A couple months ago, I stopped by the Sycamore Canyon Preserve Highway 67 Staging area. Due to a lack of water, a hot day, and a late start, my party and I didn’t make it very far down the Ridge Trail. On the way out, I saw a small sign that said “Cardiac Hill”. When I saw that, I was curious. I was curious because the question that immediately popped into my head is the one that every Park Ranger hates, “But is that trail really that tough?” (I know it’s the question that every Park Ranger hates because I heard it a million times myself.) Rather than harass the Park Staff in some sort of weird role reversal, I instead vowed to come back and find out on my own.
As I passed Iron Mountain on my way back to Sycamore Canyon this last Saturday, I could only shake my head at the hordes of people electing to hike Iron Mountain in a crowd, rather than heading down the road to Sycamore Canyon to spread out and enjoy some actual solitude. This haughty assumption was well founded, because as I pulled into the Highway 67 staging area I was utterly alone. The skeptical reader may assume that I, being the avid hiker that I am, got an early start and that was why I was alone at Sycamore Canyon. While I appreciate the vote of confidence, let me admit that by the time I arrived at Sycamore Canyon, it was 11:00 a.m. Let me say that again in case you missed it, because this is a good tip: at 11:00 a.m., when there was no parking, and hordes of people at Iron Mountain, there was an empty lot at Sycamore Canyon, not even two miles South, and plenty of natural solitude to go around, with near identical terrain, plants, and animals.
In any case, you probably want to know a little bit more about the park. The Goodan Ranch/Sycamore Canyon preserve is one of San Diego County’s Parks, and it consists of 2,272 acres of native Californian terrain, with over ten miles of trails, and it encompasses the former and now abandoned town of Stowe. (http://www.sdcounty.ca.gov/parks/openspace/Sycamore_Goodan.html). Sadly, much of the park burned during the 2003 Cedar Fire, but as you can see from the attached photos, the area is recovering at an amazing rate.
I parked at the Highway 67 staging area, and walked North to the Cardiac Hill trailhead, which was clearly signed. From there, I followed the well-laid and graded track into the Goodan Ranch portion of the park. On the way down Cardiac Hill, I saw expansive views of the former town of Stowe, Iron Mountain, and Mt. Woodson. Halfway down Cardiac Hill, I realized that it was not as difficult as it was billed – at least on the downhill portion. At 1.10 miles, I found myself at the bottom of the hill in the Goodan Ranch portion of the park (a panorama of which is seen here: http://www.youtube.com/user/lstad1#p/u/4/EoqgOBdJhiM). As the day was still young, I elected to continue heading straight (due West) at the trail junction for an additional .25 miles to the junction of the West Boundary Trail. At this junction, I swung left (South) and headed the half mile to the Ranger Station and Ranch House, or as I like to call it “New Stowe”.
New Stowe was by far the busiest portion of the park that day, where I saw a whopping four people, one of which was the Ranger. After checking out the interesting exhibits in the LEED rated Ranch Center, I hit the trail again, heading South. At first, I had thought that I would head back up Cardiac Hill, but after stopping, I decided I wanted to see more of the park, and that I would head back down and around on the Ridge Trail to the staging area. From the Ranger Station/New Stowe, it was a leisurely flat hike of approximately .7 miles to the Ridge Trail junction. Along this section, I passed quietly rustling sections of oaks and sycamores, with some seasonal sections of runoff burbling underneath. I was so relaxed by the calm, pastoral scene that I had come from I was almost unprepared for the straight vertical ascent that was the Ridge Trail.
In retrospect, it really wasn’t that surprising – I had descended from the Highway 67 staging area at around 1200 feet high to the Goodan Ranch portion of the park, which was around 600 feet high. I always knew that I was going to have to climb back up to reach my car, and climb I did. In contrast to the Cardiac Hill trail, the Ridge Trail is a single track that traverses across some of the ridgeline that borders the South-Eastern portion of the park. While it’s not overly steep – or likely to cause someone to keel over in most cases, I did find myself working up a bit of a sweat (after all, it was 80 degrees, in direct sun, heading uphill), which was a good thing, and a great challenge, after cruising through the rest of park earlier that day. 1.75 miles later, I found myself back at the staging area, again alone, and looking at a whopping two cars next to mine. The whole loop hike was 3.8 miles roundtrip, probably an even 4.0 miles with a few side stops to look at things, and was a great, solitary moderate hike for anyone wishing to ditch the Iron Mountain crowds, or any crowd at all.
See you on the trail!