El Cajon Mountain Trail Guide
|In This Guide|
|Total Distance (?)||12 miles (19.3 km)|
|Hike Time||5-7 Hours (Total)|
|Total Ascent (?)||4,000 feet (1219m)|
|Highest Elevation||3,648 feet (1112m)|
|Fees & Permits||Free|
|Alerts & Closures (?)||El Capitan County Preserve|
Considered “the hardest hike in San Diego” by some (more on that later), the El Cajon Mountain Trail makes you work for it, even though the summit is only at 3,648 feet. El Cajon Mountain, which towers over eastern San Diego, dominates the skyline you drive down I-8. Its sheer granite cliff face is also colloquially known as El Capitan or El Cap, after the iconic granite rock face in Yosemite National Park. We won’t be going up the sheer cliff on this hike but instead taking a rolling trail through El Capitan County Preserve, known for its steep climbs on the way out AND back. Aside from a great workout, the payoff is spectacular views from Palm Springs to Mexico and the bragging rights to say you conquered El Cajon Mountain.
Where is El Cajon Mountain Trail?
The El Cajon Mountain Trail is located in El Capitan County Preserve, in the eastern park of San Diego. To get to the start of the hike, use this address:
13775 Blue Sky Ranch Road, Lakeside, CA 92040
From the parking area, you walk 0.5 miles to the “trail trail.” At that point, you’ll find bathrooms. I’ll show you the way in the directions below.
Is El Cajon Hike the Hardest Hike in San Diego?
If you’ve been researching this hike, you have probably read about how tough it is. For most casual or average hikers, the El Cajon Mountain Trail will be very challenging. Here’s why:
- The climbs are very steep mining roads with gradients up to 36%, which is about the same as house stairs.
- The slopes are rocky and loose. You have to watch your footing.
- The route has ups and downs along the way. You have to do some climbing on the way back.
- The trail is mostly exposed and gets very hot. It gets so hot that the Preserve is closed in August.
- The steep and rocky descents are slow going and require concentration. Expect to go down at roughly the same pace as you climb.
Scared? Well, you shouldn’t be. If you’re in good shape and used to hiking this distance, you’ll be able to do this hike. Otherwise I’d do some build-up hikes first.
So is it the hardest hike? No, generally the hike to Rabbit Peak via Villager Peak in San Diego County is considered the toughest day hike. It’s 24 miles with about 8000 feet of climbing. About double what you’ll tackle on El Cajon Mountain.
Gear For the Hike
This is a proper hike and I recommend wearing proper hiking gear.
- Good footwear is important on this hike. The ground is loose and rocky.
- Trekking poles will help a ton on both the climbs and descents.
- You’re going to want sun protection.
- Bring 3L of water on this hike.
Altra Lone Peak 5
For most people, the Altra Lone Peak is a solid choice that will leave your feet feeling great at the end of any hike. The feel is cushy and light, and if it had a car equivalent, this would be a Cadillac or Mercedes Sedan. The grip is great and they’re reasonably durable for this type of trail runner, which I think is better in most conditions than a hiking boot, and here’s why. The downside of this shoe is that it won’t last as long as something like the Moab 2 (see alternate footwear choices at the bottom of my gear page). I’ve been using mine for many miles and my feet always feel great. Watch my video explaining why they are a great shoe here.
Latest Price on Women’s Shoe – REI | Amazon
Latest Price on Men’s Shoe – REI | Amazon
Stay Safe Out of Cell Phone Range
If you’re not familiar with the Garmin InReach technology, it allows you to send and receive text messages where you don’t have cell phone signals. You can also get weather reports and trigger an SOS to emergency responders. Even if you don’t have an emergency, sending a quick message telling a loved one that you’re okay or are running late is well worth the cost. The Garmin InReach Mini (REI | Amazon | My Review) fits in your palm and weighs next to nothing.
Gaia GPS Mapping App
Smartphones are not backcountry instruments, but almost everyone has one today. And they all have GPS onboard. So I recommend getting a good GPS hiking app like Gaia GPS that supports offline maps. Just make sure to put your phone in airplane mode so the battery doesn’t drain. GaiaGPS not only has smartphone and tablet apps, but also an online planning tool. You can drag the GPX hike tracks from my (or any) guides into the online map and they will sync to your phone. You can also check for wildfires, weather, snow, and choose from dozens of map types with a premium membership (HikingGuy readers get up to 40% off here). Note that I also carry a paper map with me in case the phone dies or gets smashed.
Here’s my complete gear list that I personally use, have tested, and recommend, updated June 2021.
No company pays me to promote or push a product, all the gear you see here is gear I use and recommend. If you click an a link and buy gear, I get a small commission that helps keep the website ad and promotion free. There is no cost to you.
El Cajon Mountain Trail Maps
Overall the trails are well marked and easy to navigate. There are a couple of unmarked parts that might be confusing, but I’ll cover those in the directions below.
Explore Map on CalTopoView a Printable PDF Hike MapDownload the Hike GPX File
If you try to download the GPX file and your browser adds a “.txt” or “.xml” extension to it, simply rename it as a “.gpx” file.
How are you going to navigate this hike?
To start, you should always have a paper map and compass. And it helps to print this guide out or save it on your phone. I highly recommend a GPS as well. I use the Garmin Fenix 6 Smart GPS watch ( REI | Amazon | My Review) with maps (or the more affordable Garmin Instinct). The GPS smartwatch is nice because it’s rugged, works if your phone dies, and also has a billion other features like sleep tracking, workout recording, etc.
Landmarks on the Hike
|Top of Initial Climb||1.0||2050|
|Start of Silverdome II Climb||2.7||1950|
|Mine Detour / Top of Climb||3.8||2890|
|Start Last Climb||4.5||2570|
- The mountain is named El Cajon because it roughly translates to the Spanish word for “box,” as this peak is boxed in by the peaks surrounding it.
- El Cajon Mountain is also known as El Cap or ECM. There is technically a smaller peak by the summit called El Capitan, so the two peaks are not the same. From this hike it’s hard to see why it’s called El Cap, but if you look at it from the south (I-8 has good views), you can see the semblance to Yosemite’s El Capitan.
- The south-facing cliff of El Cajon Mountain is a popular nesting spot for Golden Eagles. Keep your eyes open for them as you hike. They’re easily mistaken for turkey vultures, which are smaller.
El Cajon Mountain Trail Hike Directions
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Turn by Turn Directions
You can make a side trip to the right to reach El Capitan Summit. It’s about 0.2 miles. The option to go straight ahead will bring you to the top of the sheer cliff face. It was once open to hikers, but is now private property and closed to protect the golden eagle nesting areas.
This guide last updated on May 3, 2021. Did something change on this hike? If so, please contact me and let me know. I'll update the guide.
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