Anchor ads are not supported on this page.

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

El Cajon Mountain “Race you to the top”

With only the weekends to relax, why do I do something that isn’t relaxing?

The Instagrammable peak sign.
The Instagrammable peak sign.
  • Located near Lakeside, El Cajon Mountain is a strenuous hike. With a length of nearly 11 miles and an elevation gain of around 3,900 feet, the hike will take most people 6+ hours. Dogs are allowed.
  • Distance from downtown San Diego: 25 miles
  • Hike length: 11 miles • Difficulty: Strenuous • Season: Late Fall to early Summer


Sponsored
Sponsored

Traveling alone, I turned off Wildcat Canyon Road and parked in the dusty El Capitan Open Space Preserve parking lot. The lot was surrounded by a plain wooden fence, as if to corral the cars and prevent them from wandering off while their owners hiked.

On the gray asphalt road up.

With my trail runners firmly tied and my clothes comfortably fitted, I began up the gray asphalt hill toward the switchbacks, passing a sign that warned of death from exposure for the ill-prepared (and easily spooked). Though I often fall into one or both of those camps, today, I did not. I badly wanted to do this hike and I wondered what had possessed my spirit. As I began the rote journey past the trailhead bathroom and up the side of the squat, green hill, I replayed the trail ahead of me in my mind’s eye, recalling its many vistas, twists, turns, dips, and climbs.

El Cajon Mountain is popularly dubbed “San Diego’s hardest hike,” which is true if you’ve never journeyed to the local desert and gone hiking. Still, it’s obvious why the hike has this title when you look at its elevation profile. While most peak hikes go up to the summit and back down to the trailhead, El Cajon Mountain meanders over gently rolling hills before taking trekkers up and down two steep slopes. Hence, on the return journey you still have to do a bit of climbing to get back over those slopes and hills.

Silverdome, El Capitan, and El Cajon Mountain.

Having run through the hike in my head, I snapped out of my trail trance to emerge from the valley into the highlands. Before me loomed three peaks, laid out in a line, like Orion’s belt. The closest was Silverdome, where grass-covered slabs spilled down the slope. Behind it hunched a beige cairn of stone, El Capitan. And far away in the distance floated El Cajon Mountain. It was so far-off from where I stood that it was almost surprising someone had named the trail after it.

Untangling myself from the view, I started on the path, threading myself between the mountains and feeling my soul grow limber through the steady rhythm of walking. I passed toyon trees, known as joshik to the Kumeyaay, that grew like hedges alongside the trail. As my brain quieted, I felt my body remembering how to think again.

Silverdome with wooly leaf ceanothus.

I was approaching a dip in the trail when two hikers came into view down below me. They were shirtless, muscular, and wore crew cuts. Military, I figured. They were trading stories and laughing loudly as I caught up to them at the bottom of the hill, where it abruptly turns into a slippery climb.

“Whoa, you came out of nowhere,” one of them said.

Sweaty, red-faced, clutching my trekking poles, I could not deny it.

“Trail’s pretty muddy from the rain.”

Specked in mud, sliding on the trail, I could not deny that either.

“You might want to slow down, you’re going to burn yourself out, buddy.”

Breathing deeply, feeling the wind in my sails, I could deny that.

“Race you to the top,” I grinned, before bouncing up the path like a cottontail rabbit.

I could hear them scrambling behind me like lobsters tossed in a pot, but they were built for strength, not endurance, and I left them behind, slipping into a light jog at the top of the hill as it flattened. It was a memorable encounter, and I’m glad I met them on the trail and not the weight room, where they would have put me out to pasture.

On top of El Cajon Mountain looking out on Lakeside.

As the trail began to climb the first slope, I passed by a man my age with a “Hello.” He was picnicking on a patch of grass that looked out onto Lakeside, its fertile earth streaked with green in proper pastoral fashion. Only a few square plots of brown had resisted the rains. I began to hear voices. After several minutes, the voices grew louder, but I saw no one approaching on the trail. Suddenly, a large shadow began slithering toward me and I looked up to see a dragon eclipse the sun and hold me in its shadow. In my surprise, I wondered if the creature would scoop me up. But as it drifted away from the sun, I saw it was merely a paraglider teasing me with their shadow. Another appeared soon after and the pair flew over the trail like dandelion seeds caught in a warm summer breeze. High above them, four wheezy single prop planes flew in a V-formation, like a flock of geese migrating north for summer. Even further up, two military jets tracked east toward the desert, leaving a low rumble in their wake. The only earthly birds to take to the sky were two turkey vultures looking for an easy meal.

Closer shot of the paraglider.

The backside of the mountain had been soaked by the lingering rains. Never constant, the water took different forms along the trail. Sometimes it frothed and foamed, other times it gushed like blood. But more typically, it flowed smoothly in a stream down the trail; keeping my feet cold and my socks mushy. The water was alive, carving out new paths and exposing the mica-flecked granite stone below.

Water on the backside of the mountain.

The final ascent was a slow, muddy affair. It had been an hour since I’d last seen anyone, and I marched up the muddy chute, passing blooming manzanitas (jusilh to the Kumeyaay) and magenta-stemmed warrior’s plume. As I pressed on, a woman passed me with a warm smile, but when I looked for her she was gone. Long gone, for I was remembering a distant memory: a friendly woman did pass me, but it was almost a decade ago, during my first ascent up El Cajon Mountain.

I’ve often found myself encountering these specters on the trail. Perhaps they gravitate to these wild places, or perhaps it’s simply easier to hear them away from the urban buzz. As the memory echoed, I thought about how odd it was to carry the memory of a stranger for so long. As I climbed, other specters pursued me, until it felt like I was no longer walking along a slick trail, but through a half-buried memory that I hadn’t the heart to stop excavating.

Looking west from the summit.

As I began to top out on the summit, several green signs ushered me to the peak. There, I found an Instagram-worthy El Cajon Mtn. sign to pose with. The view was spectacular, as it so often is in San Diego. I decided to stay on the peak for a while, and felt my legs become stone-like as they took root far down into the bedrock.

When I returned to the car corral, only my trusty steed remained. The others must have wandered off, leaving their owners to Uber home. My knees groaned from years of abuse and I wondered to myself: with only the weekends to relax, why do I do something that isn’t relaxing in the slightest? But as the wind eagerly grasps at the pages of an open book, so too did my thoughts turn to what trail I’d explore next in my quest to know this land more deeply.

Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all
Previous article

Mon Laferte, Sunrise Tide Pool Exploration Eco Tour

Events May 26-May 29, 2024
The Instagrammable peak sign.
The Instagrammable peak sign.
  • Located near Lakeside, El Cajon Mountain is a strenuous hike. With a length of nearly 11 miles and an elevation gain of around 3,900 feet, the hike will take most people 6+ hours. Dogs are allowed.
  • Distance from downtown San Diego: 25 miles
  • Hike length: 11 miles • Difficulty: Strenuous • Season: Late Fall to early Summer


Sponsored
Sponsored

Traveling alone, I turned off Wildcat Canyon Road and parked in the dusty El Capitan Open Space Preserve parking lot. The lot was surrounded by a plain wooden fence, as if to corral the cars and prevent them from wandering off while their owners hiked.

On the gray asphalt road up.

With my trail runners firmly tied and my clothes comfortably fitted, I began up the gray asphalt hill toward the switchbacks, passing a sign that warned of death from exposure for the ill-prepared (and easily spooked). Though I often fall into one or both of those camps, today, I did not. I badly wanted to do this hike and I wondered what had possessed my spirit. As I began the rote journey past the trailhead bathroom and up the side of the squat, green hill, I replayed the trail ahead of me in my mind’s eye, recalling its many vistas, twists, turns, dips, and climbs.

El Cajon Mountain is popularly dubbed “San Diego’s hardest hike,” which is true if you’ve never journeyed to the local desert and gone hiking. Still, it’s obvious why the hike has this title when you look at its elevation profile. While most peak hikes go up to the summit and back down to the trailhead, El Cajon Mountain meanders over gently rolling hills before taking trekkers up and down two steep slopes. Hence, on the return journey you still have to do a bit of climbing to get back over those slopes and hills.

Silverdome, El Capitan, and El Cajon Mountain.

Having run through the hike in my head, I snapped out of my trail trance to emerge from the valley into the highlands. Before me loomed three peaks, laid out in a line, like Orion’s belt. The closest was Silverdome, where grass-covered slabs spilled down the slope. Behind it hunched a beige cairn of stone, El Capitan. And far away in the distance floated El Cajon Mountain. It was so far-off from where I stood that it was almost surprising someone had named the trail after it.

Untangling myself from the view, I started on the path, threading myself between the mountains and feeling my soul grow limber through the steady rhythm of walking. I passed toyon trees, known as joshik to the Kumeyaay, that grew like hedges alongside the trail. As my brain quieted, I felt my body remembering how to think again.

Silverdome with wooly leaf ceanothus.

I was approaching a dip in the trail when two hikers came into view down below me. They were shirtless, muscular, and wore crew cuts. Military, I figured. They were trading stories and laughing loudly as I caught up to them at the bottom of the hill, where it abruptly turns into a slippery climb.

“Whoa, you came out of nowhere,” one of them said.

Sweaty, red-faced, clutching my trekking poles, I could not deny it.

“Trail’s pretty muddy from the rain.”

Specked in mud, sliding on the trail, I could not deny that either.

“You might want to slow down, you’re going to burn yourself out, buddy.”

Breathing deeply, feeling the wind in my sails, I could deny that.

“Race you to the top,” I grinned, before bouncing up the path like a cottontail rabbit.

I could hear them scrambling behind me like lobsters tossed in a pot, but they were built for strength, not endurance, and I left them behind, slipping into a light jog at the top of the hill as it flattened. It was a memorable encounter, and I’m glad I met them on the trail and not the weight room, where they would have put me out to pasture.

On top of El Cajon Mountain looking out on Lakeside.

As the trail began to climb the first slope, I passed by a man my age with a “Hello.” He was picnicking on a patch of grass that looked out onto Lakeside, its fertile earth streaked with green in proper pastoral fashion. Only a few square plots of brown had resisted the rains. I began to hear voices. After several minutes, the voices grew louder, but I saw no one approaching on the trail. Suddenly, a large shadow began slithering toward me and I looked up to see a dragon eclipse the sun and hold me in its shadow. In my surprise, I wondered if the creature would scoop me up. But as it drifted away from the sun, I saw it was merely a paraglider teasing me with their shadow. Another appeared soon after and the pair flew over the trail like dandelion seeds caught in a warm summer breeze. High above them, four wheezy single prop planes flew in a V-formation, like a flock of geese migrating north for summer. Even further up, two military jets tracked east toward the desert, leaving a low rumble in their wake. The only earthly birds to take to the sky were two turkey vultures looking for an easy meal.

Closer shot of the paraglider.

The backside of the mountain had been soaked by the lingering rains. Never constant, the water took different forms along the trail. Sometimes it frothed and foamed, other times it gushed like blood. But more typically, it flowed smoothly in a stream down the trail; keeping my feet cold and my socks mushy. The water was alive, carving out new paths and exposing the mica-flecked granite stone below.

Water on the backside of the mountain.

The final ascent was a slow, muddy affair. It had been an hour since I’d last seen anyone, and I marched up the muddy chute, passing blooming manzanitas (jusilh to the Kumeyaay) and magenta-stemmed warrior’s plume. As I pressed on, a woman passed me with a warm smile, but when I looked for her she was gone. Long gone, for I was remembering a distant memory: a friendly woman did pass me, but it was almost a decade ago, during my first ascent up El Cajon Mountain.

I’ve often found myself encountering these specters on the trail. Perhaps they gravitate to these wild places, or perhaps it’s simply easier to hear them away from the urban buzz. As the memory echoed, I thought about how odd it was to carry the memory of a stranger for so long. As I climbed, other specters pursued me, until it felt like I was no longer walking along a slick trail, but through a half-buried memory that I hadn’t the heart to stop excavating.

Looking west from the summit.

As I began to top out on the summit, several green signs ushered me to the peak. There, I found an Instagram-worthy El Cajon Mtn. sign to pose with. The view was spectacular, as it so often is in San Diego. I decided to stay on the peak for a while, and felt my legs become stone-like as they took root far down into the bedrock.

When I returned to the car corral, only my trusty steed remained. The others must have wandered off, leaving their owners to Uber home. My knees groaned from years of abuse and I wondered to myself: with only the weekends to relax, why do I do something that isn’t relaxing in the slightest? But as the wind eagerly grasps at the pages of an open book, so too did my thoughts turn to what trail I’d explore next in my quest to know this land more deeply.

Comments
Sponsored
Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all
Previous article

Leonard Patton, Aviator Stash, Pleasure Pill, Meidai, Rhythm of the Earth Festival

Jazz, hip-hop, rock, and mindful music in La Mesa, Little Italy, Escondido, Chula Vista
Next Article

The Independence finds big yellowtail down south

Tip your servers, they work hard for their money
Comments
Ask a Hipster — Advice you didn't know you needed Big Screen — Movie commentary Blurt — Music's inside track Booze News — San Diego spirits Classical Music — Immortal beauty Classifieds — Free and easy Cover Stories — Front-page features Drinks All Around — Bartenders' drink recipes Excerpts — Literary and spiritual excerpts Feast! — Food & drink reviews Feature Stories — Local news & stories Fishing Report — What’s getting hooked from ship and shore From the Archives — Spotlight on the past Golden Dreams — Talk of the town The Gonzo Report — Making the musical scene, or at least reporting from it Letters — Our inbox Movies@Home — Local movie buffs share favorites Movie Reviews — Our critics' picks and pans Musician Interviews — Up close with local artists Neighborhood News from Stringers — Hyperlocal news News Ticker — News & politics Obermeyer — San Diego politics illustrated Outdoors — Weekly changes in flora and fauna Overheard in San Diego — Eavesdropping illustrated Poetry — The old and the new Reader Travel — Travel section built by travelers Reading — The hunt for intellectuals Roam-O-Rama — SoCal's best hiking/biking trails San Diego Beer — Inside San Diego suds SD on the QT — Almost factual news Sheep and Goats — Places of worship Special Issues — The best of Street Style — San Diego streets have style Surf Diego — Real stories from those braving the waves Theater — On stage in San Diego this week Tin Fork — Silver spoon alternative Under the Radar — Matt Potter's undercover work Unforgettable — Long-ago San Diego Unreal Estate — San Diego's priciest pads Your Week — Daily event picks
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
Close

Anchor ads are not supported on this page.