Skiing in San Diego County’s mountains? Fact or fiction? The answer in any given winter season varies, but it is typically “fact” for one or two brief periods of time per year. The type of skiing I’m talking about is cross-country or Nordic skiing, which can take place successfully on a meager few inches of snow. On several days in December, winter storms deposited variable amounts of snow on San Diego County’s upper elevations. Just two weeks ago, I enjoyed yet again another fine ski tour of the trails of the Cuyamaca Mountains.
If you have Nordic ski equipment, simply wait for another cold, wet storm to hit San Diego (most likely in January through early February). Arise very early the next morning, and take off at your earliest convenience for the Cuyamaca or the Laguna Mountains. If you live in East County, areas where skiing is possible lie as little as 30 minutes away via Interstate 8. Haste does not make waste in this case. Usually, you’ll have only a few hours of prime skiing conditions before the ascendant sun softens the snow, and lowlanders clog every parking lot and roadside turnout. By 9 or 10 in the morning, it may be impossible to find a parking space.
In San Diego, cross-country ski and boot rentals are available from Norpine Mountain Sports on Clairemont Drive (619-276-1577). The use of tire chains could be required at higher elevations, but only in very rare instances. Also, be sure to park your car fully on the road shoulder or turnout (where allowed), completely out of any traffic lane.
The highest part of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, mapped here, features more than one challenging route for cross-country skiers. It’s much easier to ski on fire roads (double-dash patterns on the map) rather than on the park’s narrower (single-dash) trails. That’s especially true now, since some of the narrower trails have tended to be smothered by fast growing wild lilac and other shrubs in the aftermath of the 2003 Cedar Fire.
The generously wide West Mesa and Fern Flat fire roads (accessible from the West Mesa trailhead at mile 7.3 on Highway 79, north of the visitor center) offer gentle gradients at altitudes between 4000 and 5500 feet. The wide, south leg of the Azalea Glen Trail also works well for skiing, but not the narrower and steeper northern sections of that trail.
Experienced skiers can try the Lookout Road from Paso Picacho Campground to the summit of Cuyamaca Peak (elevation 6512 feet) and back, 5.5 miles round trip. The strenuous ascent is followed by an at-times terrifying descent back down, which is practical only when the snow is soft and powdery (and not icy). Another possible route could take you around the summit of Middle Peak by way of Milk Ranch Road and Middle Peak Fire Road. The Lookout Road and Milk Ranch Road are sometimes used by maintenance vehicles and may be plowed at some point after snow collects on them.
This article contains information about a publicly owned recreation or wilderness area. Trails and pathways are not necessarily marked. Conditions can change rapidly. Hikers and skiers should be properly equipped and have safety and navigational skills. The Reader and Jerry Schad assume no responsibility for any adverse experience.
Cuyamaca Ski Routes
Kick and glide along the higher-elevation trails of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park — if snow arrives.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 45 miles
Skiing length: Up to 10 miles, depending on conditions
Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous