One of the many great things about Cuyamaca Rancho State Park is the fact that there are numerous long, interesting trails that all interconnect, allowing a hiker to piece together a trek of just about any length and any difficulty level they choose. This hike combines the majority of the Harvey Moore trail (named for the first ranger of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park) with a short stretch of the East Side Trail to create a loop that explores much of the East Mesa portion of the park. This hike showcases a variety of different landscapes, including chaparral covered hillsides, wide open fields, creeks, rivers, and oak and pine woods.
We began at the Sweetwater parking and staging area, which is just south of where highway 79 crosses the Sweetwater River. From the parking lot, we found the trailhead and headed right. Almost immediately, we began climbing a hill, and at .1 miles, encountered an intersection with the East Side Trail. We headed left to stay on the Harvey Moore trail.
We huffed and puffed our way up the hill, admiring the plentiful mojave yucca that lined the trail, along with the usual cast of ceanothus and other brush. At .64 miles we reached the top where the trail leveled out for a bit and widened.
Just shy of 1 mile, we encountered a branch for the Oak Trail leading to the East Mesa fire road. This could actually be used for a longer route to our same destination, but we stayed straight on the Harvey Moore trail.
The trail began to climb uphill, and at 1.25 miles we came to a junction for the Pine Trail on our left (I told you there’s a lot of interconnecting trails!) Again, we continued straight along the Harvey Moore Trail.
The trail continued to climb, interrupted by a few level and downhill stretches until about 2.1 miles. We saw increasing amounts of fall color as we hiked, mostly courtesy of Black oaks. There were also a fair amount of charred black and grey trees sticking up through the brush – the ever present reminder of the 2003 Cedar Fire that altered so much of San Diego’s landscape.
Gradually the trees and brush began to thin out, and patches of brown grass increased. At 2.25 miles we encountered the junction for the Dyar Springs trail on our left (also another awesome trail). Again, we continued on the Harvey Moore Trail towards the Granite Spring Campground.
We were struck by the dramatic change in landscape at this point. The dense shrubs and intermittent oaks that lined the trail to this point were replaced by a wide open grassy plain. The hillsides were a deep golden brown after the long dry summer, and a strong breeze blew across the fields. The trail proceeded up a gentle slope that gradually increased as walked.
The last time we hiked this trail was several years previous during early summer, and we had spotted numerous horned lizards along this stretch of trail. Today though, there were no reptiles to be seen, just a couple of crows that circled above us, riding the wind.
At 3.1 miles we finally crested the hill and found a cluster of pine trees at the top. The path leveled out as we continued on. Just beyond the pines was another intersection – the right fork is the Grass Trail which leads to the East Mesa Fire Road heading south towards Oakzanita Peak. We took the left fork.
We found a flock of turkeys on the outskirts of the campground. They were rather skittish and kept their distance. We approached slowly and quietly so as not to alarm them, but they moved away as we walked, always staying the same distance away from us.
Granite Springs is a nice little primitive campground with 3 individual spots as well as a group campsite. The campground even has the added luxury of pit toilets. After exploring the area a bit, we said goodbye to our reluctant turkey friends and continued north on the trail. We gradually ascended a hill covered in brown grass and oaks trees with the occasional pine.
Before long we encountered another flock of turkeys strutting beneath the trees to our right. Once again, upon noticing us they decided they’d rather be elsewhere and started walking in the other direction. We continued on the trail, trying not to feel too rejected.
We continued climbing through the golden grass, up and over the hillsides. At 5 miles we came to a junction with the Deer Park Trail on our right, which leads to the Laguna Mountain area. We continued on the Harvey Moore Trail.
While it wasn’t your typical exhibit of fall color, I found the contrasting greens, browns, golds, and yellows, punctuated by the charred black of burned logs to be unique and beautiful. Fall color, southern California style.
We continued through the colorful display of recovering burn area for a little over half a mile. At 5.6 miles the trail began to descend and wind its way through a thick ceanothus hedge maze. For almost a mile, we were surrounded on either side by tall, thick brush with grey dead trees poking through like skeletal arms reaching up from the grave.
We crossed the dry bed of Harper Creek and spotted some plants and trees more indicative of a riparian habitat, like willows and mule fat. The trail then climbed up away from the creek as it turned west. We heard a great deal of squawking as we passed through a thicket of oak trees. Looking up, we found a group of blue jays and woodpeckers performing dramatic aerial displays as they battled each other.
Before long we emerged from the trees and found ourselves high on the hillside above Harper Creek. The hillsides were covered in rocks and low growing brush. As we walked we got varying views of the dry creek below us.
We then made a steep, rocky descent, and at 7.65 miles met Harper Creek again. At this point, the Harvey Moore trail continues to the right for a brief stretch before connecting with a fire road, but we were ready to start heading back towards our car. We crossed the creek, following signs for the East Side Trail, and took a break on fallen log under some welcoming oak trees while watching birds hop around the dry creek bed.
After a little rest and refueling, we were ready for the last leg of our journey. We followed the East Side Trail along the south side of Harper Creek through more oak trees for a bit. Then, as Harper Creek merged with the Sweetwater River, the trail turned south and ran through more open, grassy fields.
Just shy of 8.5 miles, we found ourselves among some more oak trees, and we saw the Cuyamaca Outdoor School (also known as Camp Cuyamaca) across the river on our right. Just beyond, we came to a junction with the Dyar Springs Trail on our left, but continued along the East Side Trail, paralleling the river.
Continuing through the oaks and brush, we encountered two more trail junctions – at 8.7 miles the Cold Stream trail branched off on our right, and at just under 9 miles the Juaquapin trail forked off to our left. We continued straight along the East Side trail.
We crossed another stretch of dry grass and noticed several raptors circling a patch of trees ahead of us. The soaring birds kept us entertained as we plodded along. As we finally reached the tree-filled area they were circling and rounded a bend, I caught a glimpse of a coyote’s hindquarters as he ran up the trail away from us.
We kept our eyes open, scanning the brush around us as we walked, but saw no further signs of the coyote. After several more minutes, we heard a horrible sound, almost like screaming, that seemed to be coming from the river bed to our right. We had no idea what the awful noise was, so kept hiking along, After another couple of minutes, we saw three deer heading up the hill from the river. They paused momentarily upon noticing us, but then continued on, crossing the trail right in front of us.
About 300 feet before we reached the parking lot, we passed a group of three hikers heading the other direction, talking loudly and each carrying two cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. They were the first people we had seen since we had left the parking lot that morning.
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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
|Total Distance:||10.4 miles|
|Total Ascent:||2030 feet|
|Dog Friendly?:||No dogs allowed|
|Bike Friendly?:||Bikes not allowed|
For more information visit:
California State Parks – Cuyamaca Rancho State Park