Cuyamaca Peak, Cuyamaca Rancho State Park

Monument/Arroyo Seco Loop (Cuyamaca Rancho State Park)

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  • Location: Harvey Moore Trailhead, Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, eastern San Diego County. From I-8, take the Highway 79 exit (40) and head north on Highway 79 for 2.7 miles. Turn left to stay on Highway 79 and go another 4.8 miles to a large parking lot on the right side of the road. If you are coming from Julian, take Highway 79 south. The parking area will be on the left side of the road, 15.3 miles past the Sunrise Scenic Highway turnoff. Parking hours are 6am-8pm.
  • Agency: Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
  • Distance: 7.1 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1,050 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (Distance, elevation gain)
  • Suggested time: 3.5 hours
  • Best season: September – May
  • Dogs: Not allowed
  • Cell phone reception: Fair for the first 2 miles and last mile; none to weak in between
  • Water: None
  • Restrooms: None
  • Camping/backpacking: Available at Green Valley Campground; backpackers can spend the night at Arroyo Seco Primitive Camp (but need to park at the Green Valley area)
  • Recommended gear: sun hat; insect repellent
  • More information: Map My Hike report here; trip description (slightly different route, including the Airplane Monument) here
  • Rating: 8

Like the nearby West Mesa and Pine Ridge loops, this hike explores Cuyamaca Rancho State Park’s mountainous high country, providing both panoramic views and seclusion. This hike shares part of the routes of both West Mesa and Pine Ridge but has enough unique mileage that it is worth visiting even if you’ve also done the other two.

The very start of the hike, however, is somewhat awkward. From the parking area, head north across the narrow bridge over the Sweetwater River. There is virtually no shoulder on either side, although traffic is likely to be light enough that should one car come, you can step into the opposite lane and let it go by. On the opposite side of the bridge, look for an unsigned trail leading to a signed spur of the West Side Trail. Cross a meadow and bear left on the West Side Trail, following it south (paralleling the highway) through a pleasant oak forest, gradually climbing to a junction with the Monument Trail, 0.6 mile from the start.

If it’s early in the day, you may want to hike clockwise. If it’s later in the day, or if you want to get the bulk of the climbing out of the way sooner, go counter-clockwise, as described below. Head right on the Monument Trail, which makes a steady ascent along the southeast slope of Airplane Ridge. As you get higher, views to the north open up, including the recognizable pyramid shape of Stonewall Peak.

At 2.1 miles from the start (and about 800 feet of elevation gain) you reach the West Mesa Trail. If you want to take a short detour to the Airplane Monument, the site of a 1922 airplane crash, head right and downhill. To continue on the West Mesa Trail, bear left and head uphill. Soon you receive the payoff for your efforts: an outstanding view to the south, including the southern ends of the Cuyamaca and Laguna ranges, extending west to El Capitan and the eastern San Diego suburbs. (This 0.8 mile stretch is also part of the West Mesa Loop).

At 2.9 miles, bear right on the Arroyo Seco Trail, which heads downhill to a junction with the Fox Trail. Continue on the Arroyo Seco Trail (the Fox Trail is shorter, but overgrown and has a lot of poison oak). The Arroyo Seco Trail takes in some impressive views as it meanders downhill toward the western edge of the park before bending around and heading east, passing the lower end of the Fox Trail and entering a meadow. The Arroyo Seco primitive campground sits at the south side of the meadow, 4.7 miles from the start. There’s not much to see here other than a few horse stalls but it’s a nice place to take a break and enjoy some impressive views of Cuyamaca Peak.

From the campground, continue downhill on the Arroyo Seco Fire Road under the shade of black oaks. In 0.6 miles, stay straight at a junction with the California Riding & Hiking Trail, heading southeast. This stretch of trail is also included in the Pine Ridge loop. However, while that route continues to the Green Valley Campground, your route will have you bearing left on the West Side Trail (5.9 miles from the start). On this single track, you’ll make a brief ascent, returning to the junction with the Monument Trail. From here, retrace your steps along the West Side Trail back to the highway and the trail head.

Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, San Diego County, CA
Beginning of the trail off Highway 79
Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, San Diego County, CA
On the West Side Trail
Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, San Diego County, CA
Start of the Monument Trail
Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, San Diego County, CA
View from the Arroyo Seco Trail
Arroyo Seco Trail, Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, CA
Geology on the Arroyo Seco Trail
Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, San Diego County, CA
Approaching the meadow and the Arroyo Seco Primitive Campground
Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, San Diego County, CA
Sunset at the Arroyo Seco campground
Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, San Diego County CA
Dusk in the oaks on the West Side Trail

Text and photography copyright 2017 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.

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