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El Cajon Mountain

Grueling hike up one of San Diego's proudest peaks.

Hiking Difficult

17 km
1.1 km
1.1 km
5-6 hrs
Low Point
473 m
High Point
1.1 km
El Cajon Mountain Map

El Cajon Mountain Trail, sometimes called San Diego’s toughest hike, is a steep and challenging trek to one of the area’s most rugged peaks, El Cajon. This 3,648-foot beast of a mountain is also known as El Capitan and is located in El Capitan County Preserve. Unlike many area peaks, El Cajon has no signal towers on top, perhaps because it is so well guarded by flanks of imposing granite. The broad, bouldery summit is left natural, accessible only by hiking trails. On clear days, it grants breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Peninsular Mountain Ranges to the east, and three surrounding reservoirs.


An old mining road finds its way almost to the top and makes up most of the hiking trail. A narrower footpath leads the rest of the way, winding through complex boulder fields and thick chaparral vegetation. Even on the stretch that used to be a road, don’t expect an easy hike. The terrain is rocky and rutted out, has steeps ups and downs, and is exposed to sun virtually the whole way.

Although well worth the effort, this trail is not for the faint of heart. You'll find no water and no facilities except for a toilet at the trailhead. The park is closed completely in August due to extreme heat, but the rest of the summer can be equally intense. It is wise to get an early start at any time of year. The parking area is open from 8am until sunset, after which time the gates are locked. Budget your time carefully and come prepared with plenty of water and snacks. Dogs are allowed on the trail but must be leashed at all times.

The El Cajon Mountain Trail parking lot is located on the east side of Wildcat Canyon Road, north of Lakeside, CA. The trailhead, however, is not at the parking lot due to private land holdings. To reach it, you must walk about half a mile along Blue Sky Ranch Road to the preserve boundary. From there, the trail is well maintained and signed with directions plus mile markers. Keep an eye out for mining relics along the way, including some abandoned shafts and the remains of a jeep.

You’ll reach a saddle on the ridgeline after about 5 miles, and a 4-way trail intersection. Take a left for the final footpath to the summit of El Cajon (mapped). Right leads to a subsidiary summit with its own panorama. Straight ahead, the mining road ends near the top of a dramatic point overlooking the San Diego River Gorge and El Capitan Reservoir. Take these side hikes only if you have time and energy to spare.

Sources: http://www.sdparks.org/content/sdparks/en/park-pages/ElCapitan.html http://lastadventurer.com/last-adventurers-fieldnotes/el-cajon-mountain http://hikingsdcounty.com/el-cajon-mountain-el-cap/ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ElCajonMountain



Hiking trails where obstacles such as rocks or roots are prevalent. Some obstacles can require care to step over or around. At times, the trail can be worn and eroded. The grade of the trail is generally quite steep, and can often lead to strenuous hiking.

Medium Exposure

2 out of 4

The trail contains some obstacles such as outcroppings and rock which could cause injury.


2 out of 4

Away from help but easily accessed.

Best time to visit

between September and July


  • Historical
  • Picturesque
  • Summit Hike
  • Dog friendly
  • Wild flowers

Guidebooks in this area