Tucked against a rocky, sunburnt hillside in the San Diego River valley outside Lakeside, El Monte Regional Park is a shock to the eye on a bright summer day. The park spreads across 98 flat acres bright green with irrigated lawns and spotted black with dozens of massive, brooding coast live-oak trees. In the early 20th Century the oaks were a frequent destination of picknickers taking refuge from the hot summer sun and campers who regarded the locale as remote from San Diego and probably a little exotic. In the 1920s, spearheaded by local citizens, El Monte became one of San Diego's original county parks. With more than 100,000 visits a year today, the park has become one of the most popular, yet unsung, inland destinations within San Diego County.
To get to the park entrance from Interstate 8, exit at Lake Jennings Park Road, drive 1.5 miles north, turn right (east) on El Monte Road, and proceed 4 miles up along the valley of the San Diego River. As you approach the park, the granite-ribbed south face of El Cajon Mountain, nicknamed "El Capitan" in reference to the similar-looking El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, rears higher and higher in the sky. The mountain's presence arches over the park, shadowing it in early morning and glowing with the warm light of the setting sun by late afternoon. Parking within the fenced park boundary costs $2 per day.
Because El Monte Park is fenced, hiking opportunities are limited, though you may enjoy endless circuits of walking or running around its perimeter, which measures about two-thirds of a mile. Note that there is, as yet, no public easement for hiking from the park toward the face of El Capitan. Mostly, the park serves as a cool summertime refuge for family picnicking (there are seven reservable picnic areas on the grass), weddings, dancing (in an outdoor dance pavilion), and for sports such as volleyball.
El Monte Park's hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9:30 a.m. to sunset on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays. For more information on this and the other regional parks operated by the County of San Diego, call 858-694-3049.