Saturday, May 14, 2016

Cuyamaca, Middle Peak, Japacha, Stonewall Peak

Hiked: 5/13/2016
Distance: 18.6 miles round trip on road, trail, and cross country
Summit Elevation: 6512' (Cuyamaca), 5883' (Middle), 5825' (Japacha), 5730' (Stonewall)
Prominence: 2855' (Cuyamaca), 803' (Middle), 25' (Japacha), 860' (Stonewall)
Elevation Gain: 3975'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 3.18
Round trip time: 8 hours 15 minutes
Recommended water: 184 oz.
Parking/Fees: $8 State Parks at Paso Picacho Campground
Difficulty: Strenuous (combined)

Cuyamaca is the second highest point in San Diego County after Hot Springs Mountain. It is the highest point on the Sierra Club San Diego peak list. I guess Hot Springs Mountain isn't on the list because it is on Los Coyotes Reservation land. Cuyamaca is visible from almost everywhere in the county and was on my to do list for years. I wanted to start at sunrise. It comes early this time of year. Cruising the nearly empty freeway before most of the west coast sprawl was awake, I had no real concerns about the agenda. I enjoyed the anticipation of the day ahead: the sweat, the grime, the brush, the rock, the trees, the sky. I didn't see any obvious parking on the side of highway 79 where I wanted to start, so I paid the $8 fee to park in Paso Picacho Campground. I was the first car there and had all facilities to myself. There were nice restrooms and picnic tables at the parking area.

First up was Middle Peak. I wanted to tackle it while I was fresh because the bushwhack at the top made it the hardest summit of the day. I wasn't quite sure which trail would get me there fastest, so I gambled on the Azalia Glen Loop trail. There was definitely a faster way because after a while, it sort of looped back as promised and intersected Azalia Spring fire road. The temperature was cool and pleasant in the morning and I saw about twenty deer in two different herds. They were curious about me and made sure I wasn't some kind of lion before they eased back into the forest. When I got to the base of Middle Peak, I missed the trail heading up not far from the road junction. Instead of turning back, I went straight up through knee deep grass until I hit the trail. I was concerned about snakes since the low sun made the ground hard to see, but I didn't get close to any, as far as I know. When I got near the top, I tried to pick the best spot for the bushwhack. I couldn't find a decent use trail. The brush was head high and thick. Occasionally, there was a small clearing where someone had planted pine seedlings to help recover from the burn damage. The trick was to find the least painful way between the clearings. I recommend advanced route finding skills to avoid a torture fest. I finally found a boulder with a large cairn on it, but the actual summit was about 25' further back. There I found the register and a surprising number of names. The previous group signed in only a month ago. I picked a different, slightly better way down and was back on a trail heading for Cuyamaca.

Middle Peak from the start

Deer from herd one

Deer from herd two

Starting the bushwhack to Middle Peak

In the thick of it

Cuyamaca from Middle Peak

Middle Peak register

I followed the road back toward Cuyamaca, then took the Conejos Trail as it split to the right. The trail was nice and small pines lined the lower reaches. As I climbed higher, larger pines appeared and soon pine needles were blanketing the trail. I savored the smell of pine until the trail hit the paved Forest Lookout road half a mile below Cuyamaca. I took the road to the top. The summit is long with towers and trees preventing a full 360 view. However, the views from both ends were wonderful. Some exploration turned up a reference mark pointing to the highest boulder. The boulder only had a tiny remnant of the benchmark, the disk was missing. I also found a NASA benchmark, a first for me. And there was another benchmark at the very end of the road along with an ammo box and large hardbound register. I signed in and relaxed a bit before checking my GPS for the trail to Japacha.

Conejos Trail to Cuyamaca

Junction with Fire Lookout Road, 1/2 mile to the top

View from the summit boulder

NASA benchmark

County benchmark at the end of the road, not the high point

Register ammo box

Stonewall from Cuyamaca

El Cajon in the distance

I descended from Cuyamaca along a connector trail to the Burnt Pine Trail, then turned right for the mile or so stretch to Japacha. Japacha was a small bump covered in brush and rocks. At first, I didn't see a way up. There was a use trail heading right toward a lookout point and I investigated. I spotted a cairn at the end of the trail and from that cairn saw another. There was a sparse use trail on the right side well marked with cairns. I was worried it was going turn out like Middle Peak but it wasn't bad. The use trail stopped at the summit and the classic dual red cans holding a register. The register was dedicated to Paul Freiman, a founder of the San Diego chapter of the Sierra Club and creator of the SDC list. I was three for three on registers and one for three on benchmarks. I did my register duty, then reversed course. I took the other part of the Conejos Trail back to Lookout Road and marched down through the campground and back to the car. I sat down at a picnic table and taped a few toes before heading to Stonewall. I was already at 14.6 miles. This was turning into a longer hike than I thought.

Japacha is the small bump ahead

Japacha summit and register

Cuyamaca from Japacha

According to the GPS, Stonewall was only a half mile away as the crow flies. When I crossed the road to start up, a sign said the trail was 2 miles one way. The trail was in great shape and frequent switchbacks took the edge off the ~800' of gain. At the top, the final part of the trail had stairs and railing installed, making a family friendly peak out of it. Otherwise, there would be some scrambling and an exposed part on the back side. The peak had some kind of stone monument but whatever was screwed into the top had been removed so I don't know what it was supposed to convey. The views were great and a couple of signs explained what was on the horizon. It's a nice little peak. There was no register or benchmark. I had hoped to have time to head to Little Stonewall as a bonus, but my wandering around and wasting time on Middle Peak didn't leave me with enough time. I headed back to the car to try to get a jump on the afternoon I-5 traffic.

Start of Stonewall

Stairs placed into the rock

Looking through the railing

Stonewall summit

Cuyamaca and Japacha from Stonewall Peak

North Peak and Lake Cuyamaca


  1. Really cool hike. So many things to see up there. I'm definitely putting this one on the list. I didn't even know NASA did benchmarks.

    1. Sean,

      The "GSFC" in NASA GSFC stands for Goddard Space Flight Center. I am not sure what they use they do with these benchmarks, other than it involves complex math. There are some rock climbing routes up Stonewall you might want to check out. I was a little tired at the end so I stuck to the trail.

    2. Nice one teke. Great shots of the deer. San Diego County is completely unexplored to me. One of these days...

    3. Madison,

      San Diego County has a wealth of great hiking. My favorite stuff is in the desert. We definitely need to make arrangements.