Cuyamaca West Side is a 5.5 mile moderately trafficked out and back trail located near Descanso, California that offers scenic views and is rated as difficult. The trail is primarily used for hiking and trail running and is accessible year-round. Dogs are also able to use this trail.
The west side of Cuyamaca Mountain. This is the side that is so prominent in photographs you may be familiar with, with Downtown San Diego in the foreground, and the snow covered peak in the background. The trail begins on Boulder Creek Road, with parking at a turnout ( 32.925874n 116.630583w ) and the actual trailhead just a few yards away ( 32.926367n 116.631274w ). An Adventure Pass is needed for parking, as it is in the Cleveland National Forest. The trail is actually an old access road for maintenance on the power lines that feed the equipment and antennae that are on Cuyamaca Peak. It follows a ridge line more or less, and has a step like pattern to the ascent, with a steep climb followed by a flat section, another climb with a flat, and then the final climb to the last flat section. As walks go, it is not a long one at 2.17 miles one way, but starting altitude is 3700ft and ends at 5600ft for a 1900ft gain. Most of the hike is in areas of low, knee high brush, and has best been described as desolate. Arriving at about the 5000ft altitude mark, the brush starts to get thicker and taller, encroaching on the trail a little, though still easily passable. It is about this point that pine trees appear also. At around the 5400ft mark, on the right side of the trail as you are going up, are a few Cuyamaca Cypress trees right next o the trail. This area is called the King Creek Special Study Area, designated due to the existence of these Cypress trees. The upper reaches of King Creek is the only known habitat of the Cuyamaca Cypress. Most were wiped out by wildfires in close succession (2003 and 2007), which did not allow the seed pods to mature before the second fire, thus breaking the cycle of the tree. Soon afterwards, you will meet the line of electric poles again, and a fence/gate type structure that is the border between Cleveland National Forest and Rancho Cuyamaca State Park. This area has many pine trees, and seems like an oasis after the walk up. Views can be had from the open area just inside the state park, and also from a bit south of the trail. Most spectacular, is the view of the remaining 900ft of mountain going up to the peak. There are no trails the rest of the way up, and the brush is extremely thick. Remote camping is allowed on the Cleveland National Forest side, but a free permit must be obtained at the Ranger Station. Campfires are not allowed, and cooking with stoves is allowed seasonally. There is no water available along the hike route, so be sure to pack plenty. I used 1 gallon of water for an overnight campout.
Here's the details, based on my own experience.
While most know of the relatively easy, oft-traveled trail (actually paved service road) to Cuyamaca Peak originating from Cuyamaca Rancho State Park’s Paso Picacho campground, few are aware of alternate routes. The most challenging of these is the relatively unknown southwest route. This seldom-attempted climb involves a fair degree of agility and intrepid trailblazing in certain places. However, the splendid solitude en route to the summit, inspiring view upon reaching it, and sense of accomplishment are well worth the extra effort.
To reach the trailhead from San Diego, take Interstate 8 about 35 miles. Take the Hwy 79 Julian/Descanso exit, go about a mile, make a 90-degree left turn onto Riverside road (just past the mercantile area). Turn left in front of Perkins Store onto Viejas Grade road, then an almost immediate right onto Oak Grove drive. Continue up Oak Grove 1.6 miles, then turn right at the top of the hill onto Boulder Creek road. Continue five miles on Boulder Creek road until the pavement ends, then another mile on the dirt, washboard road until reaching the white steel gate on the right hand side. Parking is available on the left about 50 yards before the gate.
Step around the dual pipe gate and onto the cobble-strewn, eroding remnants of the old SDG & E service road. The road/trail follows the linear trace of the telephone lines about 3.5 miles up the southwest face at a steep, steady grade. About 3/4 of the way up the trail and about .5 miles below the summit, the trail peters out and is overgrown by dense brush. After bushwhacking through the brush, head straight for the granite summit looming imposingly above. This is the most technical section of the climb. Step carefully and practice the “three point rule” to ensure at least three points of contact – two handholds and one foothold, or vice versa – at all times.
Once atop the summit, pause awhile and savor the splendid silence and 360 degree panoramic view of San Diego County. To the north is North Peak with Mt. Palomar in the distance, to the south are the endless brush covered ridges and ravines of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, to the east Stonewall Peak stands as a granite sentinel, and to the west Point Loma is visible on a clear day.
WARNING: This is not a hike for the faint of heart. The trail is extremely steep in places, especially in the final pitch. Do not attempt this route alone. Tell someone where you’re going, bring plenty of food and water, and allow approximately four hours for the round trip. Take your time on the descent and watch your footing; most accidents traditionally occur on the way down.