If you happen to drive up for a hike to Iron Mountain and find the trailhead parking lot looking like Qualcomm Stadium on a day when the Chargers are playing the Raiders, don’t lose heart. There is a nearby alternative — the Ellie Lane Trail. It is another way to hike to Iron Mountain, but it also offers a loop hike with almost the same challenges and scenery as the hike up Iron Mountain. Although you are unlikely to find solitude here, the parking lot and most of the route is less crowded.
In the first mile, the trail takes goes up a hillside littered with huge, weathered granite boulders that will remind you of Mt. Woodson, which looms to the north. As you near the top of a ridge, there is a feature known as Table Rock, which looks like a stone table. Here is an excellent view of the ocean on a clear day.
From Table Rock, follow the signed Ellie Lane Trail in a southerly direction for another mile. Although the trail is reasonably well marked and maintained, some of the signs have disappeared. This is not usually a problem except at the unmarked junction of the Ellie Lane and Wild Horse trails, 2.0 miles from the staging area. If you go right, down the canyon, you will have taken the Wild Horse Trail, and you end up back at the Ellie Lane staging area, having hiked only about half the loop. The Ellie Lane Trail goes to the left, up the hill via a series of switchbacks to a saddle from which you overlook the Ramona area to the east as well as the ocean to the west. The saddle is at an elevation of 2475 ft, only 200 feet lower than Iron Mountain itself. From here, the Ellie Lane Trail leads down an east-facing slope and ends 3.3 miles from the Ellie Lane staging area as it joins the Iron Mountain Trail coming up from the Iron Mountain staging area.
At this point, you could hike up to Iron Mountain, which is slightly less than a mile and a half away, but up and back will add nearly 3 miles to your hike. Instead, go 1 mile down the Iron Mountain Trail, toward the Hwy 67 staging area, but before you get there, look for another trail going off to the right (north) that goes back to the Ellie Lane staging area and your car. As you will discover, this is a branch of the Wild Horse Trail.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 32 miles. Allow 40 minutes. Take SR-163 north and turn east on I-8. Drive east on I-8 to the turnoff north to Hwy 67 in El Cajon. Drive 13.5 miles north on Hwy 67. Look for the parking area on the east side of the highway that is just a half-mile north of the Poway Rd. traffic light — instead of the intersection entrance to the main Iron Mountain trailhead parking.
Hiking length: Almost 6 miles on a loop trail. Difficulty: Moderately strenuous to strenuous with about 1600 feet of elevation gain. No facilities. Bring ample water for the hike.