One of my favorite hikes in San Diego is the in-and-out hike in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park of the East Side Trail to Harper’s Creek. However, I must caution you: how much you enjoy this hike will likely depend on when you go. If you head out too early in the season, as I found one year with my hiking group, you’ll be slogging through muddy meadows under slate covered skies and pelting snow. If you head out too late in the season, as I found out another year, you’ll be trekking through dry vegetation to nothing but baked rocks that do not have the slightest hint of water. You may be wondering, “When is the best time to go?”; and I would say anytime in the late winter to early spring is the best time to go, because the seasonal flow of Harper’s Creek will not have dried up yet; and hopefully, you will get to see some seasonal wildflowers.
Directions: If you are coming from the South, take the I-8 to Highway 79 into Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. At mile 4.9 along Highway 79, you will pass over the Sweetwater River Bridge, and there will be a large dirt parking lot on the immediate right-hand side of the road. If you are coming from the North, take Highway 79 to the Sweetwater River Bridge, where you will again see a large dirt parking lot on the South side of the road (your left). The East Side Trail leaves directly from the parking lot. The trail starts out passing through a grove of oaks before traversing directly along the East Side of Green Valley. The trail is by and large, very flat, so it is a great hike for beginners, or anyone looking to stretch their legs.
As you pass through Green Valley, the Sweetwater River will be directly to your left (West), and at a mile and a half (1.5 miles), you will pass the buildings of Camp Cuyamaca and the Cuyamaca Rancho Park Headquarters (again on your left/to the West). Should you wish to cut out this initial 1.5 miles of distance, you can also start the hike from the Park Headquarters parking lot, but in my opinion, it is more scenic to start the hike from the Sweetwater River bridge lot. It is also important to note that should you start the hike from the Sweetwater River bridge lot, there will be two trail intersections to the North prior to passing Camp Cuyamaca; one of which that leads up to join the Harvey Moore Trail; and the other that leads up to Dyar Spring. Unless you are planning on making your hike longer, you will not want to head up these trails, and you will want to remain on the East Side Trail.
Once you pass Camp Cuyamaca, follow the East Side Trail for another mile and one quarter (1.25) until you reach Harper’s Creek. You will know you are at Harper’s Creek, irrespective of season when you reach a large grove of oak trees. If you are doing this hike during my above suggested period (February-June), there will be a stream crossing at this point in time. How big is the crossing? Well, that’s a question that’s dependent on: a) how much rain/snow the area has received during the year; and b) what time of year you’ve gone. I’ve seen the crossing range from: a) non-existent (dry season/dry year to b) several feet wide and several feet deep. Currently, in 2012, we’re experiencing a somewhat dry year, so the crossing is not that deep or wide, but this could change if we were to get a fair amount of rain or snow (although this is looking more and more unlikely by the day).
Once you cross Harper’s Creek, it is a short walk up to a series of pools and waterfalls. Do note that this area is made by possible by seasonal rainfall/snowmelt, so if you do attempt this hike in the dead heat of August, do not be surprised to find the area bereft of any water whatsoever! If it is springtime, you will see a number of blooms (as pictured), and a number of small waterfalls (also pictured). Once you are done relaxing by this tranquil seasonal oasis, follow the East Side Trail back the way you came. Roundtrip, this hike will run you 5.5 miles on all flat terrain. This is a great morning hike year round; however, the hike is even more enjoyable during the spring months, as you get to see plenty of fresh growth.
Tips: Take a lunch and relax by the waterfalls in the canyon; or, if you are feeling daring, take a swimsuit and wade into the pools for a quick dip