Guatay Mountain, a gently swelling, chaparral-covered ridge rising about 900 feet over the hamlet of Guatay, is distinguished by its old-growth population of Tecate cypress trees. This particular species of cypress has a very spotty native range stretching north to Coal Canyon in Orange County and south into northern Baja California.
Although the bulk of the mountain lies within Cleveland National Forest, direct access from the north (Guatay) side is precluded by private property. The longer, unmarked route described here traverses public land all the way.
To get to the starting point, take the Pine Valley exit from Interstate 8, drive 0.3 mile north to Old Highway 80 in Pine Valley, and turn left. Proceed 1.5 miles, generally north, to the turnoff for the Pine Valley Trailhead, on the left side of the road. Drive 0.5 mile down the twisting entrance road to the trailhead (National Forest Adventure Pass required).
After parking at the Pine Valley Trailhead, walk back north on the entrance road for 0.2 mile to a sharp bend in the road. On the left, follow an old roadbed (now reverted to an informal trail) through a pipe gate. Continue 200 yards along the right bank of a small creek, then cross over to the left bank to pick up the continuation of the trail. You steadily climb through mature stands of manzanita, ribbonwood, chamise, and scrub oak. You can see and hear the occasional vehicle on Old Highway 80 across the ravine to your right.
After a total of 0.8 mile of walking, you come to an unmarked trail junction. Veer sharply left and go sharply uphill (south), following the eroded remains of an old firebreak through an attractive mix of scrub oak and mountain mahogany. The latter shrub, at about this time of year, sends out curly, pipe-cleaner-like seeds that glisten when backlit by the sun.
At 1.0 mile, you reach a crest (4000 feet elevation) and start bending west. From here to the summit, simply follow the old firebreak up, occasionally down, and always west along the ridgeline ahead. At 2.6 miles, you arrive at the rock-strewn 4885-foot summit, which offers a panoramically wide, if not vertiginous view stretching west as far as the Pacific Ocean.
The Tecate cypress habitat lies exclusively on Guatay Mountain's north-facing slope. While retracing your steps to the starting point, you can visit some of the larger trees down and to the left of the firebreak following the ridge. The Tecate cypresses on Guatay Mountain are thought to be the oldest (100+ years) and highest-elevation (4000-4500 feet) specimens of that species existing anywhere.
This article contains information about a publicly owned recreation or wilderness area. Trails and pathways are not necessarily marked. Conditions can change rapidly. Hikers should be properly equipped and have safety and navigational skills. The Reader and Jerry Schad assume no responsibility for any adverse experience.