El Cajon Mountain Trail

HARD 664 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
3576 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.

trail running
4 days ago

This is a beautiful trail, and gorgeous country. I've run it twice. The trail is quite steep and rutted in some places. Using trekking poles helps with the step terrain and uneven surface. I like to run with one trekking pole. Wear a big hat, and carry at least two liters of water.

hiking
5 days ago

The toughest hike I have done in San Diego. Be prepared for steep inclines. I wish I had brought my trekking poles for the way down. I went in April with the temperature in the mid 70s and started at 8am. I brought 4 liters of water and it was just right. I can't imagine doing this hike in the summer time. Not enough shade to cool yourself off.

5 days ago

Great hike, fantastic views and I saw no snakes

hiking
6 days ago

This hike is the most difficult hike I've done so far. The view is nice, but there are easier hikes in the area with better views if that's what you're after. I would recommend this hike for the challenge, but keep in mind that it gets more difficult the farther you go. Be smart about your choices. Wear the right clothes, bring enough water (more on that below), and be generally prepared.

There are mile-markers along the trail to inform you of your current distance. It will likely take between 4-6 hours to complete the entire trek. It takes roughly the same time to reach the summit as it does to return to the trailhead. Most of the trail is void of shade. Beware of rattlesnakes.

At the parking lot there is a sign with recommended water, but I would recommend slightly more. The first time I went up with 3 liters and was down to .75 liters when I reached the top. I would recommend having at ~4 liters depending on the weather.

hiking
8 days ago

Did this with 30lbs on a 90 degree day, and I must say, this was a fairly challenging hike. There are a lot of steep inclines and declines, and very little shade to regulate your body temperature. I was fortunate to have hiked in with extra water, as I used 20% of it to cool myself down.

As challenging as this hike was for me, I found it be rewarding, and it provided me with a sense of accomplishment. If you’re preparing for a backpacking trip, this will certainly help boost your endurance. You also get a lot of epic views of the surrounding areas, but as far as vegetation goes, it’s a bit bleak.

As far as wild life is concerned, I saw a few condors, hawks and ravens. Oh! ... and beware of rattlesnakes! I saw two on this trial, and one California king. There is also a plethora of lizards scurrying around.

hiking
14 days ago

Strenuous hike, very hot! I brought 3L of water and ran out with 3 miles left back to the trailhead. Fortunately 2 guys better prepared hooked me up with another liter. One rattlesnake crossing the trail. Go early, I didn’t start until 8am. Water, water, water!!!

20 days ago

It’s really Hard I try tree times finally today I made the 10 millas. I get in love is a bountiful view..

25 days ago

Challenging. I felt prepared and that was still a killer hike all the way to the last step. Loved it.

27 days ago

Hardest hike I’ve done so far!!!!

29 days ago

This is a HARD hike. It took me over 4 hours there and back. There are just as many hills coming back as there were going to the top. Brutal, but just awesome. Unfortunately when I hiked it, the entire mountain was covered in fog so I couldn’t see any of the views

hiking
1 month ago

In a word, gorgeous. Hardest hike I've done but the views were worth it. The hills are no joke and that last half mile straight up the mountain was brutal. Definitely take poles. We went the day after a rain and felt like we hit the jackpot on the timing. It seems like it could be pretty slippery when it is dry. Our group of eight finished this in about six and a half hours with plenty of breaks and a long stop at the top for a snack.

1 month ago

If you get there before 8 am, park off the road/highway. Being extra water. There are a ton of ups and downs which make the hike back pretty difficult. Apparently the old mines are only 50 yards from the trail. Never did, but wish I had just checked it out. Took me a little over 5 hours. Challenging hike with only ok views.

hiking
1 month ago

This tops 3 sister falls on difficulty! Hardest hike I’ve done! Between 3-4 miles. Take the 40 yard off course trail and see the old gold mines. They are only about 8 feet deep. But they are great for a nice lil break or to cook your MRE

1 month ago

This hike is hard! That ain't no lie!!! One note, gates to parking dont open until 8, so street parking if you are are an early bird.

1 month ago

This hike was a KILLER leg workout. Def recommend good hiking shoes but amazing hike overall!

1 month ago

Wow not for beginners, take plenty of water . Atleast 3liter . I drank that and wanted more . It was only 71 out. Anyhow no much to see on trail other then wildflowers, and surrounded hills. Once at summit nice views of surrounding mountains. We missed out June gloom came early. Anyhow great hike its about 11 miles round trip. If you get to summit and think it was easy just wait for trek back. You will see . Wear comfortable clothes . Start early . Bring extra water . Have fun be safe......

hiking
1 month ago

Great hike. Definitely recommend hiking poles.

1 month ago

grueling hike but absolutely worth it!

hiking
1 month ago

We did a family hike last Saturday and this is the hardest hike that we ever did so far. Lots of uphill downhill and most of them are steep. We did it for 8 hours back and forth. I was hurting for 2 days lol The views are amazing! it was totally worth it.

1 month ago

Hardest hike I have ever done, but it was so worth it! Definitely bring a lot of water and snacks. It’s a long hike, prepare for an all day adventure of crazy inclines!

hiking
1 month ago

Nothing like the opener to this one! A quick quad and calf smoke to get the ball rolling can catch you a little off guard early. Start early. It gets hot out here. The trail is amply marked and the signage is good. It will keep you posted as to where you are and you’ll see the steeper pitches coming. Steep is steep here too. Two or three long pulls later in the hike as you go toward the summit. This is a good, hard hike. 5 hrs at a 30 minute pace. There’s a lot of scree and the rutted sections are a little challenging at times. Coming back down was a little hard on the knees. Power through. When you’re done with this one, you’ve earned it.

hiking
1 month ago

4:30 hours hike...hard ,but awesome
brakes just for pictures

hiking
1 month ago

Great trail for an early morning hike, possibly the best in San Diego County. Best enjoyed while the sun is still low and temperatures are reasonable...

hiking
1 month ago

Great challenge. Save at least a half day for this trail. Rewarding!!

1 month ago

Love it - super peaceful in the mornings. I only saw a couple of people within 2.5 hours. Great views and scenery along the trail. ❤️

hiking
1 month ago

Hiked at the end of April.
Pretty cloudy day w/ wind & rain on the way back, so 2 L of water/ person were plenty sufficient.
Started at 6 am, finished at 11 am. 5 hour hike.
Minimal breaks.
Definitely recommend trekking poles for the way down.

1 month ago

Sunscreen, water and your A game.

hiking
1 month ago

Hiked this on April 20. Didn’t start until 12:50 but that’s because I flew into town in the morning. As others indicate, you will need protection from the sun. I had long sleeves and a wide brim hat. Nothing on the calves though so they got a little toasty. The hike took me 2:35 to the top and 2:20 down. I saved the “mine shafts” for the way down. There are some great views to be had throughout the entire hike and lots of wildflowers this time of year. I didn’t really think the water requirements were that exceptional - I think I had 3 liters overall. Granted had I done this in July or August it would be more. I personally thought the uphill on the second peak was the toughest - that’s where I had to stop the most to rest. While not the most physically difficult trail around, the technical (sure footing) difficulty is enough that you need some experience to expect to do this trail in a reasonable amount of time. It is a good idea to go early though it was nice seeing my last other hiker by mile 4 as a result of starting so late.

2 months ago

tough hike but a great work out. the down hills are steep on way back..

trail running
2 months ago

Loved running El Cajon mountain this morning. It was a definitely a challenge with constant inclines and declines along with some rocky areas that watching footing was a must. Beautiful views. Can’t wait to go back!

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