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The striped skunk stood defiantly in the middle of the trail, its tail held straight up and its beady eyes tracking my every move. I slunk by, circumscribing a 180-degree arc of 10-yard radius -- beyond, I reckoned, the animal's squirting range. Earlier, along Stonewall Creek, I'd watched nearly a dozen deer performing pogo-stick ballet in the surrounding underbrush. Their seemingly choreographed movements were designed to keep me in their sight and they a safe distance apart from me.

Mountain-lion scares notwithstanding, Cuyamaca Rancho State Park remains a fine place to observe wildlife -- hopefully from a secure position at the top of the food chain. In this part of San Diego's backcountry, it's important to hike with a friend or two as you enjoy some of San Diego County's finest natural areas.

The 8-mile-long Stonewall Creek/ Soapstone Grade loop described here lies outside Cuyamaca Rancho's State Park's designated wilderness area and therefore is open to a wide variety of travelers: hikers, joggers, equestrians, and mountain bikers. Space to park your car for up to two hours is available near park headquarters, off Highway 79 (9 miles north of I-8 at Descanso), or for a longer time in turnouts along Highway 79 itself. Take along enough drinking water to last the trip.

Walk or pedal (equestrians must take a circuitous route) past the Cuyamaca school camp to the wide, graded Upper Green Valley Fire Road. After a short mile, stay left at Stonewall Creek Fire Road and start gaining elevation on its eroded, rock-strewn surface. As you ascend, the free-form live oaks that dominated the landscape earlier are replaced by vertically symmetrical Jeffrey pines. In the warm sunshine, pines of this variety exude a vanilla-like perfume. Water in the shallow Stonewall Creek bed is probably gone by now, but the creek will revive after the first substantial autumn rains.

After 2.2 miles on Stonewall Creek Fire Road, turn right (east) on the Soapstone Grade fire road. After skirting an open valley, with water in Cuyamaca Reservoir visible in the distance, the road pitches downward toward upper Green Valley and the headwaters of the Sweetwater River. Look for pieces of soapstone -- a creamy or beige metamorphic rock with a slippery feel -- strewn about on and beside the road. At the bottom, turn right on Upper Green Valley Fire Road, and complete the remaining 3 miles, gradually downhill almost the entire way.

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