My Favorite Trail
The Cuyamaca’s are dear to my heart. The grassy meadows, Oak and Pine woodlands and dramatic mountain vistas have been integral to my life as a hiker and student of native plants and the native peoples who used them. I have explored every nook and cranny of this magical place. I have read every book on its history I could find. I have searched for and found most of the Indian Villages that populated the region. I love this place.
There are many crisscrossing trails but one of them is my favorite. It is a 4 ½ + mile loop, fairly flat and usually empty of other hikers. I start at the Trout Pond parking area at the south end of Cuyamaca Lake. There are meadows all around and often a yellow breasted Meadow Lark is singing nearby.
This is a special area with major Indian village sites close by. Hual-cu-cuish is only a ¼ mile away, SW from where you park. This is the site of the old Boy Scout Camp. But the Boy Scout Camp is only part of the ancient village. The whole village forms a crescent that crosses a meadow to a higher plateau and then continues to another higher meadow. There are 3 major areas where morteros are found and several smaller sites in and around the meadows. Hual-cu-cuish means ‘Strong Back’ which reflects how the Indians perceived ‘Middle Peak’ in the 3-peak range of the Cuyamaca’s.
I love hiking with some historical knowledge of what’s around me. The Marty Minshall Trail begins from the parking area. In the early spring of a wet year the first few hundred yards of this trail are often very wet and nearly impassable, so I hike first back along the paved road to the other side of the meadow and enter there.
Bird song here is lush this time of year. Many bird travelers pass through the area and often stop at the lake. I have seen mating pairs of White Pelicans gathered close together at the end of the lake. Red Wing Blackbirds dot the tops of Cat Tails. Mallards and at least one other larger species of Duck play in the lake’s waters.
Entering the Carex filled meadow, Black Oak and Jeffery Pine clothe the rise on the right. Fine leafed Yarrow (medicinal uses) and the pink flowered Checkerbloom mix with the grassy Carex. Quickly this temporary trail joins with the Marty Minshall.
Ahead is an alee of Black Oak mixed with Jefferey Pine. Baby Blue Eyes appear near the first trees. The silver-gray leaves of Grape Soda Lupine, an evergreen shrub, accent the lush greens. The mahogany trunks of Mexican Manzanita also line the Alee. Clusters of white flowers appear in the spring. The new growth of Snowberry (white berries in the fall) soften the trail sides. At this time of the year the Black Oaks show a yellowish bronze color with new leaf growth and hanging clusters of flowers. The new leaf itself is a pink red in color and very attractive close up.
The trail opens up to meadows with the lake on the left. On each side of the trail spring finds the large silver-gray leaves of Mules Ears emerging from dormant crowns. It’s a great contrast with the many different shades of green.
On our right is a very special area. At the low point of the valley coming in from the right is a vernal pool. Some truly wonderful plants can be found here. As the pool dries up, this one is not very deep, carpets of white Popcorn Flower and the very special blue Cuyamaca Lake Calico Flower make a showing. On both sides of the trail the rare and endangered white flowered Parish’s Meadowfoam blooms. This is always a great show around the Lake in spring but is seen almost nowhere else. (There is some in a nearby valley, the Lucky Five ranch.) As the Meadowfoam fades look for the bright yellow flowers of Golden-rayed Pentachaeta on the right side of the vernal pool.
Just past the vernal pool is a trail junction that leads to the old Los Caballos Hose Camp, turn right here. A short climb through Jefferey Pine and Black Oak lead to another trail junction on the left, this one leads to the new Hose Camp at Los Vaqueros. Soon Pine and Oak forest opens up to more meadows. In the spring the trail is lined with Miniature Lupine, another taller form of Popcorn Flower and Golden Stars. There are also large patches of Meadowfoam on the left.
Framing the trail ahead are some large, old Jeff Pines. One is right on the trail. These survived the fires as only grassy meadow surround them. I always stop at the trail side giant for a moment, place my hand on the furrowed bark and feel the stories it tells. The bark is riddled with round holes where woodpeckers have bored cavities to store acorns.
There are beautiful open meadows to the right and left. On the right look for Goldfields and Meadowfoam. Continuing past the old Pines much more Miniature Lupine colors the trail and in a wet drainage a large area of Meadowfoam crosses the trail spilling out into the meadow below.
As we pass the Meadowfoam a paved road comes into view, this is the access to Stonewall Mine and Los Vaqueros Horse Camp. At the road crossing is one of the most interesting sites in Cuyamaca, the village of Ah Ha Kwe Amac, (Water Beyond). This central village was a gathering place for the tribes. Early summer was the Pine nut harvest and the fall brought Acorns and many would travel and meet here for the bountiful produce.
The old Los Caballos Horse Camp was sited here but after the fire in 2003 it was decided to move to a new site as Los Vaqueros. The fire had exposed the extensive remains of the village. Countless grinding holes and of course burial grounds sacred to the Indians.
The paved road runs right through the heart of the village. Most of the site is on the right side of the road but some is also on the left. There was a valued spring on the right. It must have been substantial to support such an important village. Now it is only a memory.
The trail goes around the village site so as not to disturb the historic, hallowed ground. But first look at the large rock outcropping, on the left, just off the road. There are numerous morteros (bedrock grinding holes) etched in its surface. The largest I have ever seen is on the right lower section.
Back on the trail, following the split rail fence, we come to a trail junction where the California Hiking and Riding Trail comes in from the right. This is an older trail that used to run right through some of the villages but its path now goes around them. Turn left and continue along the edge of the village site. Baby Blue Eyes and Indian Lettuce enjoy the filtered shade of the Black Oak and Jeff Pine lined trail.
A drainage coming off of Little Stonewall and Stonewall Peak crosses the trail. In a wet year there is flowing water here. Stands of Goldfields, Creamcups and Meadowfoam color the ground in spring. There are two side trails that come in from the right. The first leads up to Stonewall Peak. This is a little used way to the top. The second trail just a few yards away heads to the Los Vaqueros Horse Camp. This is the Vern Whitaker Trail and it climbs a low ridge with views on the left of the meadows approaching the Horse Camp.
On one hiking trip as I was looking down at the trail and I noticed a striking foot print. They were fairly fresh, probably the night before. Of note was the large 3 lobed pad, rounded toes with 3rd toe farther away from the pad. This is a Mountain Lion. We almost never see them but they are there.
As the trail descends from its high point look closely for the small Dwarf Phacelia with lavender and white flowers and the equally dainty Blue-Eyed Mary sprinkled along the trail. Within sight of the Horse Camp, on the right, is a nice stand of Golden Banner or False Lupine with bright yellow flowers in spring.
Reaching the Horse Camp follow the trail that is just to the left of the access road. You will then cross the road and reach a “Y” junction with the Los Vaqueros Trail coming in from the left. Bear right on the continuing California Hiking and Riding Trail.
There are nice stands of Jeff Pine here with Baby Blue Eyes at their feet in spring. The trail opens up to grassy fields. There is a series of spring bloom here with first Goldfields and Popcorn Flowers is drifts. Then a few weeks later Golden Stars and Golden-rayed Pentachaeta take their place. Descending and now back into Jeff Pine shade you reach the access road. Stay on this for a short distance where the Marty Minshall Trail comes back in on the left.
Across from this junction is a small pond where Ducks play in spring. There is a rock dam forming a larger pond just above it. Back on the trail we head into an open area with views of lush meadows framed by Stonewall and the 3 Cuyamaca Peaks. The trail winds around the low hills and is lined with Golden Stars, patches of Creamcups, Gilia, Goldfields and Tidy Tips.
In a good, wet year the Tidy Tips can be impressive. The biggest patch is off the trail on the left, lower into the meadow. I lucked out one trip as two rangers were coming from the other direction to photograph and admire the large patch of flowers. They let me join them, off trail, down by the bright display.
After this explosion of color, one would expect that it couldn’t get much better, but one would be wrong. Continuing on the winding trail the access road comes back into view. After crossing it a view of the back of Cuyamaca Lake comes into view.
It becomes a familiar tale with Popcorn Flowers and Goldfields lining the trail. There is a barbed wire fence on the right and fields of Tidy Tips and Meadowfoam can be found there in spring. An old section of the CHRT is on the right with a ‘Closed’ sign displayed. It cuts right across the lush meadow but these days this is frowned upon.
In spring the back of the Lake is full of water and all around the edge’s great displays of Goldfields, Tidy Tips and Meadowfoam make this a spectacular area. Imagine in the past, before the dam held its waters, all of the lake area would have been filled with flowers.
As the trail turns left the Jeff Pine forest comes back to shade the area. Baby Blue Eyes dot the ground. Soon a trail junction comes in from the left. This leads to the Stonewall Mine parking area, veer right to continue. This junction was my introduction to Meadow Foam and Golden-rayed Pentachaeta many years ago. I had come down from the Mine parking to find the flowering surprises. It took me awhile to identify them but it also hooked me on the area, the back side of the lake.
Following the shaded trail, you will find a short use trail off the right that takes you out towards the spring flowering areas around the lake. It’s OK to get a closer view but its best not to venture any further.
There are some old Jeff Pines in this area. One fell across the trail in a high wind storm and you can walk the length of the tree lying just off the trail. It’s a delight walking through this mixed Pine and Black Oak forest. Soon a clearing arrives and in spring there is a huge patch of Meadowfoam on both sides of the trail, it’s impressive in a good year.
Climbing out of this sunny area we see many younger Black Oak with a few older specimens mixed in. In the dappled shade the bright yellow flowers of Ranunculus dance on the ends of wiry stems. There are also Blue Elder Berries along the trail. I grab handfuls when the berries are ripe, being nearly black.
This is My Favorite Trail. Loads of history all around with the Indian village sites. Amazing displays of Spring color with the rare Meadowfoam and Calico Flower, plus all the others, Goldfields, Tidy Tips, Creamcups and more. Long enough to get a good workout. Very little traffic on the trail. I almost always have it to myself.
And its good at all times of the year. Fall shows color in the yellow gold leaves on the Black Oak. Summer gives a cooler respite from the lowland heat. Winter brings snow and a complete change of character.