Eagle Peak in San Diego County is perched among the headwaters of the San Diego River and commands a 360-degree view of the drainages that feed the streams of the watershed. The multi-humped peak is surrounded by lower ridges defined by deep defiles scoring the sides of Cuyamaca Peak to the east and El Cajon Mountain to the southwest. These higher peaks are more regularly visited, and serve to isolate the upper reaches of the river from regular traffic, while that which does reach the trailhead is more often interested in reaching nearby Three Sisters Falls in the Boulder Creek canyon. As such, this relatively easy peak can likely be enjoyed in solitude. The views into the Boulder Creek canyon from the top are worth the trip.
The dirt roads that serve the area can be approached either from the north, via CA-78 near Julian, or from the south via I-8 and CA-79 near Descanso. Mileages are pretty accurate, as I kept an odometer log driving the routes.
From the north
: Heading east on CA-78 out of Santa Ysabel, look for the right-hand (south) turnoff to Pine Hills (Pine Hills Rd.) about 6 miles east of Santa Ysabel (or just about a mile downhill from the intersection with CA-79 in Julian). Follow Pine Hills Rd. for about 1.5 miles until Boulder Creek Rd. splits off to the right. Follow Boulder Creek Rd., past the junction with Eagle Peak Rd. to the right (do not take this road--see below), until it turns to well-graded dirt, about 4 miles after leaving Pine Hills Rd. About another 5 miles on the dirt brings you to a switchback and intersection with Cedar Creek Rd., and the trailhead. On nice weekends, the route towards Julian can be crowded.
The mileages below are for a slightly different route:
From the south
0.0: (south) CA-78/79 & Pine Hills Rd.
1.6: (right) Pine Hills Rd. & Eagle Peak Rd. (sign says "Boulder Creek 12")
2.2: (straight) Eagle Peak Rd. & Azalea Ave. (just a waypoint)
2.8: (straight) Eagle Peak Rd. & Silver Cloud Pass (just a waypoint)
2.9: (straight) Eagle Peak Rd. & Black Oak Ln. & Blue Jay Dr. (waypoint)
2.9: (bear left)
3.2: (right) Boulder Creek Rd & Pine Hills Rd. (sign says "Pine Hills Fire Station 3")
6.1: (straight) Pine Hills Fire Station & Engineers Rd.; pavement ends
7.0: cattle grate (waypoint)
8.1: 16 mi. marker (waypoint)
8.2: cattle grate (waypoint)
9.5: cattle grate & view of Eagle Peak (waypoint)
9.9: (straight) Boulder Creek Rd. & McCoy Ranch Rd. (waypoint)
: Heading east on I-8 from El Cajon, take the Descanso exit (CA-79 north). Reset your tripmeter under the bridge.
Leave CA-79 at Descanso Junction, turning left onto Riverside Dr. towards Descanso proper. At the intersection with Viejas Grade, there's a little store front on the northeast corner. Hang a left onto Viejas Grade, then an immediate right to juke around the store and continue on Oak Grove Dr. to the sudden right turn onto Boulder Creek Rd. This curvy road eventually turns to well-graded dirt, and comes to the intersection with Cedar Creek Rd. at a switchback and the trail head. Hardly anybody but the occasional horse-trailer towing rig takes this route.
0.0: (north) I-8 & CA-79
1.2: (left) CA-79 & Riverside Dr. (Descanso exit)
2.0: (left) Viejas Grade (Perkins Store)
2.0: (right) Oak Grove Dr.
3.0: (bear left) stay on Oak Grove at this Y intersection
3.6: (right) Boulder Creek Rd.
8.5: pavement ends
12.3: 9 mi. marker, and a good view of Eagle Peak @ 10 o'clock
13.1: cattle grate, another good view of Eagle Peak
A word about Cedar Creek Rd.: Yes, it's possible to get from Eagle Peak Rd. to Boulder Creek Rd. via Cedar Creek Rd. But be forewarned: it gets closed by the forest service in wet weather, and I once got a good look at it from the Cedar Creek Falls trailhead on Eagle Peak Rd. It's a nasty, whoopy, vertically-intense road, and there is no way I would take my 2-wheel drive pickup over it. I'd want to be a serious off-roader before trying it, or use a dirt-worthy motorcycle. No grader has visited it in years, if ever. That road must be an adventure in itself.
You need an Adventure Pass to park at the trailhead, otherwise you'll be purchasing a one-day permit via the forest service's "instant membership" drive when the ranger passes by the parking area. They are diligent in the headwaters.
There's a really convenient Cleveland National Forest Service ranger station on I-8 just on the east side of Alpine. They'll be glad to take your check. I'm not sure about where they are on the north approach, but Ramona is frequently on the way:
Descanso Ranger District
3348 Alpine Boulevard
Alpine, CA 92001
Telephone: (619) 445-6235
Palomar Ranger District
1634 Black Canyon Road
Ramona, CA 92065
Telephone: (619) 788-0250
When To Climb
There are really two answers: When it's not too hot, and when it's not too green. During the winter months, this is a fine scramble to the top because the valleys are cool and the poison oak is dormant. In the summer, the poison oak may have withered, but so will you in the intense heat. Bring lots of water if you do it in the summer months. Right after a good rain is also a neat time to be in the area, because the drainages come alive with waterfalls, but then the dirt road may be more treacherous, and the gnats can drive you gnuts.
Today, this is largely wide open area spotted with private property. Many people descend to the bottom of Boulder Creek's canyon just below Three Sisters Falls and make a night of it. It's really nice down there. Sometimes, local kids make the trip in sneakers to go fishing, but climbing down there and back out again with a load of camping gear is a chore. There are some hands-required moves to stay on the hillside.
I say "today" because there is a move afoot to classify the entire upper San Diego River watershed as some degree of wilderness. No telling what that will do to the accessibility of the area. So go now if you don't want to walk forever to get to this neat little peak.
Look west to El Cajon Mountain and Cuyamaca Peak. If it's nice-looking there, it's nice at Eagle Peak. When Cuyamaca is shrouded in the marine layer, Eagle Peak can still be in the clear, and that ceiling of clouds provides a nice cooling effect through the mid-morning. Don't go on the rare occasion that it's thundering. El Cajon and Santee ridges attract lightning like crazy, and it all drifts east toward the Cuyamacas. Flash floods are also a big concern during the rains, because the dry hardpan that is most of East County can't soak it up very fast. That's what made all those interesting arroyos.
One other thing: don't be fooled by the haze. Visibility may be lousy over the populated inland valleys, yet be blue-sky clear just east of there, in the upper reaches of the San Diego River. Call the Alpine ranger station for current conditions if you care about taking clear photos.