Camping at Lake Cuyamaca

In Rancho Cucamonga, where I grew up, you can drive 45 miles south, east or west and barely feel like you left the place. Driving north is the rare exception as it takes you up over the Cajon Pass, into a portal to that very different, high desert world.

Here in San Diego we are surrounded by these “portals.” The cliffs of Torrey Pines and a walk along Black’s Beach are certainly transportive, the coastal drive up the 5 freeway is other-worldly as you reach the barely touched expanse of Camp Pendleton, or of course down south into Mexico, but none so striking a change happens until you drive east. My wife, Puja, and I got our first taste of this about a month ago when drove out to hike Mt. Woodson. The urban effects of the city rapidly drop off as you pass El Cajon, into Lakeside and find yourself in the rising elevations of the Cleveland National Forest.


For Puja’s birthday we went camping at Lake Cuyamaca with a group of friends. The first night we arrived in the dark and the temperature was ice cold. But I was rewarded in the morning when I woke up to the spectacular view of steam over the lake. The water was calm and the campsite was quiet, many of the ducks and other water fowl were willing to venture the shoreline nearby. This was not so true the next morning without the protection of the fog.

We had a nice morning hike around the lake. The most interesting part of the lake was opposite the campsite where boats were not allowed and the water fowl really congregated. There was also a pretty cool bridge and this beautiful red grass extending out into the untouched flood plain. We watched a really neat looking bird fly over the water, into a hummingbird-like hover and then dive down to the surface. We believe we identified it as a Forster’s Tern.

There were several wonderful peaks within walking distance of our campsite, namely: Stonewall Peak, Middle Peak and Cuyamaca Peak. Cuyamaca Peak is the second highest peak in all of San Diego County. It also has a fire access road going up it, which meant our dog Xaria could come with us. So that is the one we chose.

The beauty of this hike was entirely defined by the Cedar Fire of 2003. Nine years later, the mountainside is still covered in burned out trees. But the undergrowth is thriving, forming an impressive mass of brush, about twice our height.

Unfortunately, we got a late start on this hike and the group decided against finishing it. So we made it about two-thirds the way up before turning back. It was still fun and I hope to return someday. But I was more fascinated by the peak directly across, Stonewall Peak, which is topped with beautiful, large boulders, forming the wall that supplies its name.

On Sunday, our final day, we went to the apple-mountain town of Julian, which was about 5 miles up the road from our campsite. It is their peak season right now, as the apple harvest is on. Needless to say it was quite crowded. But now we’ve checked that one off the list. We got a jug of apple cider, which is the most apple tasting cider I’ve ever had, as opposed to the sugar water tasting stuff you get from the stores.

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