Cuyamaca Peak: San Diego Winter Wonderland

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Distance 

7.7 Miles

Time

~4 Hrs

Difficulty 

Hard

Season

All Year

Elevation Gain

1,833 Ft

Cuyamaca Peak via the Azalea Glen Trail is a 7.7 round trip mile hike beginning at the Paso Picacho campground in an oak woodland forest. The trail offers the opportunity to experience an abundance of wildlife, such as wild turkeys, bald eagles, vultures, and on very rare occasions, mountain lions. Cuyamaca Peak, which is the second-highest in the Cleveland National Forest at 6512 ft, boasts the best views of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park and as far as Anza Borrego and Mexico.

 

Map of Cuyamaca Peak

 

Directions

For directions to Cuyamaca Peak, click here.

 

Quick Cuyamaca Peak Reference Guide

  • Parking is $10 per vehicle at Paso Picacho
  • There are 2 ways to get to the peak, and both begin at the campground. They are:
    • Via the Azalea Glen Trail, which is a 7.7 mile loop, includes the Kumeyaay morteros, and is more scenic or…
    • Via the Lookout Fire Road, which is 5.5 miles, steeper, less scenic, and it’s an out and back trail (not a loop).
  • Although it’s rare, mountain lion encounters are more frequent here than other mountain ranges (we had our 1st encounter). NEVER run from a mountain lion. Put your hands in the air to make yourself seem bigger and yell to scare the lion away.
  • Take plenty of water and a hat as there is very little shade on the trail
  • During the wintertime, Cuyamaca Rancho State Park can transform into a winter wonderland, so plan accordingly.
  • Drones are not allowed in the park
  • Dogs are only allowed in the campground and on the Lookout Fire Road.
  • Trekking poles are highly recommended.

 

Azalea Glen Trail

We decided to hike via the Azalea Glen Trail because it’s more scenic and cuts through a meadow that was once the site of a seasonal Kumeyaay village. The Kumeyaay were the original residents of the Cuyamacas, dating as far back as 12000 BC!

The trail begins by heading west via a single track that leads you through the campground. Seeing the Cuyamacas covered in snow is a real treat as it doesn’t snow here as much as the San Bernardino or Angeles forests.

Wooden bridges guide you over creeks, adding more delight to the snowy landscape.

Unfortunately, the dead trees in the background are the remnants of one of the worst San Diego fires in history, the Cedar Fire, which was started by a lost hunter in 2003. To this day, the Cedar Fire is the reason why the park is not as dense with pine trees as it should be.

Shortly after the bridges, the trail becomes more enclosed and you’ll arrive at the first and only creek crossing.

It was after the creek crossing and right before reaching the Kumeyaay village site that we heard a very large animal growl at us. Although it was only about 10-15 ft to our immediate left, its perfect camouflage prevented us from spotting it.

The growl was so low and strong that we literally felt it, similar to the way you feel the bass emitting from large speakers.

I kept talking loudly as we slowly walked backward, never giving my back to what I suspected was one of the most feared predators in the mountains. When we got home we quickly searched for various animal growls, only to confirm that we had come face to face with a mountain lion.

The lion was most likely stalking deer, as we had seen many deer tracks on the trail. Luckily, he decided to let us off with a warning, so we kept walking until we reached the Kumeyaay village site and the morteros.

Morteros are holes in rocks used by the Kumeyaay to mash their food, most likely acorns. Due to the snow, I wasn’t able to get a shot, but you can click the link HERE to get redirected to an image of the morteros.

After the Kumeyaay village site, you’ll arrive at the most scenic part of the trail, which runs parallel to the creek and is surrounded by majestic pine trees and ferns.

Up until this point, the elevation gain is very minimal, but as soon as the scenic section ends you can expect a steeper trail. From Azalea Glen Trail you hop onto Azalea Spring Fire Rd for a very short descent.

Don’t forget to look back from time to time as the views are amazing. Here we can see Middle Peak to the very left, Stonewall Peak to the very right, and Lake Cuyamaca (which is harder to see) lies in between.

Once you transition onto the Conejos Trail from the Azalea Spring Fire Rd the landscape begins to transform into a true winter wonderland. Some of the branches were completely frozen and easily weighed up to 100 pounds.

Here’s a shot looking down on Stonewall Peak.

When you reach the last meadow and pine trees in the image below you know you’re almost there! The wind was blowing harder and we could hear the sound of icicles falling all around us. This hike is really something else.

There she is! The antennas on the peak can be seen from the intersection of Conejos Trail and the Lookout Fire Rd intersect.

A couple of guys coming down from the peak told us to stay away from the antennas because the wind was knocking down 300-400 pound massive icicles.

There’s a rest area with a bench looking out into the valley at the intersection. This isn’t the peak, but it’s still a breathtaking view. It’s hard to believe this is San Diego!

Unfortunately, we began to have some technical issues with my camera.

And to make matters worse, clouds shaded the valley. Had we made our way to the peak, I still would’ve been unable to get a good shot.

But, I don’t want to leave you empty-handed, so I went online and looked for some shots of the view from the peak! Below is the popular boulder where you can get an amazing picture.

On the boulder, looking to the right where the frozen bench was located.

The view of the entire valley below, where the 80-foot giant, Cedar Creek Falls, calls it’s home.

That concludes the end of this adventure. If you want to get to the campground ASAP, I suggest taking the Lookout Fire Rd (shown below) back down to complete the 7.7-mile journey.

Otherwise, head back down the way you came to extend the hike even further. See you at the next one!

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We’re Monica and Phillip. Just like you, we share a passion for the outdoors and our beautiful state of California. After many years of exploring amazing and hidden places, we thought we’d share them with you! We hope this blog shows you tons of new CA adventures!

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