Middle Peak (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 10.8 miles on Highway 79 past the park headquarters to a wide turnout with an information board, just past mile marker 10.5 as the road makes a big bend to the right. From Julian, head south on Highway 79 for 9.5 miles past the lake where the road bends to the left. The parking area will be on the left side of the road.
- Agency: Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
- Distance: 6.2 miles
- Elevation gain: 1,100 feet
- Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (Distance, elevation gain)
- Suggested time: 3 hours
- Best season: September – June
- USGS topo maps: Cuyamaca Peak
- Recommended gear: sun hat
- Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield San Diego County
- More information: Cuyamaca Rancho State Park Yelp page here; Map My Hike report here
- Rating: 7
This loop doesn’t actually visit Middle Peak’s summit but it rather explores the northern end of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, mostly on the eastern flank of the mountain. It doesn’t have quite the scenic variety of the trails in the park’s southern end, but still provides a good workout and some good views.
From the parking area, cross Highway 79 and look for the Marty Minshall Trail branching off on the north side of the dirt road. It heads through a field, paralleling the road before bending northwest and reaching a junction with the Sugar Pine Trail (0.9 miles.) The bulk of the climbing will happen over the next two miles as the Sugar Pine Trail makes a sharp left, ascending through groves of pines and oaks burned in the Cedar Fire. Through the trees you get a few glimpses of Cuyamaca Reservoir and Stonewall Peak.
At 2.1 miles, stay straight as a spur leads to the Middle Peak Fire Road. The grade briefly levels out and you get an impressive view of North Peak with the Santa Rosa Mountains distant. More climbing brings you to the end of the Sugar Pine Trail at another junction with the Middle Peak Fire Road; here you can enjoy a view to the west which, despite being blocked by several dead trees, may extend all the way to the ocean if visibility is good.
Turn left and follow the Middle Peak Fire Road south, staying left as the Black Oak Trail branches off to the right. You reach the high point of the route and begin a descent, enjoying an interesting view of Stonewall Peak which is eye level from this vantage point. At 3.3 miles, you reach another junction with the Black Oak Trail. This is a nice spot to rest; it features arguably the best view of the whole hike.
Descend via the Black Oak Trail. While the vegetation on its upper portion are still recovering from the Cedar Fire, the flora lower on the trail seems to be thriving; chaparral and oaks provide pockets of shade and nicely frame views of Cuyamaca Peak’s imposing shape to the immediate south.
At 4.5 miles from the start, turn left on the Milk Ranch Fire Road and follow it back to the trail head for an easy, pleasant 1.7 miles. This last stretch has an appealing rustic feel to it, passing through groves of oaks and rolling meadows with Stonewall Peak in the background. On the way back to Highway 79, you pass the bottom end of the Middle Peak Fire Road and almost immediately afterward, return to the Marty Minshall Trail to complete the loop. Cross the highway back to the parking area.
Text and photography copyright 2015 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.
Just hiked this trail yesterday. It was a sobering experience. Despite being a native San Diego, it was the first time I’ve seen the full extent of the devastation caused by the 2003 Cedar Fire. The views were spectacular, even so, and the hike was a lot more interesting than either the hike up Stonewall Peak or Cuyamaca Peak. I also came across two large groups of deer along the way, which was a welcome surprise.
Glad you enjoyed it. Hopefully in time the forest will return to its former glory but until then, it still makes for a scenic and secluded hike.