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Cuyamaca Ski Routes

Skiing in San Diego County’s mountains? Fact or fiction? The answer in any given winter season varies, but it is typically “fact” for one or two brief periods of time per year. The type of skiing I’m talking about is cross-country or Nordic skiing, which can take place successfully on a meager few inches of snow. On several days in December, winter storms deposited variable amounts of snow on San Diego County’s upper elevations. Just two weeks ago, I enjoyed yet again another fine ski tour of the trails of the Cuyamaca Mountains.

If you have Nordic ski equipment, simply wait for another cold, wet storm to hit San Diego (most likely in January through early February). Arise very early the next morning, and take off at your earliest convenience for the Cuyamaca or the Laguna Mountains. If you live in East County, areas where skiing is possible lie as little as 30 minutes away via Interstate 8. Haste does not make waste in this case. Usually, you’ll have only a few hours of prime skiing conditions before the ascendant sun softens the snow, and lowlanders clog every parking lot and roadside turnout. By 9 or 10 in the morning, it may be impossible to find a parking space.

In San Diego, cross-country ski and boot rentals are available from Norpine Mountain Sports on Clairemont Drive (619-276-1577). The use of tire chains could be required at higher elevations, but only in very rare instances. Also, be sure to park your car fully on the road shoulder or turnout (where allowed), completely out of any traffic lane.

The highest part of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, mapped here, features more than one challenging route for cross-country skiers. It’s much easier to ski on fire roads (double-dash patterns on the map) rather than on the park’s narrower (single-dash) trails. That’s especially true now, since some of the narrower trails have tended to be smothered by fast growing wild lilac and other shrubs in the aftermath of the 2003 Cedar Fire.

The generously wide West Mesa and Fern Flat fire roads (accessible from the West Mesa trailhead at mile 7.3 on Highway 79, north of the visitor center) offer gentle gradients at altitudes between 4000 and 5500 feet. The wide, south leg of the Azalea Glen Trail also works well for skiing, but not the narrower and steeper northern sections of that trail.

Experienced skiers can try the Lookout Road from Paso Picacho Campground to the summit of Cuyamaca Peak (elevation 6512 feet) and back, 5.5 miles round trip. The strenuous ascent is followed by an at-times terrifying descent back down, which is practical only when the snow is soft and powdery (and not icy). Another possible route could take you around the summit of Middle Peak by way of Milk Ranch Road and Middle Peak Fire Road. The Lookout Road and Milk Ranch Road are sometimes used by maintenance vehicles and may be plowed at some point after snow collects on them.

Cuyamaca Ski Routes

Kick and glide along the higher-elevation trails of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park — if snow arrives.

Distance from downtown San Diego: 45 miles

Skiing length: Up to 10 miles, depending on conditions

Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous

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Skiing in San Diego County’s mountains? Fact or fiction? The answer in any given winter season varies, but it is typically “fact” for one or two brief periods of time per year. The type of skiing I’m talking about is cross-country or Nordic skiing, which can take place successfully on a meager few inches of snow. On several days in December, winter storms deposited variable amounts of snow on San Diego County’s upper elevations. Just two weeks ago, I enjoyed yet again another fine ski tour of the trails of the Cuyamaca Mountains.

If you have Nordic ski equipment, simply wait for another cold, wet storm to hit San Diego (most likely in January through early February). Arise very early the next morning, and take off at your earliest convenience for the Cuyamaca or the Laguna Mountains. If you live in East County, areas where skiing is possible lie as little as 30 minutes away via Interstate 8. Haste does not make waste in this case. Usually, you’ll have only a few hours of prime skiing conditions before the ascendant sun softens the snow, and lowlanders clog every parking lot and roadside turnout. By 9 or 10 in the morning, it may be impossible to find a parking space.

In San Diego, cross-country ski and boot rentals are available from Norpine Mountain Sports on Clairemont Drive (619-276-1577). The use of tire chains could be required at higher elevations, but only in very rare instances. Also, be sure to park your car fully on the road shoulder or turnout (where allowed), completely out of any traffic lane.

The highest part of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, mapped here, features more than one challenging route for cross-country skiers. It’s much easier to ski on fire roads (double-dash patterns on the map) rather than on the park’s narrower (single-dash) trails. That’s especially true now, since some of the narrower trails have tended to be smothered by fast growing wild lilac and other shrubs in the aftermath of the 2003 Cedar Fire.

The generously wide West Mesa and Fern Flat fire roads (accessible from the West Mesa trailhead at mile 7.3 on Highway 79, north of the visitor center) offer gentle gradients at altitudes between 4000 and 5500 feet. The wide, south leg of the Azalea Glen Trail also works well for skiing, but not the narrower and steeper northern sections of that trail.

Experienced skiers can try the Lookout Road from Paso Picacho Campground to the summit of Cuyamaca Peak (elevation 6512 feet) and back, 5.5 miles round trip. The strenuous ascent is followed by an at-times terrifying descent back down, which is practical only when the snow is soft and powdery (and not icy). Another possible route could take you around the summit of Middle Peak by way of Milk Ranch Road and Middle Peak Fire Road. The Lookout Road and Milk Ranch Road are sometimes used by maintenance vehicles and may be plowed at some point after snow collects on them.

Cuyamaca Ski Routes

Kick and glide along the higher-elevation trails of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park — if snow arrives.

Distance from downtown San Diego: 45 miles

Skiing length: Up to 10 miles, depending on conditions

Difficulty: Moderate to 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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