Vien R. Guenther
Volcan & Five Oaks Trail – Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve, San Diego County, California
Updated: Jan 8
This must be one of the best, if not the best, hiking trails in San Diego County. This trail is located in the Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve, which encompasses 2,900 acres of preserved land. It offers lush forest, in some areas, and stunning 360-degree views of the coast (on a clear day), mountains and desert. This trail is worth huffing and puffing to the top. The Volcan Mountains are part of the Peninsular Ranges, from Southern California to the southern tip of the Baja California Peninsula.
TO GET HERE
Coming from Downtown San Diego it is about a 1 hour and 18-minute drive via CA-94 and CA-125 to I-8/Kumeyaay Highway heading east, the fastest route. Then take exit to CA-79 North/Japatul Valley Road all the way to the historic town of Julian. From the main road, turn right to 78/Banner Road/Banner Grade and then left to Wynola Road. Drive past Julian Orchards Drive (people tend to turn into this drive by mistake, including us), and then turn left on Farmer Road. There is no designated parking lot on this trail but you can park on both sides of the road, along Farmer Road.
Coming from Ramona is about 36-minute drive via CA-78 East/Julian Road and 79/Old Julian Highway. From the town, turn left to Wynola Road and after 3.4 miles, past Julian Orchards drive, turn left to Farmer Road.
- THE HIKE –
This hike is considered moderately challenging, due to its sometimes steep ascent all the way to the top, but you have a choice. You can either take a multi-use 5 mile out-and-back to the summit, or take a detour on a “hikers only” trail, the Five Oaks Trail, which adds a little bit of distance to the hike.
VOLCAN & FIVE OAKS TRAIL -6.0 miles
The trail begins on Farmer Road but you have to walk for two minutes (0.2 miles) to the Main Trailhead/Hubbell Gateway. If you haven’t been on this trail, you will be surprised at this beautiful gate, something we haven’t seen on any trails before. The fancy gate was designed by renowned artist, James Hubbell, best known for designing and building one-of-a-kind organic-structures. His studio, located in Julian, is open to the public on certain dates. The fee to visit his place is not cheap, but probably worth the expense.
Hiking here, we found a big concentration of Manzanita (little apple) along the trail, some as big as trees. There are 105 subspecies of manzanita from the ground-hugging species on the coast to the tree-like species in the mountains. Its characteristics are smooth and shiny red bark. It's as if covered with varnish. They bloom in winter and early spring, and when we hiked here bees were buzzing all around them.
Half a mile from the Gateway, there is a trail that branches off to the right, the Five Oaks Trail. To continue uphill on the main trail is your choice, but this route offers scenic views and switchbacks for 1.2 miles until it joins the main trail again. Taking this detour is a welcome break in an otherwise monotonous uphill section of the main trail.
This trail follows the mountainside where there are views to admire on the southwest and southeast side. Although it's a switchback trail, there are some steps on some sections of the trail.
Before you reach the junction, you will pass a grove of oak trees with big trunks and wide canopies. Oak trees once dominated the area, before the arrival of the Spaniards. Acorns gathered from these trees were once a primary food source for indigenous people.
Past the oak trees, the trail opens into a meadow. From this trail (photo below) you can see part of the ridge that will take you to the summit. You can barely see the tower above.
About 50 yards from the junction is a site where a proposed observatory was once considered. What's left of the outpost built to provide shelter during the research is gone except for the chimney. The proposed Hale Telescope was built on Palomar Mountain instead. Then about .18 mile from the junction is a viewing area. I don't think the viewing scope provided there works though. I tried it, but maybe I did not focus it right.
Now, the best part of the trail is up ahead. The ridge offers views of both the east and the west. The desert on the east side seems closer at this stretch of the trail and the stunning view is worth the climb.
The view to the east is Shelter Valley and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Beyond is Salton Sea. We actually saw part of it although it was hazy.
To better enjoy the view, there is a rock bench provided for hikers. The top of the bench is beautifully decorated with colorful pieces of tiles. One metal plate insert is a quote by John Muir. The other is a memoriam for the founder and president of the Volcan Mountain Foundation, Peter Lodge Bergstrom.
Just around the corner is the summit where an old Airway Beacon Light Tower System stands, developed in the 1920s and used by Air Mail pilots. The beacon is gone but it was one of more than 2,000 beacons serving 124 airways across the United States, until modernization arrived. Near the tower is a picnic table, a nice spot to rest and have lunch.
Hiking back down is just as scenic as hiking up. This is definitely a beautiful hike. Something we can do again next winter, or early spring.
The preserve is closed during wet weather (1/2 inch of rain or any snow) until the trails dry out to prevent damage to the trail. Dogs are allowed but must be on a leash. Be aware, rattlesnakes and mountain lions exist in this preserve. We haven't seen any (knock on wood!) but they put a sign there for hikers to be aware.
The Volcan & Five Oaks Trail captured from GPS and downloaded to Google Earth.