El Cajon Mountain Trail

HARD 732 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

birding

hiking

mountain biking

nature trips

rock climbing

trail running

walking

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.

hiking
3 days 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
5 days 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
7 days 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.

8 days 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
11 days 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!

13 days 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
15 days 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.

17 days 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
26 days 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
1 month ago

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

hiking
1 month ago

Very unsafe hike in my personal opinion. I am in overall good athletic shape and work out 4x a week and hike at least once per month. I’ve been wanting to do this mountain for a long time and I just don’t think it was worth it. You couldn’t possibly bring enough water up there and the sun is very hot. The slippery and rocky terrain along with the switchbacks make this hike challenging and risky. I felt that I could not enjoy the scenery, the hike or my surroundings because I was too concerned for my safety.

hiking
1 month ago

Well here’s one that separates the wolves from the sheep! Been wanting to do this one for a loooong time, just waiting for the right day. Nice cool temps and overcast skies really took the edge off, and after the recent rains there was no haze and stunning visibility in all directions. I could see a snow capped San Jacinto and San Gorgonio to the north. Totally amazing.

It’s as difficult as everyone says, and it really brutalizes you on the way back. But I’d say anyone could easily do this hike with a little bit of conditioning, rugged footwear, and good timing. The real difficulty level of this trek is predicated on the weather/temperature. I would definitely not mess with this one mid July.

Took me 4.5 hours, managed to get by with 2 liters of agua, though I brought 3. Took a 30 minute break on the summit to get baked and enjoy the panorama. Don’t be afraid of this hike, go do it!

1 month ago

Challenging, but totally manageable. Bring lots of water. I found it to be a quiet and peaceful trail, saw few others, which I love. Great views, worth the effort.

1 month ago

I found the ‘descent’ to be challenging in the 4-3.5 mile return section. Definitely a tough climb but wonderful views and my favorite in the SD area so far.

trail running
1 month ago

Great Hike, challenging Run. I’ve been to the top 3 times, this past weekend I opted to go straight at the 3 way intersection at the upper saddle. This brings you to an amazing lookout atop the face. Much more dramatic than the summit. Trail is washed out and difficult to stay on but there is the occasional rock cairn to show the way.

1 month ago

Great hike! Gets steep between miles 2-4. It can be considered a difficult hike. Bring lots of water! The summit is to the left of the sign and the trail is marked from the sign to the summit. Much harder on the way there than on the way back. Took 4hrs20mins at a moderate pace.

hiking
1 month ago

This hike is everything it’s said to be and more. This is cardio workout to say the least. Started at 630a and completed the hike by noon. Took a 1 hour much needed break. I easily drank 3 liters of water and it was cold for most of the hike. I saw a few folks starting late...I wouldn’t advise starting the hike after 10am. Enjoy the hike

hiking
1 month ago

If you are looking for a challenging hike or if you are training for something strenuous, this is the hike for you! This trail doesn't relent until about the last mile before getting back to the parking lot. It is either up or down and quite steep in some areas. I highly recommend using hiking poles for this trek as I found them to be really helpful on the sections that were steep and / or slippery. Also recommend bringing electrolyte packets along with a lot of water. I felt quite satisfied to complete this one!

hiking
2 months ago

Such a sweet hike with some breath taking views right in our back yard... you get to feel disconnected from everything as if you were in Julian. That last part to get to the top gets a little tricky since it’s covered in bushes and the trail markers don’t start until you get to the rock of the summit.... the old mines and Jeep are some super cool things to check out to keep your mind distracted on your way up! I usually don’t take water but thought I should for this one and even then was really thirsty at the end after downing two liters... stay hydrated and enjoy the views!!

2 months ago

Great views and great workout both ways

hiking
2 months ago

Saturday, 11/10/2018 completed The Warrior Challenge Hike supporting our Veterans Day 2018. Triumph at El Cajon Peak, signed the official Peak Log and located all 3 Geological Benchmarks. Tallied up 11.39 RT mileage and 3,936’ total elevation gains gains. 2nd time hiking the El Capitan Preserve and only made it El Capitan Peak back on 12/22/2013. 5-years later, 60-lbs lighter I now have sense of accomplishment being this is labeled the hardest hike in the entire San Diego County! So steep with numerous peaks and valleys to trek through I developed cramps again but all worth it at the end!

2 months ago

Great 10 mile hike!! I found this mountain to be very hard in the sense that is none stop up hill and down hill from beginning to end. It was a challenge!!! You definitely need plenty of water and snacks to replenish your energy.

2 months ago

Best bang for your one day hiking buck! Well marked informative mileage signs with elevation profiles. Only out and back trail in SD County that is up hill in both directions.

2 months ago

we started at 7am, when the sun was nice and finished by 1pm, around 11am the sun killed us, we consumed much more water and stoped more often to rest. 2.5 - 3 liters of water was enough! :) start early, finish before the sun is up!! great hiking!

hiking
2 months ago

My girlfriends and I did this hike at 6am and we were back in the car by 11am. it was foggy when we reached the top so we couldn't enjoy the view. It was also freezing cold so we headed back down. It was a great work out for all of us and will definitely come back again.

hiking
2 months ago

My friend and I hiked this Saturday starting at 9:15am. It was during the October Santa Ana and now I know why I won't be hiking it in the summer months. It can get pretty hot.
We wanted to have a fun hiking distraction while hiking down so we created names for each of the steep sections that were challenging enough for worthy mention. Here are the names in descending order from the top...
1. Summit
2. Jalopy
3. Tater Tots
4. Feather Duster
5. Hey what?! WTF?!?!
6. Sarah's Song
7. Sugar, please
8. Eggsellent
9. Deadwood
10. Tardy to the Party
11. #11 (we didn't think of one)
12. Knee Break
13. Lifted Spirits
14. Beer, please

See if you can figure out why we named them!

hiking
2 months ago

A perfect hike that is a test of endurance rather than being a hard technical climb. The path is clear allowing for a hands free ascent. It took about 4.5 hours, if you time it right, the sunset over the coast is spectacular.

3 months ago

Great hiking, with amazing views.

hiking
3 months ago

Ok, this is a no-joke trail! There are ups and downs the entire time - most hikes you get to the top and it's all downhill on the way home - NOT this one! It is especially a hard one if it's hot like it was today. Bring more water than you think you'll need. The signage here is GREAT! you cannot get lost - especially at the top where they were every few feet leading you to the VERY top. Awesome views!

3 months ago

Love this trail! Very hard try and go super early because it gets hot. One of the things I Noticed is that couple times I saw glass by where the parking is. The last time I was there they broke my rear window just to steal my backpack with nothing of value.
Shady people , just be careful

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