Vien R. Guenther
Cuyamaca Loop Trail – Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, San Diego County
Updated: Jan 6
Living permanently in San Diego County now, we have the luxury of exploring other hiking trails in the county, other than the three favorites we usually used to hike to during the holidays: Mt. Woodson, Iron Mountain and Elfin Forest. If you want to drive farther for a day hike, some challenging hikes can be found past the town of Julian in the Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. The park encompasses about 24,700 acres of land with over 100 miles of trails and several scenic hikes. This includes the second highest mountain peak in the county, the Cuyamaca Peak, also the highest peak in the park, and the Stonewall Peak located on the east side of the park. For serious hikers, climbing Cuyamaca Peak is worth paying $10 ($9 for senior) for parking. Parks need revenue after all to maintain the trails, and this is a well-maintained park.
TO GET HERE
If you are coming from San Diego, it’s about a 49 miles drive northeast to the park, an hour drive via I-8 East/Kumeyaay Highway, the fastest route. Then take CA-79 North all the way to Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.
Coming from Ramona it's about a 45-minutedrive via CA-78 heading east. Then head south on CA-79 all the way to Paso Picacho Picnic and Campgrounds, about 3 miles past Lake Cuyamaca to the park.
- THE HIKE -
It is best to hike here during winter time, there are hardly any hikers (at least on weekdays). We found ourselves alone on the trail, until we met some park crew doing some maintenance work and a couple of hikers at the top. However weekends is a different scenario - it could be crowded since this is a popular trail. Indeed, this is one of the trails that you will keep coming back to in San Diego County.
CUYAMACA PEAK VIA AZALEA GLEN LOOP – 7.7 miles
Most hikers probably take the Lookout Road to the summit of Cuyamaca Peak. It’s a shorter route but tough on the legs. A “leg burner” and hard on the feet, as my husband Hermann says. Taking this route is uphill all the way to the top, on a paved road. While taking the loop trail via Azalea Spring Fire is longer, it's easier since the trail is meandering with gentle grades.
Azalea Glen Loop Trail starts at the Paso Picacho Campground. You will pass over a wooden bridge before the trail opens up into a meadow. If you haven't been here, there are signs of burned trees, some still standing, left behind by the destructive Cedar Wildfire in 2003. Dense bushes have since taken over the area.
Along the trail you will find this big mound of bedrock with multiple holes in it. You probably walk over it thinking they are works of nature. Far from it.
These holes (bedrock mortar), are a grinding area; they were created by native Americans, the Kumeyaay people, for soaking and grinding acorns that they used to make flour; Acorn trees abound in the area, some have huge trunks and look ancient. Stick your hiking pole into these holes and you will see how deep some of them are.
Hiking to Cuyamaca Peak gets more interesting as you get higher. It seems like you will never get shade and be under the sun all the way. But wait until you get further up the trail. This trail offers great views of the mountains beyond, as well as nearby Middle Peak, Lake Cuyamaca and Stonewall Peak. Part of the way, you will hear a sound of a flowing stream and up ahead you will see a pocket of dense forest.
At a junction there are two signs. The trail to the left connects to the paved road while the trail to the right is a continuation of the Azalea Spring Fire Road. This route connects to the Conejos Trail after about a half mile, which eventually connects to the Lookout Road as well, in about two miles. The Conejos Trail is the most scenic of all the trails, as far as we are concerned. The views are amazing along this part of the trail.
When hiking in Colorado you would mostly find pine trees covering the mountains; out here in San Diego County there are diverse species of plants. Two plants that thrive here are the coulter pines with the biggest pine cones we've seen. The other is the manzanita, a hardwood shrub native to California where chaparral biome is found, made up mostly of shrublands.
Now, the hardest part of the hike is after the Conejos Trail connects to the Lookout Road. But take your time and stop once in a while and look back, just as we did. The beautiful views from this trail do not suck either. The cooler weather helps to tackle this final half mile to the top along the paved road.
We finally reached the summit. We had the place to ourselves! At least for a few minutes. A young couple appeared but did not linger after exchanging photo shoots with us. Although it was chilly and slightly windy it was sunny, a great day to hike.
To have lunch while looking at the panoramic views of San Diego County is something any hikers can relate to. It could have been a 360 degree view from the top if not for the transmitter towers, but overall the view was great. This is one of the trails that we will come back to any chance we get.
Going back down is easier since it's downhill all the way, though for some it's not good for the knees. The view is magnificent along the trail so you will want to stop and stare at the landscape.
The Cuyamaca Loop Trail captured from GPS and downloaded to Google Earth.
If you have time and want to tackle several trails in the area in one trip, the park has plenty of camping sites and good facilities.