If you like big trees, Middle Peak is the place to go in San Diego County. Middle Peak's cone-shaped form is capped with some of the largest coniferous trees in the Cuyamaca Mountains and in all of San Diego County.
The old fire roads and trails that encircle Middle Peak have long been popular hiking routes. The hike described here involves 5.7 miles of travel, 1100 feet of elevation gain, and swings north to include a particularly luxuriant section of forest overlooking Cuyamaca Reservoir.
Begin at a parking area in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park just south of Cuyamaca Reservoir, mile 10.7 on Highway 79. Walk west across the highway and pick up the Minshall Trail going north along the roadside. At about 0.7 mile, the trail pulls away from the highway, turns westward behind several cabins, and joins a dirt road. Continue 0.2 mile on this dirt road, then go left on the Sugar Pine Trail (an old roadbed), which begins a moderate ascent toward Middle Peak's summit.
You climb through dense forests of black oak, white fir, and incense-cedar, reversing direction twice. After the second switchback, or hairpin turn, Jeffrey pines appear along with patches of bracken fern, now unfolding in vernal splendor. A little higher, you come upon the first sugar pines; notice the long, narrow cones on the tips of the drooping branches. Some of the sugar pines on Middle Peak have diameters over six feet. Both sugar pines and Jeffrey pines exhibit "jigsaw-puzzle patterns" in their bark -- but the Jeffrey pines are distinguished by smaller cones and shorter branches.
At 2.5 miles the road passes the foundation of an old cabin and curves southwest to join Middle Peak Fire Road. Keep left at the intersection, go 50 yards, and then turn left, staying on Middle Peak Fire Road.
The summit of Middle Peak now lies south and about 200 feet above you. (You can make the trail-less scramble to the top easily enough as a side trip, but views in all directions are screened by low-growing brush and trees.) Continue east, then south around the upper flank of Middle Peak, keeping straight on the Black Oak Trail as Middle Peak Fire Road veers left and begins a sharp switchbacking descent toward the starting point.
In another mile you'll come down to an intersection of roads and trails on a saddle. Veer sharply left (east) on Milk Ranch Road to complete the hike. As you walk along Milk Ranch Road, you'll be treated to some superb vistas of broad, rolling meadows and distant, thickly forested slopes. The color palette right now is almost exclusively green -- but when the leaves of the black oaks flush a bright yellow around late October and early November, these same vistas are reminiscent of autumnal Appalachian landscapes.