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  • Writer's pictureDale Hill

El Cajon Mountain and Then Some

Updated: Jan 31, 2021

Date: January 2, 2021

Distance: 12.41 miles *

Total Elapsed Time: 8h 28m

Total Moving Time: 6h 32m

Summit Elevation: 3,675 feet

Elevation Gain: 3,860 feet *

Trailhead: El Capitan Reserve, Wildcat Canyon Road

Previous Ascents: January 31, 2020


  1. Includes a side trip to El Capitan summit

  2. Includes unsuccessful attempt to recover El Cajon Azimuth Mark east of El Cajon summit

Ocean view from El Cajon Summit at 4:30 p.m., January 2, 2021

El Cajon Mountain (ECM) has sometimes been called the toughest hike in San Diego County and because of that, it's a popular trail. The trailhead is located along Wildcat Canyon Road and it's not uncommon to see the County's designated parking lot full and cars lined up and down either side of the road.

A word of caution though, much like SR 67 (Woodson Mountain), Wildcat Canyon Road is busy and (in my opinion), dangerous because people drive it much too fast. If you're parking on the road, pay attention to traffic, particularly after dark.

Personally, I tend to be lazy getting to the start of El Cajon because the trailhead is so close to home. An 11-mile drive, 'doorstep-to-parking lot', mostly along Wildcat Canyon Road as it winds through Barona Indian Reservation and past the casino, it's just a 10-15 minutes drive for me.

Today I arrived at the trailhead a little before 10 a.m. and was surprised to find a spot on the shoulder directly across from the main parking lot. The County parking lot is gated and at this time of the year they lock the gate promptly at 4:30 p.m. since I had planned some "off-trail" adventures today and expected to be out after dark, I parked on the shoulder.

Nowadays, I always carry my headlamp, spare rechargeable battery, and a power source on all my hikes, the extra weight is worth the peace of mind. Like my first trip last year, I did end up finishing in the dark 🤣That's okay though, the sunsets were amazing.

Getting Underway

In my mind, the Trailhead is wherever I start hiking from, in this case, that was near the El Capitan Open Preserve sign next to the parking lot. However, some consider the trailhead to be about a half-mile in, at the end of Blue Sky Ranch Road where the restrooms and picnic tables are located.

Starting out from the parking lot, the road goes up steeply, flanked by private property. New (to me) since the last time I did this hike was a very cool self-service fruit stand near the driveway entrance to Blue Sky Ranch.

Kudos to the Trail Angels at Blue Sky Ranch for putting this together, in addition to the yummy looking fresh fruit, there was a cooler with bottled water nearby. It's all run on the honor system and I thought it was pretty awesome that there were instructions on how to send payment via Venmo if you were short on cash. I always pack food and had plenty of water so I passed by without a purchase, but was grateful they took the time to provide this. For those not familiar with the term, Trail Angels are people who go out of their way to make life a little (or sometimes a lot) better for hikers. While commonly found along longer thru-hiking routes like the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) they could pop up any place where there are kind and thoughtful people. ❤️

Difficulty: Strenuous

There are two things that make ECM such a strenuous hike, its rollercoaster nature, and its exposure. the route reminds me of that old saying:

When I was your age, I had to walk uphill to school, both ways, in the snow, with cardboard boxes for shoes!

While it'd be rare to see snow on ECM and hopefully you've got good hiking footwear, you'll definitely feel like you've walked uphill both ways on this trail! The trail varies from smooth single- and double-track to eroded, rocky, steep scrabble in places. The trail is obvious, so route finding is not an issue, but you do need to be careful on the washed-out sections.

My recommendation: Take the left turn at the 3 mile point 😉

On the ascent, near the 3-mile mark, the trail branches off to the left, it's a sharp turn that's easy to mistake for another trail as it appears to go down instead of up, so most people continue straight up the eroded trail (as I did, route A). The next couple hundred yards was sketchy, lots of loose rock and poor footing, I passed a few groups of people coming down this section and they were having a very difficult time of it, one woman I saw fell three times in the span of just 30 feet. When I passed the point where the previously mentioned 'left turn' trail rejoined the trail I was on, I made a mental note to take THAT way back (route B). It would prove to be the best choice even though it was just as steep; it was shorter, smoother, and safer (especially since I was under headlamps when I hit it on my way down).

This trail has no shade and when factored in with the terrain, heat and sun exposure are a very real hazard, plan on a minimum of 1 Liter of water per hour on the trail. Take note that the County shuts the trail down during August due to high temperatures.

El Capitan Summit

The order of the day was "El Cajon Mountain...and then some".

My first "and then some" diversion was to take a short side trip up to Peak 3367 better known as El Capitan summit, it only added a half-mile to my overall trip and the turnoff to go up to the peak was at the end of the County maintained trail.

Turn right and go to El Capitan summit or turn left and follow the trail to the ECM. The "straight-ahead" option is closed to protect sensitive Golden Eagle nesting areas. During my pre-hike planning, I was checking the topo map to see if I'd have any monumented Section Corner marks or other noted survey points along the route. There didn't appear to be any solid marks to investigate and only one faint possibility that was a few hundred yards past the El Capitan summit, as you can see in the accompanying video, it was going to be a bushwhack and it was likely that the spot was not 'monumented' (no physical marker) so that was easy to pass on.

El Cajon Mountain...Plus

Hiking back down to the junction, I started up the trail to ECM following the much more narrow single-track path. This is actually one of the coolest parts of the trail, officially off the County maintained trail, it is well marked by green stakes all the way up to the summit boulders and nifty sign (complemented by George and my Six-Pack of Peaks flag 🤣).

This is another one of those peaks that I did early in 2020 when I really wasn't dialed into looking for the survey marks, today my goal was to recover all 4: the station disc and two reference marks at the summit and the Azimuth marker that was about ½-mile due east of the station disc.

I had to go back up and over that ridge at the top

The first three were easily recovered at the summit before a took my lunch break. After lunch and some time visiting with other hikers, I decided to set out for the Azimuth mark figuring that it was only a ½-mile away and it couldn't be that hard to locate. I had the compass bearing from the station disc and I set out due-east, quickly running into thick manzanita and thorny chaparral that went from knee-high to shoulder height and higher very fast.

I bushwhacked downhill to the supposed location of the mark, cutting through the thicket, scrambling over boulders, and sliding down the hill, after more than an hour to go the ½-mile, I couldn't find the boulder with the disc!

Heading Back

It would take me almost an hour to scramble back up to the El Cajon summit to start my return trip to the truck. I started down right at 4:30 (just as the parking lot was being locked! THAT'S why I park on the road 🤣) I made good time on the return trip though, covering the 5 miles of county-maintained trail in 2 hours flat, an hour of that under lights.

Passing two families on the way to ECM

The only people I saw on my return trip was a group of two families (4 adults, 2 toddlers, and a boy about 7) I had passed them on the way up the trail earlier in the day.

I had found one of the little toddler's sunglasses on my way down the trail so I returned those, checked to make sure they were okay with water, snacks, batteries, etc. before heading past them.

They assured me they were doing well and replied “it just takes more time when we let the little ones walk.”

Judging from their gear and patience with the kids on the trail, I surmised they were well accustomed to hiking and would be fine. Still, I took my time stowing my gear once back at the truck and waited a bit until I could see their headlamps bobbing down the last section of the trail before heading home.

Relive 3D Video of the route

Today marked my second peak on the San Diego Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge 2021, it was a good day despite not locating the El Cajon Azimuth Mark. I had a great workout, met some very cool people on the trail, and enjoyed amazing views all day long. Since I opened with a sunset picture, I'll close with one...enjoy!

Another day well spent.

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