Spring Sale! Get a year of AllTrails Pro for only $14.99
Get Started

El Cajon Mountain Trail

HARD 767 reviews

El Cajon Mountain Trail is a 10.6 mile lightly trafficked out and back trail located near Lakeside, California that features a river and is rated as difficult. The trail offers a number of activity options and is accessible year-round. Dogs are also able to use this trail.

DISTANCE
10.6 miles
ELEVATION GAIN
3,576 feet
ROUTE TYPE
Out & Back

dog friendly

hiking

mountain biking

nature trips

rock climbing

trail running

walking

bird watching

river

views

wild flowers

wildlife

bugs

rocky

scramble

washed out

no shade

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.

wasn't expecting that much of a workout. steep slippery and never-ending up and downs!

I had been told that this was one of the toughest hikes in San Diego. So true, this is a grueling hike with lots of uphills and downhills. It took me about 4.5 hours to complete the trail. The view at the end is awesome.

hiking
no shade
rocky
scramble
9 days ago

Reviews are accurate. I clocked total mileage at 10.97 and total elevation from start to finish 4660. Finished in just under 4 hours, as there were very few flat sections to run/jog. Recommend only doing this on a cool or overcast day, as the entire trail is exposed. Amazing views and great workout.

Hell of a three R trail... Rain-RedClay- Rough.

hiking
muddy
21 days ago

nice Rain-mud hiking experience. Also see rainbow there after rain. enjoy it on Sunday morning.

muddy
27 days ago

the only hike I've been on that rightly congratulates you for getting just beyond halfway to the summit. the only hike I've been on where coming back from the summit sucks just as much as going to it.

great hike.

hiking
muddy
28 days ago

trail running
no shade
snow
28 days ago

Followed the route for a trail run. I would rate is as a "difficult" and needed preparation. Need sun protection, need water, and probably some food. Best day to go if there is overcast, or go very early. The trail tends to get very warm, it's about +15F from where you live. Be prepared for the last section to be somewhat difficult, boulders in the way with a disappearing trail. For trail runners: rarely any flats, be prepared to "power hike" lots of section due to its steepness and technicality. Enjoy!

hiking
muddy
no shade
rocky
scramble
snow
29 days ago

Well all the reviews are right...the full summit hike isn’t a leisurely stroll! The ups and downs make the return almost harder on the way back. Bring extra water and sun protection, not much shade. Fun seeing snow in San Diego but the trail was a mud pit at the higher elevation near the summit. Definitely come prepared with the right footwear, water and snacks. Took about 5 hrs round trip and spent about 20 minutes resting at the top. This was a great training hike in my preparation for some much larger mountains this year. Will definitely be back again.

hiking
muddy
no shade
scramble
1 month ago

Great winter hike. I did it the day after heavy rains and the wet terrain made this hike very pleasant. I would encourage people do pick a cloudy and humid day to do this trail.

hiking
1 month ago

As Advertised. Hard trail lots of up-and-down’s. Also lots of fun, great work out, great news at the top.

hiking
1 month ago

Thank you to those who wrote reviews on this trail - I found them to be very helpful in my preparations. Parking didn’t seem to be an issue - gates open at 8a and close at 5p- which is made clear along the trail. There’s also street parking. There were two locations on the trail where it intersected, assuming you could go either way, I always stayed left and I was fine. Plan accordingly- I tracked my hike at 13 miles. The description of this trail is accurate with ascending and descending. I was amazed at how many ups and downs there were for both going up and returning down. I found hiking poles very helpful for those steep sections of the trail - there are several. There is no shade coverage if you’re planning to hike this trail on a warm day. As you summit, you’ll start to scramble through brush to look for your way. Look up and you’ll see the green poles that will guide you to the summit. From the top, beautiful views. I hiked this trail yesterday after the rain and I could see as far out as downtown’s skyline and the Point Loma cliffs behind. Trail wasn’t muddy and was actually easier to hike in (post rain) considering the angle of descent or ascent of the trail. I finished in five hours. Overall, awesome trail!

hiking
rocky
1 month ago

Awesome trail, beautiful views. Around 11.6 miles round trip from the parking lot. The last 1/2 mile to the summit is the most challenging part of the hike. Follow the green markers as you climb over the rocks. A little tougher with it being up and down out and back as opposed to just up going out and down coming back. Used 2L of water and ate protein bars. Parking lot closed at 5pm sharp so give yourself enough time or park on the side of the street. Took 5 1/2 hours going at an average of 29 min/mile.

hiking
1 month ago

Completed the trail with overcast skies and light rain showers a few times. Be sure to give yourself enough time to get back out almost took as much time down as it did up since the trail is full of multiple climbs and descents. I brought 3L and only used 2L of water but it was a very cool day and I started the hike very well hydrated. Lil to no shade if hiking during any warmer times highly recommend bringing extra water.

hiking
1 month ago

All inclined up and down up and down. Drained afterwards.

hiking
no shade
rocky
1 month ago

Great trail and a must do for hiking practitioners. Have good condition as it is inclined most of the trail.

hiking
rocky
washed out
1 month ago

The most challenging hike in San Diego. Do not attempt this hike if you are not fit or haven’t hiked for a while. You have been warned. Great panoramic views at the end to reward you after a gruelling hike. Will definitely go again before the summer. Took us 2.5 hours to go up and another 2 hours to go down. Happy hiking!

1 month ago

People are not kidding when they say this is a difficult trail that requires a lot of water; I turned back when I had half a mile left because I was slightly more than halfway through my water, and it was the right decision.
On the way back, I wished I had more water for the whole last 2 miles.
It also has steeper slopes (without stairs) than any other trail I've been on; I ended up with a blister on the back of one heel and narrowly avoiding one on the other because of all the ankle movement. I'd recommend either taping the backs of your heels or putting deoderant on them to avoid blisters.
All of that said, it had some great views and really cool progress signs. It is also incredibly lightly trafficked; I would go about half an hour between seeing other hikers.

hiking
1 month ago

This is a very strenuous hike. I would not recommend hiking alone, as someone passed away the day I hiked this trail. The views are amazing and it is very rewarding. I hiked through the Preserve and my GPS registered 14.7 miles. I used 4 liters of water and took 6.3hrs.

hiking
no shade
2 months ago

There’s a lot of misinformation on trail distance in the reviews. The trail is longer than described but not 14-15 miles. I hiked El Cajon Mtn today (second time) and my GPS read 11.8 miles round trip, which is consistent with my last trip up. Also, the total vertical gain is about 3,800 feet due to the trail dropping then gaining again and again. I’m a fan of this mighty little SoCal mountain due to its close proximity to SD and the ability it gives to train for its bigger brothers, or sisters, that lie north in the San Bernadinos and Sierras... minus the effects of altitude.

hiking
2 months ago

Great hike, beautiful views on the way up and down. Get ready for some steep up and downs the whole way. Took 5 hours round trip, 2:45 up, 2:15 down. 2 liters of water was plenty. Would be brutal during summer, highly recommend during winter months. Peak has nice rocks to have lunch at.

hiking
2 months ago

Perfect weather for a hike today! Glad we did it probably won’t do it again. It was on our list and happy we can cross it off. We clocked “round trip” 15 miles from parking lot to summit. Highly recommend bringing your hiking poles, softened the highs and lows of the trial. Went on forever! It was a nice hike and we had optimal weather beautiful cloud coverage with a cool breeze. Nice view, in my opinion not that great of a reward for the work you put into it. Now that was a HIKE! My toes are killing me! Glad I did it... NEXT!

hiking
2 months ago

This trail is definitely no joke. I completed it yesterday by myself. You definitely want 3 or more liters of water and plenty of snacks, drink water before you arrive not coffee like me.. My phone tracked 12.7 miles in and out(I explored a bit at the top adding about .5 miles) it’s not the distance that was difficult for me, but rather the ups and downs on the way back my knees weren’t conditioned for as I haven’t hiked since about 6 months ago up At Yosemite. I completed it in jeans and tennis shoes and small back pack starting with a sweatshirt. A few areas on the way down I was wondering how some hiking boots would have helped soften the blow.

I arrived at 7:30 am and luckily they were opening the parking lot because the sign says 8am to 5pm. It was in the 70s during most of the hike, perfect weather. I can’t imagine doing this hike in the summer, you couldn’t bring enough water. I got back to my vehicle at about 1:10pm after spending maybe a half hour or so at the summit. On the way down I had to stop several times as my knees were cramping up. I didn’t experience any wild animals, just a few passing hikers on the way back down.

I highly recommend for the view and the challenge. Will be doing again in the future.

2 months ago

I’m nearly 65 years old and did this hike at a slow and steady pace with poles. Definitely doable if you hike regularly on hills and have good strong legs. I didn’t find it too bad...I was surprised. If you’re not use to hiking steep hills over long distances this hike will kick your butt at any age. The view at the top is the best...well worth it.

hiking
2 months ago

Going up was challenging but still OK. The 7 mile trip from the summit to the parking, man that was hard. Other than that it’s pretty much doable if you have experience trekking. Be safe out there!

2 months ago

It’s is one of best hikes. It has beautiful views and an awesome accomplishment!! It is very hard and I suggest you train yourself well before taking this challenge!!

hiking
2 months ago

This is an extremely hard trail...not just hard. There’s more than a few steep inclines and declines. At times it seems like no end! The final ascent is pretty much rock climbing for half a mile. When we went today it was cold and windy especially at the top and my hands nearly froze even with gloves. It also got kinda warm in some spots due to the fact there’s almost no shade. Nice views along the way. Definitely glad I did it, but won’t be rushing to return any time soon. Not recommended unless you enjoy climbing for hours and are an experienced hiker/runner, given this is probably one of the hardest hikes in San Diego. I’m more experienced than most and it took about 4.5hrs for total of about 11.3 miles (not the stated 10.6) at a steady rate of hike and running at some of the declines.

2 months ago

It is an incredible experience. Well worth it. I have mixed feelings about posting this info but think I should. I did have an experience with a large cat growling and hissing at me very close to the trail. I saw him through the brush. Obviously, I plan to not hike alone again as this is my 4th encounter with a cougar. Each time is think “ what are the odds?? “The previous hiker to pass that spot had a small dog so am wondering if the cougar caught the scent and came close to the trail which I think is rare. Otherwise, it is in my top ten.. and I have hiked in the spectacular Khumbu in Nepal. Love this hike.

hiking
3 months ago

Great hike. Definitely one of the best in SD. Strenuous but absolutely doable. Did not come across any slippery or risky parts. Bring enough water.

hiking
3 months ago

Surely challenging! Even though it was hard at times, it was worth it in the end. Just make sure to come well prepared.

Load More