Cuyamaca Peak +3 – Peaks 41-44 – A Traverse and a Loop through Western Cuyamaca

Cuyamaca Peak from Japacha Peak

Cuyamaca Peak from Japacha Peak

Cuyamaca Peak
Elevation: 6,512′
Japacha Peak
Elevation: 5,825′
Airplane Ridge
Elevation: 5,000′
Arrowmakers Ridge
Elevation: 4,740′
Total Mileage: 14.22 miles

Getting to Cuyamaca Rancho State Park always takes longer than I think it does. I left the house at 6AM and didn’t get on the trail until 8AM, as I have to take into consideration picking up the PD, getting breakfast to go, and driving out to the park.

Regardless, we arrived at Paso Picacho and were instantly chilled by the wind blasting through the valley. I was glad that I had brought extra layers, even though the weather report indicated that the high would be hovering near 70 degrees.

I had lofty goals for the day.  I wanted to climb up and over Cuyamaca Peak, summiting Japacha Peak and heading down to Airplane Ridge and Arrowmakers Ridge and loop all the way back to our starting point. A hike of over 14 miles. Sure, I wanted to add 4 peaks to my total, but I also wanted to get a good training hike for my upcoming trip to Mount Whitney. What better way to accomplish this than to spend a day of hiking in some of the highest elevation in San Diego?

We headed up the fire road, already noticing the effect of the higher elevation on our lungs. How would it be at twice the elevation in the Sierras? We warmed up and got a good pace going and made it to the top in about an hour.

The way up was littered with constant reminders of the 2003 Cedar fire. Charred earth and dead trees were scattered everywhere. In some places, we could still see ash, but this may have been from more recent controlled burns; it’s hard to tell. It’s going to take a long time for this mountain to get back to where it was, but volunteers are doing their best by planting saplings all over its side.

Lookout Road to Cuyamaca Peak

Lookout Road to Cuyamaca Peak

Cuyamaca Lake and Granite Mountain from Cuyamaca Peak

Cuyamaca Lake and Granite Mountain from Cuyamaca Peak

Once at the top, we couldn’t easily get a 360 degree view of the county, but the view was pretty spectacular. Only one mountain is higher in San Diego County, which is Hot Springs Mountain, miles away to the north. We walked around the peak structures, looking for some shelter from the icy wind, which periodically slammed into us from the north. We ended up resting on a concrete slab on the southern edge of the peak and were joined by another family, who must have left at about the same time we did. On the way up, I thought I saw a guy who looked just like I would imagine Jerry Schad would look like these days, but with a beard. He was lugging a tripod and a large camera bag down the road.

The PD Getting to the top of Cuyamaca Peak

The PD Getting to the top of Cuyamaca Peak

View North From Cuyamaca Peak, Hot Springs Mountain, and San Jacinto Mountains in the distance

View North From Cuyamaca Peak, Hot Springs Mountain, and San Jacinto Mountains in the distance

The PD resting on Cuyamaca Peak with Viejas Mountain in the distance

The PD resting on Cuyamaca Peak with Viejas Mountain in the distance

We then descended to an unpaved trail that headed towards Japacha Peak. We made excellent time on the soft pine needles and ultimately made it to the top of Japacha Peak, which is about 800 feet lower than Cuyamaca Peak. The views were pretty similar, but the bushwhack to the top provided some excitement. We had another snack, enjoyed the view and the warming day and headed back down, hoping to summit two more peaks before the day got too late.

Burnt Pine Trail on the way to Japacha Peak

Burnt Pine Trail on the way to Japacha Peak

Summit Cairn and Register on Japacha Peak

Summit Cairn and Register on Japacha Peak

The trail leading down the mountain was comprised of many switchbacks and got progressively overgrown as we descended. We noticed some amber caterpillars with black spikes and thought they were cool. We tromped along the trail through a lot of green overgrowth with our forearms in front of our faces for about five minutes before we realized that the bushes were covered with clumps of these caterpillars. And they were getting all over us. And the black spikes were covered with an irritant. From then on, we were more careful about checking each other. Some had made their way into my camera bags and were on my shorts. One had attached itself to my shin, causing an itchy/burning sensation.

Burnt Pine Trail, before it really got overgrown

Burnt Pine Trail, before it really got overgrown

Caterpillars twitching and clumping on the trail. They sting!

Caterpillars twitching and clumping on the trail. They sting!

After a couple of miles, the trail opened up to steep grasslands with occasional oaks. This was by far my favorite part of the hike. The wind swept the grass, making  it look like a lake of green and brown. All around us we could see distant peaks and meadows. It was truly beautiful and definitely a place worth visiting, even if you aren’t looking to bag a peak.

We saw some hikers making their way up as we approached Airplane Ridge. We saw a snake basking on the trail. It was a beautiful white, great and blue (not a rattler) and slithered away after I almost stepped on it. Too quick for a picture.

The PD on the Lower Burnt Pine Trail Grasslands

The PD on the Lower Burnt Pine Trail Grasslands

Japacha Peak from the Trail Junction of Arroyo Seco and West Mesa

Japacha Peak from the Trail Junction of Arroyo Seco and West Mesa

After a short bushwhack, we were on top, being buffeted by the ever-present wind of the day, but were presented with an amazing view of the south, unmistakable Stonewall Peak looming to the north, as well as the ridge that leads straight up to Japacha Peak. We were starting to feel the mileage, but were on a roll. We rambled back down and continued losing elevation. We took a few minutes to visit the Airplane Monument (Marc at San Diego Hiker has posted an excellent post about this, if you would like more information). From the monument, we started to hear some chainsaws in the distance.

View from the Airplane Ridge High Point

View from the Airplane Ridge High Point

Stonewall Peak from Airplane Ridge High Point

Stonewall Peak from Airplane Ridge High Point

Airplane Monument in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park

Airplane Monument in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park

After a few small stream crossings, we came across a man and a woman, armed with chainsaws, who were loading two horses who were pleasantly munching on the dense foliage. They were very friendly and knowledgeable, taught me the correct pronunciation of Japacha (haw puh SHAW) and shook their heads when I asked them if they would be trimming back the heavily overgrown trail above us. There was no funding. They were volunteers who were only trimming the large logs that hikers could not move. After too much fun, though we were tempted to stay and chat longer, we were on our way to the West Mesa, where we met several groups of people on horseback.

West Mesa from Airplane Ridge

West Mesa from Airplane Ridge

One of Many Horses on the West Mesa in Cuyamaca

One of Many Horses on the West Mesa in Cuyamaca

We were really on a roll now. We had our rhythm and the miles were flying by. We got to Arrowmakers Ridge and scrambled to the top, gently avoiding the freshly-planted saplings. I slipped while climbing over a large log and turned my ankle, which was still a little weak from a pretty decent turn from my hike to Cedar Creek Falls. It bothered me for the rest of the day. I have got to be more careful.

A lot of work has been done to restore Cuyamaca Rancho State Park to its former glory, but, I tell you, it’s pretty amazing now. I can’t imagine how beautiful it was before the fires.

Atop the ridge, we could see Oakzanita Peak, Cuyamaca Peak and Japacha Peak, among others. Tired and sore, we made it back down to the trail and began to make the uphill climb back to Paso Picacho. About a half mile from the trailhead, we spied a deer in the meadow ahead of us. Pretty cool.

Oakzanita Peak from Arrowmakers Ridge High Point

Oakzanita Peak from Arrowmakers Ridge High Point

Cuyamaca Peak and Japacha Peak from Arrowmakers Ridge

Cuyamaca Peak and Japacha Peak from Arrowmakers Ridge

In over 14 miles of hiking, I felt like we got the grand tour of much of the western portion of Cuyamaca. The area is incredible. Although Cuyamaca Peak is one of the most popular hikes in the park, I felt like it was the least scenic. The area around the paved road is pretty desolate and the view is great, but you are sharing space with the humming machinery on the top. Once away from the peak, the area felt like a secret wilderness with streams, stunning grasslands with sweeping vistas. There is still a little green, but it will all be brown soon. It will still be worth it.

Cuyamaca Traverse Trail Map

Cuyamaca Traverse Trail Map (Click to Enlarge)

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Comments

  1. says

    Wow, the grand tour is right. I was attending a nature hike that morning in the park, and enjoyed your updates. I haven’t hiked Cuyamaca Peak for almost 20 years. I better get back up there. Great report. Thanks!

  2. says

    Thanks for the comments.

    The weather ended up being perfect, even though it was a little windy. It was enough to keep us cool as the weather got hotter. The last push back to Paso Picacho was the hottest and involved more gain than I thought it would. Or it felt like more of a climb than I thought. Also, that last mile felt like three.

    Total gain for the day, (hiking uphill) was 2,652′.

  3. Terry Tyson says

    I was fortunate enough to have hiked this area many years ago when the entire forest was at its prime. As you suspected, it was very , very different. When I hiked here last year on the Arroyo Seco loop, via Airplane Monument, I was shocked at how much it had changed. Though it is still a wonderful place to visit and hike, it will be well after we’re gone to be fully restored.

    If ever.

    Perhaps the most photographed charred stumps around: http://www.flickr.com/photos/modern_artifacts/4110630366 and http://www.flickr.com/photos/modern_artifacts/4110630434

  4. says

    Ha! The same thing was asked on another of my posts. Perhaps I should devote a whole post to him. The PD is my brother-in-law, my wife’s brother, who will be going with me to Mount Whitney next month. He and his family live one street over from us and he enjoys mountain biking, too. His title was project manager and thus his nickname used to be the PM, before he got promoted to project director. Some would say that PM stood for puppet master, but that’s a whole different story.

  5. Travis says

    Just followed your exact path you laid out (except Arrowmakers Ridge, did you go off trail? didn’t see a trail). Great hike! We started at 7:10am and were back in the campground by 12:40pm. Saw some Wild Turkey along west mesa fire road but did acquire a deer tick on the trail at some point which I discovered when taking a shower after. Check for ticks after this hike. Would recommend this hike if you looking for a long distance hike with some good front loaded elevation gain and some scenic views.

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