4th of July – Hiking Cuyamaca Peak

Jerry Schad’s books list the hike to Cuyamaca Peak, the second highest peak in San Diego County at 6512 feet,  as a hike up and down the Lookout Road, a paved road straight up the mountain. I have done that hike many times over the years. Up the road 2.75 miles, then down again. On the way down it always seems steeper and longer than going up – endless.

Hiking Cuyamaca Peak

This time we took a different route, starting out from the same beginning, the Paso Picacho Campground. The campground is about 11 miles south of Julian off Hwy 79 on the right. The entry fee is $8 per vehicle, and there is a large, safe parking lot. We first took the Azelea Glen Loop Trail, then joined the Fern Flat Fire Road at the Azelea Spring, heading even further north, before joining the Conejos Trail heading south. This trail intersects Lookout Road, so we took the last half mile loop up Cuyamaca on the Lookout Road. This took 5.25 miles, about 2 hours of 10 minutes of walking, plus another hour or so of rests and breathing stops. At the end, we took the Lookout Road all the way down to the campground again, making the entire trip exactly 8 miles long.

Hike Profile

The profile shows that it was a very steep climb most of the way, followed by an incredibly steep and steady descent down the paved Lookout Road from the peak.

Not far from the beginning of the hike, still near the campground, we found some morteros, grinding bowls carved into large boulders along the trail by the Kumeyaay Indians. These Native Americans used the circular morteros over 2,000 years ago to grind local nuts and seeds into meals.

I recently wrote about being in awe when standing in rooms and buildings where the Founding Fathers first signed the Declaration of Independence, to the day exactly 236 years ago. I had a feeling of no less awe today, when I took the above picture, and imagined generations of women sitting there 2000 years ago, grinding their nuts, acorns and seeds. What would they have thought if they had seen me standing there as a ghost from the future, taking a picture of this place of theirs.

Near the campground, when we were still fresh and chipper – Trisha, the happy hiker.

Due to the fires in October 2003, all terrain on this mountain is now changed for decades to come. The forest, once thick with cedar, fir, pine and oak, is gone. Dark shady slopes of dense woods are now completely exposed to the sun. Ten years of recovery without forest has allowed the underbrush to burgeon; it is now impenetrable. The picture above shows a typical section along the Azalea Glen Trail. There are signs that the forest will recover, but it will take decades.


The picture above shows a group of seedlings of pines that have all grown since the fires. There are hundreds of those in some areas, where they will clearly recover.

Leopard Lilies

The Leopard Lilies were in bloom everywhere. These are beautiful large orange blossoms that grow in clusters.

Cuyamaca Peak

Here is a picture taken from the start of the Conejos Trail. We basically hiked straight up this ridge.

View from the Top of Cuyamaca Peak Looking West

Once at the top, the views sometimes reach all the way to Mexico in the south, to the Pacific in the west, the deserts in the east, and Palomar Mountain in the north. Today it was hazy. This is looking from the peak southwest toward where downtown San Diego would be visible on a clearer day.

Burned Wasteland with Underbrush

The underbrush reaches up to the endless forest of burned trees, fir and oak alike, which line all trails and roads all over the Cuyamacas.

Hiking Cuyamaca Peak was a perfect endeavor for this year’s Fourth of July. It was hot, sunny, with a good breeze that helped keep us cool when we needed it. It was an excellent practice hike for the big prize of Half Dome scheduled for September 11th this year.

4 thoughts on “4th of July – Hiking Cuyamaca Peak

    1. Very good question. I have added another picture, showing seedlings, and yes, it looks like the forest will come back. It will take decades, and it will depend on the amount of rain we will have in the next few years. Little rain, no recovery perhaps for centuries. Good rain, and the trees will come back.

  1. funny- i did exactly the same walk the same day… left the campground around 11AM. Had a little trouble finding the Conjeos trailhead (went left at the fire road rather than right) so my trip was a little longer – but it was a fantastic hike. Loved the forest and trees up near the end of the Conjeos trail before it linked up with the fire road- beautiful wind, views and smells up there…don’t know if you were behind or ahead of me…

    1. Wow, great.
      We were ahead of you, leaving the parking lot around 10:00am or so. That is amazing. Must have passed each other, we on our way down, when you came up toward the peak. Trying to remember who we passed.
      I had a GPS, and I needed it. The trail maps were not good enough.

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