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On a bud-bursting spring day, Harper Creek's shallow, jewel-like pools invite tactile exploration — with more than just the fingers. Slide into one of the pools this month (assuming we get a decent amount of rain), and let the shock of cold water give rise to a yelp or a scream. Later in the season the water warms up quickly and becomes clogged with algae. By summer, in an average year, you will find only dry, sun-blasted slabs of water-polished rock here.

Harper Creek lies in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, not far from the Indian Museum and park headquarters, eight miles north of Descanso on Highway 79. You can park for up to two hours next to the park office and museum or for a longer time in several turnouts along Highway 79.

From the office and museum, walk east around the buildings of Camp Cuyamaca (school camp), descend to the sandy bank of the Sweetwater River, cross the sluggishly flowing river, and climb up to East Side Trail on the far side. Follow East Side Trail northeast across a grassy meadow. After about three-quarters of a mile, the trail turns briefly east and then crosses the Harper Creek. At this crossing, leave the trail and follow a side path along the left bank of the creek. The trail soon peters out -- but you can continue, with caution, by treading the rocky lower slopes of the narrowing canyon ahead.

The stream water flows over bedrock slabs, often streaked with mineral deposits, and collects in small pools, two or more feet deep, fed by mini-waterfalls. A gray-green mantle of lichens clings to the exposed rock above the creek. High on the slopes to either side are belts of chaparral, chiefly mountain mahogany, punctuated by the erect stalks of blooming yuccas. The best pools for immersion are about 0.1 mile up from the point where you leave East Side Trail; but the creek remains interesting looking for another 0.2 mile up-canyon.

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