There’s something to be said about experiencing a true fall/spring hike as a San Diego resident—namely because finding a location in San Diego that experience a season other than summer is almost futile. But taking a scenic drive out to Julian will give you a true fall, spring, and winter hiking experience. Luckily, Julian houses one of the most overlooked state parks in California that has a number of hiking trails. The Pine Ridge Trail is one of these trails, and serves as a great introductory hike to Cuyamaca Rancho State Park with its relatively short distance and ease of navigation.
At just 3.4-miles round-trip, the Pine Ridge Trail takes you up a narrow ridge overlooking the small towns of both Descanso and Julian. The trail intersects with the California Riding and Hiking Trail for a short distance then takes you along Seco Fire Road to complete the loop.
We parked our car near in the designated visitors parking spots (not to be confused with campsite parking spots) near campsite 76 to combine this trail with another short 0.5-mile round trip trail to the Green Valley waterfalls. To make the most of your drive here I’d recommend adding this quick second hike onto your itinerary. If you don’t plan on taking the second hike and wish to park closer tot the trailhead, you can alternatively park in the Arroyo Seco picnic area.
If you park in the lot near campsite 76, follow the signs and walk towards campsite 38. Here you’ll find a clearly marked post for the Pine Ridge Trail. The trail is very straightforward from here, taking you up the ridge along a narrow trail. To the north you’ll see the nearby Cuyamaca Peak and West Mesa. To your south you’ll spot the Sweetwater Canyon.
Continue climbing the gradual ascent up the ridge for approximately 1.7-miles to the trail’s highest point. There isn’t a landmark or lookout point to indicate the highest portion of the trail, but you’ll know you’ve reached the top when a series of switchbacks appear, taking you back down towards the campground.
At 2.2 miles the trail will reach it’s first intersection. Take a right and continue along the California Riding and Hiking Trail for 0.2 miles and take another right the next junction at Arroyo Seco Fire Road. This wide fire road provides nice views to conclude the hike, eventually spitting you back onto the pavement of the campgrounds near the Arroyo Seco picnic area. Follow the signs to return back to campsite 76.
Pine Ridge Trail Tips
Tip #1: Bring $10 cash (at the time of this post) with you to pay for parking at the Green Valley campground. After you complete this hike, your parking permit can be used in other parts of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park the same day.
Tip #2: Dogs are not permitted on this trail. The 6-mile Cuyamaca Peak Trail is the only dog friendly trail at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.
Tip 3: Restroom facilities are located at the Arroyo Seco picnic area as well as near campsites 54, 36, and 70, however you will need to bring soap with you to wash your hands.
Tip #4: Add on the short, 0.5-mile Green Valley Falls Trail to this hike to make the most of your visit.
Tip #5: If you have time, drive the additional 20 minutes up CA-79N to the quaint town of Julian for a slice of delicious apple pie. Mom’s Pies are to die for.
Tip #6: Bring proper sun protection and dress in layers as this trail is largely uncovered.
Tip #7: Park only in designated parking lots. Do not park in campsite spots or you may be fined.
From downtown San Diego, take I-8 E toward El Centro for 23 miles. Take exit 40 for CA-79N/Japatul Valley Road toward Julian. Turn left onto CA-79N/Japatul Valley Road. Turn left to stay on CA-79. Drive 4.2-miles and take a slight left onto Arroyo Seco Fire Road. Park in the designated parking lot near campsite 76 or the Arroyo Seco picnic area.
Elevation Gain: 550 feet
Total Distance: 3.4 miles
Trailhead Address: 11842 CA-79, Descanso, CA 91916
Resources: Cuyamaca Rancho State Park Trail Map