Distance (round-trip)

20 mi

Time

12 hrs

Elevation Gain

3800 ft

Season

Spring
Fall
Winter

Weather

UPDATE 4/7/2020: Per recent intelligence from somebody who does regular trail maintenance on Magee-Palomar Road, most of the obstructing brush has been removed. However, there are a couple of downed trees that you will need to climb over. We’ve also received a substantial amount of rain since that report, and we’re also confined to our homes right now. So, it’s really anybody’s guess what condition Magee-Palomar Road will be in. 

The Agua Tibia Loop is one of three behemoth hikes in the Palomar District of Cleveland National Forest. The other two – Eagle Crag and High Point – occur nearby. Both Eagle Crag and Agua Tibia dip into the Agua Tibia Wilderness, which was the first and largest federal wilderness established in San Diego County. The full hike presented here is one of the most challenging and strenuous in San Diego. This write-up will provide three different options to enjoy this remote, rugged, and beautiful corner of the county.

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Mt. San Jacinto

Agua Tibia Mountain occupies the northernmost block of the Palomar Mountain range. Agua Tibia is lower in elevation than the Palomar and Aguanga blocks, and it scrapes, but does not quite reach, 5,000’. The lower elevations ensure that this hike can be dangerously hot during the summer and should therefore be avoided out of season (from November to May). And unlike Palomar Mountain, the vegetation here is chaparral, with only a handful of Coulter pines and bigcone Douglas firs gracing the upper elevations. 

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Mt. San Gorgonio

The three options for this hike include taking the Dripping Springs Trail alone, either as a day hike or as an out-and-back backcountry camping trip; second, stopping at the campsite at the end of the Dripping Springs Trail for overnight camping and then continuing around the summit on Palomar Magee Road while returning down the Wild Horse Trail for a two day hike; and, third, if you’re a real glutton for punishment, completing the entire hike in one very long, very sweaty day.

If you plan to camp, you will need to obtain a wilderness permit from Cleveland National Forest’s Palomar District in advance of your visit. To obtain the permit, fill out this online form, and email it to [email protected]. After that, you’ll be set up with a permit, enabling you to camp anywhere you like, so long as you choose a flat space with a durable, vegetation-free surface. Note that there is no reliable water on the route, so be sure to bring plenty of water – preferably two gallons worth if you’re hiking the entire loop. 

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Hot air baloon

The Dripping Springs Trail starts out from the south end of Dripping Springs Campground. The trail quickly crosses the usually dry Arroyo Seco before climbing to a junction with the Wild Horse Trail. Remember this junction because in 18.5 miles, if you’re taking the loop, you will end up back at this spot. Following the junction, the trail will take you switchbacking up a hill on a steady, but reasonable grade. As you climb, be sure to look back frequently as excellent views of SoCal’s twin giants, Mt. San Gorgonio and Mt. San Jacinto, open up to the north above sun-baked Anza Valley and the city of Temecula. These views will be with you for the duration, and they are especially rewarding when the air is clear and both peaks are snow-bound.

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Arroyo Seco near the trailhead

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Ceanothus

Climbing commences at a reasonable pace over the next 6 miles before reaching the Agua Tibia Crest. During that time, you will dip into a flat-ish valley, where you will find the remains of some truly magnificent specimens of Manzanita and ribbonwood. These specimens had managed to grow to climax stage, which for Manzanita and ribbonwood takes on tree-like proportions, as a result of a lack of fire over nearly 100 years. However, the Vail Fire of 1989 roared through this area and incinerated the vegetation, leaving mostly skeletal remains of the old-growth trees and a few survivors in its wake. 

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Yerba Santa

As you climb out of the shallow valley, look to your southeast to see the summit block of Agua Tibia Mountain, bewhiskered with a sparse forest of bigcone Douglas fir and Coulter pines. Coulter pine, which has the largest and heaviest of all pine cones, will become more and more present as you begin climbing the next ridge toward the summit crest. This pine species grows in small clumps or individually among chaparral in the higher elevations. These sparse pines will provide some of the first shade since the very start of the trail. Don’t get too comfortable beneath them, though. Their massive, barbed pine cones have a reputation as “widow-makers.”

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Agua Tibia Mountain

The ridge begins to flatten out and approach the summit. As it does, you will pass a few flat spots shaded beneath coast live oaks that will make excellent, albeit dry, campsites for the night.Not far beyond these campsites, you will come to a junction with Palomar Magee Road, which marks the end of the Dripping Springs Trail and the end of the line for more casual hikers. Even “casual” hikers will note that they have already hiked about 7 miles, gaining 3,200’ and will have another 7 miles and 3,200’ of descending to go. If this is as far as you’re interested in going, take some time to enjoy the view over North County (marine layer permitting) and north toward the Santa Ana and San Gabriel Mountains.

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Coulter Pine

For those continuing on, bear left onto Palomar Magee Road. This “road” was once a much wider pathway allowing vehicles to traverse the Palomar Range’s crest from the observatory to Agua Tibia. Since the introduction of wilderness status, which prohibits mechanized vehicles of any kind, this trail has attained the proportions of a foot path, although the road bed is still in evidence. The next three miles are the highlight of this hike, as they pass around the west face of Agua Tibia, allowing excellent views toward the coast along with the densest thickets of trees. There are a few spots around here that could make good campsites, and the air here is cooler and more humid owing to the stronger marine influence from the ocean only 40 miles away. It’s not uncommon to observe this sea of clouds “splashing” up against this side of the mountain.

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Looking west from the end of the Dripping Springs Trail

The trail will rise to a point where there’s a faint use trail to the summit. It’s easy to miss, and since the summit’s views aren’t much better than what you’ve already seen, there’s no major need to bag it unless you consider not bagging a peak to be a hike wasted. After reaching the trail’s high point around 4,700’, the trail will begin a long, gradual descent toward Crosley Saddle. Crosley Saddle is roughly the halfway point of this hike at 10 miles. This low point not only separates the Agua Tibia and Aguanga blocks of the range, but it also features a junction offering two separate destinations. If you continue straight on Palomar Magee, you will eventually arrive near Eagle Crag with the option of continuing on to beautiful Cutca Valley (16 miles away). The trail branching left is the Wild Horse Trail, which will eventually return you to the trailhead. It’s likely best to save Cutca Valley and Eagle Crag for another hike, which I feel is one of the most satisfying and spectacular in San Diego.

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Looking south toward Eagle Crag

The 2007 Poomacha Fire burned through Crosley Saddle, incinerating most of the vegetation and giving way to a number of fire-following shrubs. Of these shrubs, the one to watch out for is Poodle Dog Bush, which causes a nasty allergic reaction similar to, but possibly worse than poison oak. Turn left onto the Wild Horse Trail at approximately 10 miles from the start, and begin a descent into a delightful canyon shaded by canyon live oaks.  The shade here is thick, and this is the coolest and most comfortable section of the entire hike. 

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Around 11-12 miles the trees thin out and disappear as the ravine bottoms out. From here, it is a long, hot, sweaty, and somewhat monotonous return journey over undulating hills covered in chaparral. The more reliable upper reaches of Arroyo Seco Creek bubble tantalizingly close, but out of reach, just when you might want to dip your head in a cold bucket of water. Fortunately, numerous patches of riparian vegetation along the ravines that drain the slopes of the mountain, offering shade and possibly even running water if there’s been a lot of rain recently. 

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At 18.5 miles, the trail returns to the very first junction where the Dripping Springs Trail and Wild Horse Trail split. Turn right here, and follow the trail to the campground, and then continue through the campground to your car to wrap up the hike. 

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

Dog-Friendly

Solitude

Views / Vista

Trail Map

15 Comments

Pam Feb 15, 2020 18:02In reply to: Anthony

Thanks for the update. Was thinking of a backpack up that way at the end of the month (2.2020). Do I need a machete or just long pants and sleeves?

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Anthony Jan 31, 2020 19:01

Not my first rodeo with some overgrowth on this trail but yikes. The newly fallen trees on the overgrown chaparral were a nightmare. The fallen tree in the oak forest was another fun obstacle in the dark.

I'd like to volunteer some time trimming from the wild horse side back through DS. I saw somebody has been freshly pruning and I would love to assist. Just wondering if there were any measures I needed to take before i load a bunch of extra water and some pruning shears and hatchet.

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Rain Jan 15, 2020 21:01

I made a last minute choice to do this trail today. I was going to just do dripping springs trail but choose to continue on. While I regret doing it while it’s so overgrown, the views made it worth wild! But seriously think about how long it’s going to take to finish it. I started just after 12:30pm and finished at 8pm. It is an early start trail!

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donna Apr 14, 2019 10:04

We did this hike yesterday- up the Dripping Springs trail to Palomar-Magee and down Wild Horse Trail. Parts of Palomar -Magee are overgrown, and several downed trees across the trail, but overall a good, easy-to-follow trail. The wildflowers and views are great!

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Frank Dabek Mar 21, 2018 09:03

A forest service volunteer was out trimming on 3/19 and made some good progress clearing the trail. The loop is passable but still rough going after the peak if going counter clockwise.

Cutca is totally blocked by a downed tree between crosley saddle and eagle crag.

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JPB Feb 3, 2018 19:02

As of 2/3/2018, the Palomar-Magee is doable with pants and sleeves. A handful of obstacles / fallen trees to navigate while getting swarmed by bugs. A runner wearing shorts finished the Loop today too, though his legs and torso were scratched up and he carried a tick out with him.

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Scott Turner Jan 15, 2018 12:01

Hi Sara,

Thanks for your trip report. I've updated the write-up and included quotes from your comment since not everybody reads the comments.

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Sara Jan 14, 2018 23:01

We did this loop on 01/13/18. Palomar Magee is so overgrown we had to army crawl and walk half bent over for quite a few parts. We wanted all the miles so we toughed it out, but are scratched all over. There are a lot of downed trees also we had to climb over. Spent a lot of unplanned time on that section because of all of the overgrowth. Part of the trail at the top has been rerouted a little bit because there is so much overgrowth that you just can’t pass where it is actually on map. I wouldn’t recommend anyone go through this section except to do maintenance on it. It is too difficult to pass with any enjoyment-we did this route as trailrunners, not hiking, but it would be too slow for hiking and there is no way you are getting a backpacking pack through there. The top of dripping springs had a great view and Wild Horse was pretty but also had some maintenance issues as well with downed trees and a few tight overgrown spots. We usually run in Big Bear where trails are well maintained, so this was not expected. Plan for a lot of extra time if you want to brave this section.

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Scott Turner Feb 17, 2017 08:02In reply to: jojo f

Thanks for the update. I updated the write-up to reflect this and some other info I gathered on the trail.

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jojo f Feb 12, 2017 12:02

Wonderful hike in cooler wetter weather. Backpack trip yesterday intending to go up dripping springs, across mcgee, & down wild horse. the brush on mcgee (and ticks - yes in February) turned us back.

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