San Diego may be the “City by the Bay”, but the terrain of the county varies from beach to mountain to forest to desert. No matter what sport you are excited about, San Diego is where you want to go for your next adventure. For rock climbing, the various mountains and magnificent boulders will definitely snag your interest. The temperature is generally mild all year around except for a few areas where it does get very hot in the summer months. Whether you are seeking a place to go bouldering (a San Diego county-wide activity), top roping at Mission Gorge or Dixon Lake, sport climbing at Corte Madera, trad climbing at Mount Woodson, or multi-pitch climbing at El Cajon Mountain, there is a place for you to climb in San Diego County. Three of the rock-climbing/bouldering areas in the county are Mission Gorge, Mt Woodson and El Cajon Mountain.
Latitude: 32.83063, Longitude: -117.04825
Mission Gorge, located within the 5900 acres of Mission Trails Regional Park, is the oldest established climbing area in San Diego County. The rock is metamorphosed granite, distinctive to the county formation, and is extremely hard and very smooth. The cliff offers a mixture of both crack and face climbing, and is steep, very slick and strenuous, requiring resourceful maneuvers. Most climbing routes are 40 to 80 ft high, not too high but high enough for a good morning workout.
The Climber Loop Trail, which leads to three different rock climbing areas, is about one mile from the paved road inside the park. There are also several ways to hike Mission Gorge trails if you don’t want to bring the climbing gear. UCSD gives rock climbing courses there so you may run into some college students struggling their way up the cliff. The climbs won’t take all day but you will get a workout and some great scenery. Camping is not allowed at Mission Gorge but there are a number of campgrounds in the surrounding communities such as Santee Lakes and Lake Jennings.
To get to Mission Gorge from the north county, take the I-15 south to the Friars road exit and head east on Friars, away from the football stadium. Go past Jackson Drive and turn on the left on Mission Trails Road to enter the park area. Drive through the main gates about a 1/2 mile. There is limited parking on the right hand side. You can also park outside of the gates at the visitor center. Go up the orange mound to the left and then follow the switchbacks to the base of the cliff. There is a porta-pottie that marks the beginning of the trail. If you are planning on staying into the evening park outside the main gates as the gates close and are locked promptly at dusk. There is a one way road leading through the park. Gate closure times are April through October 8:00am – 7:00pm; and November through March 8:00am – 5:00pm. Regardless of the season, you should be out of the park by dusk.
Latitude: 33.0063, Longitude: -116.96
Woodson Mountain is famous for the boulders that litter its chaparral-covered slopes, providing hundreds of bouldering and top rope problems for climbers, in addition to providing practice for aid climbing techniques. There is more face climbing than cracks but many problems are either bouldered/soloed or top roped depending upon the height and your comfort level, although any of the cracks will take a lead. Climbing is possible year-round, but when summer hits get awful hot and hydration is important. The climbing at Mt. Woodson is a good workout but with an uncomplicated approach. This is a good place for the intermediate climber to practice crack climbing. The climbs are very short as the granite boulders have been free soloed/bouldered) and trad only but the rock quality is excellent.
Hiking is also very popular at Mt Woodson. Several trails access the peak, where you can see from Point Loma toward the west to Cuyamaca Peak toward the east, with views of Mexico to the south. This trail will pretty much keep you hiking up hill the entire time, with giant boulders along the way. The summit is about 3.5 miles from the trail head. Thick brush in some places, there can be bushwhacking involved, and poisoned oak is common. Keep an eye out for snakes and lizards as they love to sun on the trail and then quickly dart into the underbrush. Take some time to take some photos of gigantic boulders, huge rocks and glimpse a rock that look as thin as a potato chip.
There is no fee or permit required to hike Mt. Woodson from the CA-67 trailhead, but there may be a $5 day use fee if parking at Lake Poway. If hiking the west approach from Lake Poway, you can avoid the Lake Poway day fee by parking in the Blue Sky Ecological Reserve, located just 0.5 mile north of Lake Poway on Espola Road. From there, just walk a short distance to the lake. Do not park on Mt. Woodson Road! It is a private road and residents will have cars towed if they are parked there!
Directions: From San Diego toward Poway, head north on Interstate 15 about 18 miles to Poway Road or go south about 10 miles from Escondido. Go east on Poway Road, driving through Poway and up a steep grade until you reach Highway 67. Make a left turn, go 3 miles to the Mount Woodson trailhead, just before the fire station on the west side. About 100 feet left of the fire station driveway; there is a gap in the fence. Follow the trail southward to the asphalt. Stay on the trail and watch for snakes and poison oak, especially on the north slopes.
El Cajon Mountain
Latitude: 32.90410, Longitude: -116.81800
Guidebooks often claim this is the hardest hike in San Diego County. The complete hike can take 6-7 hours, including two sit-down rests and visits to both peaks. The trail can be hard to find and the weather can be very hot spring, summer and fall, due to very little vegetation and greenery and the desert winds from the east. El Cajon Mountain is surrounded by private property which makes the ordeal even harder, so beware of trespassing on to private property. Although once you reach the top, the view is absolutely worth the trouble. There are two major areas to climb on this mountain, El Capitan Wall and the El Cajon Bluffs.
There are some pretty steep routes, constantly gaining and losing altitude. The grade is 45 and 50 degree angles a majority of the way. It does flatten out for a bit just after mile one. The climb from the south is an excellent workout. Take sunscreen, rope or a walking stick, wear good boots and take lots of water.
From the parking area, walk east toward the trail head. Remain on the trail long enough and you will find a small house like structure. Follow the trail to the east toward the summit for half a mile. Continue along the trail and you will come across a scrub forest and then a Live Oak forest where you will finally be able to enjoy some shade. We went this far with a Cub Scout troop so the climb is doable for any age group. But if you decide to continue another 3.5 miles it gets more challenging. You will soon reach another saddle, where you will find three old mine shafts. Continue on from there to discover a natural spring after but the water has a sulfur smell, so do not drink the water.
From San Diego to El Cajon, take I-8 East from San Diego to Highway 67. Go north on 67, about 6.5 miles to Willow Road. Go 10 miles east on willow Road and then take a left at Wildcat Canyon Road. Go 3.5 miles on Wildcat Canyon Road. You will find parking the right hand side. The parking lot closes at 5 p.m., so plan accordingly. Walk east from the parking lot on the gravel road for about half a mile. The El Cajon Mountain trail will be on your left.
Available Regional Guidebooks:
For additional hiking and rock climbing locations in San Diego County, check to the following guidebooks:
“Southern California Bouldering Guide”, by Craig Fry
“San Diego County Climbing Guide”, by Dave Kennedy