On the north end of sprawling Cuyamaca Rancho State Park lies a lovely man-made lake set next to a shady pine and oak forest. Nearby sits the site of San Diego County’s most productive gold mine. This easy hike with low distance and mild inclines connects the two and features great scenery, history, and proximity to water, making this one of the most satisfying and relaxing in all of the county.
Lake Cuyamaca was created in 1888, and the dam holding in the water is the second oldest in California. The reservoir was originally created to provide water to a very thirsty San Diego, and it wasn’t long before several species of fish were introduced, turning the lake into a mountain fishery. When San Diego County introduced the larger El Capitan Reservoir, Lake Cuyamaca’s primary use as a reservoir fell by the wayside. The lake remained unused for a long period of time until the Lake Cuyamaca Recreation and Park District began governing the lake and reintroducing trout into the cool, serene waters. The lake remains a haven for local fisherman.
Meanwhile, gold strikes in the 1870’s led to the opening of the Stonewall Mine, which was named after General “Stonewall” Jackson. Stonewall was the county’s most productive mine, producing the modern equivalent of about $60 million in gold. The town of Cuyamaca, population 500, sprung up around the mine and disappeared just as quickly when the mine shut down. Today, there’s a lot of evidence of mining gear, as well as some informational displays that will tell you about the area’s history.
Today, the mine and some of the area around Lake Cuyamaca are part of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. The park protects 26,000 acres of San Diego’s “high country,” although much of the park, including this hike, is below 5,000 feet. Although most of Cuyamaca’s forest was destroyed by the 2003 Cedar Fire, the forest around the lake and the mine were spared. This is one of the few places in the park where one can walk underneath shady Jeffrey pines and black oaks without the constant reminders of ecological devastation.
This hike visits both destinations in a somewhat screwy “dumbbell” hike that loops around both the mine and Fletcher Island while being connected by a stretch of trail along a colorful plain that also acts as extra holding area for the reservoir. Given the large number of black oaks here, this hike is one of the finest fall color hikes in San Diego County as well.
After paying the $8 (at time of writing) day use fee at the Stonewall Mine parking lot, take the signed Stonewall Mine loop trail west up a gentle slope. You may notice that there are two trails, one for hikers and one for equestrians. Both of these trails ultimately end up at the same place, and they cross each other more than once. This makes for slightly confusing hiking, as the signage is not always clear. However, if you keep your eyes peeled for the signs for hikers, you should be able to stick to the foot trail. If you wander onto the horse trail, it won’t be the end of the world, especially since you’ll get several chances to get back on the right trail.
This trail winds westward around the low hill with most of the woods to your right and views over to Stonewall Peak on your left. You are likely to see wildlife here, including deer and wild turkeys, while the view over the rolling, grassy hills studded with conifers is pleasing and serene. Soon, the trail will loop back to the right almost to the point where it junctions into the trail you came in on. Ignore the small connector and continue on down the hill through lovely pine and oak forest.
At the bottom of this gentle slope you will come to a junction with a fire road and some horse stables. If you were to turn left on this road and stay straight, you would eventually loop back around to the start of the trail. However, it isn’t time for that yet. Instead, take the next left down through more forest and a small, sunny meadow before the trail begins skirting the southern edge of Lake Cuyamaca’s overflow plain. Soon, this trail will come to an opening with a fence to the right. The trail could continue on, but that would take you further along the swampy Marty Minshall Trail back to Highway 79. Instead, turn right toward the fence and squeeze through the stretched out wires. You have now passed out of the state park.
On the other side of the fence lies a wooden bridge connecting the Marty Minshall Trail to Fletcher Island. Cross the bridge, noticing the sudden explosion of water fowl, including ducks, coots, egrets, geese, and herons. On the other side of the bridge, follow the faint fire road over to a shaded picnic area. Just past this picnic area, you will be able to make out a faint use trail that skirts the edge of Lake Cuyamaca. It isn’t much of a trail, and it is often faint and rocky. However, as long as you stay on the lake’s edge, you will be golden.
More than golden, in fact. This is a really beautiful stretch of trail. Views of Cuyamaca, Middle, North, and Stonewall Peaks to the west, north, and south, respectively provide a little bit of drama and contrast, while cool conifers tower above the sporadically placed picnic tables. If you don’t mind a few rocky patches, you won’t have much trouble moving along, and eventually a clear trail re-emerges as you get closer to the north side of the island. Here, you’ll see a secluded, sandy cove with a picnic table. I dare you not to frolic and idle. Double dog.
After you’ve resisted (or capitulated to) my childish dares, continue along the shore past a large wooden sign that states “Fletcher Island.” You’ll see a long, straight dam that holds the lake’s water in during dryer times. On the other side of the dam is a vast plain that holds the overflow during wet years. This plain stretches all the way to Sunrise Highway, and during extreme El Nino years, it has been known to fill up completely to that point.
The trail soon becomes fire road and loops back toward the bridge. Cross the bridge and duck back under the fence, retracing your steps back to the fire road junction at the horse stables. From here, you could walk back to the parking lot on the fire road to check out the mine, but there is still a little bit more to see. At the fire road, turn left and continue a lazy loop around the forested edge of the plain. If you come here during spring, you’ll see patches of yellow wildflowers contrasted against green grasses, white sand, and a reddish plant whose identity I do not know. This lovely stretch affords some good views toward Soapstone Grade, along with more immediate views of pines and oaks and the occasional wildlife sighting.
The trail will come to a junction that bends sharply to the right. This trail will lead you up a gentle slope through the woods and out at the Stonewall Mine site. The site is fenced off since the mine shaft was about 200 feet deep. On the other side of the fence lies a lot of rusting machinery and cables, along with a sign explaining the history of the place. There are a few other spots with some rusting machinery in the vicinity, but once you’ve enjoyed that, you can wrap up your hike by strolling back to the car or lounging at the nearby picnic tables.
Hopefully, you’ve given yourself abundant time to sit and drink in the scenery. There aren’t many prettier spots in San Diego, and even though this hike is not much of a challenge, it is very satisfying. In fact, its unchallenging nature may be one of its great assets; on a recent trip, my wife and I encountered an elderly woman who must have been in her late 80’s, possibly early 90’s, hiking the trail with assistance. This is a trail for anybody and everybody, and those trails are often some of the best.
The trail is well-maintained and easy to walk on. It gets confusing at times due to a criss-crossing horse trail and a fence you'll need to pass through. My trip here is a little convoluted as well, making a simple hike a bit more complicated. Not a bad idea to have a map handy if you aren't using the GPS.
Two separate nearby campgrounds offer good camping options: Paso Picacho and Green Valley
From San Diego, take I-8 to Highway 79, turning left toward Descanso. Bear right to stay on 79 and then left to stay on 79 when it junctions with Old Highway 80. Follow 79 past Paso Picacho Campground and turn right onto the road indicating Stonewall Mine. Park at the mine.
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