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  • Writer's pictureDale Hill

ECM² - El Cajon/El Capitan

Date: January 22, 2022

Distance: 11.25 miles

Total Elapsed Time: 7h 4m

Total Moving Time: 6h 13m

Summit Elevation: 3,642 feet

Elevation Gain: 3,170 feet

Trailhead: El Capitan Reserve, Wildcat Canyon Road

Previous Ascents:

  1. January 2, 2021

  2. January 31, 2020

Notes: Includes a side trip to El Capitan summit

Getting an Early Start

El Cajon Mountain is peak number 5 out of 6 on my San Diego Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge this year and the great thing about this hike is that the trailhead is only 11 miles from my front door!

Consequently, I was able to keep my normal weekday morning routine: wake at 0430 and be out the door somewhere around 0515. I arrived at the trailhead at 0530, was geared up, and pushed the record button on my GAIA GPS at 0542!

El Cajon Mountain (ECM) is located in the El Capitan Open Space Preserve, most commonly accessed from Wildcat Canyon. There is a nice parking lot at the trailhead however it is gated and locked between 5:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m., so if you're an early riser (or late finisher) you'll want to park off the road somewhere along Wildcat Canyon. My only unsuccessful attempt at El Cajon Mountain was the weekend before my first summit in January 2020. I underestimated the time it would take me to reach the summit and return to the parking area. I was monitoring my distance and time of day as I headed to the summit and decided that I had to turn around short of my goal in order to get back to the lot before I was locked in. Now, I just park on the road and don't worry about it. 🤷🏻‍♂️

Hardest Hike in San Diego?

El Cajon Mountain is often referred to as the "Hardest Hike in San Diego", probably due to its rollercoaster hills that make you feel like you're always going uphill, even on the "descent". Having completed the San Diego 100 Peak Challenge in 2020, personally, I feel there are several hikes in San Diego County that are more difficult than El Cajon Mountain. Don't get me wrong, this is a VERY challenging hike, and can be especially brutal in the summer due to lack of shade and high temperatures, but there are tougher hikes out there. I think it may be more accurate to describe it as the hardest hike in the San Diego County Department of Parks and Recreation system of trails.

Primary Considerations when hiking ECM

  1. Time of year. This is best attempted in cooler temperatures, there is little-to-no shade on this trail, and during the summer months, temps can easily exceed 100º F

  2. Your Endurance Level. This is a strenuous hike that picks up over 3,000 feet of vertical gain with many steep ascents/descents on the 11-mile roundtrip to the summit. Have you trained and prepared progressively to handle this distance and elevation gain? Remember, this is not just a single continuous ascent, the trail is a rollercoaster with several ups and downs along the way.

  3. Road Condition. A healthy portion of this trail is a dirt road (officially designated as an Emergency Fire Road), but don't let that give you a false sense of security, there are sections that are washed out and rutted (lots of loose rock) and much of the hardpacked road has a thin layer of loose sand on it. This combination of loose sand on a hard base makes it EXTREMELY slippery on the descents, even the "grippiest" shoes or boots are going to slide. In my opinion, the best time to do this is not too long after a rain event where the ground will be softer and provide better traction.

  4. Trail Condition. The single-track trail portions of this route are mostly Class 1 with some Class 2 scrambling on the final section to the summit. The early section from the restroom facility to the dirt road is well-worn and maintained and is a straightforward hike with no surprises. At the end of the County maintained trail, the single track that goes up to the summit is marked with green fiberglass trail stakes to identify the route.

  5. Gear Selection. Gear is a highly personal thing and will be tied to your skillset, objectives for the hike, and comfort level. If you're a trail runner, you will prepare differently for this route than you would if you are a hiker/backpacker. As a hiker, I strongly advocate making sure you have the 10 Essentials with you. Wear the appropriate footwear for your goal, properly fitted and in good condition. If you're hiking, I personally feel that trekking poles (or something similar) are essential on this trail. My default hiking kit would be considered overkill by many but it works for me, I had several people I met on the trail today ask me if I camped out at the summit! 🤣 (I had my Osprey Stratos 36L pack with my usual collection of gear, my Recon Chest Pack, AKU Alterra GTX hiking boots, Sitka Storm Gaiters, Smartwool Baselayer, trekking poles, etc.)

  6. Hydration. This is where most people fail miserably, I literally cringe when I meet people on this trail and they have one 500ml Kirkland water bottle in their hand.🙄 I started out with 3L in my hydration pack and a 1L bottle dedicated to my electrolyte mix. In the summer I wouldn't start with anything less than 6L. Remember that a liter of water weighs 2.2 pounds and the added weight is something you have to plan for. There are no water sources along this trail, so you can't skimp on how much you carry in hopes of finding water to filter.

  7. Your Skillset. Again, this is highly individual. There is no real "exposure" when you stay on the maintained trail, exposure in this context is considered a place where you could fall from a cliff or rock outcropping and become seriously injured or die. So you don't need mad climbing skills, but how comfortable are you in loose rock or sand-covered hard-pack on steep inclines/declines? I spoke with multiple folks today that cut their hikes short just shy of the 3-mile point because they felt unsafe with the slip and fall potential.

  8. Sun Protection. Exposure generally has two meanings on a hike, and as mentioned in item 7 above this hike has minimal exposure to life-threatening falls, however, it has a very high sun exposure rating. Sunblock, sunglasses, a wide-brim hat, and SPF-rated clothing are different options that must be considered at ANY time of the year on this hike.

Just Git 'Er Done

Looking back toward the Trailhead from 2,000 Ft. Elev.

For some of the reasons I listed above, ECM can be the hike that people love to hate. Sometimes it's like ripping off a bandaid, you just have to grit your teeth and do it. 🤣 For me, I really don't mind this hike, it's a good challenge, there are great views, it's a good workout, and the trailhead is about 15-minutes from my front door.

My plan was simple: prep my gear the night before, wake up at the same time I would for a normal workday, make the short drive to the trail, and get started early enough so that I'd be home by early afternoon. That worked out well and I was underway at 5:42 a.m. with only one person on the trail ahead of me. As I headed up the road, other hikers were getting out of their cars and preparing their gear. I would ultimately pass all of them on my way back down from the summit but I'd periodically look behind me to see if I could see them. About 25 minutes into my hike, I paused briefly on the trail at 2,000 feet and sure enough, I could see their headlamps bobbing along in the dark below. 😊

Sunrise on the Mountain

Ideally, I should have started an hour earlier to get the BEST sunrise photos, as it turned out I wasn't in the optimal spot as the sun started coming up. Still, it was a beautiful morning and I did get some cool shots along the way.

GAIA GPS & Mile Marker Progress

One of the nice features of this trail is the regular post-mile markers and progress signs. At each mile of the trail (and at 3.5 and 4.5 miles), there is a wooden post marking your progress, it also includes a small "you are here" sign depicting the full elevation rise and fall of the trail (which, depending on where you are currently at, can be slightly demoralizing 😳). Each post also includes the GPS coordinates of your location.

Since I've hiked this trail a couple of times already and I was starting out in the dark, I decided rather than take a ton of pictures, I'd instead do screenshots of my GAIA GPS App at 1-mile intervals to monitor my speed and progress. I also took a picture of the post-mile marker at each interval as well, with the noted exception of the 3-mile marker (it was on a section of trail that I by-passed this year, more on that below)

I felt good about my progress checks, I was maintaining a comfortable pace and despite the elevation gained and lost, I averaged 1.8 mph for the first 5 miles, ending up at the summit in record time (for me) with no recordable non-moving time.

Left Turn Detour

On both of my previous ascents, I did as most people would, I followed the road all the way to the top. At 2.8 miles into the hike, there is a T-intersection where another dirt road connects to the main trail, it's not marked and unless you had checked it out on a map beforehand, you're not likely to know that it is a quarter of a mile detour that connects back to the main road. A few hundred yards before reaching this intersection, there is a sign warning that the trail ahead is washed out and to use caution in the area.

Last year I made note of the sign and continued on, the washed-out area was super sketchy, lots of loose rock, very rutted, and steep. It was slow going on the ascent and I was not looking forward to descending through that mess. When I reached the stop sign (yes, there is a stop sign on this trail 🤣), I noticed a trail merging in from the left. I paused to look at this alternate trail on the map and realized it was a slightly shorter route that bypassed the washed-out area. I took the bypass on my way back down on that trip.

The dirt road surface was in much better condition than the washed-out area and I decided on any future hike, I'd take the bypass both ways. It's not any less steep, but the footing is much better, especially if there's been a recent rain event or if you stick to either side of the trail where you'll encounter less hardpack.

I cruised through the next couple of miles, snapping random pictures along the way...

It's 2 miles from the Stop Sign to the end of the county-maintained trail where you can either go left and summit El Cajon Mountain or go right and summit El Capitan...

From this point, it's just under a half-mile to the summit boulders. The trail is much more narrow as it winds its way through the Manzanita and mini-boulders, the easy part about this next segment is that it's very well marked by green fiberglass trail stakes.

The Path To The Summit

This has to be one of my favorite parts of the trail, it's still a nice little climb to the top, but you can see the summit in the distance. Pay attention to the trail stakes as you'll see a variety of options, they do their best to keep everyone on a single trail. The closer you get to the top, the tighter the trail seems, and the closer together the markers are.

Summit At Last!

As I approached the summit, I passed the lone hiker who had started ahead of me, we chatted for a minute as he told me he had left some Cliff Bars and handwarmer packets at the summit. I really didn't need the survey mark photos for my database, but I did bounce around from boulder to boulder to snap some pictures of each for my summit collection before dropping back down a nice flat rock outcropping to eat my summit snack.

I was surprised when I took my summit screenshot in GIAA, I had made it to the summit in 3h 11m with zero stopped time. While I know I did stop at several points to take photos, none of those breaks were long enough to register as "non-moving" time. I usually take an hour on a summit, time to eat, socialize, take pictures, and look for survey marks. Today, I really only needed to eat and go. There were a couple of trail runners who reached the summit as I ate, but I was focused on spending no more than 30 minutes at the summit in total.

Before packing up to leave, I made a quick check of the weather conditions (we had forecasted high winds for the day) but things were pretty calm at the summit with winds 4-5 mph, gusting to a maximum of 9 mph. I recorded this summit video, then headed over to El Capitan to bag that peak before starting back down the trail.

El Capitan Summit

As I mentioned earlier, the off-shoot trail to go to the summit of El Capitan Mountain is a short and easy hike, a half-mile round trip, and it checks off another Peakbagger peak 😉 There's a beat-up old metal building at the top (looks more like a shed!) and a bunch of boulders that you can scramble up onto for some great views.

There's a weather data collection set-up just west of the summit boulders, I had contemplated bushwhacking my way over there on the off chance that there would be some kind of survey marker set near the station, but I have no concrete proof that there would be one, and there wasn't even a hint of a trail to get there. Perhaps on another day when I have my brush-clearing tools with me 🤔

As I was leaving the summit, two guys rode up on some serious mountain bikes (with apparent battery assist), I chatted with them for a couple of minutes about their ride, wished them a safe return, and then I headed back down to begin my return journey.

Mile-by-Mile Stats On Descent

Screenshots from the return trip taken at each mile, I was interested to see that my moving speed was consistently between 1.6 and 1.8 mph despite the changing terrain. Since I made a quick trip up to El Capitan Summit, my actual miles traveled didn't sync with the post-mile markers so I opted for taking screenshots at 1-mile intervals starting at the 6-mile point on El Cap.

Relive® 3D Video of Today's Trek

The Third Time is Charmed

Yeah, I know, it's a twist on the original idiom "Third time is the charm" which usually means you're finally successful on the third attempt at...whatever. This was my third summit of El Cajon Mountain, the first two were successful, but this one was my most enjoyable, or 'charmed'.

I was enthusiastic on my first summit, but really had no idea of what lay ahead of me, and I kept wondering when the incessant up and down would end and I'd finally reach the summit 😂. On my second summit, I knew what to expect and even planned some extra survey mark hunting as part of my trip, it was a long day because I added miles on looking for (but never finding) the EL CAJON AZIMUTH mark.

Today was simply a joy. I was hiking solo so I cruised at my own pace, I wanted to start before sunrise so I'd be home at a reasonable time and I had hopes of catching the sunrise on the mountain. I felt good, and just soaked in the nice weather, peace, and solitude. This was my fifth hike of six on the San Diego Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge for 2022, my last peak on this challenge is Hot Springs Mountain located on the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation, I'll tackle that one next weekend with the intention of completing the challenge before the end of the month.

If you've been following my hikes this year, you'll know I set out at the stroke of midnight on January 1st with three friends and the goal of completing all six hikes in less than 48 hours. Phil and Kayla went on to successfully summit all six peaks in under 36 hours, while Sierra completed Palomar and Hot Springs Mountain before an Achilles tendon issue sidelined her.

I completed that first hike on Palomar Mountain, then had to bow out because my knee was bothering me. If you missed that article, check out Happy Hiking New Year for all the details. I teamed up with Sierra the following weekend and we completed the next three hikes on the list: Volcan Benchmark, Cuyamaca Peak, and Corte Madera Mountain, you can read about that adventure at Half a Six-Pack In a Day And of course, stay tuned to hear how things go on Hot Springs Mountain!

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1 Comment

Feb 03, 2022

Fantastic write up, Dale.

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