Distance: 4.5 miles | Hiking time: 3 hours | More info.
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.
Lawson Peak Trailhead & Parking
An Adventure Pass is required to park in Cleveland National Forest. 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.
The trailhead does not offer a view of either Lawson Peak or Gaskill Peak (Lawson’s sister peak), and gives no indication of the challenging adventure ahead.
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.
Take an Optional Detour for 360-degree Views
If you’d like, you could take a short detour by looking for the wash in this picture on the left side of the trail just before you reach the point where the trail crosses over 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.
Pancake Rock & On Towards Lawson Peak
On the north side of the trail is a large granite boulder that is as flat as a pancake, aptly named Pancake Rock. 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 following the trail north another one and a half miles to Gaskill Peak or continuing on to Lawson Peak.
The Final Approach
Head west toward Lawson Peak and find a small trail at the base of the peak that leads toward 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 wont 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.
Summiting Lawson Peak
As you reach the top of the mountain, follow the trail over and around towards the northwest side of the granite peak. Keep working your way south towards the westernmost face of the peak until you reach 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.
Prepare to boulder and grab hold of anything you can as you make your way up each of the three stone steps leading to the cave above.
Towards the back of the cave, there is an opening in the roof. Climb up 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.
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.
My Experience Hiking Lawson Peak
I really enjoyed this hike, even though I had to attempt it twice before I finally summited Lawson Peak.
On my first visit, I was unprepared for the difficult final ascent. I didn’t know about the cave entrance to the summit and I’m not an expert at bouldering. Despite giving it my all, I failed to find a safe way to make it to the top. Little did I know that the solution was just a few steps further down the trail than where I had ventured.
After returning from my first hike, I sat down to lick my wounds and do some more research. A week later, I returned to the mountain with a determination to succeed.
When I arrived at the base of the peak one week later, I crossed paths with another hiker who gave me clear directions on the direction I needed to head and the exact distance to find access 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.
Determined not to leave empty-handed from Lawson Peak a second time, 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.
The part of the hike that left me wanting was the trail leading up from the road. 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.
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 surrounding mountains, it’s not the most scenic route. The scramble to the summit requires rock-climbing skills and might test your courage.
The trail leading to the top of the hill and beyond to Gaskill Peak is accessible to 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 not an ordinary hike, and if you’re looking for adventure, this is the place to go. Make sure to wear sturdy hiking shoes or trail runners for the ascent up the peak, as the extra traction will come in handy. Bring at least two liters of water as there’s little shade on the mountain.
- Parking requires an Adventure Pass and is located at Mile Marker 13
- 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
Additional Information & Resources
- Directions to Trailhead – Google Maps
- Trail info – Alltrails.com
- Trail info – HikingProject.com
- Passes & Fees – Cleveland National Forest
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