While the gold rush of the nineteenth century in California was largely confined to the northern portion of the state, prospectors also fanned out to all regions of the state, seeking to strike it rich. In San Diego County, most of the mining exploration occurred in and around the town of Julian, but the largest and most productive mine was located a little bit further south, in what is now Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. In 1870, gold was discovered, and after a great deal of legal difficulties, the Stonewall Mine began operating. Over a fifty year period, the Stonewall Mine became the most productive and profitable mining operation in the county, producing over two million dollars of gold.
Fact: the best hike in San Diego County is one that most people aren’t going to want to do, and probably shouldn’t do, unless they are physically and mentally prepared. And, even better, here’s a supplemental fact about this hike: I had so much to say about this hike that I had to break up my comments into two posts. This hike involves traveling over rough terrain. It involves using a map and compass, or GPS unit. It involves scrambling and some bouldering. It involves not following a trail. It involves off-roading to a remote trailhead; and it involves committing a whole day to hiking in and hiking out. It involves exploring, and possibly breaking the law. It involves avoiding glowing orbs, and avoiding the Borrego Sandman (or men), if they exist. In short, the best hike in San Diego County is nothing short of an epic one-day adventure. This is precisely why this hike is the best hike in San Diego County: it is an adventure. What hike are we talking about? What I am talking about is the Goat Canyon Trestle Hike to the Carrizo Gorge, or if we are being formal, the Mortero Palms to Goat Canyon Traverse.
While San Diego County has a plethora of great hiking trails, it does not have a lot of great climbing routes. Sure, there’s some decent routes out in the desert, but realistically, no one wants to be out in the Anza Borrego desert in the dead of summer. In no particular order, some of the better places to climb in the county are on the boulders at Woodson Mountain; the summit slabs at Stonewall Peak; the final approach on Mt. Lawson; and the routes at Mission Trails Regional Park.
Steps, Climbers Loop Trail
While none of these routes are going to confuse anyone with say, Half Dome, El Capitan, or any other big wall on the planet, they’re great areas for learning and practicing your climbing skills that aren’t in a controlled environment (otherwise known as climbing gyms). All of these areas have great hikes leading to the climbing areas, but this hike is the shortest and steepest of the bunch.
Directions: The best way to access this trail is to park at the Mission Trails Regional Park Visitor Center, which is located in the main portion of the park off of Mission Gorge Road. Even though Cowles Mountain is not located in this part of the park, parking remains at a premium on the weekends by the Visitor Center, due to the popularity of the area, and its proximity to a number of trailheads. While there is some parking along Father Junipero Serra Trail, the road that runs through Mission Trails, these spots are usually taken as well by mid-day.
From the Visitor Center parking area, you will want to head down Father Junipero Serra for .40 miles. During this short distance, I would suggest that you take the opportunity to enjoy the paved, flat surface and stretch out any kinks you have in your legs, as the actual trail has few flat sections, and is most definitely not paved! At .40 miles, you will see the trailhead on the right (south) side of the road, along with a kiosk detailing the steep terrain on the trail, and various climbing routes present on the Western face of Kwaay Paay Peak. From this point, the trail ascends steeply for .34 miles. How steep is it? Well, it ascends 406 feet over that distance, so while it isn’t the steepest terrain imaginable, it’s not a walk in the park either. Once you have ascended the 406 feet, you will have great views of Mission Trails, Mission Gorge, and the climbing routes.
Climbing Routes, west Kwaay Paay Peak
Based on my experience, if you are climbing any of the routes on the western face – Middle Earth, Limbo, or the main wall, you will definitely be warmed up and ready to go by the time you reach the “top”. If you’re not climbing, continue on along the mostly flat section of trail leading past the climbing areas, before descending down another steep section of trail. If you are solely hiking this area, the total distance for this hike is 2.2 miles roundtrip (.4 from the parking area to the trailhead, 1.2 miles on the actual trail, and .6 from the far trailhead back to the parking area).
Tips: I personally like to run this trail on weekdays. The steep terrain is very challenging, and gives you a great workout. Unlike Cowles Mountain, it is also not as busyduring the week. Do note, however, that the trail is very steep, and what I would consider “single track” in many areas. Keep an eye out for other hikers, as well as climbers carrying gear so you do not potentially run into them. Aside from that, the routes on the western face of Kwaay Paay Peak are not that technical, so they are a great area to learn how to climb if you do not; and many companies provide lessons on a weekly basis at this location. Even if you do not wish to climb, this is a hike with some great views of the surrounding terrain, and if you’re curious about climbing, good views of climbers doing what they do: climbing.
Some oldies but goodies, Stonewall Peak from back in the day pre-2003 fires.
Some mountains are, and always will be eternal insurmountable giants. I know what you’re thinking at this point: “Duh, mountains are giants and they are eternal”. What I’m talking about here is not the literal portions of that sentence, but how mountains are perceived by each individual’s memory and mind. In this respect, there are many legendary peaks that everyone remembers as taller, tougher, and more rigorous than Mt. Everest, or more beautiful than the most pristine range that they know. In real life, however, these peaks are sadly smaller than Everest, and may or may not have the epic beauty of the Sound of Music. One of the first mountains that I climbed definitely fits this mold, and it is Stonewall Peak.