Middle Peak (Cuyamaca Rancho State Park)

Middle Peak is one of several promontories in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. Along with Cuyamaca Peak to the south and North Peak to the north, Middle Peak is a landmark easily identified from many other popular trails in the county. Once covered in pine and oak trees, Middle Peak, like the rest of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, was hit hard by the 2003 Cedar Fire. Much of the mountain is now covered in ceanothus, and the charred remains of blackened trees line the slopes. Reforestation efforts are underway, but in the meantime, the lack of trees allows for some sweeping views of the surrounding area.

There is no official trail leading to the summit of Middle Peak, but there are several routes one can take to get up the mountainside and loop around the peak. We decided to follow the route described in the new Coast to Cactus trail guide which takes Middle Peak Fire Road up the eastern flank of the mountain, then circles the peak along the Black Oak Trail.

We found the small Trout Pond parking area just south of Lake Cuyamaca, and were surprised to find it rather full. 2016middlepeakdsc_9602-edit

We crossed the road to begin climbing Milk Ranch Road.2016middlepeakdsc_9608-edit

A road leading to the equestrian staging area branched off to the left. We stayed to the right, walking around a closed gate, and began heading uphill.2016middlepeakdsc_9610-edit

At .17 miles, an unmarked road branched off to the left – from the maps it looks like this leads to the equestrian staging area. We continued on the main fire road as it switch backed up the mountain.2016middlepeakdsc_9614-edit

Just under .25 miles, we turned right onto Middle Peak Fire Road.2016middlepeakdsc_9616

Here we caught the first of many glimpses of Lake Cuyamaca in the distance.2016middlepeakdsc_9622-edit

There was a mix of dead and living oak trees along the trail.2016middlepeakdsc_9644-edit

Tall, golden grass and thick tangles of ceanothus were also found in abundance.2016middlepeakdsc_9641-edit

The road ascended steadily, but at a reasonable grade so we never felt overexerted. We quickly gained elevation, giving us some great views of the surrounding area. We had views of Stonewall Peak to the southeast.2016middlepeakdsc_9629-pano-edit

We also had periodic views of the parking area where we had started.2016middlepeakdsc_9633-edit

As the road wound its way up the mountainside, the ceanothus increased in height and density.2016middlepeakdsc_9656-edit

There were fewer and fewer living trees, and more burnt remains.2016middlepeakdsc_9677-edit

Around 1.5 miles, we spotted a slightly overgrown junction leading to the Sugar Pine Trail on our right. We continued up the fire road.2016middlepeakdsc_9678-edit

We noticed a California Sister butterfly as it landed on a branch, and unlike all the other interesting insects we saw flying around, this one sat still for a good long time, allowing us to photograph it.2016middlepeakdsc_9718-edit

Turning a corner, we spotted a lone Poodle Dog Weed bush on the side of the trail. Poodle Dog is a serious irritant which can cause even more severe reactions than Poison Oak, so we steered clear. I was actually surprised that we didn’t spot more since it is a common fire follower and the whole mountain seemed like prime habitat. 2016middlepeakdsc_9730-edit

At approximately 2.5 miles, we found the turn off we’d been looking for. The Black Oak Trail branched off to the left, and we followed it towards Milk Ranch Road. This is where the loop portion of our hike began, we’d be coming back along the fire road on the right.2016middlepeakdsc_9738

We began traveling downhill, losing some of the elevation we had gained.2016middlepeakdsc_9745-edit

Tall thickets of ceanothus surrounded us, with more darkened tree trunks poking through.2016middlepeakdsc_9747-edit

To the south, we could see Cuyamaca Peak in the distance.2016middlepeakdsc_9756-edit

Reforestation efforts appeared to be underway. We found a number of small pine seedlings in cleared patches.2016middlepeak_skdsc_9757-edit

As the trail bent west, the landscape began to change. Instead of the thick blanket of ceanothus, we found large swathes of brown grass, and there were almost as many green, living trees as dead ones.2016middlepeakdsc_9775-edit

Around 3.6 miles we reached Milk Ranch Road and turned right.2016middlepeakdsc_9779-edit

Just a few hundred feet up the road we came to another junction. To the left was the Azalea Spring Fire Road, and the Milk Ranch Road continued straight, where it eventually converged with the Middle Peak Fire Road (which provides a slightly longer route back to our starting point than the route we were planning). We made a sharp right to continue on the Black Oak Trail.2016middlepeakdsc_9781-edit

We began climbing back up the western flank of Middle Peak, regaining the elevation we had lost.2016middlepeakdsc_9783-edit

We had great views to the west.2016middlepeakdsc_9786-edit

Further up the mountain we found some pine trees that had survived the fire.2016middlepeak_skdsc_9791-edit

As we continued, the trees and grasslands gave way to more ceanothus and burnt stumps.2016middlepeakdsc_9813-edit

But in some patches, we found more signs of recovery where young pine saplings grew.2016middlepeak_skdsc_9801-edit

Around 5.1 miles, we came to a “T” junction where we met up again with the Middle Peak Fire Road.2016middlepeakdsc_9838

We turned right, passing by an old water tank.2016middlepeakdsc_9839

Around 5.5 miles, we came to the turn-off for the Black Oak Trail we had initially taken, closing the loop portion of our hike. From here, we followed the fire road back to our starting point.2016middlepeakdsc_9864

View the full photo gallery

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 approximately 10.7 miles to the Trout Pond parking area on the right, just before the road makes a sharp 90 degree bend. map

Total Distance: 7.9 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Total Ascent: 1560 feet
Dog Friendly?: No dogs allowed
Bike Friendly?: Bikes allowed
Facilities: None
Fees/Permits: None

For more information, visit:
California State Parks – Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
View route or download GPX from CalTopo

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