Distance: 7.5 miles round trip on use trail, dirt road, and cross country
Summit Elevation: 3675'
Elevation Gain: 3275'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 2.62
Round trip time: 6 hours 45 minutes
Recommended water: 92 oz.
Parking/Fees: Free on El Monte Road
In 2013, I hiked the main El Cajon trail from Wildcat Canyon, but wanted to return for the south arete route. This mountain is notorious for scorching heat. The preserve is closed every year the entire month of August. We were having a cooler May than usual and that created a window to tackle this route. As we drove up, the south arete looked more and more impressive. Daunting and action packed. We parked on El Monte road and crossed the river heading toward the ridge line.
Despite a couple of online trip reports and a GPS track, the route finding turned out to be difficult. At the end of this post, I'll highlight some of the right and wrong decisions we made. It won't be the definitive post to guide future hikers confidently up the route, but it might help a little. At the start, I should have paid more attention to the track I downloaded, but instead we took a shorter cross country route with a bit of thrashing involved. Henry had worn shorts and the brush was already working his legs over. We headed toward the leftmost electrical tower and were soon on the use trail heading up the ridge. As we ascended, the loose dirt became steep and slippery. The route was pretty obvious all the way to lunch rock, almost half way up. The views were good and would have been spectacular without the overcast skies and low clouds.
We went through the cave above lunch rock, though it can easily be bypassed on the left. The use trail continued above lunch rock for a little bit before hitting a wall of rock. There is a choice here. You can traverse left around a huge slab to head up the large gully, or continue up the rock. We traversed into the gully, but when we got there, doubted our choice. The rock might have been difficult, we don't know, but the gully was choked with brush and waist high grass. It was hard to see where you were stepping and whether the ground was solid under the grass. We went too far left and lost all traces of use trail. We picked our way slowly up the left side of the gully and reached a small flat area. There we found a cairn and picked up a use trail again. We followed it into a small gully that ended in a boulder overhang. I was looking for a way up and made an awkward move to get over it. I didn't account for the position and weight of my pack and it promptly dragged me back down. I fell about 4 feet and nearly crashed into Henry. Blood oozed from my elbow and thumb, but I am convinced I could make that move. Henry took a look and wasn't sure it was the best way forward. Before making another attempt, I returned about 20' down the gully, where I found the bypass on the left. I clambered up and skirted a ledge to confirm then yelled to Henry. We stayed on track for a few hundred feet, then wandered too far left below some nasty cliffs. We were only about 80' from the top. We backtracked, traversed right, and found the use trail again. It took us the final stretch to the top of the arete.
Quick 360 about 2/3 of the way up
Multicolored cactus bloom. If you find this beauty, you are off route and in danger,
descend and traverse right.
Clouds were rolling over the top of El Cajon, hiding the top of the mountain. There were two campers on the plateau, drinking what I guessed was coffee. We waved and continued up the trail. It was an uneventful trip across the plateau and up the final use trail to the summit. There was a new wooden summit marker that was not there in 2013. I was very hungry by now and we settled down to kill our sandwiches. The sun was hidden, and now that I wasn't moving, I actually started to get cold, something I didn't think possible on El Cajon. We didn't find a register, but took a few summit photos and visited the summit block. As we started to leave, two other hikers arrived from the main trail, the only other party we saw on top. Henry and I talked about bushwhacking down another gully, but I persuaded him to return down the arete. I wanted to improve on the route we took going up. I carefully tried to follow the use trail down and it was far easier. However, we eventually lost it and suffered more bushwhacking to get back to lunch rock. From there, we stayed on trail down to the dirt road and found a nice trail back to the road near where we parked. I marked the trail location with a waypoint (get the track on peakbagger.com). The 2000' gain in a little over one mile might be the steepest sustained stretch I've climbed on any mountain. This trip was every bit as fun as expected, packed with a full RDA of adventure.
Other trip reports:
El Cajon Mountain South Arete (Benjamin Bauman)
El Cajon Mountain South Arete (Vista Seeker)
El Cajon Mountain South Arete (San Diego CA Photography)