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Corte Madera Mountain

The little hike from nearly a decade ago seems to have grown up in my absence

An overlook with a view to the northeast.
An overlook with a view to the northeast.
  • Located in Mountain Empire, Corte Madera is a moderately strenuous hike. With a length of around 7 miles and an elevation gain of around 1,500 feet, the hike will take most people 2 to 4 hours to complete.
  • Distance from downtown San Diego: 51 miles
  • Hike length: 7 miles • Difficulty: Moderately strenuous • Season: Year-round


I grip my steering wheel in disbelief as I arrive at the trailhead and stare at the row of parked cars along the side of the road. Nearly a decade ago, I hiked this peak with my father, and back then there was only one parked car: ours. Now there are legions. It’s an incursion. The dirt strip along the side of the road holds nine cars and further along the road, the cars continue like the long body of a roosting dragon before disappearing out of view around a hairpin turn. Many of the cars have Cleveland National Forest day passes dangling from their rearview mirror ­— a parking requirement out here that I’m told is enforced with stinging fines ­— while a few cars have curious orange labels stuck to the driver’s side window. Turns out it’s a tow warning from a ranger who’s been patrolling in the early morning. Many of the cars are parked illegally, and I wonder if the ranger gave up trying to warn them all or simply ran out of stickers.

Nowhere to park in the main lot.


I park my car a quarter-mile up the road, its back end dangling half-off the embankment. The earth is still full of water from the recent rains, and I wonder whether my car insurance covers landslides before starting down the road towards the trailhead while lathering on some expired sunscreen and tightening my manly fanny pack.

Like a long-forgotten niece or nephew, the little hike from nearly a decade ago seems to have grown up in my absence. In my vanity, I attribute this popularity to my column, but the silent fresh air mocks my ego, and the idea fades like an exposed strip of film. I wonder what would draw such a congregation to the mountain, but not having any real presence on social media or knowledge of its fleeting, fickle trends, I can’t say whether Corte Madera has become an Instagram or TikTok sensation without my knowing.

Walking under a canopy of oaks.


Normally, my backcountry hikes are monkish meditations marked by a steady, unbroken silence, aside from the few “hiya’s” and “howdy’s” to occasional passersby. But today, I’m curious to see what desperate, foolish people will be out on this lonely road with me. I ponder all those on the path ahead—city folk with itchy souls setting New Year’s resolutions to unmoor their souls, single mothers with young kids exposing them to fresh pine scents and decaying oak leaves, sweaty Marines on short leave from the sandy shores of Camp Pendleton. As I follow the undergrowth past a fork in the road with a freshly painted sign pointing toward Corte Madera, I begin to hear voices ahead of me on the trail, and I brim with anticipation.

Freshly painted sign pointing hikers to the peak.


Two waves of four people speaking Mandarin and wearing matching bucket hats pass by. No more than two cars’ worth of people, I think to myself while waving and continuing along the trail, which now begins to wind upward. In the distance, I spot the low saddle between two mountains that I will climb, and coming off the side are small specks of colorful shirts. They are other hikers that I will eventually pass, more or less uneventfully, although the man who I catch peeing just off the trail is the exception. I greet him while he is midstream and quietly laugh at the panic in his voice as he turns red with embarrassment.

It isn’t until after a bit of climbing that I hear the low din of several voices crashing upon one another from behind a large boulder. Passing it, I see a massive group climbing up a slope, and because they have the right of way, I move off the trail to let them by.

They emerge from behind the trees, walking in a long, slow march. Some have a spirit of vitality, flashing smiles below the brim of caps gripped by polarized sunglasses, while others seem resigned to fate: heads down, eyes straining forward, guiding limbs up coarse, granite stones. They scrub the trail with their boots and duck under branches that cut into them like long, sharp knives. I am a specter to them, felt but unseen. My prying eyes haunt their movements, and I take inventory of a woman passing by. She has an undercut; her hair is slicked back and dangling over a white backpack that has brushed against the dirt and been stained. Her red gloves make her hands look like those of an organ harvester; the left one holds two trekking poles, onto which she shifts her weight to vault up an indented boulder.

A rocky outcrop to pass through.
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“Hello,” we say to one another, me looking at her, but her looking at the path ahead. Then she falls out of my life forever, and there’s a man coming towards me. His bald head wrapped in a purple bandana with sunglasses to match. His grey goatee is crooked, and his maroon sweater shows thin bands of sweat.

“Hi,” we say, then he’s gone too. The next man comes up, a blue Patagonia shell wrapped around his waist. They go well with his beige khaki pants. I greet him and the dozens of others and then let them all go. I am like a fly fisherman, catching and releasing Saturday afternoon salutations that rub against me like rays of sunshine on a foggy day.

Standing on the saddle looking at the peak.


Seconds spin into minutes until I awaken as if from a deep stupor. I’ve lingered for so long that I struggle to pull myself free from the lattice of time into which I was woven while the owners of all the parked cars passed me by. Looking about, I see a few friendly hikers at the bottom of the slope who reward my patience by letting me down the path before they climb up it.

As I climb down, an older man with a scar twisting down his cheek seizes my shoulder and says, “Look, beyond that tree.” His brow flares, and I turn away from his glittering eyes to see what he sees, though my eyes land on nothing.

“Do you see the mark?” he asks. And I do. Poking up just above the canopy is the top of a petroglyph, but it disappears behind dancing leaves that bob joyously in the wind.

“Continue down the path, and after you’ve begun to climb for a spell, you’ll see a boulder. Stand on it and look again. Goodbye!” Soon the man is halfway up the trail with his companions while I stand blinking at the hidden carving. Minutes later, I come to the boulder and see it in full. A symbol of the sun, perhaps drawn by ancient wanderers who lived here long ago, or maybe by bored kids in the more recent past with lots of time to kill and no MTV or smartphones to keep them gawking.

A split bolder


The trail meanders up and down, and I push through tall manzanitas that tear at my skin until I come to the mountain’s crest and rise above it all. I see three rowdy women bounding toward me; they stop and turn off the trail to race up a rough, round boulder while hurling insults at one another in hoarse shouts. I creep past them, bracing as if they will wolf whistle at me. But they don’t, and I pass by, ignored or unnoticed, following the trail as it dips down for its final bow before climbing back up to the peak. The peak has no sharp points to point to, but instead sits upon a large granite dome that looks like the sawn-off stump of a tree limb when seen from down below.

An overlook with a view to the northeast.


Alone on the dome, I look back and see the three women bouncing along the boulders behind me and hear them swearing at one another like sailors. Then I look southeast to Los Pinos Mountain. A rich brown trail cuts through the side of the green velvet mountain, and I espy the fire lookout tower that crowns its peak.

Removing my manly fanny pack, I pull out some nuts and dates and eat them, then peel a ripe orange that drips sticky citrus juice down my fingers. Later, I will rub my hands with dirt to dry them, but for now, I let the juice drip as I watch nearby birds flit and chat with one another, while high above a kettle of vultures soars into a thermal. Wet with sweat, I strip off my shirt and pants and stand in my briefs as the wind cools my body and the sun warms it. Then I switch into a warmer jacket and clean shorts while plugging my ears with headphones. The howl of the wind falls away to melodic tunes that I leap along to, racing down the mountain while abandoning memories that slip away, forgotten.

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An overlook with a view to the northeast.
An overlook with a view to the northeast.
  • Located in Mountain Empire, Corte Madera is a moderately strenuous hike. With a length of around 7 miles and an elevation gain of around 1,500 feet, the hike will take most people 2 to 4 hours to complete.
  • Distance from downtown San Diego: 51 miles
  • Hike length: 7 miles • Difficulty: Moderately strenuous • Season: Year-round


I grip my steering wheel in disbelief as I arrive at the trailhead and stare at the row of parked cars along the side of the road. Nearly a decade ago, I hiked this peak with my father, and back then there was only one parked car: ours. Now there are legions. It’s an incursion. The dirt strip along the side of the road holds nine cars and further along the road, the cars continue like the long body of a roosting dragon before disappearing out of view around a hairpin turn. Many of the cars have Cleveland National Forest day passes dangling from their rearview mirror ­— a parking requirement out here that I’m told is enforced with stinging fines ­— while a few cars have curious orange labels stuck to the driver’s side window. Turns out it’s a tow warning from a ranger who’s been patrolling in the early morning. Many of the cars are parked illegally, and I wonder if the ranger gave up trying to warn them all or simply ran out of stickers.

Nowhere to park in the main lot.


I park my car a quarter-mile up the road, its back end dangling half-off the embankment. The earth is still full of water from the recent rains, and I wonder whether my car insurance covers landslides before starting down the road towards the trailhead while lathering on some expired sunscreen and tightening my manly fanny pack.

Like a long-forgotten niece or nephew, the little hike from nearly a decade ago seems to have grown up in my absence. In my vanity, I attribute this popularity to my column, but the silent fresh air mocks my ego, and the idea fades like an exposed strip of film. I wonder what would draw such a congregation to the mountain, but not having any real presence on social media or knowledge of its fleeting, fickle trends, I can’t say whether Corte Madera has become an Instagram or TikTok sensation without my knowing.

Walking under a canopy of oaks.


Normally, my backcountry hikes are monkish meditations marked by a steady, unbroken silence, aside from the few “hiya’s” and “howdy’s” to occasional passersby. But today, I’m curious to see what desperate, foolish people will be out on this lonely road with me. I ponder all those on the path ahead—city folk with itchy souls setting New Year’s resolutions to unmoor their souls, single mothers with young kids exposing them to fresh pine scents and decaying oak leaves, sweaty Marines on short leave from the sandy shores of Camp Pendleton. As I follow the undergrowth past a fork in the road with a freshly painted sign pointing toward Corte Madera, I begin to hear voices ahead of me on the trail, and I brim with anticipation.

Freshly painted sign pointing hikers to the peak.


Two waves of four people speaking Mandarin and wearing matching bucket hats pass by. No more than two cars’ worth of people, I think to myself while waving and continuing along the trail, which now begins to wind upward. In the distance, I spot the low saddle between two mountains that I will climb, and coming off the side are small specks of colorful shirts. They are other hikers that I will eventually pass, more or less uneventfully, although the man who I catch peeing just off the trail is the exception. I greet him while he is midstream and quietly laugh at the panic in his voice as he turns red with embarrassment.

It isn’t until after a bit of climbing that I hear the low din of several voices crashing upon one another from behind a large boulder. Passing it, I see a massive group climbing up a slope, and because they have the right of way, I move off the trail to let them by.

They emerge from behind the trees, walking in a long, slow march. Some have a spirit of vitality, flashing smiles below the brim of caps gripped by polarized sunglasses, while others seem resigned to fate: heads down, eyes straining forward, guiding limbs up coarse, granite stones. They scrub the trail with their boots and duck under branches that cut into them like long, sharp knives. I am a specter to them, felt but unseen. My prying eyes haunt their movements, and I take inventory of a woman passing by. She has an undercut; her hair is slicked back and dangling over a white backpack that has brushed against the dirt and been stained. Her red gloves make her hands look like those of an organ harvester; the left one holds two trekking poles, onto which she shifts her weight to vault up an indented boulder.

A rocky outcrop to pass through.
Sponsored
Sponsored


“Hello,” we say to one another, me looking at her, but her looking at the path ahead. Then she falls out of my life forever, and there’s a man coming towards me. His bald head wrapped in a purple bandana with sunglasses to match. His grey goatee is crooked, and his maroon sweater shows thin bands of sweat.

“Hi,” we say, then he’s gone too. The next man comes up, a blue Patagonia shell wrapped around his waist. They go well with his beige khaki pants. I greet him and the dozens of others and then let them all go. I am like a fly fisherman, catching and releasing Saturday afternoon salutations that rub against me like rays of sunshine on a foggy day.

Standing on the saddle looking at the peak.


Seconds spin into minutes until I awaken as if from a deep stupor. I’ve lingered for so long that I struggle to pull myself free from the lattice of time into which I was woven while the owners of all the parked cars passed me by. Looking about, I see a few friendly hikers at the bottom of the slope who reward my patience by letting me down the path before they climb up it.

As I climb down, an older man with a scar twisting down his cheek seizes my shoulder and says, “Look, beyond that tree.” His brow flares, and I turn away from his glittering eyes to see what he sees, though my eyes land on nothing.

“Do you see the mark?” he asks. And I do. Poking up just above the canopy is the top of a petroglyph, but it disappears behind dancing leaves that bob joyously in the wind.

“Continue down the path, and after you’ve begun to climb for a spell, you’ll see a boulder. Stand on it and look again. Goodbye!” Soon the man is halfway up the trail with his companions while I stand blinking at the hidden carving. Minutes later, I come to the boulder and see it in full. A symbol of the sun, perhaps drawn by ancient wanderers who lived here long ago, or maybe by bored kids in the more recent past with lots of time to kill and no MTV or smartphones to keep them gawking.

A split bolder


The trail meanders up and down, and I push through tall manzanitas that tear at my skin until I come to the mountain’s crest and rise above it all. I see three rowdy women bounding toward me; they stop and turn off the trail to race up a rough, round boulder while hurling insults at one another in hoarse shouts. I creep past them, bracing as if they will wolf whistle at me. But they don’t, and I pass by, ignored or unnoticed, following the trail as it dips down for its final bow before climbing back up to the peak. The peak has no sharp points to point to, but instead sits upon a large granite dome that looks like the sawn-off stump of a tree limb when seen from down below.

An overlook with a view to the northeast.


Alone on the dome, I look back and see the three women bouncing along the boulders behind me and hear them swearing at one another like sailors. Then I look southeast to Los Pinos Mountain. A rich brown trail cuts through the side of the green velvet mountain, and I espy the fire lookout tower that crowns its peak.

Removing my manly fanny pack, I pull out some nuts and dates and eat them, then peel a ripe orange that drips sticky citrus juice down my fingers. Later, I will rub my hands with dirt to dry them, but for now, I let the juice drip as I watch nearby birds flit and chat with one another, while high above a kettle of vultures soars into a thermal. Wet with sweat, I strip off my shirt and pants and stand in my briefs as the wind cools my body and the sun warms it. Then I switch into a warmer jacket and clean shorts while plugging my ears with headphones. The howl of the wind falls away to melodic tunes that I leap along to, racing down the mountain while abandoning memories that slip away, forgotten.

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