19 February 2021
El Cajon Mountain Trail
(12 miles, +3,800/-3,800 feet).
Half Cookie and I have been wanting to do this hike for a while now. It is reputedly the “toughest hike in San Diego” so I thought it would be a good training hike for my upcoming attempt to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail. I don’t think it was as difficult as Rabbit Peak or the hike back from Agua Caliente to Mount Stephenson, but let’s just say I think I’m going to sleep well tonight!
The thing that makes this hike challenging is that the elevation gain is very steep, very slippery (often decomposed granite sand on slabs), and paradoxically, a lot of it happens AFTER you climb El Cajon Mountain. It’s not really a hike I would want to do again, but it does give some nice views of the ex urban San Diego chaparral and at the top you can see pretty much all the tall mountains in Southern California.
The parking lot sits right on Wildcat Canyon Road, and they just opened when we got there at 8am. It’s a half mile walk up a steep concrete road to the trailhead, and right before then a local ranch has an honor-system fruit stand (nice!).
We continued road walking past the trailhead, but there is now a nice footpath with switchbacks that you can take, too, for the first half mile or so (we missed it on the way up). Soon you get over the first ridge and a view of the whole day opens up
We slogged our way up and down some steep jeep roads that seemed not to care at all about local topography.
At the 3 mile mark there is a warning not to proceed if it is after noon because the parking lot is locked at 5:30pm (sharp!). Fortunately, it was only 9:30am so we trudged onward.
The really crazy thing about this trail is that it is a real roller coaster, and soon we lost nearly all the elevation we had gained. And it was nice not to push hard in the hot sun, but it was so slippery in places that Half Cookie and I both agreed it was actually preferable to go up instead of down.
Not too far from the saddle with El Capitan, an old jeep lies rusting on the side of the trail.
And then right past the saddle, the real fun begins. A climb that feels vertical at times, straight through the chaparral.
Then we headed back down. And then up. And then down again. And then up again.
On our way back we saw some para-gliders riding the currents around the ridge.
And then when we were almost back we found the new trail I mentioned above. It was sweet relief to ride switchbacks back down to the trailhead.