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Peak Season : Now Is the Time to Take Advantage of Cuyamaca's Great Vistas

February 21, 1991|Jerry Schad | Jerry Schad is an outdoor enthusiast, educator and author of books on hiking and cycling in San Diego County.

A h-ha-Kwe-ah-mac, the Indian phrase variously translated as "the place where it rains" and "rain yonder" hardly seems fitting lately for the place we now know as Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.

The evergreen pine, fir and cedar trees blanketing the park's higher slopes are clearly under a great deal of stress. A palette of straw yellow, russet brown and sickly, grayish-green shades now interweaves the normal tapestry of dark green. You can easily imagine the desperate efforts of the trees' root systems to draw upward what little moisture remains in the declining water table.

Since the last big snowstorm struck these parts two months ago, little moisture of any kind has fallen from the skies. For hikers, there's a silver lining to this gloomy predicament: Unless a new storm brings more snow and freezing temperatures, the next few weeks should be an excellent time to enjoy crisp air, bright sunshine, great vistas from the park's high points, and virtually snow-free hiking--even at the highest elevations.

From most parts of North County, a 1- to 1 1/2-mile drive (through Ramona and Julian) will take you to Paso Picacho Campground and Picnic Area, the starting point for the hiking trips described below. For a day-use parking fee of $5 per car, you'll have the use of picnic tables, which are pleasantly uncrowded instead of jam-packed this time of year, and you'll have the easiest access to most of the better trails in the park.

CUYAMACA PEAK, the second-highest summit in San Diego County, lies close to the county's geographic center, making it a superior vantage point for studying the regional topography.

Don't forget to take binoculars, and perhaps a county map, with you to the top.

The clear-air weather we've been having should continue through March, allowing vistas that on better days stretch as far west as Santa Catalina and San Clemente islands, and east to the Salton Sea and beyond.

What can be seen closer is a roster of San Diego County's best known physical features. The one-lane, paved and vehicle-gated Lookout Road (Cuyamaca Peak Fire Road on some maps) leads straight up to Cuyamaca's summit from the fire station just south of the Paso Picacho entrance. It's an uphill grind all the way (1,650-foot elevation gain in 2 3/4 miles)--moderate at first, then steep in the second half.

About a third of a mile past the California Riding and Hiking Trail crossing, you'll come upon Deer Spring, a dependable (so far), delicious source of water spurting from the end of a small pipe. If you're here in the warmer months, you'll be able to watch hummingbirds hover and dip to take sips of water.

The view broadens as you climb farther into an area that was swept by wildfire in 1950 and again in 1970. Small oak and pine trees and rangy ceanothus (wild lilac) shrubs cover these slopes now. Near the top you go through a surviving grove of mature timber and then reach the antenna-dotted summit. A fire-lookout structure stood here until a few years ago, when it was removed for lack of use.

On the return to Paso Picacho, consider taking any of several longer but more interesting routes down the Azalea Glen Trail. On the north branch of that trail, look for the morteros, or Indian grinding holes, in the bedrock by the side of the trail.

STONEWALL PEAK'S angular summit of white granite is a more modest goal for hikers--two miles one way with an 850-foot gain. The wide trail up is seldom steep. Although Stonewall stands some 800 feet lower than Cuyamaca Peak, its unique position and steep, south exposure provides a more inclusive view of the park area itself.

From the pipe-railed enclosure at the very top, the bird's-eye perspective includes the broad Cuyamaca Reservoir lake bed, now largely dry because of the drought, and miles of rolling country to the east and south. Tucked among the tree and chaparral-cloaked hills and valleys below, the meadows of East Mesa, West Mesa and Green Valley should soon be turning from the bleached straw color of winter toward a more appealing green shade.

Direction-finder plaques on the summit assist in the identification of major peaks in the mid- and far distance. A bit later in the year, Stonewall Peak should be a good spot for sighting high-flying birds such as hawks, eagles and ravens.

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