El Cajon Mountain Trail

HARD 569 reviews

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 rated as difficult. 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 day ago

Parking lot now closes at 7pm. I waited until after a nice rain which made the views spectacularly green. The DG was perfect for a good foot hold - no sliding especially going down those granite slopes. I brought 3L of water - drank most of it on this cool day which was perfect. I'm not an expert hiker...nor in fabulous shape, but I made it. It was a challenge both physically and mentally. I took many many breaks having to snack to keep me from shaking and feeling weak. Took me almost 7 hours. This was a "one and done" for me cuz this hike nearly brought me to tears! lol.

8 days ago

Nice, changing hike. I brought 3L of water and drank it all by the end, even on a nice, cool day, so be prepared with plenty of water for the tough assend to the top. The gates closes at 6pm so park outside the gate on the side of the highway if you might be cutting it close on time or you're car will get locked in for the night.

12 days ago

Soo hard, is very long trail with a lot of mini mountans, but is work it, i lovet

15 days ago

Definitely the most beautiful and challenging hike in San Diego! It took me about 2:45 to make it to the summit with only a couple of short breaks and then about the same amount of time for the way back. With a long break at the top, the whole hike took about 6 hours! I recommend wearing hiking shoes and bringing at least 3 liters of water and a snack for the summit. Leave your dog at home!! Any hikers looking to test their endurance or just want to experience some beautiful views, this is the hike for you. Go now while it’s still cool outside and everything is turning green. Gates are currently locked at 6pm.

15 days ago

This is a great hike. I'm 57years old and normally lift weights so this was a different work out for me. It was my second hike in thirty years. My first being Rock house trail two days before.

This was fun but hard. Took me eight hours. I took lots of photos and videos and when I went up hill i had to treat it like a leg work out. Did a few steps till I got tired and stopped. Then did the same over and over.
By stopping a lot, I got to see the beauty of the hike and took some awesome shots. It rained a lot which was beautiful and there was mist steaming off the hill sides.

Like many say, bring good boots if you're not use to this type of hiking. But there was an elderly couple in their fifties running up the mountain but they ran to the El Capitan side. Two other hikers were back packing 40 lbs worth of weights.

The hike is harder in the mind than on your body. It just keeps going and going. If you are patient and don't push yourself to the edge of your limit but stay with in your limits, you'll make it just fine. I have no cardio but I stayed within my self and it was an amazing hiking experience. Just follow all the advice from the seasoned hikers and enjoy the beauty.

Oh and it took me eight hours. I may look like a bear, but I hike like a tortoise.lol

22 days ago

The trail was beautiful and worth hard work. I made it to the peak in under 3 hours and played on the summit for another hour. I was exhausted heading down and I definitely needed more breaks, and it took me well over 3 hours to return to my car. I drank less than two liters of water but it was quite cold so I didn’t need to compensate for the extra heat. Make sure your shoes have good traction as the trail can easily give out on some areas.

22 days ago

They should rate this easy hard easy hard. It's challenging in that your heart rate will not go down (good thing). For every decline you do an incline is waiting for you.... this means on the way back as well. I can't imagine this trail in the summer, it is very exposed. Be safe have fun, happy trailing!

23 days ago

This hike is no joke! So many hills hills hills! Very challenging hike! So worth it! I’m gonna be sore tomorrow. So glad I️ read reviews about taking lots of water!! Started around 6:45am 39 degrees but than warmed up to the 70s. Took 2 liters of water plus 3x16oz containers and only had one left!

23 days ago

Easy-hard-moderate-hard. This trail will kick your butt with its steep ups and downs, and it's all worth it.

28 days ago

First of all, it was great. So many vista points, every ten minutes there was a very welcoming boulder to sit on top and enjoy the views below.
It took us 6 hours total. About 3.5 hours up, chill at the summit, and about 2 hours down.
The day was sunny and clear, about 80 degrees. We drank about 1.5 liters each, although we had a lot more.
I wish we had trekking poles, that would make the descent faster and easier (contrary to the reviews I found out that the way back is more of a descent, like 2/3 of it.) I also wish we had eaten well before driving out, since that took us time - we found ourselves out of fuel, so to speak, while we still had 2-3 miles to walk.
The last part, from the junction before the trails to the summits, was the most difficult part. I got an adrenaline rush from seeing the summit "so close" and pushed hard, and the ascent is no piece of cake, you have to maneuver around the boulders and climb up using your arms for support with every push.
There were a couple of empty water bottles and candy wraps along the trail, which was ridiculous to me, have never seen that anywhere else.
The trail, however, is clearly marked and really well taken care of.
If you are into hiking as a process, this is a trail for you. If you are into hiking for the "epic views" and hate the constant ups and downs that are over 45 degree angle - you won't enjoy it that much, will be more of a grind.
Wear sunscreen and shoes with good traction. And bring a snack.
Oh, and absolutely no mountain biking after mile 3, don't know why the trail is marked as such.

29 days ago

Well maintained easy to follow trail

Bring water at LEAST 3 liters we needed it
My legs/knees were killing me on the way down so if you have trekking poles could be very useful

Took us about 6 hours round trip and we started at 8:30am with small breaks on the way up and down

Saw a lot of travelers and trail runners!
Highly recommend a lot of fun just VERY steep and the the stretch before the summit is a lot of rocks and climbing so make sure you strap your water bottle in your pack tight!
I recommend bringing a hat and sunglasses and definitely some sunscreen
I would say it the hardest part is the very steep climb about 1/3 in..save your energy going back is no cake walk

1 month ago

Second time up this bad boy. one of my favorites because of the challenge. it's like Mount Gower on steroids in that there's lots of ups and downs with scrambling at the very end.

Got there at 6:32 a.m. I parked along the road. There will be plenty of other cars doing the same before 8 am.

Took me 2:06 to summit from the car, 1:47 from the official trailhead (the marker that starts at mile 1). Came back down in 1:35 (summit to trailhead) and 1:58 (summit to car). I run and hike regularly and only stopped to drink water 5 times.

I think of this hike as two separate hikes. This trail ascends and descends (although from the bigger picture, it's generally ascending), but you won't really feel that way as you're on this hike. keep in mind that when you're going down, you'll be going up on the way back to your car.

As such, here's my advice:

- 3 liters of water. better to have too much than not enough

- don't hike this one if it's supposed to be a hot day. there's very little shade and the mountain heats up quickly.

- start early. the lower the sun, the better it will be for you. take sunglasses either way because much of the journey will have you facing East and the sun will be in your face for a good portion of the hike to the summit

- wear shoes with traction. there's a lot of steep washed out/ sandy/ rocky terrain. the more grip your shoes have, the better.

- don't use all your energy on the way up to the summit. eat and rehydrate! remember, coming back is just as tough as getting there. make sure you save enough water for the trip back.

1 month ago

Very good and lightly-traveled trail. Started at 8am, and did not see anyone until I got to the top and started having my lunch there. Excellent views! It took 2:45 hr to get to the top (including a side trip to El Capitan) and 2:15 hr to get down.

Enjoy! Totally worth it.

take more more water than you think you will need. It is a "thirsty" trail. Have extra water in your car for when you get back.
Parking lot opens at 8 am, the trail closes at 5pm, or 5:30 pm, depending on where the sign is posted.

1 month ago

Cool trail. Not for everyone, might be difficult for some people.

1 month ago

Coming from out of state, I had no idea what to expect from this trail. On a difficulty level, it did not disappoint! The views were amazing! My only regret, that I did not start earlier. It was February when I hiked/ran this trail. I didn’t get to start until 1:30 in the afternoon. With the gates closing at 5:00, I had to turn around at the 4 mile mark. There are steep ascents. The climbs are on rock with lots of loose sand covering so be careful with footing. I consider myself an experienced trail runner and this trail challenged me all the way. I will be back to conquer this one.

1 month ago

Definitely a challenge!

1 month ago

This is a great Hike with many views. Climbs are steep. Especially before summit

1 month ago

My favorite hike by San Diego by far... I would go every other weekend and power through this trail in 4 hours (total distance is 12 miles, not 11). Take note that this trail has many accents and descents. Your body and legs will never get used to one - account for the return trip because you have to do the opposite. Take plenty of water with you or don't go on a hot day. The last half mile is a loosey-goosey trek to the top. There is not necessarily one right way to go up. This trail is a joy to hike, but not necessarily hard unless it is hotter than 95F.

1 month ago

Wow it was tough
And thank all you guys for the tips
We enjoy it today lots up hill u need to be some kind of experience Hiking
Nice trail well maintained

1 month ago

Hiked this trail a few months ago. Great trail if you’re looking for a challenge. The up and downs make the way back just as difficult as the way up. Awesome views at the top!

1 month ago

This visiting Floridian who doesn't hike much enjoyed this challenging hike. Yesterday when I hiked it was sunny and the temp got up to 80. So, bring lots of water. I took 3 very needed liters.

My hiking boots have very good traction so footing wasn't an issue.

Since I'm probably older than 95% of the hikers, treking poles were extremely beneficial.

On the return, I stopped for a water break at the metal bench. It felt so good. The bench back made for a pleasant stop. Looking out, I thought I had just one ridge line to cross over before getting back to my car. Ha Ha. There were three ridge lines to cross.

P.S. I met a couple of trail runners on the way up and back. Just unbelievable.

1 month 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.


2 months 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.

2 months ago

Great hike - rugged but, worth the effort!

2 months 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!!

2 months 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.

2 months 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!

2 months 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.

2 months 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!

2 months 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.

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