Of the four loosely defined geographic regions in San Diego County, the region between I-15 and the Peninsular Ranges probably gets the highest visitation and use. This is due to its accessibility to the heavily populated coast in addition to a wealth of different hiking opportunities. Many of the county’s iconic hikes, such as Iron Mountain, Mission Hills, Daley Ranch, El Cajon/El Capitan, and, of course, Mt. Woodson, are found here. On any given weekend, these locations are crawling with hikers, but perhaps none quite as much as the ever-popular and surprisingly difficult Mt. Woodson.
Mt. Woodson is the tallest of the peaks in a small complex of mountains that also includes nearby Iron Mountain. Woodson also enjoys a geographic position in the center of the San Diego urban center, which affords expansive views from the nearly 3,000’ summit. In addition to the views, Woodson is also famous for its maze of granite boulders, some of which reach massive proportions or attain fantastic shapes. Most famous of these shapes is the Potato Chip, which is the remains of a boulder that has partially collapsed while leaving a flake of granite jutting out into space. Ask many San Diegans about Mt. Woodson, and you’re likely to hear them respond by calling it the “Potato Chip Hike,” which attests to the popularity of this geological oddity.
Local Native-Americans were reported to call Mt. Woodson “The Mountain of the Moonlit Rock,” which describes the omnipresent and highly reflective white granite boulders. These boulders formed within the earth as part of one massive granite block. However, as the granite cooled, it cracked and broke apart, forming separate chunks. Through the years, water and wind have eroded away the soil, thus exposing the outcrops. Further chemical erosion has rounded the edges by “peeling away” concentric layers of rock in much the same way one would peel an onion apart. This process of spheroidal weathering left many rounded boulders on the slopes leading to the peak. These granite boulders are common throughout the region east of the 15 and west of the mountains, and Mt. Woodson is the finest and most famous example of this landscape.
After the Native Americans vanished or were displaced, the mountain was named Cobbleback Mountain by local homesteaders. The mountain was later re-named in honor of a Confederate dentist named Marshall Clay Woodson who moved to the area in 1895 and, presumably, did a lot of home-steading. A fire lookout tower used to operate here from 1936 to the 1980’s, when it fell out of use with many of the other fire lookouts in the area. This was probably for the best as the array of communication towers would obscure the view and render a lookout useless.
The presence of the lookout towers means that, like Santiago Peak and Mt. Wilson, there isn’t really a true “summit” to be found. There are numerous high points offering views in different directions, but there is no one place to stand and proclaim yourself the temporary sovereign of this land. Chances are that a maintenance building occupies that lofty perch. For this reason, the hike described here will focus on climbing to the Potato Chip, which is where most people stop anyway. For those interested in exploring the summit complex, simply wandering around the paved road and stopping before you start descending down the other side should suffice.
One thing that you need to know before starting is that Mt. Woodson is not an easy hike. The trail gains 2,000’ in about 3.3 miles, which is a considerable amount of elevation for such a short distance. The trail has a few flat reprieves, but they are brief and tortuous even for their brevity. The initial stage of the hike takes you to task up an unrelenting stretch, gaining 700’ on unwavering fire road. The remaining majority of the climb occurs after gaining a saddle, where the trail ascends through a maze of boulders. There is almost no shade, and the heat generated in your body will increase the feeling of the temperature, which can frequently be very hot and very uncomfortable. If you hike Mt. Woodson, like so many other interior hikes, come prepared with adequate water and nutrition. Whether you are ready for it or not, Mt. Woodson will take you to task.
This hike starts from the Lake Poway parking lot. The city of Poway charges non-Poway residents a $5 fee for automobiles and a $2 fee for motorcycles (at time of writing) between March 1 and mid-November. The lake itself is a popular destination, with its own hiking trail, a large park, and fishing/boat rentals. The trail begins along the west shore of the lake, moving south along a use trail that connects to a fire road. Right off the bat, the Mt. Woodson trail starts making you work, as you gain a few hundred feet going over a hump on the hillside before descending right back down to just above the shore of the lake. Here, you’ll meet a junction with the trail to the summit, which remains a wide, steep fire road until gaining the aforementioned saddle.
This section of trail is steep and difficult. The grade is not favorable to hiking, and most hikers quickly find themselves hot, sweaty, and winded. Your best bet here is to take your time, stopping as often as you need to for a breather or a drink of water. There is no shame in taking a break here, as even experienced, conditioned hikers (such as this writer) have a hard time here (in this author’s case, every single time). The fire road will flatten out for a brief stretch at a junction with another side trail. Keep left. The fire road will keep climbing before flattening out at another side trail. Keep left here too. The flat spot here lasts longer, but it won’t be long before you start climbing again.
The trail soon comes to a junction with a much-ignored trail into a canyon whose name I forgot (bad hiking writer! Bad!). Make sure you choose to follow the Mt. Woodson summit trail, which is clearly marked and easy to follow. At this junction, the fire road is over and done with, and now the trail will begin winding its way through a maze of boulders shrouded in chaparral. Some of these boulders grow respectably large, while others attain interesting shapes. There are a few spots here where shortcutting is possible, but please do not aid and abet erosion by cutting the trails. Nature is doing just fine at that already.
At roughly halfway up this path, you will come to a lone oak tree jutting out above a flat-ish rock. This is a great place to sit and rest in one of the only shady spots on the trail while soaking in the rapidly improving views to the south and the west. If it’s clear, you will have no trouble picking out downtown San Diego. If you are a little more familiar with the geography, there is no shortage of landmarks looking south, including various neighborhoods and towns from El Cajon to Del Mar, as well as mountains in the Mission Trails area.
After your well-earned rest, continue winding your way up until arriving at a saddle with another junction heading in three separate direction. One direction leads to a viewpoint. One direction leads to the Fry-Koegel Trail, and I honestly have no idea where that ends up. The other option leads to the Mt. Woodson summit. After this junction, the trail finally mellows out a little bit as you pass through ever more impressive boulders and patches of fragrant yerba santa. Enjoy this relatively flat stretch before your final assault on the summit.
By now, the communications towers should be in view, indicating that the end of the climb is in sight. At the point just before where the trail becomes a paved access road, you will see the county-famous Potato Chip Rock. On any given day, you’re likely to see a number of folks posing on top of the Potato Chip for pictures. The feature itself was created as the underlying granite boulder broke away from an existing fault in the rock, leaving a long flake protruding out over nothing. Quite frankly, it freaks me out to think about standing on it. The curmudgeon in me thinks the rock is going to give way one of these days. But to each his or her own.
As this is the end of the line as far as the GPS track is concerned, you may wish to snap a few pictures before heading back. Should you wish to explore the summit complex, simply stick to the paved road. If the paved road begins to descend, be warned that you are heading down the other side of the mountain toward Ramona. If you were to keep going, you would face a long, grueling climb up the pavement to get back to the main trail back to Lake Poway. However, if you stick to the area where all the buildings are and poke around between the different structures, you will find a few nice spots with different views in different directions, as well as some planted groves of Coulter pines to provide a bit of shade.
Once you’ve seen what you want to see, retrace your steps back past Potato Chip Rock, past the junction for Fry-Koegel, down the twisting, winding trail, back to the fire road, ignoring a junction leading off to the left, and back down to the lake. You will notice that the GPS track diverts onto another section. This is an option for those who would like to walk along the shore of Lake Poway. To get to the shore, you’ll make a right at the junction between the Mt. Woodson summit trail and the fire road back to Lake Poway. This will take you along the fire road leading toward the dam. On the left, you will find a steep use trail leading down to the shore of the lake, which will connect with a well-trodden use trail that circumnavigates the lake, at least up to the dam.
From this use trail, bear left and follow the trail along the shore. You’ll pass through secluded coves frequented by fisherman before coming to a wide, sandy outlet for the creek that feeds Lake Poway. Usually, this creek is dry, but there’s still a very bouncy bridge crossing this sandy expanse – it’s a lot of fun to walk across. After this, the trail continues to make mild undulations to stick close to the shore. It’s refreshing to see water after so much time on the hot, dry trail. Eventually, the use trail will meet another user-created cut back up to the main trail before depositing you near the park at Lake Poway. From here, you only need to walk back to the car, unless you want to stop and play around on the swings. Why not? When was the last time you tried to see how far you could launch yourself from the swings?
Things to know:
– I know I already mentioned this, but I will belabor the point: This trail becomes extremely hot from late spring to early fall. If you’re going to hike this during those times, it is best to avoid the middle of the day. Early mornings and later afternoon may be slightly more comfortable, although this is a hike that can feel hot even on cool days. Be sure to bring lots of water or gatorade to stay hydrated.
– Rattlesnakes happen here. With rattlesnakes, it’s best to keep your distance and leave them as undisturbed as possible. Almost every time, a rattlesnake will quickly be on its way to get away from you. Since most people get bit on the hands, rattlesnake bites commonly occur because people not minding where they stick their fingers or are messing with the snakes. Keep your eyes peeled so as not to startle them (or yourself), and also keep a respectable distance.
The trail is well-maintained, well-traveled, and easy to follow. The fire road between Lake Poway and the summit trail is uncomfortably steep.
From San Diego, take the I-15 north and exit at Twin Peaks Road, turning right. Follow Twin Peaks to Espola Road and make a left. Just past Poway High School, make a right into the Lake Poway parking lot and concession area. Park near the concession stand after paying the fee.