Sweetwater River Loop (Cuyamaca Rancho State Park)

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Pines and oaks on the Sweetwater River Trail

Pines and oaks on the Sweetwater River Trail

Sunlight through oaks on the Merigan Fire Road

Sunlight through oaks on the Merigan Fire Road

Sweetwater River Loop (Cuyamaca Rancho State Park)

  • Location: Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, inland San Diego County.  From San Diego, take I-8 east to Highway 79.  Head north on Highway 79 for 1.3 miles to Riverside Drive.  Bear left on Riverside Drive and follow it a total of 1.5 miles (along the way it becomes Viejas Blvd.) to the signed Merigan Day Use Area for Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, on the left side of the road.  From Julian, take Highway 79 south for 20 miles, past the main entrances to Cuyamaca Rancho State Park and turn right on Viejas Blvd.  The trail head is on the right side of the road in 1.1 miles.  Parking is $8 per day (checks or exact change accepted).
  • Agency: Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
  • Distance: 7.7 miles
  • Elevation gain: 850 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (Distance, elevation gain)
  • Suggested time: 3.5 hours
  • Best season: October – June
  • USGS topo maps: Cuyamaca Peak
  • Recommended gear: sun hat; sunblock
  • Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield San Diego County
  • More information: Everytrail report here; Cuyamaca Rancho State Park Yelp page here
  • Rating: 7
0:00 - Merigan Fire Road trail head (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – Merigan Fire Road trail head (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

This balloon-shaped hike explores the lower country in the southern end of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.  You’re still between 3,400 and 4,100 feet above sea level and while much of the route is exposed, with an early start, it can easily be done even on warm days.  This hike doesn’t have quite the scenic variety of panoramic views that can be found in the park’s higher terrain, but it does offer a nice sense of isolation less than an hour’s drive from San Diego and about two hours from Orange County.

0:34 - Oaks on the Merigan Fire Road shortly before the junction (times are approximate)

0:34 – Oaks on the Merigan Fire Road shortly before the junction (times are approximate)

From the parking lot, follow the Merigan Fire Road north through a field and into the shallow canyon of the Sweetwater River (which may be just a trickle or completely dry depending on the time of year and amount of rainfall).  At 0.7 miles, pass a junction with the Dead Horse Trail and continue north, eventually entering a pleasant oak woodland.

0:44- On the Saddleback Trail

0:44- On the Saddleback Trail

At about two miles from the start, you reach a four-way junction in a pleasant meadow, where a tall pine stands above the oaks and chaparral shrubs.  The Merigan Fire Road bends right.  The Sweetwater Trail, straight ahead of you, is your return route.  Turn left and follow the Saddleback Trail, a single-track, down to the river.  (The loop can be done in either direction but by hiking clockwise, you have a more pleasant ascent).  The Saddleback Trail is overgrown in spots but never too difficult to follow.  It climbs steadily through the riparian habitat of the river, through some oak-dotted fields and finally gains the top of a ridge, where it meets the California Riding & Hiking Trail (3.6 miles.)  Here, you get the best views of the hike, notably imposing Cuyamaca Peak to the north and Oakzanita Peak to the east.

1:17 - Cuyamaca Peak from the top of the Saddleback Trail

1:17 – Cuyamaca Peak from the top of the Saddleback Trail

Turn right and follow the CR&H Trail.  In addition to the views of the summits, if the air is clear, you may be able to get a glimpse of the ocean in the distance.   At 4 miles from the start, you reach a junction with the South Boundary Fire Road.  Bear right and begin a steep descent back into canyon.  At 4.4 miles from the start, turn right to continue following the South Boundary Fire Road down the canyon, under the shade of oaks.  After crossing the headwaters of the Sweetwater River, turn right on the Sweetwater Trail (4.7 miles).

1:27 - Junction with the Boundary Fire Road (bear right)

1:27 – Junction with the Boundary Fire Road (bear right)

The Sweetwater Trail head south, paralleling the river bed, for just over a mile. At 5.7 miles from the start, you return to the four-way junction, completing the loop.  Retrace your steps on the Merigan Fire Road back to the parking lot.

1:38 - Heading south back into the woods on the Boundary Fire Road

1:38 – Heading south back into the woods on the Boundary Fire Road

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities.  By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail.  Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

1:46 - Start of the Sweetwater Trail, last leg of the loop

1:46 – Start of the Sweetwater Trail, last leg of the loop

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Sunset Hills/Woodridge Loop

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Through the meadow on the Woodridge Loop

Through the meadow on the Woodridge Loop

Morning view of Bard Lake, Sunset Hills/Woodridge Loop

Morning view of Bard Lake, Sunset Hills/Woodridge Loop

Sunset Hills/Woodridge Loop

  • Location: Erbes Road, Thousand Oaks. From the south, take the 23 Freeway to Sunset Hills Blvd.  Turn right and go 0.2 miles to Erbes Road.  Turn left and go 0.7 miles and park in a large dirt lot on the left side of the road (if you reach the freeway, you’ve gone too far).  From the north, take the 23 Freeway to Olsen Road.  Turn right and go 0.4 miles to Erbes Road.  Turn left and go 0.7 miles to the trail head, which will be on the left side of the road shortly after you cross under the freeway.
  • Agency: Conejo Recreation and Parks District/Conejo Open Space Foundation
  • Distance: 5.7 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1,000 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (Distance, elevation gain)
  • Suggested time: 2.5 hours
  • Best season: October – May
  • USGS topo map:  Newbury Park
  • Recommended gear: sun hathiking poles; insect repellent
  • More information: Area trail map here; trip description here; Everytrail report here
  • Rating: 5
0:00 - Trail head (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – Trail head (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

This loop isn’t as scenically varied or secluded as some of the other hikes in the Lang Ranch area, but it does offer a good workout, conveniently located to the Thousand Oaks/Simi Valley area.  On clear days, the vistas include the Santa Monica Mountains, Santa Susanas, Simi Hills and more.

0:26 - "Y" Junction near the top of the ridge; bear left (times are approximate)

0:28 – “Y” Junction near the top of the ridge; bear left (times are approximate)

From the trailhead on Erbes Road, follow the switchbacks up the ridge.  After a quarter mile, a trail branches off to the left, heading downhill; this is the start of a small loop that can be added to the hike.  Continuing uphill on the main route you pass the other end of the loop and the trail then bends right, heading southeast.  You get a good view of Bard Lake (also known as Wood Ranch Reservoir) on the left and the Santa Monica Mountains on the right.

0:35 - Beginning of the loop

0:35 – Beginning of the loop

After briefly leveling out, the trail runs up along side a fence and makes a steep ascent, climbing over 200 feet in about 0.3 miles.  Bear left at a Y-junction on the way up.  At the top of the ascent (1.1 miles from the start) you can enjoy a 360-degree view before descending.

1:00 - Cross the road and continue on the paved trail opposite

1:00 – Cross the road and continue on the paved trail opposite

At 1.4 miles, you reach a T-junction; the start of the main loop.  It can be hiked in either direction; by going counter-clockwise as described here, the ascents are slightly more gradual.  Take a hard right and descend to residential Sunset Hills Blvd.  Cross the street and turn right, following it briefly to a parking area where the trail continues (1.8 miles.)

1:12 - End of the pavement; bear left

1:12 – End of the pavement; bear left

This brings you to one of the more attractive legs of the hike.  You ascend to a meadow with panoramic views, heading first south then east, meeting up with a service road at 2.5 miles.  Cross it and continue east, now on a paved path that leads around the backs of some homes.  When the paved path ends, bear left and head into a field.  On the opposite hill, you may notice hikers descending on the Lang Ranch Loop.

1:20 - Left turn; heading uphill toward the saddle

1:20 – Left turn; heading uphill toward the saddle

At an intersection, head left and uphill (the right fork takes you to Lang Ranch, an option if you want to extend the hike.) A short climb brings you to a saddle where two oaks stand on opposite sides of the trail.  A paved road descends; you can use it, but to make the hike more interesting, follow a trail on the right side of the road, which briefly climbs before making a twisting descent, taking in some good views of Simi Valley, soon rejoining the road.  (A few trails branch off to the right; they head toward the Long Canyon area of Simi Valley.)

1:23 - Oak tree at the top of the saddle (bear right on the single-track)

1:23 – Oak tree at the top of the saddle (bear right on the single-track)

After crossing the road (3.3 miles), pick up the trail on the opposite side, passing by some sandstone boulders.  The trail climbs gradually, following a ridge in back of some homes, before completing the loop (4.3 miles.)  Retrace your steps back to the trail head on Erbes, enjoying some good views to the north and west.

1:25 - Sandstone boulders on the opposite side of the service road

1:25 – Sandstone boulders on the opposite side of the service road

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

1:50 - Heading back along the ridge, completing the loop

1:50 – Heading back along the ridge, completing the loop

North Etiwanda Preserve

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Cabin, picnic table and metal frame, North Etiwanda Preserve

Picnic table in the ruins of a settler’s cabin, North Etiwanda Preserve

Daisy, North Etiwanda Preserve

Daisy, North Etiwanda Preserve

North Etiwnda Preserve

  • Location: North of Rancho Cucamonga.  From I-210, take the Day Creek Blvd. exit and drive a mile north to Wilson.  Go right on Wilson, drive half a mile and turn left on Etiwanda.  Park in the dirt lot at the end of the street.
  • Agency: San Bernardino County Special Districts/North Etiwanda Preserve
  • Distance: 4.2 miles
  • Elevation gain: 700 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG
  • Suggested time: 2 hours
  • Best season: October – May
  • USGS topo map: Cucamonga Peak
  • Recommended gear: Sun Hat; Sunblock
  • More information: Everytrail report here
  • Rating: 5
North Etiwanda Preserve map at the trail head

0:00 – Preserve map at the trail head (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

The North Etiwanda Preserve, located just beyond the edges of Rancho Cucamonga’s residential neighborhoods, is perhaps best known for Etiwanda Falls. However, the preserve also features several additional miles of trails that are worth exploring. It might not be on many hikers’ bucket lists, but the mix of historical interest, biological diversity and mountain and city views make it a worthwhile destination. Interpretive plaques describe the history of the area (including the origin of the name Etiwanda–see below), from the days of missionaries attempting to “civilize” the Tongvas and other indigenous peoples of the area to the Ranchero era to the white settlers of the late 19th century. The plaques also describe how, thanks to runoff from the nearby mountains high above, the land–despite its barren appearance–not only has a long history of agriculture, but also is home to several different ecosystems. While the waterfall is the park’s main draw, the preserve’s other trails often get less traffic and provide a decent amount of solitude, especially considering the proximity of civilization. The downside is that the route is almost entirely exposed and can get quite hot during the summer, although breezes coming down from the mountains help make things more comfortable. Make sure you pick a day when visibility is at least decent.

Left turn to continue on the loop trail, North Etiwanda Preserve

0:15 – Turn left at the first junction (times are approximate)

From the parking area, follow the trail into the preserve. After about half a mile, you reach a junction. A short spur on the right leads to a picnic area. The route in front of you leads a mile and a half to Etiwanda Falls (if you have time and energy, you can easily incorporate the waterfall into your hike). To complete the loop described here, head left.

Etiwanda and Cucamonga Peaks viewed from the North Etiwanda Preserve

0:30 – View of Cucamonga and Etiwanda Peaks about a mile from the start

Your ascent continues into a burn area (likely from the Etiwanda Fire of earlier this year) that now resembles the post-Springs Fire landscape of Point Mugu State Park. At about a mile, you cross a creek bed and reach a spur leading to the remains of a settler’s cabin.  The trail continues to a junction with a connector where you’ll bear left, reaching a T-intersection (1.7 miles from the start). Here, you can complete the loop by leading left but if you have time, turn right and head farther into Dry Canyon.  At 0.4 miles, the road ends by the stream. With nice views of Cucamonga and Etiwanda Peak above and the flat expanse of the Inland Empire below, this makes a good rest spot before beginning your descent. (It may be possible to progress farther up canyon to see the antique pumping station, but as of this writing, jumbles of boulders and logs make it difficult).

Trail into Dry Canyon, North Etiwanda Preserve

0:45 – Heading up into Dry Canyon (spur off the main loop)

Back at the junction, continue downhill toward a picnic area where two pines provide shade. Plaques point out landmarks in each direction including the peaks of the San Bernardino, San Jacinto and Santa Ana ranges.

Stream in Dry Canyon, North Etiwanda Preserve

0:55 – Stream in Dry Canyon; turnaround point

Shortly past the picnic area, a viewing platform allows you to see the bog in the center of the preserve.  Continuing downhill, you reach a power line access road. Turn left and follow it back to the parking lot.

And as for the name Etiwanda? It was named by the Chaffey Brothers, who moved to the area from Ontario, Canada (hence the name of the nearby city of Ontario). Etiwanda was an Indian chief who lived in the Great Lakes area.

Pine-shaded picnic area, North Etiwanda Preserve

1:25 – View from the picnic area on the descent

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities.  By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail.  Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

 

Wetlands in the North Etiwanda Preserve

1:35 – Wetlands

Valley Forge Trail Camp from Eaton Saddle

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View of the San Gabriel Mountains from the Valley Forge Trail

View of the San Gabriel Mountains from the Valley Forge Trail

Black oaks on the Valley Forge Trail

Black oaks on the Valley Forge Trail

Valley Forge Trail Camp from Eaton Saddle

    • Location: Eaton Saddle, Angeles National Forest.  From I-210 in La Canada, take the Angeles Crest Highway (Highway 2) northeast for 14 miles.  Take a right on the Mt. Wilson Red Box Road and go 2.3 miles to Eaton Saddle.  Park on the right side of the road in a small turnout.   A National Forest Service Adventure Pass ($5 per day or $30 for the year) is required for parking here. Click here to purchase.
    • Agency: Angeles National Forest/Los Angeles River Ranger District
    • Distance: 5.6 miles
    • Elevation gain: 1,700 feet
    • Suggested time: 3 hours
    • Difficulty rating: PG-13 (elevation gain, distance, trail condition)
    • Best season: September – June
    • USGS topo maps: Chilao Flat, Mt. Wilson
    • Recommended gear: sun hat; hiking polesinsect repellent; long pants and long sleeved shirts
    • More information: Trail description on Angeles National Forest home page here; Everytrail report here
    • Rating: 7
0:00 - Trail head at Eaton Saddle (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – Trail head at Eaton Saddle (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

You already know how to get to the Valley Forge Trail Camp from Red Box, so in this post we’ll look at the more challenging route from Eaton Saddle.  Unfortunately the Valley Forge Trail still shows the effects of the Station Fire – notably in the presence of poodle dog bush and several stretches that suffer from severe erosion.  If you are willing to be vigilant about avoiding the poodle dog bush, which sometimes all but covers the trail (long sleeves are highly recommended), this is an enjoyable hike, providing excellent views of the eastern San Gabriel Mountains, often from beneath the pleasant shade of black oaks and pines.

0:02 - Poodle dog bush near the top of the trail (times are approximate)

0:02 – Poodle dog bush near the top of the trail (times are approximate)

Like the approach from Red Box, this is a reverse hike.  Though the ascent back up to Eaton from the trail camp can be taxing, in the late afternoon, the sun will likely be blocked out by San Gabriel Peak.  Begin by following the signed Valley Forge Trail downhill, soon making a switchback and entering the first of many patches of poodle dog bush.  After a second switchback, you enter a grove of black oaks.

0:22 - Low bridge: fallen tree on the trail

0:22 – Low bridge: fallen tree on the trail

You continue your steady descent, taking caution to avoid the poodle dog bush and along the washed-out sections of the trail.  At about 3/4 of a mile, duck under a fallen tree and at about 1.25 miles, keep an eye out for a surveillance camera mounted on a tree, one of several placed in the San Gabriel Mountains to capture wildlife footage.

0:37 - Smile, you're on camera.

0:37 – Smile, you’re on camera.

After making a few more switchbacks, you reach a junction at 1.9 miles, beneath a large pine tree.  A false trail heads left; the Valley Forge Trail heads right and continues making switchbacks as it descends the slope.  Near the bottom, keep an eye out for more poodle bush as well as some poison oak.

0:57 - Bear right beneath the large pine and continue the descent

0:57 – Bear right beneath the large pine and continue the descent

At 2.6 miles, you reach the Gabrielino Trail.  Turn left and descend a short distance where you’ll make a hard right on a spur leading to the Valley Forge Trail Camp.  Here, you can sit at a picnic table beneath tall oaks and sycamores and enjoy some peace and quiet before making your return.  If you have left a car shuttle at Red Box, you can return via the Gabrielino Trail, a more moderate ascent.

1:18 - The Gabrielino Trail (turn left)

1:18 – The Gabrielino Trail (turn left)

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities.  By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail.  Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

1:24 - Welcome to Valley Forge Trail Camp

1:24 – Welcome to Valley Forge Trail Camp

Tapo and Chivos Canyons

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View from the ridge line at the top of the second loop

View from the ridge line at the top of the second loop

Oaks in the bottom of Tapo Canyon

Oaks in the bottom of Tapo Canyon

Tapo and Chivos Canyons

  • Location: Foothills north of Simi Valley.  From the 118 Freeway, take Tapo Canyon Road exit and head north (turn right if you’re coming from the east; left if from the west.)  The trail head will be on the right side of the road at 1.5 miles, shortly before the intersection with Lost Canyon Drive.  Free parking is available in a small dirt lot.
  • Agency: Rancho Simi Recreation and Parks Department
  • Distance: 7.6 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1,550 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (Distance, elevation gain)
  • Suggested time: 3.5 hours
  • Best season: October – May
  • USGS topo map: Simi Valley East
  • Recommended gear: sun hathiking poles
  • More information: MeetUp description (first loop only) here; Everytrail report here
  • Rating: 7
0:00 - Trail head on Tapo Canyon Road (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – Trail head on Tapo Canyon Road (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

For a hike that starts just beyond the edge of the suburbs, this double loop often feels pleasantly secluded.  After leaving Tapo Canyon Road behind, for most of the trip, the sights and sounds of civilization are near nil.

0:22 - Heading through the oaks after the first junction (times are approximate)

0:22 – Heading through the oaks after the first junction (times are approximate)

In the foothills north of Simi Valley, numerous hiking trails and fire roads run through several adjacent parcels of open space.  The route described here is one of many possible trips that can be taken in this area; it’s a scenic, moderately strenuous workout that can easily be shortened or expanded as desired.

0:37 - View from the saddle after the first ascent; beginning of the first loop

0:37 – View from the saddle after the first ascent; beginning of the first loop

From the Tapo Canyon Trailhead, follow the fire road northeast for a pleasant 0.9 miles, gradually climbing about 200 feet.  Several large oaks dot the rolling hills in a terrain that resembles that of nearby Palo Comado/Cheeseboro Canyons.

0:43 - Starting the descent toward Chivos Canyon

0:43 – Starting the descent toward Chivos Canyon

At 0.9 miles, head right at a junction and continue through more shade before making a short, steep climb to a saddle (1.4 miles.)  Here you get a good view to the east of the area where you are about to hike.  It’s the start of the first loop, which is best hiked in the clockwise direction; that way you have a partially shaded ascent on your return.  To do this, turn left and continue to climb for 0.2 miles to a T-junction where you can enjoy a panoramic vista before heading right and descending into the canyon on a single-track.

1:07 - Left turn to head into Chivos Canyon

1:07 – Left turn to head into Chivos Canyon

You drop 300 feet, closing the first loop at 2.4 miles from the start.  Continue your descent to a T-junction where you’ll turn left and begin your ascent into Chivos Canyon.  As you climb, you get views of the sandstone-striped hills across the valley.  The trail climbs about 300 feet over the next half mile to reach another junction, the start of the second loop.

1:25 - Junction; start of the second loop (stay straight then bear right)

1:25 – Junction; start of the second loop (stay straight then bear right)

Continue straight, bearing right at another junction and climb around the northwestern side of a hill.  At 4 miles, the trail tops out at a ridge where you get good views southeast toward the Simi Hills.  Turn right at a T-junction and follow a ridge with views of Las Llajas Canyon to the left and Chivos Canyon to the right.  Just before the trail begins its descent, you can take a short climb to the left to reach the highest point on the ridge.

1:50 - Looking southeast from the ridge at the top of the second loop

1:50 – Looking southeast from the ridge at the top of the second loop

The trail descends to an X-junction.  Bear right and continue your descent back toward the start of the loop, passing by an abandoned water tank.  At 4.9 miles, you complete the loop.  Retrace your steps back toward Tapo Canyon, this time staying left at the Y-junction (5.5 miles.)  The fire road climbs through an attractive oak grove before making an exposed push back to the saddle.  From here, simply follow the roads back down to the trail head.

2:00 - Bear right at the "X" junction

2:00 – Bear right at the “X” junction

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

2:30 - Ascending through oaks back to the saddle, completing the first loop

2:30 – Ascending through oaks back to the saddle, completing the first loop

West Mesa Loop (Cuyamaca Rancho State Park)

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Through the meadow on the West Mesa Loop Trail

Through the meadow on the West Mesa Loop Trail

Stonewall Peak as seen from Airplane Ridge

Stonewall Peak as seen from Airplane Ridge

West Mesa Loop (Cuyamaca Rancho State Park)

  • Location: Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, inland San Diego County.  From San Diego, take I-8 east to Highway 79.  Head north for 2.7 miles, turn left and continue another 7.3 miles on Highway 79 to the West Mesa Parking Area, on the right side of the road.  From Julian, head south on Highway 79 for 13 miles.  The parking area will be on the left side of the road.
  • Agency: Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
  • Distance: 6.7 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1,100 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (Distance, elevation gain)
  • Suggested time: 3.5 hours
  • Best season: September – June
  • USGS topo maps: Cuyamaca Peak
  • Recommended gear: sun hat; sunblock
  • Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield San Diego County
  • More information: Trip descriptions here and here; Everytrail report here; Cuyamaca Rancho State Park Yelp page here
  • Rating: 8
0:00 - Trail head on the west side of Highway 79 (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – Trail head on the west side of Highway 79 (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

This loop explores some of the middle country on the western side of 25,000-acre Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.  In addition to some excellent mountain and valley views, the hike also showcases the recovery of the area following the fires of 2003 and 2007.  There’s also an airplane engine, but we’ll get to that later.

0:16 - Junction; start of the loop (times are approximate)

0:16 – Junction; start of the loop (times are approximate)

From the parking area, cross Highway 79 and begin a steady ascent on a fire road.  You climb 350 feet in 0.6 miles before reaching a junction: the start of the loop.  You can hike it in either direction, but by going counter-clockwise, as described here, you get the majority of the climbing out of the way sooner.

0:33 - Head left on the single-track

0:33 – Head left on the single-track

Turn right and head northwest, continuing your ascent through skeleton-like oaks and pines burned in the fires.  Stonewall Peak’s distinctive triangular shape is prominent to the right.  At 1.4 miles, you leave the fire road and take a left on a single-track trail, ascending to another junction at 2.1 miles.  A tall oak provides shade, making this a nice resting spot (by this point, you’ve done about 3/4 of all of the climbing in the entire route.)

1:00 - Junction beneath the tall oak

1:00 – Junction beneath the tall oak (stay straight)

Continuing straight on the West Mesa Trail, your efforts are rewarded with some excellent views to the south and east, including the lower country of the Cuyamacas and the neighboring Laguna range.  You also start getting a little bit of shade from some tall pines and oaks that have survived the fires thus far.

1:20 - Junction with the Burnt Pine Fire Road in the field (stay straight)

1:20 – Junction with the Burnt Pine Fire Road in the field (stay straight)

At 2.9 miles, in an open alpine field, you come to another junction.  Stay straight, heading south and then southeast, passing a junction with the Arroyo Seco Trail.  You get some excellent views of Viejas Mountain and El Capitan to the south.

The trail follows the so-called Airplane Ridge, cutting very close to the edge in places, providing more dramatic views, before meeting a junction at 4.2 miles.  Take a sharp left (despite what you might think, the signed Monument Trail doesn’t lead toward the airplane monument; you are still on the West Mesa Trail.)  Bear left on a signed trail leading toward the airplane monument: an engine of a plane that crashed on this hillside in 1922.

1:33 - Following Airplane Ridge

1:33 – Following Airplane Ridge

Past the monument, the trail continues its descent.  Another tall oak makes for a good resting spot.  The trail descends into a meadow, meeting the Japacha Fire Road (5.5 miles.)  A slight ascent over the next 0.6 miles brings you back to the start of the loop.  Retrace your steps back down to the car, enjoying some last views of Stonewall Peak along the way.

1:50 - Airplane monument

1:50 – Airplane monument

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities.  By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail.  Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

2:24 - Junction with the Japacha Fire Road (stay left for the last leg of the loop)

2:24 – Junction with the Japacha Fire Road (stay left for the last leg of the loop)

Agua Chinon to the Sinks and Box Springs

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View of the geology above the Sinks

View of the geology above the Sinks

Oaks above Box Springs

Oaks above Box Springs

Agua Chinon to the Sinks and Box Springs

  • Location: Northeast Irvine in the Santa Ana foothills.  The Portola Staging Area is located at the eastern end of the Irvine portion of the Portola Parkway.  From I-405 or I-5, take the Sand Canyon exit and head north east (2.5 miles from I-5, 4.5 miles from I-405) to Portola Parkway.  Turn right and follow Portola to its ending just beyond the 241 Toll Road.  Turn left and drive a short distance to the Portola Staging Area, where signs will direct you to parking.  If you are taking the 241 Toll Road, use the Portola Parkway exit in Irvine (not the Portola Parkway exit farther south in Foothill Ranch).  Head east into the park and follow the signs to the staging area.
  • Agency: Irvine Ranch Conservancy/Limestone Canyon Wilderness Park
  • Distance: 6.6 miles
  • Elevation gain: 950 feet
  • Suggested time: 3 hours
  • Difficulty rating: PG-13 (distance, elevation gain)
  • Best season: Year round but hot during the summer; accessible only on scheduled days through the Irvine Ranch Conservancy (see link above for dates)
  • USGS topo map: El Toro
  • Recommended gear: sunblock; sun hat
  • More information: Trip descriptions here and here; description of upcoming hike on 9/4/14 here; Everytrail report here
  • Rating: 7
0:00 - Start of the hike at the Portola Staging Area (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – Start of the hike at the Portola Staging Area (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

You already know how to reach the Sinks, the “Grand Canyon of Orange County” from the north, so in this post, we’ll look at the route from the south.  Unlike the north approach, which can be done on the Irvine Ranch Conservancy’s Wilderness Access Days, this route can only be done as a docent-led group hike.  The exact route described here is usually offered once per month; longer or shorter variations are also offered.  Because this area sees very little human traffic, the chance of a wildlife sighting is greater.

0:48 - Start of the steep ascent (times are approximate)

0:48 – Start of the steep ascent (times are approximate)

From the parking area, the route heads briefly southeast, passing through a gate and paralleling the 241 Toll Road.  At about 0.4 miles, you bear left and begin heading up into Agua Chinon (“Wavy Water”) Canyon.  The trail ascends at a gentle pace for the next mile and a half before becoming steep.  As you grind up the hill, your efforts are rewarded with an excellent view of the Sinks; you may also see Modjeska and Santiago Peaks poking above the ridges to the east.

1:08 - View of the Sinks

1:08 – View of the Sinks

The trail makes an S-curve and finally levels out at about 2.7 miles from the start, where you reach a junction by a watering trough.  Head straight for a short distance where you reach an observation platform, from which you can get an aerial perspective on the Sinks.  The 150-foot high formations were created by the erosion of soft sedimentary rock, creating layers of pink, brown, orange and purple.

1:17 - Oaks on the East Loma Trail

1:17 – Oaks on the East Loma Trail

After enjoying the panorama, return to the junction and follow the East Loma Trail northwest through an attractive grove of live oaks.  At a T-junction in a meadow, turn left and descend to another junction where you turn left a second time and re enter the woods.  Here is Box Springs, a seasonal spring pleasantly located beneath several towering oak trees.  Especially on hot days, this is a peaceful spot to sit and relax before heading back.  There’s a little elevation that has to be made up on the return trip, but most of it is downhill and views of the Orange County coastal plains from the hill provide a finishing touch to this hike.

1:30  - Oaks at Box Springs (turnaround point)

1:30 – Oaks at Box Springs (turnaround point)

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.