Cuyamaca Peak via Conejos Trail

Posted: May 15, 2016 in Hiking, Live Locally
Tags: , , ,
Distance 8.2 Miles out and back
Elevation Change 1762′ gain/loss
Difficulty Moderately Strenuous
Rating (on the day we went) 4.5+ Stars (out of 5) – Had the day been clearer this could have easily been a 5 star hike.
Trail Conditions and Route From the parking lot on CA 79, walk west on the unpaved fire road, Milk Ranch Road for 1.7 miles. Turn left (south) on the unpaved road Azalea Fire Road and follow it for .2 miles to Conejos Trail on the right. Conejos Trail is a clear trail with varying conditions. About half of the trail is relatively smooth, but the other half is small to large loose rocks. Turn right on the fairly steep paved Lookout Road to finish the climb to the top of Cuyamaca peak.
Comments Although the area surrounding Cuyamaca peak was hit hard by the 2003 Cedar fire, this route is a great way to see nature as it recovers from fire. There are fewer “tree skeletons” than on the route up the paved Lookout Road, and most of the route shows strong signs of recovery.
Latitude/Longitude 32.976615, -116.581393
Directions Take Interstate 8 East to CA 79 North, follow CA 79 North for 13.5 miles to the junction of Milk Ranch Fire Road. You’ll see a parking area on the north side of the road. This area also is the trail head for Middle Peak, and for trails toward Cuyamaca Lake. After parking carefully cross CA 79 and head straight west along Milk Ranch road. There will be a road that branches off to the left for horse trailers, stay right.

Cuyamaca Peak is the second highest peak in San Diego county, but only by less than 30 feet. Also the hike to the summit of the highest peak, Hot Springs Mountain is 500 feet less climb than Cuayama Peak’s 1700 feet plus climb. The one disappointment I had while planning this hike was that the route described in the book Afoot and Afield in San Diego is up a completely paved route. So I decided to look at other options. I decided to try the route that included Conejos Trail. Although the climb is slightly more and the distance about 2.6 miles more, I was glad to not be pounding the pavement up and especially down the hill! In order to get to Conejos Trail we started at the same parking area as for the Middle Peak trail head as described in the book Afoot and Afield in San Diego. For this route we followed Milk Ranch Road, instead of taking Minshall Trail north. We also continue past Middle Peak Fire road at .2 miles our destination was to the south, not the north.

I had been expecting to see a lot of dead trees on this hike as we had on our hike up nearby Stonewall Peak earlier this year. There were dead and burnt trees along the route…

Large burnt tree trunk along Milk Ranch Road with Stonewall Peak in the distance

but there were also areas of mature trees as well as areas that were starting to recover. Milk Ranch Road actually passed through a few areas with the shade of large groves of mature trees.

Milk Ranch Road passing through a grove of mature trees

The healthiest of these trees were the Arizona Ash trees. Here is a closeup of the leaves on this tree. Not sure if these trees just mature quickly or if they were unaffected by the fires.

Closeup on the leaves of a mature Arizona Ash along Milk Ranch Road

Although this area used to be known for old growth sugar pines, I only saw one mature, but very scorched looking sugar pine along Milk Ranch Road.

One lone mature Sugar Pine along Milk Ranch Road

I really wish I had been here before the Cedar Fire.

There were also plenty of blooms along the road, the most spectacular were the clumps of Purple Lupine.

Purple Lupines along Milk Ranch Road

We’ve had a pretty wet spring, but I was surprised to see actual mud puddles in the road by the middle of May. I doubt these will be around much longer.

Mud puddles in mid May along Milk Ranch Road

At 1.7 miles in there is a low wooden rail on the left side of the road with a dual track road, Azalea Fire Road, beyond the rail. This intersection is well-marked with sign posts. Turn south to follow Azalea Fire Road for just .2 miles to the start of Conejos Trail. As the fire road approaches an area of fire devastation….

Fire devastated are ahead on Azalea Fire Road

take note of the trail that branches off to the right. This is the beginning of the Conejos Trail. This trail is also well-marked with a sign post, although the post is off the road quite a ways.

Beginning of Conejos Trail off Azalea Fire Road

This area of “tree skeletons” was what I had been expecting for the entire hike. When you look at Cuyamaca Peak from the road or other peaks in the area, it looks like this stuff covers the whole mountain. I really had thought that this hike would be kind of depressing because of this. However, Conejos Trail skirts around this area and/or, they have cleared a lot of dead trees in the area Conejos Trail goes through. What we expected and what we hiked through were not at all the same. It was a very pleasant surprise. We loved the area Conejos Trail passed through. Although the beginning of the trail is surrounded by dead trees and the faintness of the trail through the grass makes you question how established the trail really is…

Faint trail passing through area of fire devastation at the beginning of Conejos Trail

The trail soon becomes more established and the signs of recovery overwhelm the few dead trees left standing.

Lone tree skeleton in area of recovery along Conejos Trail

However, there are plenty of reminders of the mature forest that used to cover this slope.

Conejos Trail passes through remanants of a large dead tree

There are areas with smooth trail and high bushes…

Large bushes surround the smooth surface of Conejos Trail

and areas that are steeper and rockier…

Rocky part of Conejos Trail begins

and areas with less growth which have better views especially as you get further up the mountain.

The views from Conejos Trail improve as you climb

There is a ton of new growth pine trees along the trail. It is encouraging to see such strong signs of recovery especially after a few years of drought.

Unexpected fern along Conejos Trail to Cuyamaca Peak May 2016

One thing I didn’t expect to see along the trail in mid-May was ferns. One area along the trail had several very healthy looking ferns.

Unexpected fern along Conejos Trail to Cuyamaca Peak May 2016

As you approach the top of the Conejos Trail you can see a fairly large grove of mature pines that are near the summit of Cuyamaca Peak.

View of mature pine trees ahead near the summit of Cuyamaca Peak

By this point we were pretty hungry, so we were glad to be getting to the top. We wanted to eat lunch at the summit to enjoy the views. Our normal day hike lunch is a very easy and convenient sub from Subway. It makes getting out the door so much easier than preparing sandwiches for the hike. It always hits the spot.

Before getting to the mature grove of trees we passed through one more reminder of the devastation of the 2003 Cedar fire.

Crossing an area of fire devastation on Conejos Trail before Cuyamaca Peak

Then a brief stroll through the tall pines to the junction with Lookout Road.

Mature pines ahead

At the intersection we looked down the road a little, the pine forest in that direction looked very healthy. Only hunger kept us from walking back down the road a ways to enjoy this area.

Looking down Lookout Road from junction with Conejos trail

We headed up the road, but a trail about 75 meters up the road caught our attention and spurred enough curiosity to push the hunger back down briefly. We walked out along the slightly descending trail and discovered a bench overlooking an amazing view to the west. Bench with a view below the summit of Cuyamaca Peak

El Cajon Mountain (or El Capitan Open Space Preserve) in the middle of the view seemed much smaller and less significant that it does as you drive by it on the 8 freeway. Having hiked it a couple years ago, I know that it only looked small from here. It is a very challenging day hike and fun, if you like going up, then back down, then up further, then back down, then up even higher. Although it is only around 1900 feet above the trail head to the peak the hike has 4000 feet of gain/loss during the 14 mile out and back hike. We did this hike as one of our last hikes while training for our 2014 Grand Canyon rim to rim hike.

We briefly considered eating lunch here, but wanted to give the summit a look before lunch, so we headed up the rest of Lookout Road.

Heading back down from Cuyamaca Peak

Although there were some surviving mature pines along this stretch of Lookout Road they were out numbered by the dead hulks of large trees. We did come across one more lone surviving Sugar Pine.

Lone Sugar Pine near the top of Cuyamaca Peak

Although we did enjoy the views at the top of Cuyamaca Peak…

View toward the North east from Cuyamaca Peak

and checked out at least one potential lunch spot…

Potential lunch spot on Cuyamaca Peak

the hum from the ventilation system on the nearby buildings…

One of two areas with structures and antenna on Cuyamaca Peak

and an unbelievable number of pesky flying insects (never good at lunch time) made heading back down Lookout Road a half mile through the trees…

Heading back down from Cuyamaca Peak

and past the California Lilac…

California Lilac near the top of Lookout Road on Cuyamaca Peak

to the peaceful bench with a view seem like the best idea for lunch. During lunch I scanned the landscape to west below us to see if I could see any other familiar spots.

View of the vally to the west below Cuyamaca Peak

I thought I might be seeing an area near one of my favorite trails, Three Sisters Falls. I was pretty sure the road down there was Boulder Creek Road that we took to the trail head. However looking at the map and a little scrolling around on Google Earth and I could tell that I was seeing Boulder Creek Road, but that 3 Sisters Falls and the trail head were not visible, they were behind some of the mountains below us.

After lunch we headed back down the way we came. Parts of the trail seemed steeper and rockier than on the way up. If you go this way you may want hiking poles and you’ll want to take your time going down. I let Sean go first and we definitely did not go down slow. I think he may be part mountain goat! I managed to keep up with him, but my right knee paid a bit of a price. I’m hoping it will heal up quickly so we can get back out there soon! I think I’ll be bringing hiking poles next time. Near the bottom of the trail we saw a couple of wild turkeys in the small grassy area just off the road. They were huge! I got my camera out, but they were headed away from us pretty quickly I only managed to get one good picture of a single turkey crouching at the far side of the meadow. We looked around a little and saw a total of 3 turkeys, but they were elusive… moving away as quickly as we walked toward them.

Wild turkey crouching near the edge of a meadow near Milk Ranch Road

Although I have not hiked up the route in the book Afoot and Afield in San Diego, which is the wholly paved route up Lookup Road, I think this route is a good alternative if you dislike hiking on steep paved roads. If we decide to try hiking to Cuyamaca Peak on a clearer day in the future, I might also try some of the other trails that start further south, or we could decide to just head straight up the paved Lookout Road to try it out.

  1. Tammi Kale says:

    What a view!! Thanks for sharing!

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