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Upper Solstice Canyon

A splendid sense of isolation pervades the upper reaches of Solstice Canyon — thanks to the preservation of thousands of acres of land that have been incorporated into the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. This brushy and dry country may look a bit unfriendly under harsh midday sunshine, but it’s really quite intriguing when soft morning or evening shadows drape the hillsides and hollows.

Ideally you would start this loop hike in the late afternoon and go clockwise to take advantage of evening shadows while climbing through the canyon below. If you can leave about two hours before sunset, you’ll hit the high point at Castro Crest by sundown. The distant lights of Los Angeles will be in view by the time you arrive back at your car.

To reach the trailhead parking area, a staging area for the Backbone Trail, drive 5.5 miles north from Highway 1 (Pacific Coast Highway) on Corral Canyon Road. From the west edge of the parking lot, follow on foot the Backbone Trail, which switchbacks downward along the rim of a bowl drained by several upper tributaries of Solstice Canyon. Mostly, the trail makes use of old roads but some of it is newer trail tread. After about a mile of indecisive descent, you join a ravine bottom and then descend decisively to the main tributary of Solstice Canyon (1.3 miles). Turn sharply right and walk up-canyon 200 yards to a small meadow filled with dry grasses this time of year. Ahead, you’re going to face a gain of about 900 feet of elevation, so take a generous pull or two from your water bottle.

Onward from the meadow, the trail passes under the fire-scarred limbs of live oaks. Then, as the oaks thin, you start climbing out of the canyon bottom. After rounding some switchbacks, you come up to Newton Road (2.8 miles), a dirt road crossing a saddle south of, and well below, Castro Peak. The Backbone Trail contours west toward Latigo Canyon Road at this point, but you go uphill on Newton Road, traversing Castro Peak’s south slope.

When you reach the top of the grade (atop Castro Peak’s east ridge), walk east about 50 yards on a side path to the top of a barren knoll. On clear days, the view encompasses almost the entire coastline from Ventura County to Palos Verdes. At least four of the Channel Islands can be seen poking out of the sea offshore. Near the winter solstice, the sun sinks to an ocean horizon as seen from here. Because the California coastline trends east-west in this area, the sun sets over land during most of the year.

Just past the knoll you’ll hook up with Castro Peak Road (3.6 miles). Turn right and let gravity repay you for your previous efforts. Within a half hour your car in the parking lot should be in view.

This article contains information about a publicly owned recreation or wilderness area. Trails and pathways are not necessarily marked. Conditions can change rapidly. Hikers should be properly equipped and have safety and navigational skills. The Reader and Jerry Schad assume no responsibility for any adverse experience.

Upper Solstice Canyon
From upper Solstice Canyon climb to Castro Crest, a high point in the Santa Monica Mountains.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 155 miles
Length: 5 miles
Difficulty: Moderately strenuous

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A splendid sense of isolation pervades the upper reaches of Solstice Canyon — thanks to the preservation of thousands of acres of land that have been incorporated into the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. This brushy and dry country may look a bit unfriendly under harsh midday sunshine, but it’s really quite intriguing when soft morning or evening shadows drape the hillsides and hollows.

Ideally you would start this loop hike in the late afternoon and go clockwise to take advantage of evening shadows while climbing through the canyon below. If you can leave about two hours before sunset, you’ll hit the high point at Castro Crest by sundown. The distant lights of Los Angeles will be in view by the time you arrive back at your car.

To reach the trailhead parking area, a staging area for the Backbone Trail, drive 5.5 miles north from Highway 1 (Pacific Coast Highway) on Corral Canyon Road. From the west edge of the parking lot, follow on foot the Backbone Trail, which switchbacks downward along the rim of a bowl drained by several upper tributaries of Solstice Canyon. Mostly, the trail makes use of old roads but some of it is newer trail tread. After about a mile of indecisive descent, you join a ravine bottom and then descend decisively to the main tributary of Solstice Canyon (1.3 miles). Turn sharply right and walk up-canyon 200 yards to a small meadow filled with dry grasses this time of year. Ahead, you’re going to face a gain of about 900 feet of elevation, so take a generous pull or two from your water bottle.

Onward from the meadow, the trail passes under the fire-scarred limbs of live oaks. Then, as the oaks thin, you start climbing out of the canyon bottom. After rounding some switchbacks, you come up to Newton Road (2.8 miles), a dirt road crossing a saddle south of, and well below, Castro Peak. The Backbone Trail contours west toward Latigo Canyon Road at this point, but you go uphill on Newton Road, traversing Castro Peak’s south slope.

When you reach the top of the grade (atop Castro Peak’s east ridge), walk east about 50 yards on a side path to the top of a barren knoll. On clear days, the view encompasses almost the entire coastline from Ventura County to Palos Verdes. At least four of the Channel Islands can be seen poking out of the sea offshore. Near the winter solstice, the sun sinks to an ocean horizon as seen from here. Because the California coastline trends east-west in this area, the sun sets over land during most of the year.

Just past the knoll you’ll hook up with Castro Peak Road (3.6 miles). Turn right and let gravity repay you for your previous efforts. Within a half hour your car in the parking lot should be in view.

This article contains information about a publicly owned recreation or wilderness area. Trails and pathways are not necessarily marked. Conditions can change rapidly. Hikers should be properly equipped and have safety and navigational skills. The Reader and Jerry Schad assume no responsibility for any adverse experience.

Upper Solstice Canyon
From upper Solstice Canyon climb to Castro Crest, a high point in the Santa Monica Mountains.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 155 miles
Length: 5 miles
Difficulty: Moderately strenuous

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4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
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