Distance (round-trip)

9.9 mi

Time

5 hrs

Elevation Gain

2500 ft

Season

Spring
Summer
Fall

Weather

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.

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Cuyamaca Peak in the distance, Volcan Mountain in the middle, and the San Felipe Hills in the front

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. DSC00037

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.

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San Ysidro Canyon

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San Ysidro Mountains

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.

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Black Oak in a meadow

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The old lookout tower

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Looking northeast. Mt. San Jacinto is dead center in the frame with Bucksnort Mountain and Agua Caliente Canyon in the foreground

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.

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Santa Rosa Mountains

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Palomar Mountain Observatory and High Point

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.

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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.

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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.

Scott is an L.A. native and San Diego transplant who pulls every trick in the book to get out on the trail. His first book, a revision of Afoot and Afield San Diego County, is now out.





Camping

Shade

Solitude

Views / Vista

Trail Map

13 Comments

Scott Turner Jan 13, 2019 15:01In reply to: Jeff M

Good question. I don’t know. Only people who know are the tribe, but unfortunately they are inconsistent about answering their phones. Maybe bring your drone and ask at the gate, and be prepared to leave it in the car if they say no?

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Jeff M Jan 13, 2019 11:01

Are drones allowed?

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Joe Jan 15, 2018 11:01

Same fee, went a couple of weeks ago on NYE. Gate guard & officer were very nice. They gave us permission to drive up through camp ground and park at the gate just shy of shooting range to attack the summit approach from the north (take Cam San Ignacio Rd to Qawish Rd). Hoofed the fire road toward transition point to Borrego Palm Cyn Rd, veered south at that intersection to climb what may be Dangerous Rd according to the map provided by the guards [caution: gate map has poor detail]. The climb is a steep wash with some rusted vehicle pieces strewn about roughly halfway up (hence dangerous?). This connects with Hot Springs Mt Road -- head west to arrive at tower platform. True SD county high point is accessible via use trail heading east from turnout by tower, follow the cairns/flags. Gliders are crazy close, views & cedar groves along the way are amazing, had the entire trail to ourselves.

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Edwin Gonzalez Jul 30, 2017 13:07

Still $10 for a day permit. Very isolated hike. I was there yesterday and didn't see anyone but two camping parties at the base. Very few markings on where to go or park. Walking through the forest would be nice if wasn't for the insane amount of gnats swarming you the entire way. Highly recommend bug spray. Ultimately a rewarding experience as very few people know about this mountain. Watching the gliders pass you by the fire lookout is an awesome sight.

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Scott Turner

Scott Turner Feb 11, 2017 00:02In reply to: Valerie

The "Hot Springs" refer to the hot springs in Warner Springs. You can visit those springs, which are within Warner Ranch property. There aren't any hot springs atop the mountain.

It's fine for dogs. However, the conditions here are quite different than what you'd find in a county, state, or federal park given that this is reservation land for the Los Coyotes people. There are less assurances of safety and support here than what you'd find elsewhere. I suggest a group hike may be a wise choice, but I also hiked solo without any issue.

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Valerie Feb 9, 2017 23:02

Is there hot springs here? Are they hard to locate if so? How is it for dogs and a solo person?

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Megan Jan 30, 2017 03:01

Our GPS said this was 12 miles.... did it today in the snow. Beautiful views and one EPIC hike!

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Scott Turner

Scott Turner Aug 9, 2016 12:08In reply to: Paul

I'm actually not sure what the reservation prefers in terms of backcountry camping, but out of respect, I would stick to the two campgrounds. If you visit, you can always check with the guard at the entrance of the reservation. In my experience, they don't answer their phone very often.

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Paul Aug 8, 2016 23:08

Can you camp along the route, or are you confined to one of the two campgrounds?

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Scott Turner

Scott Turner Nov 24, 2015 13:11In reply to:

No, I don't believe so. I gave them a call to confirm, but they aren't answering the phone at the moment. I suggest play it safe and leave the pup at home for this one.

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