Guatay Mountain

20150329Guatay MtnDSC_8193-EditGuatay Mountain is an unassuming peak on the northern edge of the Pine Creek Wilderness. It is also home to the rare Tecate cypress tree. The trail here is largely unmaintained, making for a somewhat challenging ascent, but the advantage is that its also not widely used, making it a great spot for some quiet solitude.

From the parking area, we headed back up the road about .2 miles. Just north of the “Fire Restrictions” sign we saw as we were driving in, we spotted the metal gate off the side of the road on our left, nestled deep among the trees. (Note: the distance from the parking area to the gate is included in my mileage references).20150329Guatay MtnDSC_8088-Edit

We passed through the gate, closing and latching it behind us. Towering, red-barked manzanita lined both sides of the trail.20150329Guatay MtnDSC_8090-Edit

The manzanita quickly gave way to green grass and tangles of oak trees, and we saw a dry creek on our left. We soon crossed the dry creek and began a gradual uphill climb.20150329Guatay MtnDSC_8097-Edit

Trees and brush on our right hid the road from us, but we occasionally heard the sound of a car passing by. In the long stretches between cars, the morning was still and quiet except for the chattering of birds. The trail was lined with sage, mountain mahogany, manzanita, and blooming ceanothus.20150329Guatay MtnDSC_8106-Edit

After awhile, the brush on our right opened up and we could see the roadway of Old Highway 80 across the ravine to our right. At .75 miles we came upon a highly eroded and relatively steep section of trail. This section was short and easily surmounted, however it was a harbinger of things to come.20150329Guatay MtnDSC_8118-Edit

At .9 mile the trail leveled out a bit. Just shy of 1 mile we found a rusted metal gate-like thing at the foot of a side trail. This was our turn-off. We headed left up the steep, heavily eroded hillside.20150329Guatay MtnDSC_8127-Edit

This section was steep and rocky, and had a big rut running down the middle of the trail.20150329Guatay MtnDSC_8131-Edit

Pausing momentarily to admire the views and catch our breath, we spotted a wonderfully cooperative scrub jay posing atop a bush.20150329Guatay MtnDSC_8136-Edit

The trail climbed steadily for approximately .2 miles before leveling out somewhat. Once again, we found ourselves weaving our way through a dense thicket of manzanita.20150329Guatay MtnDSC_8147-Edit

The trail gradually began to turn to the west. As we emerged from the thick brush we found we were following a ridge line that led to the peak. The trail appeared to be the remnant of an old firebreak.20150329Guatay MtnDSC_8156-Edit

The trail here was much more open and exposed than previously. Low growing manzanita and other chaparral plants dominated our surroundings. We also found numerous yucca (aka Our Lord’s Candle) blooming along the trail.20150329Guatay MtnDSC_8305-Edit

To the south we could see Interstate 8 and the impressive span of the Pine Valley Bridge.20150329Guatay MtnDSC_8178-Edit

We traversed a series of uphills and downhills, gradually gaining elevation as we neared the summit. The scenery was pretty uniform along the trail here, but in addition to the numerous common western fence lizards we saw darting about, we also spotted two horned lizards.20150329Guatay MtnDSC_8254-Edit
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Around 2.5 miles we could see the tecate cypress trees dotting the northern flank of the mountainside.20150329Guatay MtnDSC_8187-Edit

Along one of the saddles between peaks, we spotted a cypress tree just a couple hundred feet to the right of the trail, and made our way through the manzanita to check out the rare tree.20150329Guatay MtnDSC_8280-Edit

The cypress are easily identified by their tight clusters of round, woody cones.20150329Guatay MtnDSC_8282-Edit

Continuing on, we soon came to one of the last ascents, which I can only describe as ridiculously steep. The footing was rather treacherous here, with lots of loose dirt and rocks, but we managed to make it to the top without slipping and falling on our faces.20150329Guatay MtnDSC_8198-Edit

At last, cresting the rise, we found we were still not at the top. We briefly lost the trail amid the thick growing manzanita here, but with our destination in sight, we were able to get back on course without too much issue. We did come to the scratchy conclusion that long pants would have been a better wardrobe choice than the shorts we were both wearing.20150329Guatay MtnDSC_8218-Edit

We finally ascended the last hill and made our way through a field of loose rocks. Knowing it was prime snake season, I made a point of tapping the rocks ahead of me with my trekking poles in the hopes of alerting any resting rattlesnakes to my presence so we didn’t surprise each other. Either they heard me coming a long way off, or weren’t around in the first place, because I didn’t have any encounters.20150329Guatay MtnDSC_8226-Edit

At last we reached the summit, where we found a small fortress built of stacked rocks and a box containing a peak register.20150329Guatay MtnDSC_8243-Edit

We took a few minutes to admire the views. To the south we could see Interstate 8 stretched out like a ribbon, and Los Pinos and Corte Madera mountains just beyond.20150329Guatay MtnDSC_8242-Edit

To the west it was a bit hazy, as usual, but we could make out the enormous face of El Cajon mountain. To the north was the distinctive crest of Cuyamaca Peak, Middle Peak just barely poking out to the right, then North, Stonewall, and Oakzanita Peaks.20150329Guatay MtnDSC_8239-Edit

In the east, we could see the Sunrise Highway leading into the Laguna Mountains. After admiring the views, we lounged about on the rocks eating a snack. There were numerous red ants milling about on the ground, and bees and flies flying through the air. Before long, we were ready to make our way back down.

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Take I-8 east to the Pine Valley exit. Turn left (north) onto Pine Valley Road, then left onto Old Highway 80. The turn off for the Pine Valley trailhead will be on the left after approximately 1.5 miles. Follow the road for about 1/2 a mile to the parking area. To reach the trailhead, you’ll need to retrace your route about .2 miles back up the road to find a metal pipe gate amid the trees on the west side of the road, a couple hundred feet north of the “Fire Restrictions” sign you passed on your way in. map

Total Distance: 6 miles
Difficulty: Moderately Strenuous
Total Ascent: 1600 feet
Dog Friendly?: Leashed dogs allowed
Bike Friendly?: No bikes allowed
Facilities: Vault toilets in parking area; no water
Fees/Permits: Adventure Pass required for all use, additional free permit required for overnight use (available at Ranger Station)

US Forest Service – Pine Creek Trailhead
Guatay Mountain Research Natural Area

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