In 1995, a Democrat was President; cell phones were chunky bricks that seemed better suited to calling in air strikes; you connected to the Internet via this thing called a modem that was connected to this other thing called a land line; and cassette tapes/VHS tapes were battling it out in a format war with these things called CD’s and DVD’s. Even crazier, Val Kilmer was Batman. That’s right. Val Kilmer. Batman. If that doesn’t prove that the 1990s was a strange time, I don’t know what does. Back then, I was just starting out as an outdoor adventurer. There was no handheld GPS; we had handheld maps, and handheld compasses – and woe betide you if you placed your compass on a car hood to take bearings! We also didn’t have hiking forums, blogs, or websites – we had these things called books. At that time, the best book for San Diego County was Afoot and Afield in San Diego County by Jerry Schad, who was the preeminent wilderness expert for the region.
When I got my copy, I read through it, and then began going on hike after hike after hike, checking them off as I went along. When I got to the pages about Volcan Mountain, Jerry had this to say: “…perhaps soon (pending completion of a county management plan for the area) it will be possible to walk all the way up to ‘Volcan’ peak, the southernmost of several knolls in the crest of the range…”. I read this, and like the Del Dios Gorge decided that I would hike it “someday”. Many days have passed since 1995, and since that point, the wilderness management plan for the area was implemented, and Volcan Mountain is now part of the Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve; additionally, the area also now has its own foundation as well. Seeing as how a generation of hikers has now had an opportunity to experience the peak, I decided to make my “someday” happen last weekend, and was impressed by what I found.
Directions: Volcan Mountain is located directly outside of Julian, California. These directions (found on the San Diego County Parks Website) are the most accurate on how to reach the Preserve: “Take Highway 78/79 into Julian, to Main Street. Going north, Main Street turns into Farmer Road. Take Farmer Road to Wynola Road and turn right, then a quick left back onto Farmer Road.”. Do note that if you are researching the peak, you will likely learn about the Volcan Mountain Foundation, which is headquartered in Julian, and has its own address. Do not use this address to obtain directions to the mountain – you will arrive at the foundation headquarters, which, while nice, is not a trailhead.
The trailhead leaves directly from Farmer Road, and there is ample street parking along the road. The first portion of the “trail”, however, leads up a shared use road past some houses. You are not in the preserve proper until you reach “the Gateway”(pictured above) which is approximately .15 miles up the road. From “the Gateway”, the trail winds gradually uphill through grassy fields and provides great views of the surrounding terrain. At half a mile (.5) from Farmer Road, you will find the only turnoff in the Preserve – the 5 Oaks Trail. The 5 Oaks Trail is a single track section of trail that runs roughly parallel to the main Volcan Mountain Trailfor 1.2 miles. However, unlike the main trail, the 5 Oaks Trail is for foot traffic only. I personally did not see any mountain bikers or horses on the main Volcan Mountain Trail, which is very well graded and maintained, but nevertheless elected to check out the 5 Oaks Trail. After all, it is supposed to provide the hiker with a unique experience of solitude while passing under the branches of numerous black oaks, before meeting back up with the main trail.
Was the 5 Oaks Trail a unique experience? Yes, because every time you are on any trail, you’re having a unique wilderness experience – it’s never going to be exactly the same, no matter how many times you return. What I liked about the 5 Oaks portion of trail was that it provided a more “authentic” hiking trail in that it was single track. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with the main Volcan Mountain trail – or any trail that is graded fire road type track, I prefer being on a narrower, more intimate trail as they reduce traffic, and gives you a better wilderness experience. Was it solitary? Yes, I did not see anyone else along this portion of trail, but that was likely a timing issue, and some good luck on my part. I personally preferred the sections of this trail at the beginning and the end; and it is also worth noting that there were some semi-steep sections along the 1.2 miles, although there were also some benches where one could stop to rest and take in the view. At 1.2 miles, the trail meets up with the main trail, and this provides a spot where one could turn around for a moderate 3.4 mile roundtrip hike.
I elected to continue up the main Volcan Mountain trail to the summit, and the last section of trail was my favorite portion of the hike. From the 5 Oak Intersection, the trail winds up and through some actual sections of large trees which were rustling under the mid-day breeze. If you hike in San Diego County a lot, you soon realize that there are not many forested areas, aside from portions of the Cleveland National Forest. The other thing that you realize about the County is that while there may not be many trees, there is an enormous amount of biodiversity in the area from the desert to the coast. So, a half mile from the summit I stopped mid-trail, smelled the cedar, and appreciated the biodiversity – and, if you go on this hike, I recommend you do the same. Once you clear the remaining trees, the trail heads across the ridgeline, before angling up toward the summit loop of Volcan Mountain. This last section contains a bit of a climb, but is not overly steep, and it provides great views of the region to the West. At the summit, the trail loops around, before heading back down the way you came. If you follow my route, this is a moderate hike with some steep sections that is five (5) miles roundtrip.
Tips: There is a gate shortly after the upper 5 Oaks trail/Main Trail junction that is locked on all weekdays, which means that you cannot access the summit during that period of time. It is also worth noting that this gate is only open on weekends from April through November, so if you want to summit the mountain December through March, you are out of luck. There’s also several man-made points of interest near the summit. First, there is the ruined chimney of the Hale Telescope siting expedition located slightly to the west of the trail at approximately 2.15 miles up the main trail (the telescope was eventually placed on Palomar Mountain). Second, there’s an old navigational beacon from the 1930’s on the top of the mountain that was used to guide aircraft in the pre-GPS days, and if you’ve got eagle eyes, you can also see the remnants of human habitation from years ago.