Anybody who lives in, or has driven through, the eastern part of San Diego County has undoubtedly seen the giant rock face that serves as one of the natural borders of the region and shares its name with the city of El Cajon. El Cajon Mountain is at 3,675 feet in elevation but what makes it one of the more difficult hikes in the area is that the elevation gain/loss of the hike ends up being about 4,500 feet. Jon has attempted this hike twice before this group attempt and on his first attempt during the summer (June) the temperatures were 90 degrees plus and he was forced to turn around at the 4 mile mark because he was more than half way out of water. As any experienced hiker will tell you, don’t push the limits of your water. This is especially true when the temperatures are hot and the trail has little shade as El Cajon Mountain’s trail does. The second attempt for Jon came in September on a much more moderate day and on this day he completed the trek and also bagged El Capitan peak which is reached using the same trail up. On today’s adventure the crew encountered ideal conditions for hiking El Cajon Mountain. The temperatures were in the mid- to high 60’s and there was some cloud cover for most of the day.
We set out from the parking lot and hiked up the driveway that leads to the Blue Sky Ranch, which allows hikers to pass by on their private land to enjoy the hike up to the peaks. Once past the ranch you come to a staging area with restrooms and from here you immediately start climbing up switchbacks on a chaparral lined but well maintained trail that leads up up to what is an old service road that may or may not be still in use. It is noted in Jerry Schad’s Afoot and Afield that this was an old mining road and you can even branch off this trail at the 3.5 mile mark and take a spur trail that leads to an old mining area. Once you are on the trial you’ll follow this road all the way to the saddle between El Cajon Mountain peak and El Capitan Peak. The challenges of this trail don’t include a poorly maintained trail. The challenges here are the constant up and down of the trail (it seems that you often have to climb 500 feet, then drop 100-200 feet to get to the next 500 foot climb), and the fact that there is little to know coverage from the sun. On today’s adventure the sun was less of a factor due to the overcast weather. The trail has mile markers at every full mile, provided by A16 (an outfitter store in the Southern California area), and another at the 3.5 marker where you can branch off for the aforementioned mining site hike.
I’ll spare you the fairly boring details of climbing and falling along this trail towards the peak and take you up near the saddle between the peaks. About half a mile from the saddle you’ll see an old metal jeep frame that looks to have been there far longer than I’ve been alive (29 years at the writing of this post). This is the first indicator that you’re nearly to the payoff. Continuing up to the saddle you then have a choice once you’ve reached the sign marking the trail junctions. From this marker, you can continue straight ahead to the big rock face visible from town (known as El Cap, popular with rock climbers), or you can take the trail to your right which leads up to the El Capitan Peak, or you can take the trial to your left which is the trail for El Cajon Mountain peak. Most people that reach this point seem to go just for El Cajon Mountain. I (Jon) have yet to go to the rock face part of El Cap, but have been to both El Cajon peak and El Capitan peak and the view from El Cajon is better undoubtedly. El Capitan peak does have an old shack of some sort, perhaps an old radio tower no longer in use which is sort of interesting. The trail to El Capitan is far easier than the trail to El Cajon though. El Capitan’s peak trail is your typical trial that winds to the peak and requires little effort outside of just hiking uphill. El Cajon’s peak trail winds its way through large boulders and requires some rock scrambling at times near the peak marker. The view is well worth the climb though, it’s quite breathtaking looking out over the entire valley. On a very clear day you can see all the way to the coast, this was not one of those days.
From the peak you simply retrace your up and down (this time mostly down) steps to return to your car at the parking lot along Wildcat Canyon Road. Here are the stats for our training hike up to El Cajon Mountain peak, I apologize there are no elevation stats as my app didn’t seem to track them for whatever reason (probably because of the relative remoteness of this hike compared to the usual training hikes in Mission Trails Regional Park).