Lake Morena is the highest and most remote of the County’s reservoirs. High above the lake looms Morena Butte, a three-peaked mountain topped with huge expanses of gorgeous granite slabs. The route up to the mountain begins at Lake Morena County Park, and travels 3 miles south along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) before turning off to climb to the summit.
We parked our car in the large dirt staging area just before the entrance to the county park. This lot is owned by the Bureau of Land Management, and parking is free. Immediately past the large lot was a smaller dirt lot, which is county property and subject to a day use fee.
We found the trailhead on the west side of the smaller lot under some sprawling oak trees.
The trail began up the chaparral covered hillside. We spotted the usual assortment of plants including buckwheat, manzanita and ceanothus, plus a lot of less common ribbonwood (aka redshank).
We quickly found a trail branching off to the right. This was part of an interpretive nature trail that began at the park and then overlapped this small portion of the PCT. We stayed to the left, continuing uphill.
We were already getting some nice views of Morena Valley below and Los Pinos Mountain in the northwest.
The trail continued to wind its way uphill. There was a lot of exposed granite to admire, much of it covered in moss and lichen.
Around .5 mile, the trail bent south for a short ways, and we had some good views of our destination.
We were also able to get our first glimpses of water in the very low Lake Morena.
The trail continued to ascend steadily, but not painfully. Periodically, we encountered rocky outcroppings where we could see past the trailside brush to the surrounding area.
Around 1 mile, we came to a huge patch of exposed granite just off the trail. We ventured out to explore the views.
Back on the trail, the path soon leveled out and began to descend.
Here we had our first views of the southeast. We also found a great rock for climbing/sitting on and enjoying the views. We stopped for a few minutes and shed some layers. We’d anticipated a very cold hike, but the weather had turned out to be rather nice. Between the warm sun and the physical exertion, we comfortably stripped down to our t-shirts before setting off again.
The trail continued to wind its way downhill before crossing another large slab of protruding granite.
At 1.65 miles, the trail merged ever so briefly with a narrow dirt road. We followed the PCT trail markers to the left as the trail branched off, and once again headed up hill.
Around the 2 mile point we started downhill again, and encountered some blooming manzanita, full of buzzing bees.
We made our way down the hillside, crossing some more granite slabs before descending a somewhat eroded and rocky slope.
At 2.8 miles we crossed a dry creek.
Shortly beyond the creek we found a PCT trail marker and noted a narrow, faded track heading back uphill to the right. We planned on taking that route back to the park, but for now we continued ahead, still on the PCT.
We began climbing again. We were high up on the slope now, and were starting to get glimpses of Hauser Canyon to the south. I knew we were fairly close to the border when my cell phone suddenly erupted with a series of text messages from Verizon welcoming me to Mexico and telling me about their amazing international rates.
At 3.1 miles, we came to the turn-off for Morena Butte on the right. We hadn’t been expecting any kind of marker, but were pleased to find a prominently labeled wooden post marking the junction.
We turned and headed up the trail, which immediately began a steep and rocky ascent. The trail was narrow, but easy enough to follow.
As the route went almost straight up the mountainside, we gained elevation quickly and were loving the views.
It was almost straight up for about .1 mile, then it leveled out a bit as we crossed some large slabs of rock. The route was a bit difficult to follow, but we kept our eyes open for cairns (small stacks of rocks) that some kind predecessor had left to help us find our way.
We made our way in a generally northwest direction, following the narrow path worn through the brush. When the route crossed over large granite slabs, we scanned ahead for the cairns to follow.
The enormous granite slabs that surrounded us were gorgeous. They were fantastic shades of orange and pink, with large boulders scattered about.
The trail came to the western edge of the ridge we were on, providing some fantastic views of the west, including Lyon’s Peak, from another large granite overlook.
From here the trail bent northeast as we squeezed by a sharp, pokey, overgrown shrub and climbed up through a field of pink granite.
More cairns guided us ever upward through the manzanita.
We made our way up yet another steep granite slab and found ourselves circling the eastern edge of the first peak.
Finally, at the 4 mile point, we came to a huge field of granite between the 3 major promontories. South was the large rocky peak we had just been circling.
Directly west of us, the granite sloped downwards to a huge open area overlooking Hauser Canyon below.
Immediately to the northwest was the second rocky promontory.
We debated whether we should try and make our way over there, but we were more drawn to the enormous granite outcropping of the third peak situated in the northeast corner. We decided to venture out to this, for no other reason than it just looked the coolest.
We followed more cairns down the granite, leading us in a generally northwest direction to reach a saddle below.
From the saddle, we found a fairly apparent trail leading through the chaparral heading in the direction we wanted to go.
More cairns appeared, guiding us up a large swath of granite.
The granite gave away once again to more bushes, and we made our way a bit further north. At this point we’d lost any semblance of a trail, but could see our desired destination just a couple hundred feet away. We found a spot where the brush thinned out a bit, and plunged through.
Success! We had at last reached the enormous granite outcropping we had been eyeing from the trail below, several miles earlier.
We made our way to the eastern edge and clambered up some rocks to enjoy the view and eat some snacks. We finally had a complete view of the very low Lake Morena.
As enjoyable as the views outward were, I was still more enamored with the impressive field of granite we were sitting on, and the boulders strewn and stacked around like nature’s version of a modern art exhibit. I found it reminiscent of the Sierra Mountains.
We took our time exploring the area and eventually headed back down.
We retraced our route back to the PCT, finding that the helpful cairns were a little more difficult to spot on the return trip. You’ll definitely want to take some time and check your backtrail on your way up so you don’t waste a lot of time searching for the trail on your way down.
Once back on the PCT, we retraced our path about .2 mile until we came back to the intersection we’d noticed earlier.
The trail here was a bit vague, but we took the narrow branch on the left that started uphill.
The narrow trail led us through a quiet section of chaparral. We noticed numerous chunks of quartz strewn about the ground all around us.
We soon came to a looping dirt road. Two forks both branched off to the left, and either way would get us where we wanted to go. We took the slightly further road because looking at the maps, it appeared to be a slightly more direct route.
Near the bend in the road we spotted an old wooden platform, but weren’t able to discern its purpose.
The road passed through green grassy fields full of towering oak trees.
To our left, we could see the rocky peak of Morena Butte where we had eaten our snacks an hour earlier.
As we went further along the road, we began to find pine trees as well.
After about half a mile, our road converged with the other fork.
Just beyond we encountered the remnants of an old building. Only the steps, foundation, and chimney were still standing.
The road soon bent east. We found ourselves high above the lake.
The road wound around the southern edge of the lake for another mile or so.
We eventually came to a paved road within the county park.
Here, we turned right and followed the paved road for another .8 mile back to the park entrance where we had begun.
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Take 8 East to the Buckman Springs Road exit. Turn right onto Buckman Springs Road and continue for approximately 5.3 miles. Turn right onto Oak Drive. After approximately 1.6 miles make a slight right onto Lake Morena Drive. Follow Lake Morena Drive for .4 miles to the intersection of Lake Morena Drive and Lake Shore Drive, just before the entrance to Lake Morena County Park. You’ll find a large dirt lot on the left side of this intersection, park there. map
||Leashed dogs allowed
||Bikes not allowed
||Bathrooms and water available at park, none at trailhead
||None if you park in the lot outside of park boundary
For more information, visit:
San Diego County Parks and Recreation – Lake Morena County Park
View route or download GPX in CalTopo