The (almost) apex of San Diego: Cuyamaca Peak

*Note: It has come to my attention since doing this hike that the fireroad to the peak — the only accessible route to the top — is in fact closed to the public. There is some misleading information on the internet and even the park rangers don’t seem to know (or care?). Please keep this in mind if planning to hike Cuyamaca.

If I step outside my front door in coastal San Diego and gaze inland while crossing one of the east/west oriented streets, there’s always one peak that can be seen rising above the mesas, foothills, and buildings: Cuyamaca. Located nearly smack dab in the middle of the county, the peak can be viewed from pretty much all corners of San Diego — from the beaches to the desert.

At a mere 6,512 feet tall, Cuyamaca isn’t much to boast about, but it’s pretty much the best we got down here in San Diego. It’s San Diego’s second-highest peak, just a few dozen feet lower than Hot Springs Mountain in the northern end of the county. However, of the two, Cuyamaca is the more pronounced and prominent, with steep sloping canyons and ridges that dive down into the San Diego river gorge.

I’ve bagged many-a-peaks in San Diego County, but I had been avoiding this one for a while. While the views are unmatched, the journey is what really makes a hike, isn’t it? The journey to Cuyamaca is rather… lackluster, in my opinion. With multiple cell towers installed on the peak and a fireroad that must be used no matter how you link up the dirt trails on its slopes, it’s just not my cup of tea.

Despite the relative blandness of Cuyamaca, the peak does have its advantages. During the scorching summer months in San Diego, Cuyamaca can offer relief from the blazing heat. Cuyamaca Rancho State Park is high enough in elevation to shed 10-15 degrees compared to the inland, low-lying areas. The word ‘Cuyamaca’ roughly translates to ‘behind the clouds’ or ‘place where it rains’ in Kumeyaay, attesting to the relatively cooler environment when compared to the rest of the county. In mid-August, I definitely wouldn’t call the temperatures ‘cool’, but they are moderate enough to safely recreate outdoors.

I don’t like to mess with the heat, so I hadn’t done much local hiking in San Diego since June. (I’ve been escaping to the Sierra Nevada.) However, when the inevitable hiking bug started to itch, I decided that the time had arrived to give Cuyamaca a shot. I hit the road at around 5am and did the hour-long drive up to the top of San Diego County for my first summit of Cuyamaca.

Madison Snively takes a photo in the Cuyamaca Mountains.
Hitting the trail. Madison now seriously outguns me in the camera department with her new Sony.
Evan Quarnstrom takes a photo in the Cuyamaca Mountains.
I still prefer the compact point and shoots — you can take them anywhere.
The sunrises over a lush meadown in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.
Cuyamaca Rancho State Park has some beautiful, lush meadows. Photo: Madison Snively
A nice hawk feather found in the meadow.
Madison Snively takes a selfie in San Diego County.
Temperatures were brisk in the morning, but the mid-morning sun heated things up fast.
Kumeyaay Cuyamaca Ovals on a granite rock surface.
These Native American grinding features have been labeled ‘Cuyamaca Ovals’ and they are actually quite fascinating due to their mysterious nature. They are only found in the mountains and foothills of the peninsular ranges in northern Baja California, San Diego County, and Riverside County. Archaeologists hypothesize that they were used to process some type of grass or flower seeds, but the interesting part is that they appear to predate many of the larger, deeper ‘morteros’ (see below), which are well-known as acorn processing stations. In summary, the ovals may tell a story of human history in San Diego many hundreds of years earlier than what most of the archaeological record contains.
Morteros in an oak grove in the Cuyamaca Mountains.
Morteros found along the trail in an oak grove where Native Americans used to grind their acorns.
Madison Snively walks on a trail through a field of tall, dry grass in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.
Climbing up the mountain slopes.
Getting to the top of the peak and admiring the layers of mountains to the northeast. The center of the last layer of mountains is Rabbit Peak, a mountain that I bagged last year. It would be the highest mountain in San Diego County were it not a mere few dozen feet beyond its borders.
Taking a selfie on top of Cuyamaca Mountain.
Selfie at the peak.
Views of coastal San Diego County from Cuyamaca Peak.
Views to the west from the fog-covered coast up to the top of the peninsular ranges.
Potato Chip Rock, Mt Woodson, as seen from Cuyamaca Peak.
A closer look at the granite strewn peaks of San Diego. Mt Woodson, aka Potato Chip rock, is on the right, and Iron Mountain is on the left.
San Jacinto and San Gorgonio Peaks as seen from Cuyamaca Peak.
Deep in the haze you can see the primary peaks of southern California: San Jacinto (10,834 ft) on the right and San Gorgonio (11,503 ft) on the left.
Evan Quarnstrom poses for a photo on top of Cuyamaca Peak.
Ready to get back down to the car and out of the heat. Temperatures were reaching the low to mid-80’s this day. Cool compared to this weekend where temps are forecasted to be in the mid-90’s.
Madison Snively poses for a photo on top of Cuyamaca Peak.
Madison enjoying the views.

7 thoughts on “The (almost) apex of San Diego: Cuyamaca Peak

  1. I stumbled across your website today as I was doing some research about Cuyamaca Peak. I’ve read a couple of your other articles as well, and I really appreciate your straightforward writing styles and photo illustrations. Nice job!


    1. Hi Douglas,

      Thanks for taking the time to read my articles. I am glad you enjoyed them.

      I think the fireroad to Cuyamaca is still closed? When I hiked it apparently it was closed but there was conflicting info online and at the trailhead.

      If you want to get notified every time I post (2-3 times per month), you can email or WP subscribe on my home page.



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