Some of the loftiest — and least-visited — mountain country in San Diego County lies on the 25,000-acre Los Coyotes Indian Reservation. San Diego County’s highest point, Hot Springs Mountain, with an elevation of 6533 feet, 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 our map), the reservation draws ever-increasing numbers of hikers, mountain bikers, and four-wheel-drive enthusiasts (trail motorcycles are not allowed, however).
Hot Springs Mountain, whose densely forested slopes and granitic tors make it the crown jewel of the reservation, may be approached in several ways. As of last month, low-slung passenger cars and vans were surviving the trip on the newly maintained but dusty, seven-mile-long Lookout Road leading to the old fire-lookout tower atop the mountain. Mountain bikers can tackle the nearly 3000-foot climb by way of either Lookout Road starting from the reservation entrance or by way of a shorter, steeper, more precarious ascent from the reservation’s main campground.
Hikers can launch their climb from Nelson’s Camp, a primitive campground accessible by car. From there, hike south up the verdant north slope of the mountain’s east shoulder on a washed-out jeep road. Once atop the ridge, you complete the walk via Lookout Road. This hike measures 2.8 miles one way, with an elevation gain of 1250 feet.
The lookout tower is dilapidated and dangerous — not recommended as a vantage point for viewing the surrounding scenery. East of the old lookout tower, you can climb a little higher through chaparral and oaks to reach the county’s true high point — a flat concrete platform on top of a large boulder. A bit of hand-and-toe climbing is required to gain the last 20 feet of elevation. As seen from the platform, steep canyons yawn to the west and north, and the Salton Sea shimmers like a mirage on the eastern horizon.
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.