Some of the loftiest -- and loneliest -- mountain country in San Diego County lies on the 25,000-acre Los Coyotes Indian Reservation. You won't find any casino here, but you will discover San Diego County's obscure high point, Hot Springs Mountain. At elevation 6533 feet, it beats the better-known 6512-foot Cuyamaca Peak by a whisker. With its network of graded and unmaintained roads (only a few of which are shown on the adjoining map), the reservation draws a steady stream of weekend campers, hikers, mountain bikers, and four-wheel-drive enthusiasts. Trail motorcycles are not allowed; leashed dogs are.
Hot Springs Mountain may be approached by way of three distinct routes. The maintained but dry and dusty 7.6-mile-long Lookout Road leading to a disused fire-lookout tower atop the mountain is perfect for high-clearance vehicles and mountain bikers. A shorter, steeper, more precarious jeep road ascending from the reservation's main campground can be used instead.
Most hikers will enjoy the shorter climb from Nelson's Camp, a small campground accessible by car in the remote northern portion of the reservation. From the camp, hike west and then south up a densely shaded north-facing slope on a primitive road barely negotiable by the most nimble of off-road vehicles. Once you reach the top of the hill, turn right and complete the walk to the summit via the Lookout Road. This hike measures 2.8 miles one-way, with an elevation gain of 1250 feet.
The old lookout tower has become increasingly dilapidated and dangerous -- with rotting and broken wooden steps. A better view awaits you just east, on a small concrete platform topping a large boulder. This is the true summit of Hot Springs Mountain. A bit of hand-and-toe climbing is required to gain the last 20 feet of elevation. As seen from the flat platform, steep canyons yawn to the west and north, and the Salton Sea often shimmers like a mirage on the eastern horizon. On sunny days, soaring enthusiasts riding the thermals quietly buzz the summit using their lean-looking aircraft.
To reach the Los Coyotes reservation, turn east on Camino San Ignacio from Highway 79 at Warner Springs and follow the signs. Entry fees are $10 per car, $12 for overnight camping. Los Coyotes is open year-round on the weekends and holidays, weather and road conditions permitting. Call first if you plan to visit on a weekday: 760-782-0711.