Lawson Peak Trail: Hiking, Scrambling and Climbing to the Summit

Lawson Peak is the type of hike you do for the challenge, not simply to get out in nature. The scramble to the summit may test your nerve if you are not a practiced rock climber. Although it can be challenging in some areas, determined peak baggers will reach the top.

RELATED: Lawson Peak Trail in Cleveland National Forest

Lawson Peak Trailhead & Parking

The gated trailhead for Lawson Peak trail is located near the base of the valley at mile marker 13 on Lyon’s Valley Road. Other than the gate and mile marker, the trailhead is plain and unmarked, providing no indication of your location. As always, when parking in Cleveland National Forest, you’ll need to have an Adventure Pass.

The trailhead doesn’t offer a view of either Lawson Peak or Gaskill Peak (Lawson’s sister peak) and offers no hint of the challenging adventure ahead.

A truck parked alongside the road at mile 13 near Lawson Peak Trail trailhead.

Hiking Lawson Peak Trail

After parking, pass the gate and start the 2-mile uphill hike. Lawson Peak trail, which is mainly a weather-beaten fire road, presents an obstacle course of rocks, ruts, and loose dirt. You will need to pay close attention most of the way to the top as the trail winds its way across the hillside.

Within just a minute or two of starting the trail, Gaskill Peak comes into view to the northwest. At around the one-mile mark, you get your first glimpse of Lawson Peak. The boulders that make up the peak are unmistakable and stand out from the green backdrop of California chaparral that surrounds you.

A first glimpse of Lawson Peak appears over the hills from the trail.

Take an Optional Detour for 360-degree Views

Near the top of the hill, there is a scenic lookout offering 360-degree views. To find it, just look for a wash on the left side of the trail as you’re nearing the top of the hill. Follow the wash up and to the southwest for a couple of hundred yards. It will take you to a small peak where you can get your first 360-degree view of the surrounding mountains.

The wash near Lawson Peak offers a unique view and a place to rest.

Pancake Rock & On Towards Lawson Peak

Pancake Rock, a large granite boulder that is as flat as a pancake, is located on the north side of the trail. It’s an easy climb to the top, where you will get an up-close view of Lawson Peak to the west, Gaskill Peak to the northwest, and the valley and mountains behind you to the east.

The trail to Lawson Peak continues over the top of the hill and skirts its way along the western edge of Pancake Rock. If you’ve detoured to Pancake Rock, you can access the trail again without backtracking by making your way to the southwest edge of the rock. There you’ll find a slope gentle enough to walk down carefully, where you will meet up again with the trail below.

Follow the trail north along the edge of Pancake Rock to reach the Wisecarver Road crossing at the base of Lawson Peak. At this point, you have the option of hiking north another 1.5 miles to Gaskill Peak or continuing to Lawson Peak.

The view of Gaskill Peak from Pancake Rock on Lawson Peak Trail.

The Final Approach

Head west toward Lawson Peak until you find a small trail at the base of the peak leading towards the mountain. Step into the brush and continue following the trail up the peak’s hillside. The trail gradually gets steeper, and soon you’re spending less time hiking and more time climbing up, around, and over boulders.

Most hikers won’t find the rock scrambling at this point too difficult.

Wear long pants if you don’t want to get your legs all scratched up, especially if you will be attempting to summit the peak. If the trees and brush don’t get you, the ascent to the summit certainly will.

Lawson Peak's rocky hillside as visible from the trail.

Summiting Lawson Peak

You’ll start your scramble for the summit by following the trail over and around the top of the mountain towards the northwest side of the peak. Next, continue moving south, working your way around the back of the granite peak. Then, as you reach the westernmost face of the peak, you’ll find the crack shown in the photo below.

While there are reportedly several ways to reach the summit, most reports and people I’ve spoken with suggest that climbing to the cave at the top of this crack is the safest route.

Once you find it, prepare to grab ahold of anything you can as you climb your way up each of the three stone steps leading to the cave above.

A crack in the face of Lawson Peak leads to a cave just below the summit.

There is an opening in the roof towards the back of the cave. Climb through to the next level, and you’ll be standing at the base of your last scramble to the summit. Choose a direction and start climbing.

Congratulations! You’ve just reached the summit of Lawson Peak.

The Reward

Take a break, relax, and recuperate while enjoying the rewarding views of the countryside around you.

On a clear day, you can see Gaskill Peak clearly to the immediate north, while Palomar Mountain is visible in the distance. El Cajon Mountain can be seen to the northwest, while Iron Mountain and Mt. Woodson can be seen in the distance. To the west, Point Loma and Mount Soledad are visible on the coast. Looking east, you can make out Corte Madera and Los Pinos Mountains. And in the south, Tecate Peak and Otay Mountain stand tall against the Mexican border.

Looking southeast from Lawson Peak's summit wit a view of the detour trail below.

My Experience Hiking Lawson Peak

I enjoyed this hike, even though I had to attempt it twice before I finally summited Lawson Peak.

On my first visit to Lawson Peak, I was unprepared for the difficult final ascent. Despite giving it my all, I failed to find a safe way to make it to the top. Little did I know, however, that the solution was just a few steps further down the trail. When I got home, I sat down to lick my wounds and do some more research. One week later, I returned with the determination to succeed.

On my second attempt, I crossed paths with another hiker who gave me clear directions on the route to the summit. He recommended scaling a slope about 15 feet back up the trail from the cave entrance. Though the cave was intimidating, I decided to give the slope a try first. While there were good holds, I lacked enough experience in bouldering to make it up. My shoes wouldn’t stay stuck long enough to get up the side of the rock.

I was determined not to leave empty-handed from Lawson Peak a second time. So, I went back to the cave entrance and started working my way up the stairs. With a little luck and a lot of determination, I finally found myself standing on top of the summit.

I always enjoy a good challenge, and the view from the summit was more than worth the effort to get there.

A self portrait taken on the summit next to a USGS survey marker.

The trail leading up from the road left me a little underwhelmed. It’s steep, and you’ll get a good workout climbing it, but it’s kind of a boring hike. Aside from the valley and the views of the surrounding mountains to the east, there’s not much to look at until you reach the top of the hill.

All in all, it was a fun hike and one that I highly recommend. Just be ready to get a few bumps and scratches along the way, especially if you want to summit the peak.


In conclusion, the hike to Lawson Peak is challenging, making it a great choice for experienced hikers who want to test their limits. While the trail offers views of nature and the surrounding mountains, it’s not the most scenic hike. The scramble to the summit requires some basic rock-climbing skills, and it might also test your courage.

The trail leading to the top of the hill and beyond to Gaskill Peak is accessible to both children and dogs, and most of it is open to mountain bikes. However, the rough terrain may not be ideal for biking. I don’t have much experience with mountain biking, so it’s best to check with someone who has more expertise.

Trail running can also be a challenge due to the rough terrain. I had to slow down often to avoid rolling my ankle or slipping on sand-covered ridges.

Lawson Peak is no ordinary hike. But if you’re looking for adventure, make your way to Lawson Peak trail, and find your way to the summit.


  • Parking at Mile Marker 13 requires an Adventure Pass
  • There are no facilities or trail signage at this location
  • Bring at least 2 liters of water, there’s very little shade
  • Remember to bring sunscreen and sunglasses
  • Wear a good pair of hiking shoes or trail runners
  • Wear long pants to contend with trees, brush and rocks

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