El Cajon Mountain Trail: Taking on San Diego’s “Toughest” Hike

Hiking El Cajon Mountain Trail

Distance: 11 miles | Hiking time: 5-6 hours | More info.

Are you looking for a challenging and rewarding hike near San Diego? Look no further than El Cajon Mountain, a.k.a. El Capitan, a popular destination for experienced hikers and outdoor enthusiasts. 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 11.25 mile out and back trail leading to the summit. With breathtaking views of the surrounding valleys, mountains, and even the Pacific Ocean on a clear day, this hike is sure to leave a lasting impression.

El Cajon Mountain Trailhead Parking Lot
El Cajon Mountain Trailhead Parking Lot

Getting Started

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.

El Cajon Mountain Trailhead Facilities
El Cajon Mountain Trailhead Facilities

After leaving the trailhead facilities, you will gradually climb through a series of tight switchbacks that wind through a dense forest of manzanita trees, coastal sage scrub, and mixed chaparral. As you climb up the hill, you’ll see the San Vicente Reservoir to the west. This is one of three reservoirs you can see from the trail.

Looking at San Vicente Reservoir from El Cajon Mountain Trail
Looking at San Vicente Reservoir from El Cajon Mountain 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. At this point, you’ll begin to realize the challenge of the trek ahead. Every hill you descend, you’ll have to climb back up on the way out.

Looking at El Capitan from El Cajon Mountain Trail
Looking at El Capitan from El Cajon Mountain Trail

Mile Marker One

El Cajon Mountain Trail starts at an elevation of around 1550 feet and climbs to a peak of 3675 feet, and has a total estimated elevation gain of around 4000 feet. You may have noticed that the numbers aren’t adding up. So where does that missing 2125 feet 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.

El Cajon Mountain Trail Marker for Mile One
El Cajon Mountain Trail Marker for Mile One

Continue hiking along the trail, ticking 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..

Take a Seat on El Cajon Mountain Trail
Take a Seat on El Cajon Mountain Trail

After passing the park bench, the trail works its way steadily uphill for the next three-quarters of a mile or so, just past the 3.5 mile mark.  Take a moment to celebrate your victory. You’re more than halfway 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. It’s a humbling experience when you consider that the hotel has 400 rooms and 300,000 square feet of gaming space inside.

Looking down on Barona Casino from El Cajon Mountain Trail
Looking down on Barona Casino from El Cajon Mountain Trail

After a short descent along the mountain’s edge, you’ll start another steady uphill climb toward 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 for now.

a truck stranded for decades on the trail
Stranded Rust Bucket on El Cajon Mountain Trail

The following mile of the trail is just as technical as the previous one. The terrain is steep, rutted, and full of loose dirt and gravel. To stay safe, wear sturdy trail runners or hiking shoes. Wearing tennis or running shoes could leave you feeling uncertain due to their lack of traction.

a view of the rugged trail ahead
Rugged Trail Ahead on El Cajon Mountain

Mile Five: The Final Approach to the Summit

At the 5 mile mark, the trail splits off in three directions.

I’m not sure where the trail ahead goes. It’s possible it leads to the granite face of El Capitan, which is popular with local rock climbers seeking a challenging climb.

To the right is El Capitan Trail. Head that way, and after a brief hike, you’ll arrive at a fenced-in, weather-beaten shack. I’m not sure of the shack’s history, but it appears to have been a lookout for weather or fires at some point.

The Shack at the of the main trail
The Shack at the End of El Capitan Trail

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 can be a little unclear at times, so people have left cairns (rock piles) on top of some of the larger boulders to assist you in finding your way.

Looking Back to the Summit Trail
Looking Back to the Summit Trail from El Cajon Mountain Summit

With a little scrambling and dedication, and after a few false summits, you will eventually arrive at the summit marker. However, you still have the hike out ahead of you, so don’t congratulate yourself just yet.

Find a boulder, climb on top, and admire the scenery 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.

A view from the summit
A View from the Summit on El Cajon Mountain

El Cajon Mountain Hike Retrospective

I love a challenging hike and El Cajon Mountain Trail delivered just that. The combination of distance and elevation gain created a perfect mix of thigh-busting uphill climbs.

The trail kept me constantly challenged and motivated me to push myself, even when my mind was telling 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.

I hiked the trail on a Friday morning, and was surprised to come across at least eight other hikers doing the same. All but one hiker I came across looked to be experienced and appropriately equipped with good hiking shoes, clothes and plenty of water.

I started the hike with three liters of water on a day when the high temperatures were set to reach about 80 degrees. One mile shy of the parking lot, I sucked the last drops 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 on the day I hiked it, so I was treated to unobstructed views in all directions. I could even see the Coronado Islands floating in the glistening ocean more than 35 miles away off the coast of Baja California.

Looking at Coronado Islands from El Cajon Mountain summit
Looking at Coronado Islands from El Cajon Mountain Trail

I can only imagine how it might look like at sunrise or sunset. Unfortunately, I’ll have to continue to imagine it because the park opens at 8 am and closes at sunset. For that reason, there will be no sunrise or sunset views from the summit for me. I’ll have to look elsewhere for that.

And so, the journey continues.

 Tips

  • Carry at least 3 liters of water for this 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

Additional Information & Resources

Photos


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