The Kelly Ditch Trail runs between William Heise County Park in Julian and Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. A section of the trail overlaps what was once “Kelly’s Ditch,” a ditch dug in order to route water runoff from North Peak to nearby Lake Cuyamaca and named after John Kelly, a rancher who owned the land along the course of the ditch.
The trail can be hiked as either a 5.6 mile point-to-point (best hiked south to north, beginning at Lake Cuyamaca and ending at Heise County Park), or as a more ambitious 11.2 mile out and back. We chose the out and back option to avoid the hassle and expense of shuttling two cars. Besides, who would argue against more hiking? We started at Heise County Park in order to get the worst of the climbing done up front.
We paid our day use fee at the entrance kiosk then turned around and parked in the day use parking lot just in front of the kiosk. At the southern edge of the lot we spotted a sign that read “Trail,” pointing us to the right.
We followed the road as it led south until we spotted the trailhead.
We passed through a small patch of pines and cedars.
The trees quickly quickly gave way to thick ceanothus.
At .3 mile we reached a wide dirt road.
The trail continued on the opposite side.
We made our way across an open field, then downhill a short distance to where the trail crossed Cedar Creek.
Just past the crossing, the Fern Trail branched off to the right. This trail reconnects to the Kelly Ditch Trail further on so you can take it as alternate route, but we decided to save that adventure for another day and continued straight. The trail led steeply uphill.
Around .7 mile we came to a “T” junction and turned right to continue on the Kelly Ditch Trail.
The trail continued uphill for a short distance, then began to descend.
Right around the 1 mile point we found the other end of the Fern Trail. There was also a wooden bench which provided a nice spot to sit and relax while listening to the nearby water.
Just beyond the bench was another branch of Cedar Creek.
We carefully crossed the creek and continued uphill on the other side.
From this point we had a seemingly endless maze of ceanothus to navigate.
There were a few spots where a hole in the thick brush allowed us a view of the surrounding area.
The occasional Black Oak in the midst of its fall color change brightened up the trail.
The trail continued steeply uphill, and the ceanothus began to get even thicker and taller.
Around 1.75 miles we reach the border between William Heise County Park and Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. We noticed an interesting difference in the trail markers between the two parks: all of the signage in Heise County Park referred to it as the “Kelly Ditch Trail,” whereas the Cuyamaca signs read “Kelly’s Ditch Trail,” – an interesting bit of trivia to impress all your hiking friends.
The thick walls of ceanothus continued, and we found some downed trees on the trail to keep things interesting. A little bit of climbing and crawling got us past the obstacles.
While the ceanothus walls didn’t do much for the view, they were beneficial for helping keep the sun off. The day was warming up and we were thankful for the shade.
Around 2.35 mile we reached a spot that was relatively free of towering ceanothus. We paused for a few moments to enjoy the view.
The trail continued uphill, the trail littered with fallen sticks and branches. The remains of fire-ravaged trees lined the mountainside.
Once again, we found ourselves surrounded by tall ceanothus.
We continued to climb until about 2.75 miles, when the trail leveled out. With the lack of view, it was hard to see if we were atop any sort of high point, but the respite from climbing was noticeable and welcome.
Soon enough we found ourselves travelling downhill, and the brush subsided enough to give us a view of North Peak in the distance.
Around 3 miles we found ourselves in a level, open area. We had nearly given up hope of seeing anything other than solid walls of ceanothus, but the scenery here was a welcome change. There were a mix of fire-damaged tree remnants, new pine growth, and Black Oaks.
The trail soon merged with an old, overgrown road as we began to make our way around the western flank of North Peak.
Views to the west began to open up, and we were able to pick out some distant peaks like El Cajon Mountain. There was a solid wall of clouds along the coast.
At 4.2 miles we came to a “Y” junction. The wide road continued to the right, the trail markers indicated this route led towards Engineers Road. We took the narrow single track on the left.
The trail was rockier than it had previously been, and we noticed a subtle change in the vegetation as manzanita began to dominate the trailside.
At 4.5 miles the trail crossed the road and continued on the other side.
The trail continued to wind downhill through manzanita and toyon.
Eventually we found ourselves under a thick oak canopy.
We began to spot remnants of a low rock wall along the trail – Kelly’s Ditch.
With all the leaf litter on the ground, it was difficult to move quietly. We startled a large herd of deer who were foraging beneath the oaks.
We could hear the sound of traffic and knew we were getting close to the Highway.
At 5.6 miles we reached the end of the trail where it met Highway 79. We turned around and began the long hike back to our starting point.
View the full photo gallery
From downtown Julian, head west on Washington Street (CA 78/79). After approximately 1 mile, turn left onto Pine Hills Road. After approximately 1 mile, turn left onto Deer Lake Park Road. Follow Deer Lake Park Road for 2.1 miles, then turn left onto Frisius Drive. Keep right to continue onto Heise Park Road and follow it to the park entrance. map
||Dogs not allowed on Cuyamaca portion
||Bikes not allowed on Cuyamaca portion
||Restrooms and water at Heise County Park
||$3 day use fee at Heise County Park
For more information, visit:
View route or download GPX from CalTopo