Camping in Cleveland National Forest – A rarely visited area

Starting out on Boulder Creek Road

Starting out on Boulder Creek Road

Combining other errands with camping in Cleveland National Forest turned out to be a pretty good idea. Since we had things to do on Friday and then Saturday morning, we got a late start, heading east through Ramona, reaching the trailhead at around 5:30. The PD and I had hiked in this area before, so when I was thinking of a short hike with a backcountry feel, this area sprang to mind. I had called the Palomar Ranger District, which amazingly covers this area. My first instinct every time is to call the Descanso Ranger Station, since this area is many miles south of Palomar Mountain, but the border is actually further south, along Tule Springs Road. The Palomar Ranger District includes Cedar Creek Falls and Eagle Peak.

Sophia was excited to go, as was the PD and his daughter, Tiny. Sophia fell asleep at the top of the purple monster and didn’t wake up until we were parking at the trailhead. On the way, I saw quail flutter away and deer bounding down the road.

It was a warm day, but the sun was setting, so the temperature was already getting comfortable. And, since the area I wanted to camp was around 3/4 of a mile or so, we didn’t have far to go. The flies were immediately upon us, so we put on some Simba insect repellant wristbands. They are DEET-free and are safe for kids. While fairly strong-smelling, the scent was nice and, from all reports from the kids, they seemed to work well. I, however, put on my Columbia Insect Blocker shirt and that worked well, too.

While getting ready, a car stopped to ask us where they were. I confirmed they were on Boulder Creek Road, and I also let them know that starting a hike to Three Sisters Falls at this time was out of the question. (You’re welcome SAR!) They asked what else could be seen in about an hour, and I didn’t know what to say. While I was charmed by the impulse of this cute couple looking for something outdoors to do at the last minute, I was wondering what would have happened if they would have started hiking at around sunset to a likely dry set of falls that take some serious scrambling to get to.

The trail was how I had remembered it, skirting a beautiful meadow. Since I wasn’t sure if the meadow itself was in Cleveland National Forest, and it was full of signs of cattle, we decided to press on a little bit.

The meadow at sunset, in Cleveland National Forest

The meadow at sunset, in Cleveland National Forest

Cuyamaca Peak from the trail

Cuyamaca Peak from the trail

Setting sun through the oaks

Setting sun through the oaks

A little further along the trail, we came across the bones of a cow. Strewn across a tenth of a mile, it was a sign that there are still predators in these mountains. There was no way for me to know if this was the work of a mountain lion or a pack of coyotes, it was still an awesome sight that I don’t normally see. Bleached white, the bones had been there a awhile and the kids had fun with them.

More bones littered around the area

More bones littered around the area

Bones along the trail

Bones along the trail

Found some jawbones

Found some jawbones

We continued on up and over the shoulder between two mountains and came across even more evidence of cows. These were fresher. We also came across an old car from the 40’s, which, of course, had bullet holes in it. It seemed so out of place out there. We passed a large rabbit, scurrying for cover.

Scouting for a campsite

Scouting for a campsite

A surprise find

A surprise find

We joked about not wanting to wake up to “moos,” so we turned around to find a level spot free of cow dung, somewhat protected from the herd’s potential path. We descended back to where we came and found a nice spot next to a rock outcrop. We set up our tent and decided to place the stove on the rocks and make our kitchen there. It seemed that we weren’t the first with this idea, as there was what appeared to be a very well-defined mortero, a worn out indentation in the rock where Kumeyaay likely ground acorns into something edible. As we watched the sun set over the valley below, we weren’t surprised that they had chosen this spot. In wetter years, there was likely reliable water sources nearby and the view was incredible.

Possible mortero

Possible mortero

As we prepared dinner while sitting on the rocks, an owl sailed silently over our tent to land in a distant tree.

As I sat there on the rocks, looking out over the orange valley below and seeing Middle Peak peeking out over the trees. I understood that this was truly a special place. One of many special places you can visit while camping in Cleveland National Forest.

Whenever someone asks me where one can go backpacking in San Diego, there are relatively few choices. Anza Borrego Desert State Park is a great choice, but it isn’t a reasonable place to go during the summer and not everyone loves the desert as much as I do. Cuyamaca Rancho State Park has two rustic camps where you can backpack to, but they need to be reserved and are pretty booked up throughout the year. The only other choice for backpacking in San Diego is to head to the Cleveland National Forest, where it’s pretty unclear where you can and can’t go. There are many ranches and inholdings within the National Forest, so it’s hard to tell whether or not you are treading on private property.

It’s due to the lack of defined campsites and lack of adequate messaging from Cleveland National Forest that this part of San Diego gets so seldomly visited. It’s also the reason that this place is so special. Choose a spot, bring your own water, and hike out to it. Be sure you aren’t near any of the popular waterfalls and you will have the place to yourself. Check with the ranger station for fire restrictions, since, during much of the year, campfires are prohibited.

We had dinner and s’mores and snuggled into our large family tent. We played Uno and I read a couple of chapters to Sophia. Even though we were only about a half mile from the road, we felt like we had the place to ourselves. It was the kind of wilderness experience I was looking for. We had plenty of room and we all slept soundly. I was expecting to hear coyotes howling in the night, but it was very quiet.

Making s'mores over the Jetboil

Making s’mores over the Jetboil

The sunset from our kitchen

The sunset from our kitchen

We woke up in the morning at around 6:30. It was already getting warm. We hung out in the tent a little bit, playing some more Uno.

Fun with Uno before breakfast

Fun with Uno before breakfast

We had our breakfast, packed up our gear, and headed out. Tiny had to be at a game about an hour and a half drive away. The morning was beautiful, the only sounds we could hear were the chirping of small birds. I didn’t want to leave, but it was going to be a hot day and I had to make the drive back to Santa Barbara.

The view to the west from our kitchen in the morning

The view to the west from our kitchen in the morning

A vertebra treasure

A vertebra treasure

Sunrise through the oaks and manzanita

Sunrise through the oaks and manzanita

Camping in Cleveland National Forest

Camping in Cleveland National Forest

Heading back out through the meadow

Heading back out through the meadow

Ascending into the sun

Ascending into the sun

On the way back to the car, we saw mountain lion tracks on the road. We weren’t sure when they were laid, but they appeared to be following deer tracks on the shoulder. While driving back along the road, we saw about 30 turkeys cross in front of us and walk up the embankment.

Mountain Lion track on Boulder Creek Road

Mountain Lion track on Boulder Creek Road

It’s still a wilderness out there, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Comments

  1. Michael Feldman says

    I love how you make the simplest short overnight hike into an enchanting adventure! Thanks for continuing to share!

  2. says

    Naw, the tracks in the first pic are tire tracks. Seriously, we saw a lot of cow tracks and some deer tracks on that side of the road. The left side of the road, where we weren’t looking on the way in, is where we found the mountain lion tracks on the way out. I will reach out when we are camping in the area.

  3. says

    Hey, just want to thank you for this great blog. You’re the best resource on the web for information about the Descanso and Palomar units of Cleveland NF and (best of all) you’re clearly having a blast. Thanks!

  4. says

    So, I’m a little uncertain where this is. Is it a specific trailhead? I’ve never been in that area before, but now I want to go.

  5. says

    Scott,

    I’ve deliberately been vague in this particular post, as this isn’t really a trail with a trailhead and it might even cross private land (I am looking into it). We definitely camped on CNF land. Generally, you take Pine Hills Road south, in between Wynola and Julian and continue to Boulder Creek Road. There are plenty of opportunities along the way between Julian and Descanso. Just invest in good maps and don’t hesitate to give the CNF ranger office a call to make sure.

  6. Chas says

    Derek, any chance that this was near Love Valley? I ask as I am thinkggn of taking the kiddos there for some non-campground backpack camping that is only a short hike for them. Seems like you have the interest of little ones on your outings as well. Thanks!

  7. says

    Love Valley is a great little hike with a nice view of Lake Henshaw. However, there were a lot of cows (and pies) the last time I was there. To be honest, I was a little intimidated by the large beasts staring at us while we hiked. That being said, I am sure a nice camping spot can be found among the trees.

    The area in this trip is much further south, near Boulder Creek Road. Thanks for reading!

  8. Chas says

    Thanks for the insight on the wildlife at Love, Derek. I’m planning to take a stroll of Love Valley tomorrow to see what it is like, may have to adjust camping plans if the bovines are plentiful. I’ll have to pull up the map and look around the area you mentioned. Much appreciated!

  9. Cindy Buxton says

    Cindy Buxton hate to break it to you that was ALL private land. I would know those shots anywhere. We have been working for a decade to preserver the surrounding Cleveland down into Cedar Gorge with Wilderness protection. Take a look at the photos on http://www.facebook.com/eaglepeak for some enticing shots of Cedar Creek with the water flowing. I share your pain over the lack of water in “Smith Pond” at the base of sunshine mountain. there is a geocache on Sunshine Mountain too. I have a video of it on youtube, actually a whole series of them. The land you are camping on is the former Marston Ranch. You were close however and I’m glad you didn’t get into trouble as obviously you were just there because it IS a beautiful place. I would know that car anywhere too. the openmeadow is fragil and not a good place to camp]=and also private. However if you go up the peak to the left in your photo, “Ant” mountain you will then be in the forest. I Do recommend bagging this peak in the spring. We hope we are days from official proposed wilderness status for the rest of this mountain and the Cedar gorge below. from the top , spectacular. the hike down is difficult, the one back up , worse. write next time you are in town and I’ll give you a real tour just for being genuinely interested in this remote neck of the woods. You hardly scratched the surface but I admire your Spunk.

  10. says

    Thanks for writing. I love this area of San Diego. It can be challenging navigating all the inholdings, while I am sure I had to cross private land to enter the area, I am certain that our campsite was in CNF. I triple checked before we left and I just checked again. We definitely avoided the open meadow and left the area cleaner than we had found it. I’ve been to Ant Benchmark, enjoying it in May 2010. I’ve also been to Oak BM, Sunshine twice (the Geocache record there gave me some beta on how to get there) and several other locations in the area. Spring 2010 was spectacular, green all around.

    Regarding the open meadow, it seems like the cattle would do more damage than an overnight camping trip. Please let me know how I can help or raise awareness of how other people can help make more of that area a wilderness. I will definitely reach out for a tour when I am in the area again. It’s one of my favorites.

  11. john says

    What’s your plan if you encounter mountain lion(s)…have you ever?…what happened?…thx

  12. Chris says

    If you encounter a Mountain Lion consider yourself lucky and do the best you can to get a picture before the lion disappears.

    Chris, lover of the San Diego County back country

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