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.