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The Cuyamaca Mountains - Joy and Renewal


The Cuyamaca Mountains - Joy and Renewal

How wild areas renew the human spirit

Oakzanita Peak from the west
Oakzanita Peak from the west
(All photographs courtesy Steve Barton)

My first glimpse of Oakzanita Peak and the Cuyamaca Mountains came in December of 1990. I had just arrived in San Diego, a 40-year old refugee from the personal and financial malaise of the Northeast. Knowing that I was not feeling well, a friend, Steve Barton, welcomed me to the West with a driving tour of the Cuyamaca and Laguna Mountains. Leaving San Diego, we left the coast behind and drove east on the I-8, where we exited the freeway on rte 79 and made our way through the small village of Descanso. Continuing north towards Julian, we crossed into the Cuyamaca Rancho State Park when Steve pointed out the rocky summit of Oakzanita Peak, a 5054’ mountain rising above the horizon on our right.

A few days later, we returned with our daypacks and a picnic lunch. Leaving the car near the locked gate of the fire road, we began the four mile ascent by heading east; after a steep grade the road leveled out and the two of us made good time hiking at a brisk pace with the summit rising up before us and to our right. The peak, named for the Oak and Manzanita that grew with thick abandon on the mountain’s slopes, is a popular destination for hikers and the fire road made the summit readily accessible. Higher up, the road switchbacked up the slope and led us through several stands of California Live Oak, whose many interlaced and leafy branches formed a cool green canopy over the sun-splashed dirt fire road.

The road climbed around the north side of the mountain and near the 3-mile mark the grade abated and we followed a trail off to our right that led back towards the west and south with the rocky summit of Oakzanita Peak rising above the plateau before us. The trail made its way across the plateau towards the southern end of the summit ridge. Reaching the ridge, it turned sharply right and after a few switchbacks, Steve and I stepped out onto the rocky apex. This was my first hike as a resident of the West, and I stood on the summit with my friend basking in the wonder and beauty that surrounded us.

Steve pointed out several of the natural features of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. First was Cuyamaca Peak, the highest point in the park at 6512’, next was the rocky spire of Stonewall Peak (5730’), and the broad grassy flats of East and West Mesas. Far to the west lay the Pacific Ocean, about 40 miles distant. We found a place to sit and ate our lunch, eastern-style grinders that we enjoyed with chips and cold beer that Steve had carried up in a backpacking cooler.

Cuyamaca Peak from the summit of Oakzanita Peak
Cuyamaca Peak from Oakzanita Peak

The day was fine and we enjoyed two hours at the summit. As we sat on Oakzanita Peak, I had no idea that the Cuyamaca Mountains would serve as the backdrop for my life in Southern California, and that during the next four years I would return often to visit their summits and to experience the simple joys of exploring the trails and wild places that existed so close to my abode.

Steve and I shared many fine adventures hiking the trails of the Cuyamaca together, trips we undertook in good weather and in bad. We explored the mesas at night by hiking with headlamps, and trekked to various summits where we savored a glass of fine wine along with various other delicacies. After watching the orb of the sun disappear behind the distant Pacific Ocean, we made our way back down the trail in the dark using headlamps to guide our steps along the route. The long loop around the Harvey Moore Trail was a particular favorite. We hiked to the Harvey Moore memorial bench where we would eat lunch and enjoy the vista from the comfortable wooden seat. On one trip, we enjoyed a rare and expensive French Sauterne at the Harvey Moore bench, sitting there in the late afternoon sun before moving on to Granite Springs Primitive Camp. A massive oak tree stood watch near the camp and I could sit for hours beneath its canopy, lost in the play of green images above me. Then it was time for the headlamps and we hiked up the fire road as it rose over the height of land and made our way down through the mesa to the car.

Lunch on a Cuyamaca Summit
Lunch on a Cuyamaca summit

Every Thanksgiving, on the Friday after turkey day, Steve and I made turkey sandwiches and set out for the Cuyamaca in the late afternoon. Once there, we followed the access road to the summit of Cuyamaca Peak, home to the highest and finest view towards the ocean in the west. Gaining the crest, we sat alongside the transmission towers situated there and watched the sun set behind the Pacific Ocean as we ate our sandwiches with a glass of wine. On these trips, we always met others at the summit, likeminded hikers enjoying the same tableau. One year, I had a visitor from New Hampshire and she joined us on our annual holiday pilgrimage to the summit of Cuyamaca Peak, a trip that was frightfully cold and windy. I once visited the summit alone on a cold night and clearly saw the entire coastline of Southern California, the distinct line indicating where the lights of civilization ended at the blackness of the ocean. The line stretched from San Diego in the west up past San Clemente to Dana Point in the north, and curled around the gold coast of Orange County all the way to Long Beach; a sight that I witnessed but once in my life.

I returned to Oakzanita Peak numerous times with friends old and new; I wanted to share with others the beauty of standing on its summit. One night a gathering of us climbed Oakzanita to watch a rare full Worm Moon rise over the Cuyamaca Mountains after sunset, a memorable experience. When groups of us went on extended camping trips in the Cuyamaca, Oakzanita Peak remained as a favorite destination for many.

In 1994, I found myself exploring new career possibilities and it seemed as if my years of living in Southern California were coming to an inevitable end. On one summer day that year, my girlfriend Lilly and I made the hike to the summit of Oakzanita to enjoy lunch and search for a cooling summer breeze. Reaching the top, we threw our daypacks to the ground and rested a few moments; then extracted dry shorts and t-shirts from our packs before stripping off our sweaty attire in anticipation of changing. Standing there in the warm goodness of the summer sun, we embraced, two star-crossed lovers searching for the kind of solace and redemption that only the human touch can provide. Without shame or urgency, we made love on the summit of Oakzanita Peak, surrounded by the summer abundance of Southern California and basking in the brilliance of the blue sky above us on a perfect day in paradise.

The world is both wondrous and manifold; a palette on which we mix the colors and hues of our spirit and essence. For me, the mountains fill a primal need and just as I fell in love with the White Mountains of New Hampshire some 22 years earlier, I came to love Southern California and the Cuyamaca Mountains as well. Wild areas provide succor and respite from the inexorable pressures placed on us by careers and the unrelenting pace of modern life. Physical places, like Oakzanita Peak, are the blank canvas on which we paint the dreams and testaments of our innermost lives. Time is the brush we use to paint these temporal masterpieces, and the human heart is the medium, the elemental substance with which we create our most cherished and private moments.

In November of 1994, I departed California for a work position in Atlanta. The day before I left, Steve and I made our way to the Cuyamaca and climbed Middle Peak on a dark gray day as a stiff chill wind slashed through the trees. Following a lunch of sandwiches and fine wine, we made our way to the high col between Cuyamaca Peak and Middle Peak. We looked west towards the ocean but could see nothing, the wet cold cloud was blowing directly into our faces at 40 knots, and clumps of snow and ice covered the pines and lay strewn across the grasses. The summit of Cuyamaca Peak, which we knew stood just several hundred feet above us to our left, remained obscured in the blowing gray cloud. As we stood there, the ceiling began to lift, and in a minute, the clouds were flying past us some twenty feet above our heads and we looked directly at the brilliant sun sitting just above the distant Pacific Ocean. It was a magical moment, and both of us were moved by the sun-drenched beauty that surrounded us, on what we knew was our last hike together for a long time.

In November of 1996, I returned to Southern California on a brief vacation to enjoy the Thanksgiving Holiday with Steve. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, Steve and I made large roast turkey sandwiches consisting of dark meat, stuffing, mayonnaise, and whole-cranberry sauce. We put these in our daypacks along with a bag of potato chips and a good bottle of Cabernet, and then set out for the summit of Oakzanita Peak to watch the sunset. Rangers had constructed a new trail to the summit since I had left California; the new trail turned right off the fire road not far from the start and made its way directly up the cone of the peak. We followed the trail and high on the mountain it joined the old trail coming off the plateau at the south side of the summit ridge just below the apex.

At the top, we put on dry shirts, a sweater, and windbreakers before settling down to our fine mountain repast and a glass of wine. We talked about our first hike on Oakzanita Peak back in 1991, and I wistfully remembered my afternoon here with Lilly. As I watched the shadows grow long and blackness overtake the landscape, I came to realize how much I had enjoyed this area of California and how it had enriched my life. I saw the ghosts of many old friends and realized I was grateful for all of the fine moments I had experienced in the Cuyamaca, and for the many friends that shared those moments with me. Later, long after sunset, we made our way back to the car and then to Steve’s apartment in San Diego.

Sunset from Oakzanita Peak
Sunset from Oakzanita Peak

In 1997, I relocated to Northern California after my years in Georgia and began exploring Mt Diablo State Park in Contra Costa County, just east of San Francisco Bay. The park’s namesake peak reaches almost 3900’ of elevation and numerous trails climb to the summit observatory and crisscross the ridges and valleys of the surrounding peaks, canyons, and grasslands.

As I explored the wild places surrounding Mt Diablo I came to realize that during every phase of my adult life, I had a wilderness area that formed the central region around which my non-working world revolved. Following the Army years, that region was the White Mountains of New Hampshire; after moving to Southern California in 1990, the Cuyamaca Mountains filled that need. During my three years in Atlanta, I cultivated an in-depth knowledge of the Blood Mountain area of the North Georgia Mountains and in 1997, my wilderness of choice became the many trails cleaving the undulating backcountry surrounding Mt Diablo in Northern California.

Although I always possessed a regional wilderness area that I visited at regular intervals, I also explored other wild places both near and far from home. The Cuyamaca Mountains filled a deep personal need during the period when I lived in Southern California, but that did not mean that all of my camping and hiking adventures of those years occurred only in the Cuyamaca. I also explored the San Gabriel Mountains, the San Bernardino Mountains, Mt San Jacinto, Death Valley, Yosemite, the Santa Ana Mountains, and the Anza Borrego Desert. Yet the Cuyamaca Mountains rose close enough to my Orange County home to allow for a daytrip, and served as the destination of choice when I had no firm plans or when I felt the immediate urge to get away from the mundane workaday world. Those mountains were my home away from home; when I was lonely and depressed the hours on the trails of the Cuyamaca provided succor and rejuvenation, and when I was in love I consummated that love by bedding my most dearly beloved on the rocky summits under the bright sun of a summer day.

While living in Northern California, as I began to explore the trails on Mt Diablo, a beautiful new spirit named Shirley came into my life. We hiked together often and as we explored Mt Diablo and the Yosemite high-country together, I regaled her with tales of the Cuyamaca Mountains and my trips to the Anza Borrego Desert with Steve. In March of 2002, I took Shirley to the Anza Borrego Desert on a hiking and camping excursion. As a one-day side trip, we left our desert camp and drove south to the I-8 freeway, and followed it west towards San Diego. Driving up the In-Ko-Pah Mountains, we followed the freeway as it crossed over three 4000’ summits before descending briefly to rte 79, where I left the highway and once again drove through the small village of Descanso and north towards Julian. On this trip, I pointed out Oakzanita Peak and many other prominent features of the park to Shirley, just as Steve had done for me so many years before.

We parked next to the campground at Paso Picacho Pass, located near 5000’ of elevation between the summits of Cuyamaca and Stonewall mountains. Together, we hiked to the rocky spire atop Stonewall Peak, gaining almost 800’ in two miles of switchbacks. Just below the summit, a steel guardrail and steps in the rocks lead us up to the small observation area at the highest point. From this uppermost perch, we saw all the major peaks and mesas of the Cuyamaca Mountains, including the rocky summit of Oakzanita Peak rising below us to the south. I told Shirley a few tales of memorable Cuyamaca adventures, showed her the route of the Harvey Moore, and pointed out the col between Cuyamaca Peak and Middle Peak where Steve and I had hiked to on that indelible final hike in 1994. We embraced and kissed, then departed the rocky promontory and enjoyed our lunch on the rocks just below the summit, sitting out of the wind in the sun. Later, we made our way down the trail to our car and drove into the popular mountain community of Julian where we stopped for coffee and a pastry. After that brief respite, we followed rte 78 out of town and almost immediately began the plunge down the Banner Grade on our descent into the Anza Borrego Desert, which lay spread out to the horizon far below us. In 90 minutes, we were back at our tent in the desert, having enjoyed the kind of day, and witnessed such a diversity of scenery, that one can only experience in the West.

Stonewall Peak from the summit of Oakzanita Peak
Stonewall Peak from Oakzanita Peak

The last time I set foot in the Cuyamaca Mountains was the summer of 2004. That visit was after the great Cedar Fire, the largest wildfire in California history that destroyed the park in 2003. The trail up Stonewall Peak was open and I climbed to the summit through the charred and dusty barren moonscape alone, yet accompanied by the accumulated ghosts of the people I had camped and hiked with over the years in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. From the viewpoint atop the spire, I saw that the most beautiful things in the park, the old buildings, great stands of pine, and groves of hardwood trees, were gone; only my memories remained.

Today, in 2012, I think back to my first hike in the Cuyamaca Mountains when I climbed Oakzanita Peak with Steve in January of 1991, more than 20 years ago. How little I knew, back then, about the deserts and mountain ranges of the West. Yet, my years in the West have been good to me. Shirley is now my wife and we have shared grand adventures and challenges together in the deserts, foothills, and mountains of California and the western states. Together, we have stood on the summit of 10,000’ mountains, hiked through the high passes of the Yosemite backcountry, and explored the vastness of Death Valley. All this began in 1991 with that first hike in the Cuyamaca Mountains; at the time, I was 40 years old and beginning a new life far removed from my roots in the Northeast.

I also recall the four great hiking areas that served as my anchor in difficult times, regions that provided recovery and solace during the different phases of my life. For 18 years, I wove the fabric of my life with a multitude of threads spun in the mountains of New Hampshire. I felt saddened when I left, and I considered those mountains unique and irreplaceable. Then I moved to Southern California and discovered that the Cuyamaca provided me with same renewal and inner peace that I found in the mountains of New Hampshire. Having learned that lesson, I quickly made the trails and peaks around Blood Mountain in North Georgia, my second home when I relocated to Atlanta in 1994. Blood Mountain had an added distinction: the Appalachian Trail (AT) ran over the crest of the mountain and the white blazes that marked the passage of the AT on Blood Mountain connected me to the white blazes of the AT in New England, and to the White Mountains of New Hampshire in particular. After moving to Northern California in 1997, I traveled and explored the many trails and ridges of Mt Diablo State Park, and that wilderness preserve quickly established itself as my surrogate home away from home for hiking and spiritual renewal. I can look back at over a decade’s worth of adventure on and around Mt Diablo, and realize that Shirley and I have developed an abiding intimacy while hiking the many trails of this park in all types of conditions. I could not have lived my life any differently; my time on the trail and in the wilderness played an important and integral role in the development of my personality and outlook on life.

During my years of hiking and camping, I explored a wide variety of wilderness destinations, wild seashores, famous national parks, windswept summits, and obscure trails in many States known only to the local outdoor clubs that maintained them. I also came to love and appreciate the deserts of the West, wild and mystical places that Shirley and I never tire of visiting. Nevertheless, lurking behind these adventures sat the four special areas that served as the bulwark and foundation of my being, the places that saw me through times of depression, doubt, and loneliness, and allowed me to survive the stress and thankless pace of a career in Information Technology and Project Management. Wherever I lived, I visited my local wild area in every season of the year. I celebrated life’s special events with group outings at campgrounds and mountain ponds, shared my favorite trails and secret places with close friends, and when visitors came from far away, we always ended up exploring the wilds in one way or another. I look back on all the great trails of these four regions, trails that I traversed numerous times, never tiring of them, always finding something fresh to savor and appreciate; because I understood that, “No man steps into the same river twice.” The river has changed and so has the man.

Those magical places, the White Mountains, the Cuyamaca, Blood Mountain, and Mt Diablo are still out there. These wilderness preserves, along with many other wild places throughout America, are waiting for new generations of hikers, explorers with a warm heart and knowing eye, human visitors that can truly appreciate the gifts and bounty found on a mountain summit, or strewn across a desert floor, or hiding in a backcountry canyon.

As for the Cuyamaca Mountains, the Cedar Fire destroyed the vegetation but it will grow back. The peaks are still visible, sharp against the blue sky, waiting for the traveler to stand atop the highest pinnacle and paint a masterpiece of memory within their heart, a work of art honoring a moment of their life.

Laudizen King
Los Angeles

Oakzanita Peak from the Harvey Moore Trail - Late Afternoon
Oakzanita Peak the Harvey Moore Trail
(All photographs courtesy Steve Barton)