Last October, the rocky, brush-covered slopes of the Crestwood Ecological Reserve, east of El Cajon, were swept by the same flames that devastated the communities of Crest and Harbison Canyon. Now, some five months later, this same space is undergoing a remarkable rebirth. Green grass is poking up everywhere. Shiny red and green leaves are unfolding from the root crowns of the laurel sumac shrubs. Wild cucumber vines are racing out of the barren ground, entangling themselves in the black skeletons of the former chaparral. Many of the large coast live oaks in the reserve stood their ground as the flames roared through; they stand as statuesque as ever today.
Despite the effects of the fire, visitors are welcome at Crestwood reserve, provided they travel about by foot, bike, or horse. Of the many dirt roads and trails that lace through the reserve -- graded truck trails, hastily bulldozed firebreaks, and old motorcycle tracks -- two routes are worth noting in detail.
The first route, good for hiking and mountain biking, begins at the west end (dead end) of Horsemill Road, off Mountain View Road, one mile northeast of the main crossroads of Crest. Proceed into the Crestwood reserve, and immediately pass an interpretive site now being reconstructed after the fire. Continue northwest, slightly downhill, toward a nearby cluster of spreading oaks. Staying to the right side of these oaks, you'll notice two dirt roads. Ignore the wider, graded one bearing left, and follow the lesser road (labeled Valleyview Truck Trail on maps) rising to the right. On that road you head generally west, curling high along a north-facing slope. Avocado groves, mostly untouched by the fire, spill down toward Interstate 8 on your right, and a burned-off slope lies to your left. Fine vistas of Blossom Valley, Lake Jennings, and ridge after rocky ridge open to the north. For a while you walk past a number of surviving oak trees. After 1.6 miles from Horsemill Road, the road you are on abruptly turns left (south), allowing a glimpse of distant vistas to the west. Your choices for further travel from this point on are manifold and confusing. This is a good spot to turn back and retrace your steps for an uncomplicated return to Horsemill Road.
The second option, best for hiking, leads to a spectacular vista point on the west side of the reserve. From the main crossroads in Crest, head north on La Cresta Boulevard for 0.2 mile, turn left on La Cresta Heights Road, and continue 0.7 mile to nearly the end of that rural lane. On your left side is an obscure but signed public-access gate. The path beyond the gate circles around the back yards of a couple of houses, then sets a nearly straight course toward a toothy ridge to the west, about one mile away. Climb to the highest peaklet on that ridge (elevation 1754 feet), and enjoy the view from a perch of rounded boulders. The wide panorama spread before you includes the flat grid of city streets in El Cajon and the shining Pacific Ocean far off to the west.