El Cajon and El Capitan Overview
Hiking El Cajon Mountain is one of the toughest hikes in the local San Diego area. The hike is a steep 11+ mile round trip with over 3k feet in elevation gain. El Cajon Mountain is right next to El Capitan Mountain, so you can easily summit both on the same hike if you are feeling a little extra adventurous. Since the detour to El Capitan is only about an extra 0.4 miles added to the total trip, my wife and I decided to summit both peaks. Our total trip length from the parking lot was 11.64 miles in a little over 6.5 hours with 3,963 feet of elevation gain. The time includes lots of stops for pictures, water breaks, snack breaks and a little relaxing at the summits.
The El Cajon Mountain hike does not have a whole lot of shade, and it can get hot. I recommend getting an early start on this hike to beat the heat. We started at 8:47 am which is early for us... but I would recommend starting even earlier.
With this being one of the more serious hikes in San Diego, make sure you are properly prepared with enough water as well. Everyone's body is different, so you have to know your own limits, but I drank one whole 48oz Nalgene (Amazon Affiliate) and just about crushed an entire 3L HydraPak (amazon Affiliate) as well.
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El Cajon Mountain Map
The map above can be viewed and downloaded on Caltopo here.
El Cajon Mountain Trail Guide
My wife and I are usually not early risers on the weekend and we have a bad habit of starting San Diego day hikes during the hottest part of the day. Usually everyone is leaving the trail while we are starting out....we carry a lot of extra water.
With El Cajon Mountain being an 11+ mile day hike, and knowing there would not be much shade, we knew we would have to start this hike earlier than our normal hiking routine. We ended up getting to the El Cajon Mountain parking lot just after 8:30 am and started hiking at 8:47 am.
We were by far not the first ones there, and the parking lot was already pretty full when we arrived. As we started up the first short paved section of trail, there is a big sign warning you of the heat and shows a very unhappy sun shining down on you on the trail:
Due to the steepness of the trail, zero to little shade, and long distance of this day hike, the sign correctly states:
When your water is half gone, it's time to turn around!
I packed one large 48 oz Nalgene (Amazon Affiliate) and one 3 Liter HydraPak Seeker (Amazon Affiliate) for a total of just over 1 gallon of water. I drank just about every last drop of water and only had a little bit left at the end. The hike on the way down got pretty hot!
The first section of hike is a mix of dirt and pavement. It seems to be a driveway for the local residents of the area. You can not drive up this section yourself, and must park at the parking lot before the gate.
While hiking this section, just be aware that there may be moving car traffic and respect the locals as you hike past their property or see them driving by. On our way down the mountain one local drove by and gave us a friendly wave as we moved over to the side of the trail to let them drive up.
At just about a half mile from the El Cajon Trailhead parking lot, the road section comes to an end, and you will enter the official trail. There are nice bathrooms here so you can empty the tank before you jump onto the long trail.
I took this picture on the trail switchback as we rose up above the bathrooms, looking down on them. When you reach this area, you will arrive at the bottom right hand side and walk through an opening in the fence. The trail picks up at the left hand side. The trail you see in the top left is actually at a fork, and we did not go up that section. We took a left at the fork and took the switchbacks up:
You can see the bathrooms and the trail on this zoomed map screenshot. I took the picture above roughly at the yellow dot on the trail:
The short section of switchbacks here are nice... but don't get used to them. The rest of the trail is mostly just a straight slog up the mountain 🙂
Once you top the switchbacks in the 1st climb from the parking lot, the trail begins to level out a little bit. From around mile 1 to mile 2 the trail has a few rolling hills and you actually lose a little elevation. This is a bit deceptive, and mentally you prepare for this hike to be a gradual incline based on this first section. You feel very strong, making it easy at this point to get a false sense of security.
In order to keep your expectations in check, remind yourself that this is a long steep hike and just enjoy the views in front of you. If you look closely you can spot the trail winding through the terrain in front of you in the far distance ahead! In the early morning haze it almost became a fun "eye spy" game on the trail. There were a few times I would scratch my head when I would see the trail far off in the distance and say to myself, "are we going all the way over there?" Confirming on the map, the answer was always "yes!"
The first steep but short section of trail begins right at mile two, however this is only a mere warm up for your legs! After this short climb, it quickly takes a short dip before the first of two big long steep climb, and one final medium distance steep climb to the summit of El Cajon Mountain.
As you go down the first dip before the first large climb you are presented with a grand view of big climb number one. You can see the trail in the distance on the right hand side of the picture below. The trail then disappears to the other side of the ridge but continues upward.
Slow and steady wins this race. Do not run up this first climb only to get destroyed by the second steep climb! As we continued hiking, I saw a stop sign in the distance appear on the trail. I assumed that a road must crisscross this section of trail and the sign was here to protect tired hikers from cars. I was partially right... The stop sign was there to protect hikers, but it was there to protect hikers from themselves!
As I read the sign, it essentially says that you are only about half way to the summit and that it will take you about the same amount of time to get down as it does to get up the mountain. The stop sign is also a reminder to stop and check your food, water, and time, then make a smart decision on if you should turn around at this point or continue towards the summit. It's easy to get summit fever and loose track of time and water levels while on the trail. This was great reminder to evaluate our own situation before moving forward. We started early enough and were making good time, so we pushed forward after doing our own food and water check.
Since the climb is long, a great way to break it up is to get off your feet for a few minutes and enjoy a few sips of water and delicious snacks. Shortly after the stop sign we took our packs off and broke out some Honey Stinger Waffles (Amazon Affiliate) to enjoy while taking in the views! These snacks are great because they don't melt like chocolate in the heat, and are thin, light and easy to pack!
After our short snack break it was time to get our packs back on and continue up. We were just about at the top of the first major climb.
One of the most disheartening feelings on the trail is after a large climb seeing the trail dip, knowing that you have another large climb coming up. It almost feels like wasted effort 😆
Before big climb number two, you drop about 300 ft in elevation before climbing back up...
El Cajon Mountain is very well marked and has elevation/mile marker signs are scattered throughout the trail. I always recommend bringing your own map, but these signs are a great quick glance at what is coming up next.
After the short downhill I was just complaining about, my legs felt fresh and were ready for big climb number 2. Big climb number 2 would take us on our short detour to the top of El Capitan.
Part of the way up this climb you will run into the random rusted out vehicle.....
Despite the steepness and the long day of hiking up to this point, I always feel like I get stronger as I start nearing the top just out of pure excitement!
Right before either summit you come up to a small plateau where the trail flattens out at an intersection. The middle of the intersection has a sign about protecting the sensitive species in the area such as the Golden Eagle.
If you want to skip El Capitan Mountain Summit, take a left here and you will continue up to El Cajon Mountain Summit. We wanted to bag both peaks, and since El Capitan didn't add too much more distance, we took a right at the intersection and continued up towards El Capitan summit first.
Arriving at the summit of El Capitan felt great and we were of course rewarded with beautiful 360 degree views. We had the summit all to ourselves and climbed up onto a nice rock to take in the views and have one final snack break to refuel before the final push up to El Cajon Mountain.
From the summit of El Capitan to the summit of El Cajon Mountain its only 0.64 miles with about 426 feet of elevation gain. After our snacks on El Capitan, we re-packed and headed back along the trail we took from the previous intersection towards El Cajon Mountain. As we descended off El Cajon we had a nice view of our final climb up El Cajon in front of us.
The nice, well-groomed trail that we took up most of the day disappears right at the base of the final climb to the summit of El Cajon Mountain. The trail narrows and becomes much less defined.
The El Cajon Mountain Trail closes at sunset, so you should not be up here in the dark. If you were up there at night, it would be really easy to get lost, so follow the rules and make sure you are off the summit with plenty of time to get back before dark!
Although the trail is hard to find at this point, there are a zillion green trail makers sprinkling the trail all the way to the peak. It becomes a game of eye spy looking for the green trail markers all the way to the summit of El Cajon Mountain!
As you approach the summit, the trail gets narrow, weaving between large boulders. Keep your eyes peeled for the fancy El Cajon Mountain summit sign wedged in between a few medium sized boulders. We had to scurry up one small boulder to get up to it and enjoy the view. We did not have El Cajon Mountain summit all to ourselves, but everyone was spread out enjoying the peace and quiet and the amazing views in all directions.
It's a great accomplishment to celebrate arriving at the summit of El Cajon Mountain, but don't forget you still have the entire hike back down. With the rollercoaster of a trail, there are still a few small climbs ahead of you, and honestly the downhills are so steep they are not exactly enjoyable. On the way back the heat was really starting to hit hard, so listen to the warning sign at the start of the hike and make sure you are prepared with enough water to make it back to your car after celebrating at the summit!