In a wild and lonely corner of the Los Coyotes Reservation stands the highest point in San Diego County. Hot Springs Mountain, which stands about 20′ higher than Cuyamaca Peak, boasts the stunning views you would expect from a 6,533′ mountain smack dab in the center of the Peninsular Ranges. Beyond those views, the mountain’s elevation supports a dense forest full of a variety of conifers interspersed with deciduous black oaks, whose leaves turn a brilliant gold during late October and early November.
Hot Springs Mountain sits on Los Coyotes (a band of the Cahuilla Indians) Reservation Land, and visitation is subject to approval from the tribe. In 2005, the tribe closed the reservation to public use after visitors to the land were disrespectful and destructive. The reservation has since re-opened to recereational use for a $10 day use fee (at time of writing) and a $16 camping fee. Los Coyotes features two campgrounds and a network of fire roads of varying conditions. Information regarding the times when the reservation is open to recreational use is spotty and inconsistent, but the safe bet is to assume that day hiking is available from 9-5 on Friday-Sunday, while campgrounds are open Friday night and Saturday night, with Sunday also being open for holiday weekends. For better information, it may help to call the tribal office, although my experience has been that they answer the phone inconsistently.
At any rate, it is essential that recreational enthusiasts, including hikers, campers, mountain bikers, and 4wd enthusiasts, behave as if they are guests in another person’s home. This includes adhering to Leave No Trace principles while also giving the people living on the reservation the respect and privacy that they deserve.
Although another shorter route up to the summit exists from Nelson Camp deep in the reservation, this longer and more strenuous route was chosen due to the variety in the topography, ecology, and views. Starting from Los Coyotes Campground and the junction with Rough Road, park under a massive live oak near the water tank and begin the arduous walk up the steep but well-graded fire road. The initial 2.2 mile stretch of the trail is easily the most difficult, and it includes a gain of about 1,500′. Hikers looking for a more casual experience and who are armed with 4wd vehicles could follow Rough Road up this initial stretch and park at one of the clearings off to the side of the road, but more determined hikers will enjoy the quad-busting challenge while soaking in the ever-improving views east toward the San Ysidro Mountains, Volcan Mountains, and Cuyamaca Mountains.
After doggedly mastering the initial climb, you will reap your rewards as you pass into the blissful shade of Hot Springs Mountain’s mixed-conifer forest. The forest here features just about all of the typical Southern California conifers, including Coulter, Jeffrey, and sugar pines, white fir, and incense cedar. Canyon live oak and black oak are interspersed throughout, and the abundant black oaks put on a beautiful fall color show with their golden leaves rustling in the slightest breeze.
The trail will pass through this often dense forest while undulating gently over a series of ridges. The fire road you are walking on is very easy to follow, but the occasional unsigned road meeting the trail can cause some confusion. There is only one junction in which Rough Road merges into Hot Springs Mountain Road (which is not marked). Basically, if a road is branching off left or right, you will ignore it until you come to a place where the road you are walking on joins the reservation’s main road at 2.5 miles. That’s not extraordinarily helpful in the directions department, but without signage and with most maps being quite poor and inaccurate, your best bet is to follow the GPS track provided here.
After merging onto Hot Springs Mountain Road, you will continue to pass through the forest as the road stays mostly above 6,000′ before approaching the summit. As you near the summit, ignore the numerous roads branching off of the main road and make sure you stay with the widest and most traveled track. The trail occasionally leaves the cover of the trees, providing glimpses of the astonishing view that awaits at the summit. At 4.8 miles, the road makes a wide switchback, and the dangerously unstable old fire lookout comes into view. With just a touch more effort, you will soon be standing near the summit.
The old lookout on the summit was once used by the Department of Forestry to spot and report wild fires. Once you’ve attained the summit and examined the view sprawling out for miles in every direction, you will easily understand why they chose this location. Looking north, you’ll see the yawning depths of Agua Caliente Canyon with the scrubby slopes of Bucksnort Mountain and the arid Anza Valley stretching out to the highlands of the San Jacinto Mountains. Looking east, you will spy the arid upper ridge of the Santa Rosa Mountains and a shimmering patch of the Salton Sea. The rolling highlands of the Cuyamaca Mountains and the cresting wave of the Laguna Escarpment loo to the south.
Meanwhile, the forested ridge of the Volcan Mountains glower to the west, while the broad, sloping plain of Rancho San Jose del Valle builds up to the dark ridge of the Palomar Mountains. This is an inspiring view, and many happy moments can be spent admiring the views and basking in the cool breeze.
Another quirk on this hike comes from the popularity of gliding in the Warner Springs area. The only man-made sounds you are likely to hear on this hike come from single prop planes towing sleek gliders out of the airstrip just outside Warner Springs. Once released, these gliders soar over Hot Springs Mountain and Agua Caliente Canyon using thermals to gain height and maintain elevation. The gliders come pretty close to the tower, so don’t be surprised to see their pilots waving to you in greeting.
From the summit, return to follow Hot Springs Mountain Road back to the junction with Rough Road. This is the only real junction you will encounter, so be sure to turn left onto Rough Road to return to your car. From here, you’ll retrace your steps back through the forest and back down the rugged slopes of the mountain to return to your car.
The trail occurs entirely on fire road. The principal challenge is ensuring that you don't get sidetracked on one of the many unmarked roads branching in on the left on the right. Many of these roads are not well marked, and trails provided by the reservation are extremely inaccurate.
Los Coyotes Reservation operates two campgrounds. The first, Los Coyotes, is also the trailhead for this hike.
Take I-15 to Highway 78 and follow 78 through Escondido toward Ramona Ramona. At the junction with Highway 67, turn left on 78 toward Julian. Follow 78 into Santa Ysabel, and turn left at Highway 79. Follow Highway 79 into Warner Springs and turn right onto Camino San Ignacio. Follow that road into the reservation, and stop to pay the entrance fee ($10 at time of writing) Continue on a smooth dirt road before reaching Los Coyotes Campground. Park to the left at the junction for Rough Road.