Overnight Backpacking Trip in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park--11/4-11/5/18

Posted by Adventure 16 | 11.21.2018

By: David Kurneta
 A16 San Diego Store Manager

One of the ironies of working in the outdoor industry is that it can be challenging to find time to actually get outside and have the adventures you get your customers ready for on a daily basis. I realty don’t expect much sympathy, I get to do what I love for work every day but when the subject of recent backpacking trips comes up in conversation and you realize your last trip was several months ago, you get inspired to find a way to get out and sleep under the stars for a night. Options for nearby overnight wilderness backpacking trips can seem hard to come by in San Diego, but the truth is, there are quite a few worthy 24hr trips within an hour’s drive of home. My most recent trip took me on an 11.3 mile overnight trip to the Granite Springs campground in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.

This trip begins with an easy drive east on Interstate 8. Get off at Hwy 79 and follow it north to the Green Valley campground of Cuyamaca Ranch State Park

green valley area sign
Park your car and start your adventure


Pay your $5 parking fee to leave your car here overnight and register for a campsite with the park attendant on duty. You can self-register at the kiosk if there is nobody manning the booth. Cross over to the opposite side of Hwy 79 to pick up the trail.  Head north on the East Side Trail for about 3 miles.

color changing oaks
Color changing oaks along the East Side Trail


This is a pretty busy trail with hikers, trail runners, mountain bikers and equestrians especially on the weekend. Coupled with the road noise of the parallel running Hwy 79 it can be hard to imagine this turning into a true wilderness experience. Don’t lose heart though, just past the 3 mile mark you pick up the Harvey Moore Trail as it turns east along Harper creek. The crowds and the noise disappear behind you, as the trail becomes a bit more challenging and a bit more remote feeling. Giving way to the wilderness experience you were looking for.

 At about 3.3 miles you reach a grouping of six large oak trees. A great place to take a break, eat some lunch or hang up your hammock before the climbing begins.

shady spot for lunch
Last place to rest before the climbing begins


The entire trip’s significant climbing takes place in the next 2 miles and that’s only about 1200 feet worth.  Enough to get the blood pumping for sure but the views along the way are well worth it. In early November the oaks are turning a golden yellow and it’s hard not to feel that a real sense of autumn as you traverse the hillside and climb to the top of the mesa.

fall foliage
It felt like Fall was all around you in the canyon.


Oaks give way to large pines as you reach the top and the trail flattens out into what seems like an endless sea of long yellow grass bisected only by the dirt single track you’re walking on.

grassy trail
Atop the mesa, seemingly endless single track


These last 1.5 miles are a pleasant stroll along open fields that yielded large flocks of wild turkeys and an elusive and fast herd of deer.

wild turkeys


Pass the group sites and follow the trail into the Granite Spring Camp area. This is a hike in or ride in camp so there are facilities to accommodate both hikers and equestrians including a water pump and pit toilets.  Despite these amenities the campground feels far removed from civilization, with only the sounds of the area’s many birds and the wind in the tress to break the silence. Three oak shaded tent sides offer a pleasant place to set up camp.

tent site
An idilic tent site.


At just under 7 miles the hike here is long enough to leave you feeling accomplished but not so difficult that you fall asleep at sundown and miss the amazing blanket of stars that awaits overhead once the darkness settles in. Stay up late and enjoy the cool, clear night and the sounds of the hooting owls nearby, you only have a little over 4 miles left to do in the morning.

The short return portion of this loop not only lends itself to a later night but also a leisurely morning with no need to pack up and get out of camp early to make your miles. Water can be had from the pump a short walk from camp but it’s not potable to be sure to filter or treat it before consumption.  Spend some time reading or sipping your morning coffee on an old carved wooden bench beneath the branches of a massive nearby oak. The tree’s canopy reaches clear to the ground, enveloping you in a sort or arboreal tent.

david kurneta
The short hike back to civilization.


When you’re finally ready to bid this amazing place farewell, follow the East Mesa fire road out of camp for 0.3 miles to pick up the Harvey Moore trail again. The remaining 4 miles of your hike takes you downhill all the way, about 1060 ft. of descent. You cross open, windswept golden fields and traverse exposed ridgelines along the way. The trail ends at the Sweetwater trailhead, back in familiar territory along Hwy 79.

It’s a bit of a rude awakening or an unwelcomed return to reality as you find yourself once again on the Eastside trail, this time heading south with the road noise of the cars and construction equipment along the busy highway now within sight. Take this last 0.6 miles to enjoy your quick overnight wilderness adventure because before you know it you are back at the Green Valley campground, back to you car and less than an hour later back home.





Dollars Spent - $5


Miles Hiked - 11.3


Vertical Feet Climbed – 1395


Hours Driven (Round-trip) – 1 ½


Wild Turkeys Seen – 30+


Stars Observed – Innumerable


Enjoyment Had – Immeasurable