A female tarantula hawk rests on blooming buckwheat
El Capitan's rock face in the distance
Standing sentinel above the community of Lakeside is the imposing, boulder-strewn peak of El Capitan. Most locals recognize the mountain and its surrounding preserve by this name that was inspired by its resemblance to the famous rock face in the Yosemite Valley. Whether it is called “El Capitan” or by its official title of El Cajon Mountain, the journey to its summit will leave hikers breathless from both wonder and exhaustion. Referred to lovingly by many writers as the hike that goes “uphill both ways,” El Capitan Preserve is one of San Diego County’s most physically challenging and rewarding, offering views from mountains to ocean and bragging rights to those who summit its noble, granite peak.
The main attraction of the El Capitan Preserve is the trail to El Cajon Mountain’s over 3600-foot peak. Making it to the top not only feels like a great physical feat, but on clear days one can see from the Cuyamaca Mountains to the Coronado Islands. The sheer length of the trail, along with its constant changes in elevation and occasional dips into valleys, ensures that travelers will enjoy a wide variety of habitats—from chaparral to oak woodlands and riparian stands. Chamise, scrub oak, and Lakeside lilac dominate the landscape, complemented in the spring by bursts of red, yellow, and violet from canyon larkspur, heart-leafed penstemon, mariposa lilies, Cleveland sage, and blue-eyed grass.
Granitic rock on the summit
View toward the Cuyamacas
The official trailhead begins 0.5 mile from the parking area up Blue Sky Ranch Road. Mile markers consider this the start of a hiker’s journey, so be sure to add one mile total for the very steep ascent to and from the lot to the trailhead. Just beyond the restrooms, be certain to follow the trail to the left up a zig-zag of switchbacks. The remainder of the trail provides very obvious signage, and paths are well maintained, although sometimes very slippery due to erosion. Despite this, precaution must be taken in bringing along a bike or animal because of how rutted, rocky, and steep the road can become and, in regard to pets, in how easily they can overheat.
Should El Capitan’s challenge be met, hikers will enjoy its place in history both past and present. They will travel the greatest length of their journey along a wide and abandoned mining road. The rusted shell of a Jeep, free of tires and occasionally housing an active bee hive, remains as a relic of the reserve’s dance with industry. Now enjoying the protected status of a preserve, plans for the Trans-County Trail from Borrego Springs to Los Peñasquitos Lagoon include the mountain’s existing trail as a linkage from sea to sea (Salton to Pacific), running down the length of El Cajon Mountain, across Wildcat Canyon Road, and into the neighboring Oak Oasis Open Space Preserve.
El Capitan Preserve map
A testament to the powers of uplift, weathering, and time, “El Capitan” waits patiently to test visitors’ mettle.
Because the trail is largely shade-free, bring at least two liters of water per person and remain aware of your surroundings, as this is mountain-lion territory.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 26 miles. Allow 35 minutes driving time (Lakeside). Take I-8 E to SR-67 N, exit right (east) onto Mapleview St. Turn left (north) on Ashwood St. and continue on Wildcat Canyon Rd. for 4.3 miles. Park in the dirt lot on the right at the intersection of Wildcat Canyon Rd. and Blue Sky Ranch Rd. Gates open at 7 a.m., close at sunset.
Hiking length: 11 miles round trip from trailhead; 12 miles round trip from parking area. Difficulty: Very strenuous. Elevation gain/loss 2300 feet, with elevation change constant in both directions on the trail. This is a multi-use trail that allows bicycles, dogs (on leashes), and equestrians. Facilities 0.5 mile up Blue Sky Ranch Road. No water. The preserve is closed the entire month of August due to extreme heat. Late fall to spring are the best seasons to visit.