El Cajon Mountain Trail

HARD 503 reviews
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El Cajon Mountain Trail is a 11.1 mile lightly trafficked out and back trail located near Lakeside, California 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.

11.1 miles
3533 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.

1 hour ago

Hiked this monster yesterday and this trail got my attention BIG TIME. After reading all the previous reviews we (a crew of three hiking ladies) were quite apprehensive...were we ready...will we make it? etc.
We felt prepared. We even bought ourselves trekking poles which, by the way, saved our bacon and I highly recommend for this trail.

The trail starts off being somewhat tame raising our confidence. In fact, it only gets really gnarly about 1/3 mile from the summit. At this point the trail basically disappears but there are green posts indicating the direction and sorta showing you which bolder you have to scramble over or which boulders you need to somehow squeeze between. Well we made it to the top but that last part was not fun. If and when I ever hike this again, I will pass on this last part of the trail and go check out the south face which is supposed to be just like the one in Yosemite (but smaller).

The way back was almost worst. Since we were tired (6 miles already”) it just seems tough. Every time we came upon yet another uphill portion of the hike, we would think “this must be the last one...” but NO. Even though we made better time going back (4 hours in but we were taking our time, and 3.5 back but we were worried about getting locked into the parking lot) it is just as hard.

So here are some recommendations:
1. Do not go on a hot day.
2. Take more water than you think you will need.
3. Trekking poles really help a lot.
4. Give yourself plenty of time.


17 hours ago

If hiking was a course in high school, every other SD hike I've done would be a quiz and El Cajon Mountain would be the final exam.

If you've hiked all over SD, then you'll understand the comparisons below:

1) you get the ups and downs that you find at Mount Gower.

2) the scrambling at the last half mile to the summit is like Lawson Peak and Gower except it's marked WAY better (there are green sticks indicating the "correct" path).

3) the steepness is like Mount Mcginty, but you'll get teased as there are several descents in between the inclines.

4) make sure you have shoes with great traction. the terrain is dry and sandy/gravel-y in a lot of the steep spots.

5) take a lot of water/snacks/Gatorade. this hike doesn't have a ton of shade and you'll be on this mountain for at least 4 hours if not longer.

overall, the hike is mostly a long dirt/ rocky trail that has enough ups and downs to not be boring. the scrambling at the very end was the best part. the end of the trail takes you to the "face" of the mountain.

wouldn't recommend this hike for beginners. i would recommend you start this hike no later than 7 am in cool weather. If you go before dawn, there are spiders around the bushes that might get in your face in the first part of the hike with the switchbacks so just be aware.

3 days ago

Great hike - rugged but, worth the effort!

4 days ago

Definitely not a hike for novices! Poles are a help, especially on the steep sections, both up and down. Those final couple of climbs on the way back to the car seem endless, but a great sense of accomplishment when you finish. Like everyone says, bring plenty of water!!

5 days ago

Started at 6:40 from the road and made it to the summit slightly under 3 hours. Enjoyed the views and ate lunch. Hiked down and over to the El Capitan lookout before heading down. Took 3 hours to get down and in the car by 1:30. Great hike but bring a lot of water. Drank almost 3 liters.

7 days ago

This Hike is said to be the hardest hike in San Diego. Personally it's my favorite because of the different terrain (all San Diego hikes into one place). We had walked the entire trail which had taken us 8 hours to complete including breaks (4 hours up & 3 1/2 hours down). People had posted different distances for this hike ranging between (11.1-12 miles) but on the way up you'll pass two "5 mile markers" then no more number markers at the peak. Parking is open 8am-5pm. You can also park on the main street if you aren't sure how long you'll take. I have an actual video on YouTube showing the different terrain and markers on the way up. There is a sign before you enter that says you need at least like 6 1/2* bottles worth of water (little more than 2L) I forgot but you'll see the sign. Other than that, enjoy your hike and remember there's no Uber to pick you up from up top!

11 days ago

Hiked this yesterday with a group of friends (1/7/18). I would not recommend this for beginners, definitely a challenge. Lots of going up and down, it gets very steep at the top. Bring plenty of water and snacks. Start early to give yourself plenty of time to take breaks if you need them. I don’t think I could hike this during the warmer months. Yesterday was perfect! The breeze at the top felt nice and the view was worth it.

11 days ago

It’s hard for sure, but don’t get discouraged for that, take your time and pace, take a break when tire and admire the views, take your mind off the steep hills and you’ll enjoy it!! I recommend go early before sunrise although the parking is open by 8 but you could park by the street. Bring water, gatorade and some snacks and Enjoy!

11 days ago

Hardest trail in San Diego. Bring your A game cuz it’s long and rugged. Bring lots of water. Lots of up and down.

11 days ago

Most challenging of all local San Diego hikes. First attempt we gave up after 4.5 miles, it was too strenuous. Second attempt-Jan 6 2018 made it to the top, some almost gave up after looking up at the last mile. Last mile, looked very challenging, but don’t give up. Take a break, have some water and conquer this beast. You will not regret it. Take lots of water, sweet & salty snacks, Gatorade. Park on the street if you can’t make it back before 5pm, gate closes at 5pm.

12 days ago

It’s fabulous. Just not for beginners ever! This is not Iron Mountain. Bring lots of water (4 liters in the Winter) give your self plenty of time and the views and the accomplishment is worth it!

12 days ago

This has to be my favorite hike in San Diego and in my own person believe, one of the hardest, but don’t let that discourage you, the view at the top is magnificent!

Very strenuous but fun!! Would recommend taking a friend so you take each other’s pictures with the breath taking views!!

17 days ago

Great local hike

19 days ago

A challenging hike! I don’t recommend this for beginners. Take plenty of water and start early, great views along the way.

23 days ago

A decent hike up a mini mountain with some elevation gain, El Cajon is a great option if you’re an SD local and you don’t want to travel into the San Bernadinos for a decent hike. Reading the reviews it’s not as bad as some people make it - if you’re in good shape and have backcountry experience this is a walk in the park. Not pushing it I averaged 3mph climbing and descending. Heed the warnings about heat though as the trail’s exposed to the sun pretty much the entire way. Also be aware the trail closes at 5pm, which is posted all over the place. Great trail close to SD!

1 month ago

This hike is pretty brutal on a sunny day. I am in good shape and this hike wiped me out. Definitely make sure you pretty plenty of water and SNACKS. Be aware that any sunny day will make this hike much harder. Coming back isn't as bad but definitely know your limits because I can easily see people getting into trouble on this trail. This is a much harder hike than Cowles, Mt. Woodson, or the other San Diego hikes so just be aware! It has an incredible view at the top

1 month ago

This hike is perfect for pushing yourself. There is no escaping the uphill because it is both ways. I saw a rattlesnake so keep your eye out.

1 month ago

This hike is not for the beginner and This hike is NOT kid friendly. I’ve always read other peoples reviews of hikes saying how hard the hike is and there is always that one person who says the hike is easy. You won’t find that person saying that about this hike. This hike will test you. I’m not kidding when I say it’s up hill both ways. Bring a lot of water and food. I went through 3 liters and it wasn’t very hot out. Take breaks and enjoy views. The last 1/4 mile to the main peak is brutal and rewarding.

1 month ago

Definitely the best challenging hike in San Diego! You have to go to Borrego for anything more challenging! This is our training grounds for the JMT and so many other trips we take annually!!!

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