It’s a bit of a leg buster, but this 5.6-mile out-and-back hike up 6,512-foot Cuyamaca Peak in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park gets you bragging rights for reaching the second-highest point in San Diego County. Better, it rewards you with sweeping views that extend from sea to sea—that is, the Pacific Ocean to the Salton Sea. The trail begins in the Paso Picacho Campground and doesn’t stop its 1,723-foot grind until the summit. Park in the day-use lot and walk through the camp, watching and listening for the local red-headed woodpeckers. Follow signs for site 69 and the charming Coulter and Cedar Cabins, where the well-marked paved peak trail begins. As you ascend, you’ll notice the lasting impact of the 2003 Cedar Fire—at 273,000 acres, the largest in California history. The fire zone is both cool and eerie, and you’ll see clear signs of recovery. Trekking on, and ignoring the many connecting trails (when in doubt, stay paved), take breaks and look to the east at Stonewall Peak, Anza-Borrego Desert, Lake Cuyamaca, and even the Salton Sea. As you near the peak, a dense forest appears out of nowhere, filled with the only remaining sugar pines in San Diego County, as well as white firs, cedars, and oaks.
The trail flattens for a brief stretch before the final half mile. Pause at the bench off the trail to the right for a stunning cliffside view. After the final push, you’ll reach the peak and epic vistas stretching northward past Mount Palomar and Santiago Peak all the way to Mount Baldy and the San Gabriels, as well as beautiful views of San Diego proper and Catalina Island to the west and even the peaks of northern Mexico to the south. It’s one of the most inspiring and rewarding lookouts in all of Southern California—especially on a clear, post-storm winter day. Sign the logbook, then gird your knees for the cruise back down.
To get to Paso Picacho Campground, take I-8 to CA-79 north, and after about 12 miles, turn left on Lookout Rd. at signs for the campground. $10 day-use parking fee. $30 to camp, $70 to stay in a cabin. Dog-friendly! It’s the only trail in the park that permits pooches.