I was excited. I was going down to San Diego. We had a party to go to in Coronado and I had an opportunity to go hiking anywhere in San Diego. However, one peak stuck out in my mind: Sunshine Mountain. My first hike to Sunshine Mountain led me to post later on twitter:
There's a lot of sensible talk about never hiking alone, but there's something magical about having a mountain to yourself.
— 100 Peaks (@100peaks) October 27, 2012
It’s been about 2 years since I had last been there. I could have hiked a new mountain, knocking off a peak (or two) off of my list, but I chose to visit this place, located in one of my favorite places in San Diego, Cleveland National Forest just southwest of Julian. A lot has changed in two years.
I set off a little later than I usually do, since we had driven from Santa Barbara to San Diego the night before. It was a nice drive through Ramona, and it really didn’t take as much time to get to the trail head as I remembered. On the way, I passed many turkeys and spotted a bobcat carrying a rabbit. It ran along the road in front of my car for quite a while before it realized that it needed to bound sideways up the hill.
As I got closer to Sunshine Mountain, I also saw a bunch of people parked at the Three Sisters Falls/Eagle Peak trail head. There appeared to be a mountain bike race on the road I was about to drive on. A woman who was cheering on gasping mountain bikers told me not to drive on Cedar Creek Road, but that wasn’t an option, since that road led directly to where I was going to park. I noticed another pickup truck exiting Cedar Creek Road and noticed they were wearing fatigues. I immediately assumed that the race was being administered by the military and asked them if the road was closed. They shrugged and said, “Nope.”
As I entered the rough Cedar Creek Road, it dawned on me that they and all the other pickup trucks I saw along Boulder Creek Road were hunters, not military personnel. Well, not exclusively military personnel. Before long, I pulled over to the side to let a large bunch of riders pass from the front. I stopped in time so that my dust could settle down and cheered them on from my window. I would drive another 50′ and wait for another group.
This continued for about 20 minutes. Perhaps I should have hiked it, since it took me that long to get a half a mile to the Sunshine Mountain trail head. This time, the gate was locked and I could not drive up and over the dam like I did last time. Also the pond was completely dry. There wasn’t even a sign that there was ever water in there.
The stream I had crossed last time was also bone dry and I didn’t hear the small waterfall I had heard. Also the area was much more brown than before. I knew this year had been pretty dry, but my last time here had been in June. This time, in April, I was very surprised to see the summer version of the area.
I started on the trail, happy to see there were no footprints and I was walking through spider webs. Once again, I would have the mountain to myself. The trail, like last time, was overgrown.
I walked through some brush that was crowding the trail and happened to look down at my pants. There were four ticks on them. I would have to be vigilant for the rest of the hike. I brushed them off and continued on. I peered closely at the bushes along the trail and saw ticks on nearly every single branch.
This was going to be a long hike. I was glad I was wearing long pants and sleeves.
Over time, I developed a rhythm of walking through about 20 feet of overgrown trail and then brushing or flicking off the ticks of my pants, shoes, and shirt, careful of the area around my pack’s belt and my camera bags. It would average between 2-10 ticks at a time.
Once I got to the upper part of Sunshine Mountain, which took a lot longer than it needed to, I went off-trail to head toward the peak. I saw plenty of deer scat and flat spots where they bed down at night. And the number of ticks went down to none. I was then able to safely bushwhack to the peak without worrying about looking down every 30 seconds or so.
At least until I was knee-deep in poison oak. I had encountered poison oak on the trail before in San Diego, most notably in the bushwhack to Long Valley Peak, but I had gotten so used to what poison oak looked like in Los Padres National Forest and my own front yard, that I assumed it looked the same in San Diego. It doesn’t. While it has a lot of similar features, it tends to be a much deeper green and the leaves aren’t as large as their northern counterparts. I carefully backed out of the leafy danger and was grateful again for wearing long pants.
I started noticing it here and there and was a little surprised to see it so far away from a water source, but that seems to be another anomaly of the southern type.
I made it easily to the peak of Sunshine Mountain, recognizing some landmarks along the way, mostly boulders. Since this was a short hike, I took my time on the peak, looking around. The waterfalls I saw two years ago were all dry. The area was rapidly turning brown. I had the mountain to myself, but the tick infestation took a little bit of the joy out of the journey. I heard a turkey call from the next ridge over and saw what looked to be a pleasant, hidden place to camp. I might return here some day, outside of tick season.
I made it back down to the trail and decided to explore a little bit to the west. On Google Earth, the trail appears to reach the edge of the San Diego River Valley, offering a tremendous view. I stepped through some overgrowth and counted 15 ticks on me. I shook them off and looked ahead at the rarely-used and very overgrown trail and turned around. I would be going no further today, even though I had the time. [Edit June 2, 2015: I returned to this trail a few weeks ago to go backpacking. It was great.]
On the way back down the trail, it turns out that being the only one on the mountain has its disadvantages, as the ticks had been mostly cleared away by my ascent. If someone else had been on the trail this morning, I wouldn’t have had it as bad as I did. On the bright side, I was able to move quickly back down to my car, checking for ticks far less frequently than on the way up.
I checked for a way up to where I saw a potential campsite, but was stopped about 100 feet up with thick brush. Without the ticks, I may have tried harder.
I made it back to my car and chatted with a couple of hunters who hadn’t had any luck. We both agreed the turkeys seemed to know where they could roam without fear of being hunted.
I drove back to our family’s house, picking up some Julian Dutch Apple Pie along the way in Santa Ysabel. This was the first time in a long time that I had been back in San Diego. While Santa Barbara feels like our new home, there was something comfortable about San Diego, the place where I spent 11 years exploring.
Next time, I will try a new peak.