Grapevine Mountain Hike – Going Off-Trail from the PCT in Anza Borrego

Grapevine Mountain Hike

Distance: 6.25 miles | Hiking time: 4-5 hours | More trail info.

John, a friend I met on Instagram (@adventuregraham), asked me to join him on the Grapevine Mountain hike in the Anza Borrego Desert with him. I eagerly accepted.

Not only is Grapevine Mountain #51/100 on the Sierra Club’s 100 Peaks of San Diego list, but I had hiked with John before and was certain this would be an adventure.

Grapevine Mountain is a little-known hike near the PCT in northeastern San Diego, about 12 miles east of Julian. There are different routes to the summit, including one described in Jerry Schad’s Afoot & Afield in San Diego County that approaches from the backside of the mountain. Our route was less known, starting in a nondescript ravine off the PCT.

Welcome to the Anza Borrego Desert

I arrived at the trailhead parking lot on HWY 78 and San Felipe Rd. just before 8 am on a warm Sunday morning. Although it was still spring, San Diego’s weather made it feel like summer.

As I looked up at Grapevine Mountain, I could see there would be little to no shade. With the temperature already around 70 degrees, I knew it was going to be a typical desert hike under the scorching Southern California sun.

Grapevine Mountain Hike
There wasn’t much shade, but we did find a couple small Juniper trees (right) on the trail

PCT Trailhead to the Grapevine Route

Shortly after I got there, John showed up with three other friends he had invited on the adventure. Everyone was geared up and ready to go, and within a couple minutes of their arrival we were off hiking the PCT.

The PCT trail crosses HWY 78 just a hundred yards or so east of the parking lot. We took the long way around to get the full experience and hiked west towards the bridge, then under it, where we found a water stash left by trail angels for PCT thru hikers. After crossing under the bridge, we picked up the PCT and headed east toward the spot where it crosses HWY 78.

It wasn’t the most direct approach, but it was a fun little detour.

Grapevine Mountain Hike
Picking up the PCT after crossing HWY 78

Right from the start of our hike we were seeing evidence of the desert’s wildflower blooms. The hillsides were bright with hues of green cactus and yellow and purple wildflowers. Later in the day, on our return hike, the wildflowers were even more spectacular as they opened up to take in the life-giving rays of the late morning sun.

The trail was well-groomed and easy to follow as we climbed our way up the switchbacks toward the crossing where we would start our scramble for the summit.

Grapevine Mountain Hike
Desert wildflowers were in full bloom on the PCT

Heading Off-Trail for Grapevine Mountain

I didn’t know exactly what to expect from this hike, so I blindly followed John until he suddenly stopped. Here, in a narrow section of the trail, was a small wash that was densely populated with thick vegetation. John said, “This is it,” and headed off into the brush.

Grapevine Mountain Hike
What looks like a trail here is just a wash in the bottom of a ravine

We made our way along the wash, being careful to avoid sharp and pointy things along the way, for about a hundred yards or so until we came to a dry waterfall. The waterfall, which was the only major obstacle in our  journey, was eight or ten feet tall. Fortunately, it had plenty of hand and foot holds, so the scramble was actually fairly easy.

climbing the waterfall
At least we weren’t dodging cactus right here

After the waterfall, we had to hop on boulders and avoid cacti for the rest of the hike. Some of us were lucky enough to get through without getting hurt, while the rest of us had to remove Cholla cactus thorns from our legs and other parts of our body, which is a common occurrence during desert hikes like this one.

The scramble lasted for about an hour before we finally reached the first summit. It was a false summit, but we could see a clear path to our destination, so we took a minute to relax and enjoy the views before continuing our hike.

Safely out of the ravine we had been hiking in, the most difficult part of our hike was over. From here it was a relatively easy hike with some light scrambling and cactus dodging for about the last half-mile.

Making our way toward the summit and taking in the views along the way
Making our way toward the summit and taking in the views along the way

The Summit Experience

At the summit, we discovered some geological survey markers and a geocache. While the rest of the group took out their snacks, I opened the geocache. Its contents were fairly unremarkable, just a couple of summit registers and a few pencils.

I gave one of the registers to John, who started reading the notes left by previous visitors. We found a note left by Jason (@sdhiker), another good friend of ours and a well-known San Diego peakbagger, among others.

The summit registry left by our friend, Jason on 5/4/15
The summit registry left by our friend, Jason on 5/4/15

While enjoying the views and sharing our snacks, we talked about our adventure. Following John on a hike is always a fun experience, but it often results in itchy scratches that take a while to heal, and this hike was no different.

The views were beautiful. From the summit we were able to see the Salton Sea beyond the Superstition Mountains to the east, San Jacinto to the northeast, Cuyamaca Peak to the west, and Granite Mountain to the South.

We took the same route back to the trailhead. While it’s possible to hike this route as a loop, people report mixed experiences. So do a little research before planning your hike, and be prepared whichever route you choose.

John rejoicing in the views from the summit
John rejoicing in the views from the summit

To Julian for Some Brews

After finishing our hike, we visited the Nickel Beer Company in Julian for some cold micro brews and friendly conversation.

The brewery has a rustic interior and outdoor patio that creates a cozy, small town atmosphere. The friendly and engaging staff efficiently managed the quickly moving lines, a testament to the quality of their wide selection of brews that cater to different tastes. They also provide a few snacks to enhance the experience.

A few words of advice, however, don’t go into Nickel Beer Company hungry. I was starving and was hoping for lunch. I kept hoping for lunch for the next few hours until I got back home because, hey, it’s a brewery, not a restaurant. They do beer, not food.


  • Cover up those legs if you want to minimize cactus damage
  • Wear good shoes for the scramble and don’t step on a cactus
  • Bring sunglasses and sunscreen
  • Carry a minimum of two liters of water, three during warmer months
  • There’s very little shade, so avoid this trail during summer and early fall

Additional Info & Resources:


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