For the 800th hike posted on this site, we are proud to present one of the best mountains in San Diego County and indeed a must-do for all So Cal hikers. Corte Madera’s distinctively shaped summit, which features gigantic boulders with slopes that roll from the ridge before dropping off sharply to the Pine Creek Wilderness far below, has inspired some to call it the Half Dome of San Diego County. While it might not be as iconic as the Yosemite landmark, it also is far less crowded and can easily be done in a day by experienced hikers in decent physical condition. The trail’s supreme sense of isolation and variety of scenery, including not only panoramic views but shaded canyons, meadows and interesting geology, make it more than an adequate consolation prize for those who miss out on the Half Dome lottery.
From the hairpin turn on Morena Stokes Valley Road, either squeeze past the gate or climb the embankment around it and begin hiking on Kernan Road. The dirt road ascends gradually through an attractive oak woodland for half a mile. As it makes a right turn into private property, leave the road and follow the Espinosa Trail through a meadow as it parallels Morena Creek. It ascends gradually then more sharply to reach a saddle, 1.4 miles from the start. Here you get your first look at your destination, as well as pointy Peak 4,588, another stop on the route.
Turn right and begin climbing Los Pinos Road, a fire road. Almost immediately the landscape changes as the slopes are now dominated by Coulter pines and large granite boulders typical of higher elevations. At 1.8 miles, you reach a wide clearing where Los Pinos Road starts to descend. Bear left on a narrow trail leading past an information board and begin the steep climb to Peak 4,588. Just below the summit (2.4 miles), look for a large pair of granite boulders on the right, facing each other, almost like two Easter Island statues.
The trail then descends sharply, dropping down a rocky ravine and making a few switchbacks, passing some fallen trees on its way to a saddle. It then follows a roller coaster ridge line, occasionally overgrown but never too difficult to pick out (when in doubt, use the summit to the south as your guide). One final climb brings you to the elongated peak and at 3.3 miles, you reach the southern edge of the summit where you can enjoy excellent views in all directions. Los Pinos Peak dominates the southeast; Pine Creek stretches out below to the south and if visibility is good, downtown San Diego can be seen to the west.
After enjoying the view, retrace your steps, making sure to exercise extra caution on the steep and loose descents. If you have time, you can make a 4-mile detour to Los Pinos Peak by continuing south on the fire road past the junction with the Espinosa Trail.
Text and photography copyright 2016 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.