Now is a good time to consider hiking in the backcountry to catch the best of the fall colors and slightly cooler temperatures.
Stonewall Peak, near Lake Cuyamaca, is a favorite with hikers because of the panoramic view from the summit. On a clear day, it’s possible to see Salton Sea and Anza-Borrego Desert from this spot in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. The mountains of Baja California can be viewed to the south, Cuyamaca Peak to the west and Lake Cuyamaca to the north.
“October and November can be just glorious,” said retired state park field ranger Shane Coles, who worked in the park for 20 years and still walks the trail. “There are usually a couple of days at the end of October when the fall color hits its peak, then the wind comes in November and blows all the leaves off.”
Coles said Stonewall still has a few flowers blooming, primarily California Goldenrod, Buckwheat, Scarlet Monkeyflower and California Fuchsia. The latter often blooms until November, she said.
The drive to the trailhead is just as enjoyable as the hike itself. Visitors take highway 78 to Julian, then highway 79 to Paso Picacho Campground. Parking is available in the campground, just across the highway from the trailhead. Apple and pear orchards in Julian add color to the drive.
Over spring and summer at Stonewall, masses of lavender and white California lilac surprised hikers. The blooms were set against clusters of white, bark-stripped live oaks, reaching leaflessly to the sky. Together, they formed the palette of recovery from the 2003 Cedar Fire. Nearly all of the surrounding state park, with its chaparral, old-growth oaks, manzanita, conifers and pines, was consumed in the flames.
“Most of the regrowth of California lilac was thanks to the fire,” said Coles. “They often do need fire to germinate, and the fine bed of ash and debris from burning help it along too.” Coles said the lilacs were always there, but other plants crowded them out.
“They are probably the first stage of what is called ‘succession.’ I know there are flowers on the trail that were not there before the fire, for the same reasons that the lilacs are back.”
This year, there is an unexpected beauty to the shaded switchbacks of the trail. The outstretched arms of barren trees look like clusters of branch coral amid an eerie silence. Hollow, charred remains of trunks, still standing, dot the landscape. Other, fallen, tree trunks lie near occasional signs of where water rushed downhill in post-fire rains. A hiker gets the feeling of an enchanted forest.
Below the trail, on the re-greening, undulating hills, are groups of blackened, spindly trees, which look, from a distance, like sooty cobwebs.
Coles said the area was overgrown before the fire, and the burning of overgrowth has allowed for more diversity of plants. This is good news for local wild animals and birds.
“Our wildlife seems to be healthy and flourishing,” she said.
The deer are covering larger areas of the park. About 75 local deer and one mountain lion, as well as lots of smaller animals, were lost during the fire, Coles said. The best times to see wildlife are from dawn until 9 a.m. and again in the two hours before sunset. Visitors can ask rangers at the campground for tips on mountain lions before hitting the trail.
Hikers can hear woodpeckers, and then, on occasion, be entertained by swallows that appear to be Purple Martins, swooping and circling to snatch insects at the summit. The peak is a rocky outcropping, with steps cut into it.
Visitors are advised to carry water during hotter months and watch for inclement weather at other times. If a storm does roll in, it’s important to get away from the summit, because the metal handrail can attract lightning. A hiker was killed by lightning on Stonewall seven years ago.
On a positive note, real weather can add to the pleasure on this trail. One of this hiker’s favorite times was when pink and orange clouds over the Salton Sea moved toward us, gathering an ominous gray. A group of hikers ran down the switchbacks from the summit in drizzle, as the first sounds of a storm crackled over us, at almost dusk. Magnificent. There’s nothing like steaming dry to the car’s heater, anticipating hot chocolate in Julian, and seeing deer grazing in the meadows on the way.