The drive to Paso Picacho Campground, plus the views along the Stonewall Peak, Vern Whitaker, and Cold Stream Trails, show both the devastation of the 2003 Cedar Fire plus signs of recovery. Started on October 25, this human-started fire burned close to 275,000 acres and has the title of being the largest wildfire in recorded California history as part of the SoCal fires labeled as the 2003 Firestorm.
This hike is best taken in the early morning or late afternoon to better take advantage of the panoramic scenery of 6512-foot Cuyamaca Peak, 5883-foot Middle Peak, 5993-foot North Peak, and Lake Cuyamaca and to better take note of the evidence of later controlled burns and plantings of pine trees among the fire-follower plants and dead oaks. It makes for a contemplative hike.
Begin the hike by carefully crossing SR-79 at the kiosk to intersect Cold Stream Trail and Stonewall Peak trail. Turn right on Stonewall Peak Trail and follow it to the 5730-foot peak past the northeast spur on the left near the summit. At the end of the dirt trail, walk over the sloped boulder and behind another before veering to the left, where, after a few feet, the steps and pipe handrail can be seen. Depending on the traffic to the summit, this is a good spot for a snack; or, for more shelter, come down to boulders where the wind is warmer and not as strong.
Return to the dirt trail and follow the northeast spur of the Stonewall Peak Trail, now on the right. After a 20-foot walk onto the spur, there is a pipe rail and signage stating “STAY ON TRAIL CRR 4326 to Los Caballos Horse Camp in 1.5 miles.” In early spring, snow can be seen in patches on the trip down on the trail shaded by the ceanothus or California lilac. A pair of binoculars is helpful in viewing acorn woodpeckers, flickers on the dead branches, hawks in the air, and possibly mule deer among the downed trees. Continue on the trail until it terminates, then turn left along the Vern Whitaker Trail to another left on the Cold Stream Trail to return to Paso Picacho’s parking area. Beware of the poodle-dog bush, a fire-follower seen on both sides of the Cold Stream Trail. It has a rank smell and is a skin irritant (if touched) that can cause large blisters that can last for weeks.
One mile further north on SR-79 N is the exit to Stonewall Mine with another mile to the parking lot. Look closely in the meadow for herds of mule deer — 24 were seen in early March. The final destination is a schoolhouse with the history of the mine found inside along with some remnants of mining equipment behind a fence. Gold was discovered in 1870; the mine produced $2 million before it closed in 1892.
- Distance from downtown San Diego: 50 miles. Allow 65 minutes driving time (Cuyamaca Rancho State Park). From I-8 E, exit north on CA-79 N/Japatul Valley for 3 miles, then left to stay on CA-79 N for 9.5 miles to the Paso Picacho Campground parking lot. Restrooms. Parking fee is $8, though subject to change.
- Hiking length: About 5.6 miles to complete the loop.
- Difficulty: Moderate. Approximately 900 feet elevation gain/loss in the first 3.5 miles. Steep steps to the windy peak, where a windbreaker is recommended. Do not hike to the top during lightning storms.