Harper Creek (Cuyamaca Rancho State Park)


Harper Creek in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park is a seasonal stream, generally dry in the summer months. But in the spring, water flows through the creek and over large slabs of polished granite, creating an enticing series of pools where you can cool your feet or just sit and relax.

After the unprecedented rains of last winter, we were hopeful that even on a hot early summer day, there might still be enough water in the creek to make a visit worthwhile. We chose to park at the Visitor Center, which required a $10 day use fee. You can park at one of the many free turnouts and staging areas in the park if you’d prefer to avoid the fee, but the Visitor Center offers bathrooms and the opportunity to check out the ruins of the historic Dyar House next to the parking lot, as well as the shortest route to Harper Creek. We also picked up a couple of t-shirts from the Visitor Center shop after our hike – support your parks, yo!

From the parking lot, we found the trailhead on the western edge of the parking area, opposite the bathrooms.

The trail led a few hundred feet downhill through thick ceanothus to a “T” junction. Here, we turned left onto the Cold Stream Trail.

The trail led gradually downhill. Cold Stream ran along the trail on our right, but it was mostly obscured by thick brush. But there were a few spots where we could see the flowing water.

We passed a turn-off for a trail leading to the School Camp and continued past some horse corrals.

Around the .3 mile point we came the Sweetwater River crossing. A horse-friendly crossing lay to the left, while the hiker crossing went pretty much straight. There was also an unmarked trail leading off to the right. We followed the sign pointing towards the hiker crossing in front of us.

The water wasn’t terribly deep, but we were glad to have our waterproof shoes on – otherwise we’d have had wet socks for sure. We made our way across the shallow river and through the resident willows.

On the far bank we found the trail leading uphill.

Around .45 miles we came to another “T” junction where we met the East Side Trail, and turned left.

We proceeded north, surrounded by thick manzanita growth and oaks. We were happy to have the shade, knowing that it wouldn’t last long.

As we continued, the shrubs and trees faded away, replaced by open grasslands.

Around 1.3 miles the dry bed of Harper Creek appeared on our left, and the trail began to bend east.

In the shade of the surrounding brush, we spotted a young bunny sitting in the middle of the trail.

The rabbit scampered off and we continued on. The trail continued bending east, following the course of Harper Creek. There were a few spots where we could see some stagnant pools of water.

Just shy of 1.5 miles, the trail crossed the creek. It was completely dry here.

Immediately past the creek bed, we found an unmarked use trail on the right. We turned here, following the path along the creek.

The path disappeared and reappeared periodically, sometimes passing over large, slippery granite rocks. We continued making our way carefully upstream.

We started to see water once again in the creek to our right. There were plenty of birds and butterflies enjoying the moist environment.

Finally we reached a couple of large pools formed by enormous granite rocks. A small trickle of water still flowed over a rocky shelf into the upper pool.

We took off our hiking shoes and put on our sandals, and proceeded to cool off in the water, then lounged about on the rocks for a bit before heading back.


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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 6.2 miles to the turn off for the Visitor Center on the right. Park in the lot just south of the Visitor Center. map

Total Distance: 3.3 miles
Difficulty: Easy
Total Ascent: 350 feet
Dog Friendly?: Dogs not allowed
Bike Friendly?: Bikes not allowed
Facilities: Restrooms and water in parking lot
Fees/Permits: $10 day use fee per vehicle

For more information, visit:
View route or download GPX from CalTopo

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