Cuyamaca Rancho State Park is an escape from the busy Southern California urban lifestyle. Located about 40 miles east of the beach loving city of San Diego sits the gorgeous State Park full of tall pine trees, prominent fir giants, and lush oak forests, with dreamy sweeping meadows and peaceful rushing streams.
The crowning jewel of this beautiful wilderness area is Cuyamaca Peak which stands high above at 6,512 feet in elevation. This namesake mountain holds the title as the second-highest point in all of San Diego County. Cuyamaca Rancho State Park has everything an outdoor enthusiast would enjoy. Fishing, hiking, camping, biking and more! Here is your guide to Cuyamaca Rancho State Park!
When gold was discovered in Julian in 1869, several mines popped up in the area. Stonewall Mine was the southernmost and most profitable mine in the area. It peaked between 1886 and 1891, producing over 7,000 pounds of gold. Hard rock mining ended in 1892 and the mine officially closed in 1906. You can still see a few remnants of the mine at the site and there are exhibits with a pictorial history of Stonewall.
The best activity in the area is arguably hiking. Cuyamaca Rancho State Park has over 100 miles of horseback riding and hiking trails. From climbing a mountain to frolicking in a meadow there are many adventures to choose from.
There are two reigning mountains that stand high above the lovely creek-lined meadows you can choose to climb: Stonewall Peak and Cuyamaca Peak. If you prefer to stay on lower ground you can trek around a few lakes and streams. On hot summer days there are plenty of cascades and shallow pools to cool off in to get a break from the Southern California heat. Here are some treks to start off with:
- Cuyamaca Peak via Azalea Glen Loop: You really can’t visit Cuyamaca Rancho State Park and not attempt to stand on its highest mountain. The trail to the top is just under 8 miles round trip on a rugged, lightly traveled trek. The exposure means you are guaranteed views to the East Mountains and of the west low lying valleys. The rating is moderate in difficulty.
- Stonewall Mine and Lake Cuyamaca: This kid-friendly, easy stroll is a 4-mile jaunt through lovely meadows by the shores of Lake Cuyamaca. Along the way you can learn some local history with display signs explaining the origins of Stonewall Mine.
- Stonewall Peak: Be prepared for lovely views as you climb the almost 4 mile round trip to the summit and back. Rated as moderate, this hike switchbacks about 900 feet in elevation and rewards you with 360 views of the surrounding area.
I know hiking with your furry best friend is a wonderful experience but dogs unfortunately are not allowed on Cuyamaca Rancho State Park’s trails.
If you want to make your visit to Cuyamaca Rancho State Park a weekend getaway versus just a day trip try pitching a tent to go camping! There are two family campgrounds located within the park boundaries. Paso Picacho Campground and Green Valley Campground. Both of these camps are open and on the park reservation system spring through fall.
Green Valley Campground has 81 sites along with a Horse Camp and an additional 15 campsites located across the Sweetwater River. The campground sits at around 4,000 elevation and has a lovely stream that runs throughout. There is an easy hike to Green Valley Falls for the whole family to check out. And while you are there, be on the lookout for local residents such as badgers, foxes, bobcats, and maybe even a mountain lion!
Paso Picacho Campground sits just a tad higher than Green Valley Campground at the elevation of 5,000 surrounded by trees. It is a fairly large campground with 85 sites available. Many of the popular hikes of the area actually start here such as Cuyamaca Peak and Stonewall Peak. If you enjoy fishing, two miles south lies Lake Cuyamaca to cast your line or simply cool off.
All of the campsites at each of the two campgrounds come equipped with a picnic table and a fire ring. There are also restrooms with flush toilets and pay showers if you are itching for a good scrub. At every few campsites there are faucets to provide water for all, but be prepared to boondock because there are no hookups available.
Each campground also has a dump station for RVers. The fee to stay is $30 a night, and if you have an extra vehicle there is an additional $10 per night fee. You are allowed to bring your furry friend as long as they are not left unattended and stick to the campground and paved roads.
There is something for just about anyone at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. For those who love boating and fishing, Lake Cuyamaca, operated by the Helix Water District, is the place to go. This cooler climate lake is San Diego’s only year-round trout fishery with approximately 45,000 pounds of rainbow trout stocked annually. All you need to do is snag a valid Lake Cuyamaca fishing permit and a CA State Fishing License. Be aware that fishing is allowed from an hour before sunrise until an hour after sunset. Night fishing is not allowed.
If creatures of the air are more your style Cuyamaca Rancho State Park is home to more than 100 bird species. Bird watchers can be on the lookout for Acorn Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers, Redtailed Hawks, Sage Sparrows and more. Swing by the park headquarters to obtain a complete bird list.
Looking for some more thrill? Rock climbers will enjoy the trad climbing on the Upper Tier wall. Located at the top of the hikers trail to Stonewall Peak and below the railing facing towards highway 79 are the Sierra Club RCS rating routes. Ranging from easy 5.5 to moderate 5.10s, this is a fun day for some solid rock climbing. Make sure to pick up the San Diego climbing guidebook by Dave Kennedy and Chris Hubbard for more detailed information.
Before You Go
- The day use areas such as picnic spots and campgrounds are available for visitors at $10 per vehicle. The receipt is good for the entire park for the day.
- Not wanting to pay? You may also park in any legal turnouts along the highway and hike for free.
- When there is not an active fire ban, fire is still not allowed anywhere except in the developed picnic areas and campgrounds.
- Make sure to stop by the Cuyamaca Rancho State Park Visitor Center to learn all about the park. It is located between the Paso Picacho and Green Valley Campgrounds on Hwy 79.
- The park is a mix of both Mediterranean and Continental climates. This means summers are hotter and drier with temperatures reaching the 80’s and high 90’s. In winter the weather is much cooler and full of precipitation with temperatures in the low 30’s-50’s. Having adequate water and layering is highly encouraged.
Cuyamaca Rancho State Park is a wildlife sanctuary with about 24,700 acres of protected land to explore. From climbing mountains to relaxing by a stream to horseback riding to rock climbing, there are so many activities to choose from. No matter what you pick make sure to follow Leave no Trace practices and have fun!
More To Explore
Cuyamaca Rancho State Park is just south of the town of Julian, a California Historical Landmark. Brought to life during the Gold Rush, historic Julian offers old town charm, historic buildings, gold mine tours, apple orchards, and much more.
Just East of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park is Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Anza-Borrego additional hiking, dispersed camping, off-roading, and a unique collection of 130 metal sculptures inspired by prehistoric beasts that may have once roamed the area. Definitely worth a trip.
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Kaitlin is a former ballerina who now travels around the country in an 18-foot converted school bus. Her and her husband have welcomed 34 sweet children into their home the past eleven years. Although they would not be a forever home for all of them, they adopted their daughter buckets and are legal guardians to their son monkey. Follow their crazy adventures on Instagram @runawaymusbus