Snowy trail, with lake in background
One of the "standard", must-do hikes in San Diego County is definitely Stonewall Peak, in Rancho Cuyamaca State Park. It's probably the most popular, and most crowded, hike in the park. The standard hike to the peak, returning the way you came, is about 4 miles. The views are great on a good day, and even on day of bad weather it can be pretty, um, dramatic on the tiny peak.
One of the first times I hiked Stonewall I'd gotten a wild hair one morning, and before work in the afternoon, drove up to Cuymamaca to do Stonewall. I parked, and being in a hurry, took off rather quickly. Being a flat-lander, the first couple of steep climbs had me huffing and puffing, and wondering if this was a good idea. As I stood there, disappointed in my fitness and sort of light-headed, this family comes down the trail. I mean a family, mom and dad, a few kids, an uncle, and a grandfather. The one I assumed to be the uncle, was in a white tank-top, trousers, flip-flops, and had a can of beer in one hand. The grandfather had black leather-soled oxfords on. Needless to say, that was all the butt kicking I needed. I gained my breath, and took off up the trail. That first, steep bit still kicks my butt, but at least I know that's about all there is to it. The rest of it is a bit like the queue at Splash Mountain at Disneyland.
So, why am I writing about Stonewall Peak; the busiest hike in Cuyamaca State Park? Well, besides the awesome view, it's actually a pretty cool hike, especially if you take the alternate route back down. Usually referred to as "the back way down" it's really more on the north side of the peak, versus the way up's west side. It is a very different trail than the hike up. There are far fewer people. The split-rail fences are gone, the trail is far narrower, and it snakes down to a pretty secluded part of the park. In truth, both are referred to as the Stonewall Peak Trail.
When you finish the bulk of the descending you find yourself in an area of obvious fire devastation. In fact this sections had some downed tree which until recently hikers had to crawl under. The Trail Maintenance Unit of volunteers has really cleaned up this trail lately. Keep in mind, though, that with all the dead trees back there, it shouldn't be surprising to encounter a tree or two across the trail. This trail also passes the permanently closed Los Caballos Horse Camp, which was ruined in the Cedar Fire. This is also where you meet the Verne Whitaker Trail, which heads (very) roughly west. The old corrals and feed troughs are still obvious, though the areas is a tangle of downed trees. Right before the old horse camp becomes visible is a small water crossing. If you remember, once you cross the water you are entering an area with a very healthy mule deer population. So, keep your eyes peeled, and keep the noise down, and you should have the opportunity to see some deer. I always seem to see deer in and around the remains of the Los Caballos.
Lake Cuyamaca from Stonewall Peak
A little ways past the horse camp, you meet the Cold Stream Trail, which you will take south to the trailhead. You will see some of the reforestation efforts along the way. Small yellow plastic baskets protect saplings from nibbling deer. It's also quite obvious here that the fire burned quite intensely. Ceanothus is the next prominent feature along the trail. This fire-follower's seeds were activated by the Cedar Fire, and it is taking over the park. Now when the park has a controlled burn, it's usually Ceanothus being burned in order to make way for reforestation.
Cold Stream will bring you back to the trailhead, and the end of the hike. This is a great way to take a hike you may have done numerous times, and add a whole different dimension. Be sure to carry a trail map. There is a PDF Take Along sheet available to download here.
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