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)

4 comments

  1. Nice write-up, Cuyamaca is always a great place to hike! I haven’t been to this section in a while, were there still bees inhabiting the airplane engine? There was an active nest last time I was there.

    1. Thanks for reading! I didn’t notice any bees at the engine. Cuyamaca is a great place to hike and more write ups of trails from that park are coming soon!

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