Distance: 11 miles | Hiking time: 5-6 hours | Difficulty: 8/10 | More info.
El Cajon Mountain, a.k.a. El Capitan, is one of San Diego’s most rewarding hikes. If you’re fit and up to the challenge, don’t hesitate to take on El Cap. It will challenge your body and mind with relentless elevation changes, then reward you with stunning views in all directions.
El Cajon Mountain Trail is located in the El Capitan Open Space Preserve in Lakeside, Ca. Encompassing 2619 acres of protected space, the preserve has 8 miles of rugged hiking trails, including the 12 mile out and back trail leading to the summit.
The hike begins just outside the trailhead parking lot on the corner of Wildcat Canyon Road and Shenma Road. After a brief walk up Shenma Road you will arrive at the official trailhead for El Cajon Mountain Trail, where there are clean restrooms and a couple of picnic tables.
Once past the trailhead facilities, you begin a gradual climb up a series of tight switchbacks that wind their way through a dense forest of manzanita trees, coastal sage scrub and mixed chaparral. Looking west as you continue up the hill, you get your first look at San Vicente Reservoir, one of three reservoirs visible from the trail.
At the top of the hill, the trail opens up to a fire road where the first of several helpful trail markers points the way to El Cajon Peak and El Capitan comes into view. From here, the trail makes a quick descent along the south edge of the mountain. It’s at this point that the reality of this trek starts to set in and you realize that every hill you climb down will have to be climbed back up on the way out.
El Cajon Mountain Trail starts at an elevation of around 1550′ and climbs to a peak of 3675′, yet it has an estimated elevation gain of around 4000′. You may have noticed that the numbers aren’t adding up. So where does that missing 2125′ come from?
Hills. Steep hills, and lots of them.
The exact level of difficulty quickly becomes clear when you reach the trail marker for mile one, which shows you where you are on the trail and what’s to come. So put your game face on and dig in. You’ve still got another 10+ miles of rugged trail ahead of you before returning to the comfort of your car.
Continue hiking along the trail, notching off trail markers along the way, stopping occasionally for a break and to take in the increasingly scenic views. At around the 3 mile mark, you’ll come across a park bench conveniently perched atop a scenic southeast facing overlook. It’s fully exposed with no shade, but if you’re feeling a bit winded, take advantage of this opportunity to take a rest.
You’ve just started the toughest part of the hike.
After passing the park bench, the trail works its way steadily up hill for the next 3/4 of a mile or so, just past the 3.5 mile mark. Take a moment to celebrate your victory. You’re more than half way to the summit and you’ve already climbed nearly 1500 vertical feet.
As you round the top of the hill, Barona Valley comes clearly into view directly to the northwest. From this vantage point, Barona Casino looks like a tiny street mall awkwardly stuck out in the middle of nowhere. A humbling experience when you consider the hotel has 400 rooms and 300,000 sq. ft. of gaming space inside.
After a brief descent along the edge of the mountain, you’ll once again begin a steady up hill climb towards the summit. Along the way, you’ll pass the rusted out skeleton of a 4×4 truck that looks like it’s been stranded there since the 50s. I’d love to know the story behind this truck but sadly, I haven’t been able to track down any details.
The truck and its story will have to remain a mystery.
The next mile of trail, like the trail before it, is pretty technical. It’s steep and rutty with a lot of loose dirt and gravel. You’ll experience much the same from here on out, so make sure you wear a good pair of trail runners or hiking shoes. Wearing tennis or running shoes on this terrain will almost certainly leave you feeling less than confident with their lack of traction.
At the 5 mile mark, the trail splits off in three directions.
I’m not certain where the trail straight ahead leads. My guess is that it leads to the granite face of El Capitan that is often visited by local rock climbers looking for a challenging climb.
To the right is El Capitan Trail. A short hike to the end of the trail drops you off in front of a fenced in weather-beaten shack. Once again, I don’t know the story behind the shack, but it looks like it may have been a weather or fire lookout at one point.
The trail to the left leads to El Cajon Mountain Summit. The hike from here is brief, but technical. The wide trail narrows to a series of single track trails that make their way through the low-lying manzanita trees, shrubs and boulders that cover the hill. The path to the summit is a little unclear at times, so people have left cairns (rock piles) atop some of the larger boulders to help you find your way.
With a little scrambling and dedication, and after a few false summits, you will soon arrive at the summit marker. But don’t go patting yourself on the back for a job well done just yet. The hike out still remains.
Find yourself a boulder, climb on up and take a look at the world around you. On a clear day, you can catch a glimpse of Mexico to the south, Iron Mountain and Mt. Woodson to the southwest, the San Diego River Valley to the north, and the vast expanses and many peaks of Cleveland National Forest to the east.
El Cajon Mountain Hike Retrospective
I love a challenging hike and El Cajon Mountain Trail delivered just that. The combination of distance and total elevation gain made the perfect mix of thigh busting up hill climbs.
The trail kept me working the whole time and tempted me into pushing myself, even when my mind was screaming at me to stop. The trail was well maintained, and at the same time rugged and technical. When I found traction on the downhills, I ran them, which gave me a rewarding bump in my hiking time. I also ran a few of the more moderate uphills, being careful not to push myself too hard, because I wanted to keep my heart rate manageable.
I hiked the trail on a Friday morning, and was surprised to come across at least 8 other hikers doing the same. All but one hiker I came across looked to be experienced and appropriately ready with good hiking shoes, clothes and plenty of water.
The one hiker that was questionable was shirtless, carrying one water bottle, sweating like a waterfall and looked to be questioning his decision to take on this hike. He was ill-equipped for the hike, if for no other reason than the fact that he did not have enough water to get him through.
I started the hike with 3 liters of water on a day when the high temps were set to reach about 80 degrees. One mile shy of the parking lot, I sucked the last available drips of water from my hydration pack. Plan ahead and bring plenty of water. You’re going to need every last ounce.
Beyond the challenging hike, the views from El Cajon Mountain Trail were amazing. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky the day I hiked it, so I was treated to unobstructed views in all directions. I could even see the Coronado Islands sitting in the glistening ocean more than 35 miles away off the coast of Baja California.
I can only imagine what it might look like at sunrise or sunset. Unfortunately, I’ll have to continue imagining it because the park opens at 7 am and closes at sunset. So no sunrise or sunset views from the summit for me. I’ll have to look elsewhere for that.
And so, the journey continues.
My Runkeeper Stats
- Miles: 11.25
- Time hiking: 3:31:37
- Calories burned: 1799
- Elevation gain: 3042′
- Bring at least 3 liters of water for this long, exhausting hike
- Avoid hot days and wear sunscreen, there is very little shade on the trail
- Wear a good pair of hiking shoes or trail runners
- Bring a camera, because the views are amazing
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