Fri, May 27, 2022
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El Cajon was one of the first summits I'd climbed in San Diego, back before I was keeping records, around 1992 or 1993. I have only vague memories of it, but I'm pretty sure my friend Terry and I hiked it from the west, via the now standard route through the El Capitan Preserve. I don't think the preserve exited back then, and we may have driven part way up the old road. I've been wanting to pay it a documented visit, and when I heard about the South Ridge route, that seemed like a nice adventure. The class 3 ridge climbs 2,000ft in about half a mile, a pretty steep climb. I wanted an early start to take advantage of the marine layer that had settled in over the western half of the county. It would burn off during the outing. The weather was forecast to be cooler today, but it would still reach 77F by the time I finished.
I parked fairly close to the climbers' access trail off paved El Monte Rd. There are no signs indicating a trail, so it helps to know where to look. The trail shows clearly in the satellite view, and is used to reach climbing areas at the base of El Cajon Mtn. The trail is clear of brush and decently maintained. A wooden board allows dry passage across the creek in wet season, but no water was flowing in late May. The trail reaches an old utility road under a transmission line in about half a mile. It does not appear the road sees vehicles anymore, but there is plenty of foot traffic. The road goes northwest to the climbing areas, then a use trail continues to the toe of the South Ridge. There are several trails to choose from. I followed one west to a point below the transmission tower on the South Ridge and started from there. On the way back I took a shorter route. Once at the tower, a use trail can be followed up the ridge. There are various options along the ridge and trail threads appear on the most popular ones. I purposely checked out alternatives on the way down to see if there were better/easier ways. My conclusion was that the better fun was keeping more along the top of the ridge where class 3 slabs were better choices than the bypass alternatives on the left (west) side. It's a nice mix of route-finding and scrambling for much of the way, and I enjoyed it a good deal. It was nice having the route to myself, though I did run into a party of two going up on my way down.
Having started at 6:30a, it was shortly before 8a when I topped out on the South Ridge. There's still a long ways to go across the high plateau to reach the El Capitan Trail. A use trail meets an overgrown road heading north along the western slopes of El Cajon. I had climbed up through the fog layer, finding blue skies when I reached the high plateau. Peak 3,177ft could be seen poking up through the fog a few mile to the northwest. I followed the use trail and road to the main junction with the El Capitan Trail, reaching it around 8:30a. I first turned west to pay a quick visit to El Capitan, a lower subsidiary summit of El Cajon Mtn. The El Capitan Trail follows the old road coming from the west to the top of El Capitan where an old metal building is found just below the summit rocks. Class 3 scrambling gets one atop the highest boulder. One used to be able to drive up here way back in the day. The rusting shell of a truck lower on the trail is evidence of this. El Cajon rises higher to the southeast while a sea of fog covered most of the lowlands in other directions. Peak 3,177ft, my next objective, was just visible above the fog to the west. I returned to the main junction and followed the trail/road down and around El Capitan's north side, then up to the saddle with Peak 3,177ft. I short spur road leads to some mine shafts a little higher on Peak 3,177ft. From the old mine, it's less than 0.20mi to the summit. Others have reported easy to heavy bushwhacking. It may depend on when the last fire burned off the brush, but it probably also comes down to route choices. I found the brush fairly light by taking my time to avoid the thick stuff. It almost seemed like I was following an old trail at times. It took only 20min from the mine to the summit rocks. A register from 2019 was placed by Larry Edmonds nearby. Later I was reviewing the pics I took, and I can't figure out why I wrote the date as 2026. Another senior moment.
I returned to the mine via pretty much the same route, then back along the trail to the main junction. A guy standing there staring at his phone didn't respond to a "Hi" as I walked by. There is an End of County Trail sign at the start to El Cajon. It seems the BLM land ends here where the trail passes through the corner of another parcel (private?) before becoming NF lands where the summit of El Cajon is located. As one nears the summit, there is an inordinate amount of trail signs to keep one on the correct path. At one point, I count 8 such signs ahead of me. The summit has two signs announcing one has arrived at El Cajon Mtn, both no longer fixed to the ground. The skies around the summit were mostly clear, with the fog in the lower valleys thinning to become haze.
Apparently I had not yet had enough adventure. I noted an older trail, no longer well-discerned, leaving the summit area to the south. I thought this might be a nice shortcut I could take to return to the South Ridge route without having to go back to the main trail junction. It started off well enough, but I eventually lost the few remaining pieces of it as it morphed into a bushwhack. The brush was light to start, but grew progressively thicker as I dropped into a drainage to the west. The last 10min of this 30min mini-adventure were very heavy brush with some steep boulder drops to keep it spicy. Once I finally crashed out onto the old road/trail, I was relieved. I'd saved no time and couldn't really say it was all that fun.
I would spend the next hour and a half reversing the South Ridge route, taking a bit of time to investigate alternate trail threads that I came upon. It was getting warm, too, and I was glad to be heading in the downhill direction. The couple I came across about 1/3 of the way up the steep section had gotten a late start and were taking a break when I caught up with them. This is not a fun route when it gets too warm. It was just after 1p when I got back to the Jeep, not a little dehydrated since I'd had only about 35oz of Gatorade to drink. My first stop would the 7-11 about 5 miles down the road for a Double Extra Large soda. Mmmm....
For more information see these SummitPost pages: El Cajon Mountain
This page last updated: Sun Jun 5 15:36:06 2022
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