The trail gradually leaves the creek and takes you uphill among ceanothus, mountain mahogany, and scrub oak.
Although the 2003 Cedar Fire took its toll in this area, the chaparral is coming back beautifully. Visitors in late March into June will be met with a multi-hued display of California lilacs, manzanitas, winter currant, wild rose, the occasional peony or lupine, and a brilliant assortment of small annual wildflowers. Also the view from the peak on a clear day is inspiring.
The Lower Descanso Creek trailhead is about ten yards from the Oakzanita sign, just off the highway. The name is a give-away as to what you will be seeing in this area — lots of oaks and manzanita. Begin hiking south (to the right as you face the sign). The trail soon turns east and follows Descanso Creek, taking you past an abundance of arroyo willow, basket bush, wild rose, winter currant, eastwood manzanita, and California lilac, with occasional sycamores and oaks in various stages of recovery.
Shortly after crossing the creek and passing through an oak grove, you come to the East Mesa Fire Road (0.8 mile from the trailhead). Go right on the fire road for a short distance (0.11 mile) and find the Upper Descanso Creek Trail on your right (0.91 mile from the start). The Upper Descanso Creek Trail gradually but steadily takes you away from the creek and up the northwest facing slope of the canyon through vigorous growing ceanothus, mountain mahogany, and scrub oak. The skeletons of the pre-fire manzanitas protrude above the living chaparral but are only sparsely represented among the living here. After you have gone about 1.6 miles, the Upper Descanso Creek Trail ends at a low saddle where you meet the Oakzanita Trail.
Go to the right on the Oakzanita Trail for an easy 0.6 mile to reach the boulder-strewn, 5054-foot peak. Look for the peak register at the top if you want to sign your name. On a clear day you can expect dramatic vistas in every direction. Note both Cuyamaca and Stonewall peaks in the distance. There is even a hitching post to tie up your horse, if one brought you.
After descending from the peak via the Oakzanita Trail, continue east, past the junction with the Upper Descanso Creek Trail and through what must have been a beautiful stand of massive oaks and pines. Most of the pines are now charred stumps. Some scattered Jeffery and Coulter pine seed trees survived, so the area may eventually recover. Seedlings have been planted to help this recovery along, some of which have survived and are growing vigorously.
After hiking 1.5 miles from the peak along the Oakzanita Trail, you will arrive at the East Mesa Fire Road. Go left down the fire road. After 2.5 miles of easy downhill walking on this narrow dirt road, you will come to the well-marked Lower Descanso Creek Trail off to the left. Take it, and in 3/4 of a mile, you will be back at your car.
Distance from downtown San Diego: About 45 miles. Allow 1 hour driving time. Take I-8 toward Alpine and continue east to exit 40, signed as Hwy 79/Japatul Rd. Go north on Hwy 79 about 3 miles to Oakzanita, which is on the right. There is limited parking in a small gravel lot beside the road and no facilities or drinking water.
Hiking length: Almost an 8-mile loop.
Difficulty: This is a moderate hike over easily navigated, well marked trails with an elevation gain of about 1000 feet. A sign at the trailhead warns of mountain lions. Poison oak and rattlesnakes are also possibilities. Long pants are recommended for protection from chaparral plants that are beginning to encroach onto the trail in a few places.
Canyoneers are San Diego Natural History Museum volunteers trained to lead interpretive nature walks that teach appreciation for the great outdoors. For a schedule of free public hikes: