Trek to the top of San Diego: Hot Springs Mountain

Hot Springs Mountain viewed from afar in San Diego County.

Most people who have never been to southern California think that San Diego is an endless expanse of beaches and palm trees. Thus, I get a kick out of the surprised reactions that I get when non-San Diegans see photos of my hikes in the rugged mountains. The responses get even better when the photos include snow. It’s as if they expect the beaches, strip malls, and taquerias to extend endlessly east to the Arizona border, where presumptively the cacti, cowboys, and Grand Canyon suddenly take over.

San Diego County is certainly not known for its mountains, but our chunk of the granite-dominated Peninsular Range gives us San Diegans more than enough open terrain and peaks to keep busy.

San Diego’s dozens of mile-high mountains punch a bit above their weight. There is adventure for those looking to find it.

Standing 6,535 feet (1,992m) tall in the northeast corner of San Diego County, Hot Springs Mountain is the tallest of the bunch, just barely nudging out Cuyamaca Peak for the county’s highpoint.

Hot Springs Mountains is one of San Diego’s several islands in the sky — isolated, thick coniferous forests that may remind you more of a forest in the Sierra Nevada than the aforementioned tropical beach scenes.

The peak of Hot Spring Mountain is gained by an old fire road, which is probably why I had been putting this hike off over the years. I typically prefer a rugged, more remote, less traveled brand of hiking and fire roads can be rather… bland.

That said, any day in the wilderness is (usually) a great day, so I thought I would give the 10-mile out and back climb to the top of San Diego a try on a sunny, crisp winter morning.

Off to San Diego’s summit

Hot Springs Mountain is located on the private land of los Coyotes Indian Reservation. The Cahuilla and Cupeño tribes manage the land and charge a $10 fee to all visitors to hike.

A metal gate blocks car access to the trailhead, so early birds are out of luck, as the trail cannot be accessed until the park managers open the gate at 8am (ish).

I was the first visitor to arrive at the ranger station where the fee is paid. As I was waiting, about 5-6 other groups arrived and sat around the station waiting for the fashionably late park employee to show and collect fees.

When the man finally did arrive, the payment process was not exactly done in an expeditious manner, and I, the first to arrive, was the last to pay, so all in all we sat around for about 45 minutes patiently waiting to get our boots in the dirt.

The trail starts in a shady grove of old, sturdy oaks and then quickly ascends through drier shrub lands. Layers were shed quickly, as a good chunk of the 2,400 feet+ total elevation change is gained right off the bat.

As the trail levels out, it enters the thick coniferous forest where shade abounds as you stroll under the outstretched limbs of the pine, cedar, oaks, and cypress trees, among others.

It had been a few weeks since our last good storm in San Diego, but I was pleased to see that large patches of snow still remained in the upper elevations, adding a fun twist to the hike.

Upon gaining the peak, we were rewarded with panoramic views of nearly all the principle peaks of the county. Views stretched to the north to San Jacinto and San Gorgonio Mountains, and all the way east to the Salton Sea.

Round trip the hike took us about 5 hours with a nice break on the peak to enjoy the views. It was definitely a worthy escape into nature for a relaxing weekend, despite my reservations about the monotony of hiking a fire road.

Madison Snively starting the trail to Hot Springs Mountain.
Getting going on the trail. We were the last group to start, but started to pass some of the earlier groups soon after.
The trail to the top of Hot Springs Mountain.
The trail climbs out of this valley into a drier environment with little protection from the sun.
Madison Snively walks across snow on the trail to Hot Springs Mountain.
Luckily, it doesn’t take too long to ascend into the thicker forests where shade, snow, and gusty Santa Ana winds awaited.
A trail marker that indicates the correct path to the top of Hot Springs Mountain.
The route is quite easy to follow. There is only one main junction which is well marked, as you can see in the photo.
Madison Snively walks on snow on the way to Hot Springs Mountain.
The snow was pretty hard-packed and icy from the lower temperatures the night before. Patches were short enough that extra shoe traction wasn’t necessary.
The fire road to the top of Hot Springs Mountain.
Continuing up to the peak.
Pine forest on the way to Hot Springs Mountain.
Enjoying these majestic pine groves.
Views of San Diego County from Hot Springs Mountain.
Gaining the summit and peering south at parts of the Anza Borrego Desert, Mount Laguna and Cuyamaca Mountains.
View of San Diego County from Hot Springs Mountain.
Cuyamaca Peak, which I summited last summer, can be seen in the distance. It’s the second highest peak in San Diego, just barely lower than Hot Springs Mountain.
Views from the top of Hot Springs Mountain.
Views to the northwest gaze over this deep gorge.
Views from the top of Hot Springs Mountain.
Views to the north with San Jacinto and San Gorgonio just beyond Madison’s head.
A wooden lookout tower on the top of Hot Springs Mountain.
This old lookout tower stands on one edge of the summit. It’s rickety and falling apart. Not advisable (or legal) to climb.
Santa Rosa Mountains as viewed from Hot Springs Mountain.
Pine trees of Hot Springs Mountains contrasted against the arid Santa Rosa Mountains of the desert.
Madison Snively climbs a ladder to the top of Hot Springs Mountain.
The true peak of Hot Springs Mountain is atop this boulder. A ladder and rope system has been implemented to allow access to the top.
Madison Snively climbs a rope to the top of Hot Springs Mountain.
Madison hoisting herself up.
Anza Borrego desert as viewed from the top of Hot Springs Mountain.
From the true summit, views to the east of the Santa Rosa Mountains. For a closer look at that ridge, see my trip report of summiting Rabbit Peak.
On the top of Hot Springs Mountain.
Summit selfie.
A large pine tree on the trail to Hot Springs Mountain.
Retracing our steps back to the trailhead. I enjoyed the view of this tree that looms large over the trail.

3 thoughts

  1. Awesome, just love all your writing and pictures. You are so talented!! This ll reminds me of my week in Desert Hot springs and all the hikes I did there! Hugs to you

    Peace, Love & Harmony ☮️💜🕉 ✨Cathy ✨ 🌑🌒🌓🌔🌕🌖🌗🌘 ~Creative Transformation~ ~Nutritional, Herbal, Soul & Vibrational Alchemy~

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    Liked by 1 person

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