranch Trail branched off to the right, heading towards Louis A. Stelzer County Park.
The trail bent eastward and we made our way over a few reasonable hills. We’d started out quite early in the morning to avoid the heat. It was still pretty cool, and some low hanging clouds obscured the view of our destination.
But it wasn’t much further until we came to the first of the really steep hills. The first time we had attempted El Cajon Mountain several years ago, this hill had seemed completely insane. We only managed to conquer it by taking numerous breaks on the ascent.
Around 2.6 miles the trail descended steeply as we passed by some of the few oak trees on the trail. A small wooden footbridge spanned a very narrow creek bed, and the trail climbed upward once again.
We continued on, finally stopping for a quick pause when we reached the 3 mile marker. We felt pretty good at our accomplishment so far, but the elevation profile quickly wiped any smug smiles off of our faces. (Note the hiker icon happily traipsing along at a 45 degree angle!)
We trudged up the rocky trail, continuing to put one foot in front of the other. The loose, rocky soil required us to focus the majority of our attention on our footing, lest we misstep and fall or twist an ankle. Trying to hike out of here on an injured limb did NOT sound appealing.
This trail can be an absolute grind if you focus on nothing but getting to the top. Periodically we’d pause for a moment to take in our surroundings. The deep green of the chaparral and paler green of towering white sage bushes were interspersed the enormous white boulders. Patchy grey clouds gave depth to the sky, and the views of the surrounding area were breathtaking.
Before long, however, we began to lose some of the elevation gain we had worked so hard to achieve as the trail descended steeply. The worst part was knowing we’d have to climb back up this gravelly mess on our way out. Our progress slowed again as we carefully made our way down the rocky slope.
Somewhere past mile marker 4 the trail leveled out for a stretch, then began to regain elevation with vengeance. We enjoyed a little bit of shade courtesy of the thick bushes standing between us and the sun. Here, the right hand side of the trail sprouted lush vegetation unlike the dry chaparral that populated most of the mountainside. A small muddy patch and trickle of water running across the trail indicated the presence of a small spring buried somewhere in the dense vegetation.
The trail twisted and turned up the mountain, and we continued to plod uphill. Shortly before 5 miles, we came to a rusted out old jeep that sat on the side of the trail. It’s hard to imagine a vehicle making its way up the rutted, rocky road we’d been hiking on, but I suspect it’s an old remnant of the mountain’s mining days. Now however, it serves as a popular photo prop, as well as an indication that one is finally nearing the top of the mountain.
We passed the 5 mile marker on the side of the trail, lumbered up several more rocky inclines, and finally came to a four-way intersection. The most popular destination, and our target for today, was the El Cajon Mountain Summit to the left. (I’ll describe the other two possible routes at the end of this post).
But soon the wide, easily distinguished path began to narrow. We had to pause periodically as the trail crossed large granite slabs to determine where it picked up again on the opposite side. Before long, we were stepping up steep rocks and being stabbed in the shins by shrubs and the occasional evil yucca plant. As we approached the ridgeline we were aiming for, it was sometimes challenging to know which way to go, as a network of several use trails seemed to weave their way up the mountainside. We spotted one of the green post trail markers near some rocks, and aimed for it.
Once we finally gained the ridgeline, we turned left and continued weaving through the boulders and brush, heading towards the highest pile of rocks. Finally, we squeezed between a couple of boulders, and were at the summit.
After a long rest and lunch break, we began the very long hike back.
El Capitan Trail
Round trip adds approximately .5 mile
This secondary summit is an easy stroll compared to everything you’ve endured up to this point, so you might as well throw it in.
View the many photo galleries
From Interstate 8, take Highway 67 north until the freeway portion ends and turn right on Mapleview. Turn left on Ashwood, which will turn into Wildcat Canyon Road. Go a little over 4 miles, as you get to the top of the hill turn right at the entrance to El Capitan Open Space Preserve and park in the large lot immediately to your left. map
|Total Distance:||11 miles|
|Total Ascent:||4000 feet|
|Dog Friendly?:||Leashed dogs are allowed, but this is probably too long/strenuous for the average dog|
|Bike Friendly?:||Bikes allowed|
|Facilities:||Vault toilets .45 mile from the parking lot. No water.|
For more information, visit:
County of San Diego Parks & Recreation – El Capitan Open Space Preserve