1976 San Diego guide to best hikes

Cuyamaca, Border Field, Torrey Pines, Palomar, Borrego

Southern Californians seem to have an inferiority complex when it comes to the local hiking areas. Many would rather drive hundreds of miles to hike in the crowded Sierras than travel for an hour (or less) to hike in local environs. The local areas may not have scenery as spectacular as the mountains and meadows of Yosemite, and the trails may not be as long or as difficult as, say, the John Muir Trail. But the local trails can be found in a great variety of places, along the ocean, in marsh areas, in the chaparral, in the mountains, and in the desert. In short, San Diego County has something for every hiker and back-packer, be it a short day hike or a demanding ten-day trek the length of the county.

Most of San Diego County’s organized trails can be found in state parks or on federal land.

They are for the most part well-marked and well-maintained and are relatively under-used, even during peak seasons. (They aren’t like some of the Sierras trails where someone is saying “hi” to you once every five minutes or so.) The local trails offer a variety of difficulty, scenery, wildlife, and plant life for the hiker. It is hard to imagine where else such variety could be found in such a small area.


Day hikes are exactly what they imply, hikes which take a day or less to complete. Usually they cover anywhere from one to 15 miles. Some people view day hiking as an end in itself, a way of seeing the wilds without _ having to lug 25 pounds of overnight gear on their backs. Others

Use day hikes as a way of getting in shape or staying in shape for longer overnight backpacking trips.

There are numerous day hike trails in the county, a few of which are listed below. This is by no means an all-inclusive list. For instance, up at Cuyamaca State Park, a person could easily take ten day hikes without ever stepping on the same trail twice.

Also, there, are a number of day hikes which you cannot find on any map or in any guide book. One of the county’s best day hikes is the walk from Scripps Institute of Oceanography north to Torrey Pines. It is fairly long, but in parts it is isolated and beautiful. This walk may not be wild enough or isolated enough for some purists, but it is still a nice trip for the day. (Be sure to check the tide schedules so you don’t get stuck half way up the coast when high tide rolls in.)

Cuyamaca State Park

This state park, located about an hour’s drive east of San Diego, has the most complete network of trails in the county. Supposedly, there are over a hundred miles of trail, all in very good shape. The trails cut through meadows, oak groves, evergreen forests, and chaparral. Snow is occasionally present in winter .

The trails going up to Cuyamaca Peak (6512) are all in fine condition, but one of the best is also one of the longest. Start at Paso Picacho campgrounds and follow the signs to Azelea Glen, about a mile away. Then follow the trail marked “California Riding and Hiking Trail” north. A little over a half-mile down the trail, you will come upon a sign on the left-hand side of the Riding and Hiking Trail. It will point the way to Conejo Springs and Cuyamaca Peak. Take this trail until you reach the blacktop (only a quarter-mile long) that leads to the ranger lookout on the peak. The trail is somewhat steep and long, but it is uncrowded and the views both going up to and on the peak are impressive.

A very popular trip is the short (four miles round trip) walk up Stonewall Peak. Start at Paso Picacho campgrounds and follow the sign taking you east of Highway 79. Continue up the trail to the top of the 5730 foot peak.

If your idea of fun doesn’t include climbing a couple thousand feet to see the view from a mountaintop, don’t despair; Cuyamaca has a trail for almost everybody. You can plan yourself a hike as easy or as tough as you want. The best thing to do is to consult with the rangers once you get to the Park. They are always more than willing to assist you.

As with all day hikes, be sure that you don’t bite off more than you can chew. If you are in poor shape, stick to the easier trails. Regardless of your shape, be sure to take water and some food as well as extra clothing with you on your hikes, just in case.

As with most state parks, Cuyamaca has a day use fee ($1.50). Maps of the park are free and can be obtained at the park or at the Old Town State Park Visitors Center which carries maps of all of the local state facilities.

Border Field State Park

A relatively new and little-used park. Border Field is located down on the border, across the boundary from the Bullring by the Sea. It has good benches and a large estuary. The trails are laid out so that you can arrange a six mile trip without difficulty.

The park is full of nesting areas for birds and also has a variety of small animals. It is mostly flat marshland and is a good place to hike for those who are not in the best shape. There are also the remains of military bunkers in the park. These bunkers, just a few feet from the Mexican border, are leftovers from the days when the park was U.S. Navy land. One of the big advantages to this park is its proximity to San Diego. It is located within a 30 minute drive of downtown San Diego. No fee is charged during the week, but a dollar fee is in effect on weekends.

Torrey Pines State Reserve

Steep cliffs, long beaches, and the almost extinct Torrey Pines trees are the attractions of this state reserve, located just south of Del Mar on Highway 101. The Torrey Pines are found in this reserve and on one island off the coast. At the Reserve, there are around 4000 mature specimens of this rare plant. In addition, there is a variety of other flora and fauna.

Torrey Pines is a good place to get in shape for long backpacking trips. The Trails, though short, are quite steep. These paths, running down from the cliffs to the beach, are often sandy in parts, making walking even more difficult. A daily fee is charged upon entry. The park, has a limited capacity of approximately 500 people so as to protect the area’s fragile ecological structure.

Palomar Mountain State Park

The trails on Mt. Palomar are neither long nor difficult. For the most part, they are paths of one or two miles, starting and ending at campgrounds. They pass through some nice forest. The trail going up to the look-out on Boucher Hill is rewarding in the end because of the great westward view which can be had there.

Mount Laguna

There are a number of short and easy hikes in the Cleveland National Forest around Mount Laguna, located east of San Diego, about an hour and a half by car. The trails offer some chances to view the Anza Borrego Desert which is located some 3000 feet below the mountain ridges.


Backpacking opportunities in the county are more readily available than is commonly believed. Both the state and federal lands offer a variety of backpacking trips, some of which are quite long.

Moreover, both easy and difficult backpacking trips can be found in the county. The novice backpacker can gain experience and confidence on certain trails while the expert backpacker can be sufficiently challenged so not to be disappointed on other trails.

Because of the dryness of the county, it is imperative that great care be taken by local backpackers venturing into the area’s wilderness. Also, the dryness often causes a water shortage which means that water must be packed in on some trips. Pacific Crest Trail

The border-to-border Pacific Crest Trail begins in San Diego County at the border just south of Campo. It runs the entire length of the county. Much of the trail is temporary or nonexistent, but if you have a week or so to hike in, the local portion of the Pacific Crest is worth considering.

From Campo, it proceeds northward through Cleveland National Forest, into Cuyamaca State Park, down into the Anza Borrego Desert, up to Warner’s Springs, into the high desert part of Cleveland National Forest, then north into Riverside County. A more detailed trail outline can be obtained from Cleveland National Forest headquarters.

The trail has portions which require cross country travel. Other sections are sparse on water. The entire trail demands that a backpacker be in excellent condition and be fairly experienced in both mountain and desert travel.

A permit for overnight camping in the Cleveland National Forest portions of the Pacific Crest is required and can be obtained at Cleveland Forest headquarters, at any of the district offices, or at any ranger station along the trail.

Also, some of the overnight spots are on private land. It is suggested that backpackers using this trail get permission to use such land.

Cuyamaca State Park

Cuyamaca has two overnight walk-in campgrounds. Both are well-maintained and have a year-round supply of water. Here, too, permits must be obtained from rangers. It is not possible to get reservations on the trail camps; everything is on a first-come-first served basis. This means that during the summer, you have to get to the Paso Pichaco campgrounds quite early on weekends to get a permit. There is little difficulty the rest of the year in getting a permit.

Cuyamaca offers the best trails for the beginning backpacker. They are not short and not long, just a good medium length so as not to under- or over-challenge the beginner. Though they are not difficult trails, short sections are steep. The beginner can find out if he or she likes backpacking in its simplest form in a park where the trails and camps are well-kept and a ranger is not far away. (It is surprising how many people try to conquer the Sierras on their first backpacking trip, only to return home discouraged and disappointed. It is far better to start small and work your way up than to wipe yourself out the first time.)

The more experienced backpackers, desiring a more difficult trip, can find it at Cuyamaca. What should be an eight-mile hike from the trailhead to the trail camp could turn out to be a 12 or 14-mile walk if the hiker plans the course properly. For instance, the trip from Paso Picacho campground, the trail-head, to the Arroyo Seco trail camp is about eight miles and takes around three hours. But if you are the energetic type, you could route your hike up over Cuyamaca Peak, adding several miles to the overall hike.

Cleveland National Forest—Dispersed Area Camping

Since May, overnight camping in large sections of the Cleveland National Forest has been permitted by the Forest Service. Before then, overnight camping was restricted to specific campgrounds. Permits must be obtained for overnight camping in the undeveloped areas of the forest. (Forest is a misnomer for most of this land, as much is chaparral and high desert.)

These undeveloped areas include most of the national forest except the land on Mt. Laguna. The Forest Service requires backpackers to be “self-contained,” meaning that no open fires are allowed, backpackers must use stoves. Also, in the dry seasons, backpackers may find themselves without water supplies, so it is suggested that if in doubt, you should carry your water in with you.

Much of the land open for dispersed camping is without trails. There are, however, numerous dirt fire roads throughout the forest. If you don’t mind walking on these roads, you can plan a trip where it can be safely assumed you won’t be constantly running into other hikers.

Agua Tibia Wilderness

Located on the north slope of Mt. Palomar, this is the only federally designated wilderness area in the county. Use is limited to the winter and spring months because of the great fire danger in the area. The forest service will only allow a limited number of people into the wilderness at any given time, so it may be advisable to obtain a permit in advance from either the Palomar Ranger District or Cleveland National Forest headquarters.

Here, too, backpackers must use portable stoves for cooking, since no open fires are permitted.

Anza Borrego State Park

The desert has a certain attraction to many people, and that includes many backpackers. To some, hiking and backpacking are strictly activities for the mountains, but for others, hiking and backpacking are for everywhere, the mountains, the desert, the beaches, everywhere. If you feel that backpacking isn’t so much a sport as a way of thinking, and that backpacking can be done almost anywhere, then you may be interested in desert hiking.

A few words of warning, though: the desert can kill very easily, so be careful. If you have never been to the desert before, seek out someone whg has and go with him or her. If you are foolish enough to go backpacking alone in the desert, be sure to tell at least one friend where you are going and when you are coining back, also give the rangers the same information, and then don't change your plans unless a severe emergency arises.

And be sure to carry enough water with you. In summer, supposedly a gallon per person is enough, but the amount could vary. In winter, you probably could get by with less. Be sure to take warm clothing, and plenty of food (not necessarily dehydrated, since you will need to carry extra water to rehydrate it), and a shelter of some sort. Also, always carry a map and a compass, and be sure you know how to use them.

Now that the warnings are out of the way, here are the good parts of desert backpacking: you you can get away from everything and everyone out in the desert; you can camp away from the four-wheel drive^ and motorcycles; you can climb mountains; you can explore canyons; you can watch the constantly changing colors of the desert. The desert is both exhilarating and beautiful.

The Anza Borrego State Park has few real hiking trails. You may have to follow the dirt roads which crisscross the desert. In some parts, you will have to hike cross-country, but this can damage the fragile desert surf-face, so keep such a practice to a minimum if possible.

One last word of warning: the desert can change very rapidly, so don’t get yourself into a situation where you can be injured or killed because you didn’t anticipate. Remember that the desert can be very warm in the daytime, only to get very cold at night. Also, you should never, never sleep in washes— those sandy gullies which seem to have to only soft ground out there. Flash floods have a habit of running down those washes.

Coastal State Parks

Though it may not be what is considered pure backpacking, hiking the coastline can be fun. However, camping on the beach is frowned on in these parts, so if you do wish to hike the beaches, you probably will have to stay in one of the overnight camping areas in the state beach parks.

In San Diego County, there are two such parks, one at South Carlsbad and the other at Card-diff. They are situated so that you can camp at one, hike to the other, spend the night, and then go back to the first camp. Campsites are scarce in summer at both campgrounds, so you will have to either make reservations in advance or try to convince someone with a campsite that he, she, or they should share it with you. The latter practice is frowned upon by the state park personnel but can be done.

Admittedly, this type of camping is not really roughing it. But compared with the trailers, vans, and the like at the campgrounds, you will definitely be roughing it. It is an interesting experience to say the least and a change of pace from mountain backpacking.

Again, be careful of the high tides: you may find yourself climbing some sea cliffs to escape the incoming water. Also, on this type of trip, you will not need those heavy mountaineering boots; tennis shoes work fine.


The above trails should offer something for everyone in the way of hiking. If you are just beginning backpacking or hiking, it is advisable that you try to pick a trail which fits both your interest and your ability. If you hate the ocean, it’s probably not a good idea to start hiking along the coastline. If you are in poor shape, it’s best that you stay away from the longer and steeper trails. In the end, only you can judge your interests and abilities, so you should be the one to select the trails you are to go on.

Also, if you are beginning, try to find someone at least fairly informed about backpacking so that you can get advice. The first couple of camping trips should be with someone who knows what he is doing. This way, there is less chance you will get lost or go hungry for the night.

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