Class 2-3 scrambling in San Diego county can be hard to find without a long drive to Anza Borrego. However one of the toughest climbs in the county is located just 40 minutes from downtown – El Cajon Mountain, also known as El Capitan in Lakeside.
Disclaimer: this is not a hike, but a steep, cross-country scramble with loose rock, slabs, large boulders and dirt slopes. There is considerable danger of injury or even death and many rescues have taken place on this route. A GPS is useful but there are several places where you could become trapped with no ability to retreat. A good rule of thumb – if you can’t downclimb it, don’t climb it. Cell service is good throughout but don’t rely on it as a substitute for good judgement. Severe heat is an issue May – October and rattlesnakes are present in early spring in the tall grassy west-facing slopes. A google search for El Cajon Mountain rescue returns plenty of examples of people getting in trouble.
The iconic El Capitan ridgeline is visible from all over the county, particularly the El Cajon valley, Lakeside and Alpine areas. The very strenuous and very popular class 1 route approaches the summit from Wildcat Canyon rd to the north via a long, undulating fire road that is steep and causes a number of rescues every year due to exhaustion and dehydration. This trail is tough enough for the vast majority of hikers seeking a challenge, but the South Arete proves to be a much tougher ascent that will test your scrambling and route finding skills. It took me 3 separate attempts to reach the top of the ridge, and I was successful on January 24, 2016. It took about 2 hours to cover less than 1.5 miles and about 2500 feet of elevation gain.
At the end of 67 in Lakeside take Mapleview to El Monte Rd through the valley towards the El Capitan Dam. Just before the entrance to the dam you will see a brown CNF sign indicating ‘No Fires / no Camping” and several dirt lots adjacent to the road. Park here.
From El Monte Road you will need to cross the creek which is choked with brush and fallen trees, there are a few routes through, the best one being just below the brown sign. Once across, there is a road which leads north, follow this uphill due north, taking care not to trespass, until you hit a more developed fire road above. Go left at this road, past two abandoned mining sites, finally climbing the steep dirt slope to the power line tower where the ridgeline begins.
Follow the well-trod path up the ridge. The terrain is mostly steep dirt and can be slippery. Soon you will reach the beginning of the rocky sections. Pick your way though the well-worn path, continuing to climb steeply. Stay on the ridge and avoid going too far to the left or right where the terrain quickly becomes steep and impassible. Along the way some fun grippy slabs can save considerable time vs. the loose dirt and rock.
Soon you will reach Lunch Rock which marks the the halfway point and the end of the class 2 section and the beginning of class 3. Climb up through the cave at the top of lunch rock and continue up, around and over boulder fields and slabs. You will pass a few small plateaus before finally reaching a large boulder with a tree growing straight out the west side. Go left here and carefully traverse the steep, grassy slope to a low saddle visible just to the west. Note that you may have to drop down a bit to avoid a large slab midway through the slope.
Gain the small saddle and continue up the ridge into a small gully. You will see a smooth slab in the gully which looks like a waterfall, above this, the slope becomes very steep. Follow ducks up another steep, grassy slope to another saddle. Rejoin the ridge and look for a large potato-shaped rock. There is a narrow route up the face of the rock or you can gain it from below by staying left and hugging the rock’s west-facing side. At the top, you will reach the final block of the ridge with a two-thousand foot drop to your right. Stay left as any path to the right is very exposed.
From here, go left below the rock ridge. You will find a small, steep v-shaped gully which is blocked with rockfall that will stop your progress. Immediately left of this point is a small block set back at head high. There is a small foothold just below. Step up and reach over to get a handhold and pull yourself onto the small, narrow exposed ledge. Taking care to traverse the ledge, you will reach a set of bolted anchors which indicates you have reached the final slope. Follow ducks from here over reasonably easy but steep terrain to the top of the ridge and ultimately the summit above a mile or so beyond.
Descend via route reversal, taking care to avoid the dropoffs and false routes to the east. The crumbly rock and brush make this descent very challenging so a slow pace is necessary. Trekking poles are useful for probing the terrain especially below the slippery grass hummocks.
Staying left on the west-facing slope is the safest route but there are alternative, more exposed routes on top of some of the large boulder sections towards the top, some of which are really fun. Careful exploration and always keeping a safe route for retreat are key. The bolts I found had no hangers or nuts, but were freshly installed, indicating to me that this is probably the preferred route up as someone is putting protection in for rappels.
Special thanks to this good beta which got me 80% there.