El Cajon Mountain (El Capitan) – Peak 49 – Uphill Both Ways

Sunrise over El Cajon Mountain

Sunrise over El Cajon Mountain

El Cajon Mountain
Elevation Gain:
Miles: ~11.2

First of all, I’d like to congratulate Tom, a hiker I saw going up while I was on the way down, for being the first person to ever recognize me from this website while hiking on a trail. Pretty cool. I’m famous now. Tom, if you’re reading this, send me an email and I’ll send you something useful.

Now for the hike. This was the first time I even bagged a peak with a group, which was SoCal Hikers and Peakbaggers. It was a group of five of us that arranged carpooling and was led my Maya, a very capable hike leader.

We got to the trailhead and it was a cool morning. The way I like it. We headed up the road and started gaining elevation quickly. Once we warmed up, the first switchbacks didn’t seem that steep. Once we topped the first rise, we got a view of El Cajon Mountain in the mist. Our destination was miles away. It didn’t seem likely that we would get there today.

The group, getting started on the trail

The group, getting started on the trail

The group, still fresh and smiling

The group, still fresh and smiling

Jeep shell on the way to El Cajon Mountain

Jeep shell on the way to El Cajon Mountain

But we moved along the trail, happy that the recent rains had left the trails moist enough to not be dusty, but not enough to be muddy. The conditions were perfect. The uphill sections were pretty steep and I was highly aware of the downhill sections, as we would be climbing upwards on the way back.

The morning flew by, as we chatted and I got to know all of my new acquaintances. We passed an old shell of a Jeep, which is a remnant of the mining that occurred on the mountain. After several more ups and down, we reached the foot of El Cajon Mountain, known locally as El Capitan. We looked up at the steep use trail which meandered up the side and we went for it.

It wasn’t as steep as some of the trail reports had led me to believe. I only had to put my hand on a rock once or twice, not the boulder scrambling that had been described to me. Before we knew it, we were on top. The views were incredible. To the east, we saw Cuyamaca Peak and its neighboring mountains, Eagle Peak and the San Diego River Valley to the northeast, and Mount Gower to the northwest.

The group at the summit

The group at the summit

Eagle Peak and the San Diego River Valley

Eagle Peak and the San Diego River Valley

El Cajon Mountain Benchmark

El Cajon Mountain Benchmark

We chatted on the peak, had some snacks, and enjoyed the view. Reluctantly, we shouldered our packs and started the long way “down.” The first two miles went quickly, then the undulating topography started taking its toll. Legs already tired from the way up were once again faced with steep inclines. Heart racing and lungs wheezing, I was surprised by the effort as the day warmed up, even though I knew this was coming. Stopping in some shade, I was startled by/startled a rattlesnake, my first sighting since I started my peaks quest.

The trail back home

The trail back home

My friend the red diamond rattlesnake

My friend the red diamond rattlesnake

Once, nearing the trailhead, I turned and looked back. I could see the familiar face of El Cajon Mountain, which could be plainly seen from many parts of the county. I’ve been looking at it for several years now, especially in the morning light on my way to Cuayamaca or Mount Laguna.

A last look back at El Cajon Mountain on the way out

A last look back at El Cajon Mountain on the way out

I’ve hiked it now, happy that I’ve done it. It’s been on my list, but since it’s 11.2 hard miles, I have been putting it off. Luckily, I was able to do it with a great group on a day with perfect weather.

Update 10/26/2010: I wanted to add Maya’s picture of the snake, as it had slithered to middle of the trail by the time they got there.

The Snake

Maya’s photo of the snake

El Cajon Mountain Trail Map (Click to Enlarge)

El Cajon Mountain Trail Map (Click to Enlarge)

El Cajon Mountain Elevation Profile

El Cajon Mountain Elevation Profile (Click to Enlarge)

If you hike in San Diego, you’ve either read or should read a version of this book

(Visited 3,572 times, 3 visits today)


  1. Melissa Rexilius says

    Aw, I almost went on that hike this weekend! I didn’t know you were also with SoCal Hikers & Peakbaggers. You would’ve had two people recognizing you. Now that’s getting famous, lol… 😉


  2. says

    This was my first hike with them and ended up being very fun. I did hike by myself for a bit of the hike, that’s because I enjoy running downhill.

    Hope to see you on a future hike!

  3. Nei Dal Bem says

    Congrats on the last hike, sounds like you chose a perfect day for it!

    Nice that you spotted that D-back, good to see from far.

    Wishing you great trails!


  4. Roberta says

    The challenge on this baby are the ups and downs, not the rock scrambling. My legs were shaking at the end of the hike when I did it in August! (On one of our unseasonably cool summer days in 2010).

  5. says

    Thanks for the kind words.

    Yes, it was a kneebuster, as we say. Those ups and downs can be psychologically, as well as physically draining.

  6. says

    El Cap is funny that way! I was there for the first time in February and thought it would be a little long but somehow it always ends up beating your ass more than you expect.

    RE getting recognized – hey. That’s the price of fame. If you can’t handle the fast-paced world of outdoors blogging you’d better just get out now. 🙂

  7. says

    I think it was just a stick.

    I know getting a table at fancy restaurant is one of the benefits of blogging, but TMZ gets a little tiresome sometimes…

  8. says

    I never knew you in Southern California and walkers Peakbaggers.I were there for the first time in February, and I thought it was a little long, but somehow always gets more than he has the biggest tracks expect.Wishing more great travel and hiking adventures to come!


  9. jessica says

    i suppose there’s no way of driving closer to the top? =) i have been doing some interesting and longer hikes lately – went up San Miguel (not sure if that was “legal”?) but i asked the guy working at the top if it was ok – he seemd more impressed that we hiked up – he just said not to enter the compound. It’s funny because although we crossed a couple barbed fences that had been “opened”, there was a pretty clear trail going all the way to the top.

    Then i went to the Palomar High Point Lookout from Palomar Campground (10 miles round trip). not sure if that was legal either (the part from the Observatory to the Lookout) but i did ask a Fireman if it was ok. The views from the Palomar Divide Truck Trail are amazing…but i think it technically belongs to the observatory. it’s nice to be able to stop by the Observatory on your way up though. I guess the “proper” way to the lookout tower is from Oak Grove, and that’s a good 13.5 miles.

    I am planning on doing Otay Mtn next. Just a little concerned about rattlesnakes and border patrol, but it should be another long good one. I guess that’s going to be the longest – 15 miles! I get impatient so i think i’m going to alternate jogging with hiking!

  10. says

    California seems to be home to a plethora of hiking / backpacking enthusiasts! Thinking I might need to move… Is your favorite part of peakbagging the climax at the top, reaching the bottom when it’s finally over, or somewhere along the way? I’m interested to know the exact moments that keep people coming back for these trail adventures. Great pictures by the way!

  11. says

    Jessica, I am also planning on doing the Oak Grove to High Point hike to Palomar. Should be a nice gain.

    I wouldn’t really worry about rattlesnakes. I’ve lived in SD for 10 years and have hiked all over and have only seen one on the trails.

    All of those mountains are on my list!

  12. Nate says

    I’ve done both of the routes to Palomar high point for a backpack camping trip. Technically you can go up the Oak Grove way and continue on through Palomar Divide to get to the campgrounds (which is what I did). They say you can use the Palomar Divide road, but it definitely feels a bit sketchy since you’re traveling through private property, past homes and stuff. On my first pass through there I apparently set off an alarm and the attention of some dogs while walking along the road :/ . Awesome views though, highly recommended.

  13. Rob says

    El Cajon Mtn is my one of favorite work-out hikes.

    A couple of years ago California Conservation Corps repaired a couple of wash-outs thereby eliminating some notorious rock scrambles. The new parking lot and restrooms are wonderful!

    If you have 20 minutes, check out the old mine on the not-used fork at the saddle with the burned signpost.

    If you have lots of time, when you’re at the 3-way fork near the top, take the middle fork and descend (slightly) onto the mesa that extends all the way to the sheer rock face of El Cap. (Check map for property boundaries.) Spectacular vantage from the top of the rock face, and you can watch and hear the rock climbers work their ropes!

  14. Jiea says

    Mt. El Cajon is my favorite SD trail run hands down…triple ascent planned in a coupla weeks, haven’t seen a snake yet, don’t want to start now! Went up twice the day it was snow covered. It was a winter wonderland and of course I left the camera in the car. Sprinted back down to the car to get the camera for the second ascent, but alas, much had melted and it just wasn’t the same. Lesson learned, now I bring the camera the first time!

  15. says

    Sorry for the long time to respond. I saw a trail runner on the day I was hiking it. I was doing my slalom method of using trekking poles while hopping and skipping down steep hills. And here comes this girl running along, making it look easy… It would be a great training trail for almost anything.

  16. Jiea says

    The triple was a success, took 9 hours and lots of fuel (sherpa’d 2 gals of water to the 5mi. sign). Agreed, great training for life and whatnot. Perhaps that was me running although it ain’t easy. Say Yollo next time, see you on the trails!

  17. Derek (100 Peaks) says

    Tom never did send me his info, so the next person that recognizes me on the trail gets a prize.

  18. says

    If you like a challenging hike such as El Cajon Mountain then you should try Eagle Peak from the West side. I have only done it once and it is a tough one. There is a vague trail to the ridge then lots of up and down rock climbing and at least 4 fake summits before you reach the top. Would have to wait till the Cedar Creek trail opens again in November to attempt it again. Anyone up for the challenge?

  19. says

    Heh, did this one today, me, my brother, a family friend, and some of our kids, 8, 9, 10, and his 10 year old friend. The 8 year old was tuckered out at the peak, this was hard for her. The 9 and 10 year olds were fine. I bicycle over 100 miles a month, but this trek took it out of me, those darn ups and downs. The weather was perfect, sunny-hazy and cool with a breeze. The recent rain had left the trails not very dusty, but not muddy either.

    The ascent immediately before reaching the three-way fork was the most arduous part of the hike for me, was gasping and flushed, but I smoke. Didn’t see any snakes. Did see a red rattler at Stelzer Park. The view sitting on a boulder on the top of El Cajon Mountain was gorgeous.

    Next to the broad large boulder that is the highest or second highest on the peak tucked under an adjacent boulder is a visitor book someone set up unofficially. It is in a tin all filled up, and there is a fresher one with a pen in a zip lock bag next to it. You can read other people’s comments and sign yourself and comment.

    Oh, at the summit before you go down considerably preceeding the ardous climb to the three forks is a trail going to the left. It leads to an abandoned mine with three shafts. It’s a very short ascent and I recommend it. I read on another website that the little house with the fence around it covers an abandoned gold mine, dunno the legitimacy of that info. I didn’t take that fork but climbed to the summit of El Cajon mountain.

    Very worthwhile hike, greatly enjoyed ourselves. Try to do this one on a cooler day, seriously. And bring lots and lots of water, you’ll go through alot. We brought stacks, more than normal, and still were out of water by the time we were within five miles of the parking lot on the return trip.

    With children we set out at 7:30am and returned to the car at 5:10pm. A good good trip and an excellent day well spent.

  20. Coquito says

    Derek, thanks for sharing all these great pics and videos.
    I hiked El Cajon Mountain for the first time with a friend in 2010.
    I enjoy hiking very much and would love to join you in one of your hikes.
    @ Nigel, let me know when you plan to attempt that hike again. 🙂

  21. says

    Thank you for reading and for the kind words. I have since moved to Santa Barbara and only occasionally am able to return to San Diego for a hike. That hike up to Eagle Peak from the west side sounds like a lot of fun!

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