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Oak leaves fluttering in the sunlight, pine needles soughing in the breeze, gray squirrels scurrying, and pungent-sweet fragrances in the air. These dependable pre-Cedar-fire experiences are now a work-in-progress. The rate and extent of postfire forest renewal in the coming years will depend largely on the amount of rainfall this winter and in future wet seasons.

The looping West Mesa route, almost never steep, sticks to old fire roads traversing the southeast flank of Cuyamaca Peak. If snow happens to fall at low elevations (down to 3000 or 4000 feet) -- an event most likely in late December or January --the route can be perfect for an early-morning cross-country ski tour. That perfection, however, is marginal and short-lived, lasting for only a few hours after the snow falls and before the sun shines brightly.

To get to the starting point, follow Highway 79 12.8 miles south from Julian or 10.0 miles north from Interstate 8 at Descanso. Observe the stenciled highway mileage markers as you go. The trailhead parking area is on the east side of the road at mile 7.3.

From the parking area, cross to the other side of Highway 79. Head west around a gate and continue up West Mesa Fire Road through burned oaks and pines. After 0.5 mile you come to a junction from where West Mesa Fire Road continues southwest toward Japacha Spring and the Fern Flat Fire Road branches right (northwest). Either direction you choose at the intersection is fine since this is a loop hike, but let's assume you're going counterclockwise. Head northwest and ascend through more burned pine forest. Staying left at the next two trail junctions (following West Mesa Trail), you level off at about the 5200-foot contour and continue around several small ravines carpeted with bracken fern and other shade-loving greenery. You're in the middle of the biggest block of state wilderness within the park.

The Burnt Pine Trail (a disused fire road), intersecting from the right, can be used to reach Cuyamaca Peak, but it's a long and tedious haul. Beyond this intersection, the West Mesa Trail starts a gentle descent across a bald spot on the mountain slope. A beautiful vista of swaying grasses, rolling hills, and distant mountain ridges lies before you.

The descent quickens and you soon come to the Arroyo Seco Trail (another former fire road) on the right. Stay left and continue along the top of Airplane Ridge. After 0.9 mile, round the hairpin turn (Monument Trail junction on the right) and notice the side trail on the left leading a short distance to the obscure Airplane Monument. It's worth the short side trip to see the vintage engine of an aircraft that fell from the sky in 1922.

Continue descending, into and around the shady canyon of Japacha Creek, and in 1.2 miles from the hairpin turn come to the junction of Japacha Fire Road. Japacha Spring is nearby, accessible via a short spur trail.

Continue northeast along the edge of the broad meadow at the foot of Arrowmakers Ridge, and retrace your earlier steps on the West Mesa Fire Road back to your starting point.

This article contains information about a publicly owned recreation or wilderness area. Trails and pathways are not necessarily marked. Conditions can change rapidly. Hikers should be properly equipped and have safety and navigational skills. The Reader and Jerry Schad assume no responsibility for any adverse experience.

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