Training Hike: El Cajon Mountain

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.

Gary, Lora, and Jon (from left to right) at the Peak of El Cajon Mountain While Training for the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). (Click Image for Larger View.)
Gary, Lora, and Jon (from left to right) at the Peak of El Cajon Mountain While Training for the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). (Click Image for Larger View.)

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).

El Cajon Mountain Peak Hike Used as Training for the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). (Click Image for Larger View.)
El Cajon Mountain Peak Hike Used as Training for the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). (Click Image for Larger View.)

Training Hike: North and South Fortuna from Jackson Drive Lot

We’ve already talked about the importance of local hikes as training hikes when preparing for a thru-hike like the Pacific Crest Trail, and this hike is a variation of one of the hikes described within that article. The destinations for this hike are the Mission Trails Regional Park peaks of North and South Fortuna, however, instead of coming from the San Diego River Dam parking lot and climbing to the saddle to then branch out to each peak we’ll be taking a different approach.

First, we parked our cars and set up our packs at the Jackson Drive parking lot (where Jackson Drive meets Mission Gorge Road). For this hike we took along some pack weight to keep acclimating to the weight. Each hiker was carrying around 20-25 pounds on this local training hike. After we got our packs on we started out into the park moving north through the central part of Mission Trials Regional Park. This brings us to the San Diego River Crossing, which most of the time isn’t much of a challenge, however, the water wast flowing pretty good this time out due to a recent rain that hit the week before. While this still wasn’t exactly a difficult water crossing it was enough to get our feet wet right off the bat. After crossing the river we moved up a hill moving toward the northwest side of the park. After a while we reached our turn off trail which changes our direction northeast to meet up with the trail for North Fortuna that comes up from the northern edge of the park near the 52 freeway. We follow this trail past a sign that marks what apparently is West Fortuna, more of a mound than a peak, and eventually meet up with the North Fortuna Summit trial. We climb from the junction of these trails to the peak of North Fortuna.

This is the first peak in our hike and we’ve reached it right around the 4 mile mark or so. This will also be the highest point of today’s hike as South Fortuna is a bit lower. From the North Fortuna peak, we descend toward the saddle between the two peaks heading south from North Fortuna. This part of the trail directly overlaps with the write up of the first hike’s write up linked to earlier in this post, so I’ll skip ahead to us at the peak of South Fortuna. Since we parked at the Jackson Drive parking lot and not the dam, we’ll have to go up and over the South Fortuna Summit to what is known as “The Stairs.” The Stairs are called that because they are a set of quite steep rocks and wooden inserts that form stairs climbing up the southwestern face of South Fortuna. We all agreed that it would probably be easier going up them than going down them but we’ve already sealed our fates as we have come nearly to the end of the training hike. We scramble down The Stairs and meet up with the original trail that brought us into the central part of the park at the bottom. We follow this trial back to the San Diego River Crossing area, where Gary tried out his ‘ultralite river crossing method.’ This consists of taking off his socks and shoes and removing his shoe insert in order to put the insert into his sock and then wear his socks and insert to ford the river, rather than jumping rocks as Lora and Jon did. This method, I assume would work well if you had an extra pair of socks to let the others dry out but I’ll be carrying water crossing slash camp shoes for those types of crossings that don’t allow for a completely dry crossing. After this second crossing it’s just another half mile or so back to the car.

Despite this hike reaching two peaks we’ve already done multiple times during our training hikes it was nice to mix up the direction and trails we used to reach the peaks. It’s always good to mix things up as it keeps the mind active and potentially provides a new or different challenge for your body’s muscles. Here are the stats for this training hike:

North and South Fortuna in Mission Trail Regional Park in Preparation for the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).
North and South Fortuna in Mission Trail Regional Park in Preparation for the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).

TRAINING HIKES: Local Trails Used for Training for the Pacific Crest Trail

When preparing for a long distance hike, such as the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), it’s important to make sure you are in the best possible shape prior to setting out. This will decrease the risk of injury as you start making your way through the trail and increase the mileage you can do right from the get go. It is for that reason the Sloggers have a list of hikes that we like to do during the week that don’t even require leaving the city. San Diego, like many great large metropolitan areas, has saved some land for the city dwellers to be able to get outside and on a trail and get a good workout with just a short drive within the city limits.

This is, by no means, a full list of the hikes that our group likes to hike in town but this post will cover two of the longer local hikes that have some elevation gain/loss and are a great way for us to keep our butts in gear. Both of these hikes are within an area in San Diego known as Mission Trail Regional Park which is an invaluable space in the city that many people come to to get outside and move around.

The first hike we’ll talk about is what we call the Fortuna Double. There are two peaks within Mission Trail Regional Park called North Fortuna and South Fortuna. There are multiple ways to get to each peak but our usual way of reaching the peaks is to traverse the saddle between them and then go up to one peak and double back to the other and then head back down the saddle. The saddle is what makes these peaks a good workout as the first mile and a half from the parking lot is mostly flat and skirts the Mission Dam and San Diego River that flows through the area. Then you come to the saddle where you’ll climb upward on a service road for about half a mile. Once you’ve made it up to the top of the saddle you’ll catch your breath and pick a peak, either North Fortuna (to your right) or South Fortuna (to your left). Personally, I prefer to do North Fortuna first but it really doesn’t matter which order you tackle them in.

View West From North Fortuna, a Favorite Training Hike for the PCT. (Click Image for Larger View.)
View West From North Fortuna, a Favorite Training Hike for the PCT. (Click Image for Larger View.)

Once you’ve bagged both peaks you’ll head back down the saddle in the direction you came and retrace your steps back past the dam and to the parking lot. Here are the stats for this hike:

Stats for North and South Fortuna Hike from the Parking Lot on Father Junipero Serra Trail. (Click Image for Larger View.)
Stats for North and South Fortuna Hike from the Parking Lot on Father Junipero Serra Trail. (Click Image for Larger View.)

The other hike I’ll describe in this post is on the other side of Mission Trail Regional Park and includes the highest peak within the park, Cowles Mountain, which is a great training hike on its own. However, this hike continues on from the peak of Cowles Mountain to a second peak known as Pyles Peak. There are multiple trails to the top of Cowles Mountain but only one trail from the peak there over to Pyles Peak. My preferred route up Cowles is to park on the street at the intersection of Prostpect Avenue and Mesa Road. There is a park, just on the other side of a fence, known as Big Rock Park which is what most people would know this area as. From Big Rock Park you’ll follow the trail as it climbs and dips at times making its way up to the Cowles Mountain service road after about a mile and a half from the park. Once you reach the service road, you’ll follow that to the peak of Cowles Mountain, which becomes fairly steep towards the top where you’ll get the most challege in this workout.

View of Cowles Mountain (the Peak with the Radio Tower) from South Fortuna. (Click Image for Larger View.)
View of Cowles Mountain (the Peak with the Radio Tower) from South Fortuna. (Click Image for Larger View.)

Once at the peak of Cowles Mountain, you’ll continue straight ahead where you will find the trail sign marking the trail over to Pyles Peak. From here, the trail descends down a bit skirting the ride line of a couple smaller mounds and then begins the ascent towards your next destination. You’ll come to a bit of a fork in the trail after maybe two-thirds of a mile. At this fork you can either go off to the right and scramble up the back side of Pyles Peak where some small trails give way to some light rock scrambling (this is the less traveled but sometimes more fun and probably more challenging path) or you can continue on the main trail to the left which descends slightly and takes you around to the ‘front’ side of Pyles Peak where the trail leads you up to the top. To get back to your car you’ll retrace your steps back to Cowles Mountain and eventually back to Big Rock Park. Here are the stats for my last hike of Pyles Peak from Big Rock Park:

Pyles Peak Via Cowles Mountain from Big Rock Park is a Favorite Local Hike to Train for the Pacific Crest Trail. (Click Image for Larger View.)
Pyles Peak Via Cowles Mountain from Big Rock Park is a Favorite Local Hike to Train for the Pacific Crest Trail. (Click Image for Larger View.)