Pets allowed
Allowed with Restrictions
Elevation Gain
3,600.00 ft (1,097.28 m)
Trail type
There-and-back
Distance
11.00 mi (17.70 km)
Please respect the outdoors by practicing Leave No Trace. Learn more about how to apply the principles of Leave No Trace on your next outdoor adventure here.

Of all the boulder-strewn mountains surrounding San Diego, El Cajon is one of the most impressively steep and rugged. It's not the tallest peak in the county—that superlative belongs to Cowles Mountain—but El Cajon is tougher to conquer. The hike requires steep ups and downs in both directions, along a dusty trail that is highly exposed to sun and weather. The rewards are well worth the trials, however, as you'll earn 360-degree views over surrounding summits, lakes, and the city of San Diego in the distance. The trail travels through chaparral that is particularly dense and diverse at this elevation, colored by flower and foliage variety against a stark backdrop of granite.

El Cajon is one of the most rugged mountains around. Its bare-rock slopes plunge for hundreds of feet in some places, and even where the angle allows vegetation to grip, giant boulders dominate the terrain. Most of the hike follows an old road cut long ago to explore minerals in the mountain. Today the eroded path is rough even for foot travel, but evidence of mining history can still be found, including old shaft entrances and the skeleton of an abandoned Jeep.

The trail begins from a parking area off Wildcat Canyon Road, just after the turn onto Blue Sky Ranch Road. Walk the remainder of Blue Sky Ranch (bound by private property) to start up a narrower section of trail, which joins the old mining road. This path continues through sharply undulating hills among thick growth on either side. The panorama varies as you traverse different aspects. You'll get good views of the San Vicente Reservoir, Barona Resort, the San Diego River Gorge, downtown San Diego, and the ocean beyond. Higher on the mountain you can see surrounding peaks like Mount Woodson (home of Potato Chip Rock) and Cowles Mountain.

The trail is generally easy to follow. Signs along the way even mark the mileage and elevation you have yet to go. The path splits in a place or two, but the forks rejoin if you follow signs for El Cajon. Several miles in, at a high saddle between peaks, you'll come to a four-way intersection. Turn left to continue on narrower and steeper trail with boulder scrambling to reach the summit of El Cajon. The other directions from the intersection lead to subsidiary peaks that are less popular but worth the side trip if you have time.

This hike is best on a cool and dry day because it is long and exposed to the elements. There is a pit toilet at the trailhead, after the short approach along Blue Sky Ranch Road, but no water or any other facilities for the duration of the journey. Come prepared with drinks, snacks, and sun protection. Access is closed completely in August due to heat, but don't expect the other summer months to be much less extreme. At any time of year, El Cajon is a worthy challenge, and it's good training for higher summits in Southern California or the Sierra Nevada. It is certainly one of the most rewarding hikes in San Diego.

Logistics + Planning

Preferable season(s)

Winter
Spring
Fall

Congestion

Moderate

Parking Pass

None

Open Year-round

No

Open from

September 01 to July 31

Pros

Huge views. Physical challenge.

Cons

No shade. No water.

Trailhead Elevation

1,550.00 ft (472.44 m)

Highest point

3,648.00 ft (1,111.91 m)

Net Elevation Gain

2,100.00 ft (640.08 m)

Features

Vault toilet
Mine
Big vistas
Wildflowers
Bird watching
Historically significant

Typically multi-day

No

Permit required

No

Location

Field Guide

Nearby Lodging + Camping

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