El Cajon Mountain Trail

HARD 166 reviews
#1 of 3 trails in

El Cajon Mountain Trail is a 10.9 mile lightly trafficked out and back trail located near Lakeside, CA that features a river and is only recommended for very experienced adventurers. The trail offers a number of activity options and is accessible year-round. Dogs are also able to use this trail.

10.9 miles 3520 feet Out & Back

dog friendly



mountain biking

nature trips

rock climbing

trail running




wild flowers





washed out

1. You'll start out at the Parking lot which is .5 miles from the pit toilets and trail head. Elevation gain is 246 feet to get your legs limbered up. 2. From there you have the option to follow the road or to take the trail. If you take the road to the trail junction it's .4 mile with an elevation gain of 268 feet. 3. If you take the trail to the junction with the road it's .5 mile with an elevation gain of 257 feet. Plenty of switch-backs with some nice views. Take the trail. 4. From trail road junction, over the next 1.4 miles, the trail/road ascends and descends with a couple of steep spots. Enjoy the views and relative ease of the hiking, this is probably the easiest part of the trail. 5. At 2.2 miles from the parking area, the trail will start a steep descent into a drainage for the surrounding peaks and will take a sharp southeasterly turn. Because the water that falls on the surrounding hills is focused into this drainage the vegetation becomes much more lush with trees and other vegetation not seen on other parts of the trail. 6. Around 2.8 miles from the parking lot, the road will begin a very steep ascent as it swings back to the east and then northeast. This is the first of the worst part of this hike. The trail gets more rugged and rutted at this point and if you aren't wearing hiking shoes or boots you may begin to wish you were. 7. As you continue to ascend you will notice another trail/road that veers off to the left. Going back to paragraph 5, if you look left and up-slope you can see this trail slashing across the mountain. You can continue on the trail ahead or take this alternate route. If you go left it is slightly shorter but considerably steeper. I've gone both ways, and staying to the right is probably the better way. As you ascend, the views become more and more spectacular. On a good day you can see all the way to the ocean. 8. As you continue you will come to a stop sign with a notice that tells you it will take 1.5 hours to return to the parking lot from this point and that if it's past 12:30 pm you should not attempt to reach the El Cajon mountain summit. In winter, they close and lock the gates to the parking lot at 4:30 pm, so if you are parked in the lot, plan accordingly. The point here is know your limitations! 9. From the stop sign, over the next .6 mile, you will climb 467 feet to a saddle between a large peak on your left and a smaller one on your right. From there you will drop 290 feet over the next half mile or so, until you start the climb to the next saddle. This section of the trail is steep, rutted and in some places partly washed out and it doesn't improve much the rest of the way. You may find yourself wondering if you've gone astray, because the trail seems to be going north away from where you want to be. But stay steady, the trail is taking you around, rather than over the peak to your right at the saddle. 10. As you continue, you will find yourself climbing again to another saddle where you will come to a three way junction. Over that .8 mile stretch, you will gain 642 feet, so if you thought the other side of the mountain was tough, this is tougher. But congratulations, you're almost there. Stop and check out the old jeep hulk as you go. 11. The saddle is a good place to take a break, load some calories and steel your nerves for the final push. When you are ready, you'll take the trail to your left (due east). At this point, you will begin bushwhacking, there are only a couple of trail markers to be seen, but if you pay attention, the trail isn't that hard to follow. Over the next .6 miles to the summit, you'll gain another 424 feet. Once at the summit you'll find that the view and sense of accomplishment make the hike worthwhile. Don't try this hike unless you are in relatively good shape. As many people have already said, bring plenty of water, food and good footwear.

Bring lots of water! Amazing eagle's nest view makes this difficult hike worth the climb

3 days ago

Bring lots of water! This trail is super difficult but worth the trek! Did it 10/20/16, got a late start 1145a 95 degrees! Got to mile 3 started to get calf cramp, decided to suck it up. Had to reach the peak! Just past mile 3 there is a sign warning not to continue if it is past 1:30 pm as the trail & parking lot closes at 6:30pm sharp. I was there at 1:00 pm and decided to continue on. At mile 5, the trail is very confusing, hard to make out which way to go to the peak. At this point you are climbing rocks and walking through knee high brush. 1/2 mile took me 30 minutes and once at the top the calf cramp was unbearable! Thought I should call 911, instead decided to suck it up and limp my way back. At the 4 miles to the parking lot my right leg started to cramp and I ran out of water (A CAMEL PACK ALONE IS NOT ENOUGH). Now I'm face with one leg hurting when climbing and the other hurting on down hills. At mile 3, getting dehydrated and thinking I'm not going to make it, on the verge of calling 911! Suck it up is all I could say to myself and thinking of the show I shouldn't be alive! The last two miles I basically was in a daze, thirsty in pain but had to get out!

Great hike, not for the faint of heart, not for beginners! Be in excellent physical shape! Be hydrated before you go, take lots of water and sunscreen as there is hardly any shade.

Would love to do it again but not alone. HMU if you want company on this hike! Marco 760-486-5389.

8 days ago

Steep hike. The climbs are steep enough that coming down is delicate regardless of how sure-footed you are. Two false peaks will try to drain your resolve. Half mile to the summit is a bit of a bushwhack. Cliffs are another mile+ past the fork at the saddle before the summit. ATT LTE nearly the whole hike. Great to be away from crowds of hikers though. Budget 5 hours at least to hike the trail. Gate closed at 630pm on Sunday in October.

Did this hike today....would recommend to start as early as possible... if doing the hole hike we started at 5:30 am. but for sure next time at 4 am to not catch sun alot.. oh bring lots of water .... awesome hike and amazing views :).

23 days ago

Tough but REWARDING! Lots of undulation. Up!Down!Up...up....UP......down.......UP......
And then you have to get BACK! Pack a lunch.

1 month ago

difficult from an endurance standpoint. amazing workout and spectacular views! reserve energy for the hike back. hike on a cool/cold day as there is very little shade. bring lots of water (a few liters minimum per person) and bananas will help if you experience cramping. hiking poles and good tread shoes will be helpful as well. For me this is the toughest hike in the San diego area, but also the most rewarding. enjoy!

1 month ago

1 month ago

Brutal hike. Bring lots of water! Lots of incline and decline. Make sure your toe nails are cut! Trekking poles are super helpful. Can't wait to be back. The view was amazing!

1 month ago

More incline-decline than anything. Pretty view, good workout, but not super exciting.

1 month ago

Hiked this in JUL/AUG.. Loved this hike because it was a challenge! It was a major workout... The steep and rocky inclines and declines were throughout so it was uphill basically both ways and a lot of rock climbing lol... Many people had a rough time.. Bring a lot of water and a snack... Enjoy the burn and reapply sunscreen frequently! You will fell accomplished after! Get there early!

2 months ago

Closed until 9/1/16

2 months ago

2 months ago

Hiked this for the first time today. Lots of incline-decline. Didn't get all the way to the top, hit with a little heat stroke. Definitely bring lots of water, and take advantage of the shade where you can get it. Beautiful views and a really quiet trail, breeze is nice towards the top.

2 months ago

This has got to be the toughest hike in all of San Diego County. The trail is steep and provides little to no shade, so nothing less than 3 liters of water is recommended. Awesome views when you get to the top.

2 months ago

Hard!!! Read the review and follow the advice!

3 months ago

I started with three liters of water. I thought it a grand idea to jog when possible and hike quickly up the assents. I made the mistake of bringing too little water and no snacks. This is a serious hike! Do not take this lightly. It was 90 degrees during my hike so I was losing a lot of water and electrolytes. My advice would be to bring bananas, clementines, nuts, and plenty of water. I ended up drinking 6 pints during the 4 hour and 45 minute hike. I think I made pretty good time but my ass was surely kicked. A great trail for those looking for a seriously challenging hike that also offers amazing views.

3 months ago

Tough to rate a hike with a simple 5 star rating, but here are my thoughts on the difficult El Cajon Mountain Trail:

Difficulty: 5/5
Definitely the most difficult hike we've done. The elevation gain in both directions combined with the distance length was a real killer. This was not a simple out and back trail. The elevation changes in both directions make the hike out a slow grind while the hike back is full of challenging, slow downhill stretches mixed with psychological demoralizing uphill portions.

Shade: 1/5
There are few areas to take a break in the shade. Make sure to plan for a 5+ hour hike!

Risk vs Reward: 2/5
We've been on some shorter, more epic hikes when it comes to the view and feeling of accomplishment at the peak. This trail was full of the same view of local hills and their rocky terrain. Peak had panoramic views, but they were similar to everything around it! Entire trail was a combination of up/down that all looked the same.

Random notes:
-Trail was clean and relatively wide most of the way. A few washed out areas, but that's nature!
-Parking lot should open before 8am, as a lot of early bird cars were parked on the side of the road.

Final say: super challenging, but "boring" hike when it came to views and change of scenery.

3 months ago

Challenging hike! Would recommend extra water on a warm day.