The hike at El Capitan County Preserve is considered one of the most rugged and physically challenging in San Diego County. The preserve’s trails run along a granite-ribbed ridgeline, which has stunning views of both the ocean and mountains. It can easily take up to six hours to complete this 12-mile out-and-back trek.
Before attempting “El Cap,” Supervising Park Ranger Kyle Icke takes you off the beaten path with this Q&A on the 2,619-acre preserve. Plus, he shares mile markers of some really unique features and finds along the trail—like an old abandoned Jeep near mile 5.
Q: What’s unique about this location?
Through some strange force, the trail seems to go uphill both ways. El Capitan Preserve encompasses El Cajon Mountain. It has several peaks standing together, one of which is called El Capitan with the highest one called El Cajon. The mountain is big enough to actually have “mountain weather,” which can quickly change, so be prepared.
Perhaps because of its size and its mountain weather, El Capitan Preserve has some mountain species of plants that you can see without going too far away from civilization.
Q: What types of trees, plants and animals live at the park?
El Capitan is full of chaparral with plants like white sage, black sage and California sagebrush, along with laurel sumac, flat-top buckwheat, chamise and the rare endemic San Diego golden star.
Along the trail, at about 4.7 miles, there’s a riparian area that features several species you don’t normally see so close to town.
At about 3.5 miles (just past the lookout), you’ll see a spur trail that leads to three old, unused mine shafts. Nearby are some deciduous oak tree species that change colors and shed some of their leaves in cooler seasons. These oaks are the only ones I know of in the area – both in the preserve and in surrounding communities.
Q: Tell us about El Cap in the spring.
Right now we have different types of wildflowers popping up every week! This will continue through spring. Near the top you may see bush poppy; if you’re lucky enough to come across it, take a moment to smell the flowers’ sweet and delicate scent. Also, at about 3.75 miles you’ll come across a species called Cleveland sage, which is super fragrant and quite pleasant.
Q: What should visitors wear/bring?
Hikers should wear hiking boots, sunscreen, a hat, clothing in layers, and bring ample snacks and water (a gallon if you’re going the distance) to complete the trail’s demanding inclines and declines. There is very little shade in the preserve and it can get very hot. The park is typically closed in August due to extreme heat. Park staff uses this time to complete trail maintenance.
Q: Tell us more about the trail.
There is only one main trail, and it’s very difficult. We’ve added lots of trail markers to the summit to help hikers navigate the area in foggy weather. As a rule, all hikers should make their way down the mountain well before dark.
Q: What are some of the upcoming events and activities taking place at El Cap?
Every Saturday, we offer the Extreme Hiking Challenge to anyone who wishes to walk with the ranger up the mountain. Please RSVP to 619-561-0580.
Twice a year, during the Memorial Day and Veterans Day weekends, we hold the County Parks Warrior Hike Challenge, a special event where military and civilian families can hike part-way or all the way to the top. There are several aid stations distributed along the trail where people can refresh and refuel before moving on.
Q: What challenges does El Capitan face?
El Capitan Preserve was home to mining operations in the past and its main trail is an old mining road that was built back in the days before sustainability was a consideration. We now have a trail that the mountain wants to consume every time it rains. It’s a war with nature we cannot win, but we battle fiercely against erosion to keep the existing trail open and safe.
Park staff sometimes have to rescue hikers from the mountain as the trail is steep and difficult and hikers often underestimate the amount of stamina and water it can take to hike a trail that is only six miles one way.
Q: What’s new at El Capitan?
We are working with the El Cajon Operations Trail Crew to repair and maintain the trail. Look for heavy equipment coming to a preserve near you! We also have a brand new, really cool logo.