GoNOMAD Travel

Cuyamaca Rancho State Park: Quintessential California Camping

My city-slicker self cooks a breakfast feast of eggs, turkey bacon and pancakes over an open flame. If I can love this, so can you!

By Dorothy Carlson

Most people visit Southern California with a small range of intentions in mind, mainly to visit: Disneyland (Ok, I love it too), Hollywood (Oh my god! that is so Lindsay Lohan in the next booth!), the beach (a red bathing suit and slow motion running only works for Pam) or all of the above.

All three of these activities are timeless and you should indulge yourself. They are kitschy and fun; the stuff of great goofy photos. But when you are ready to see a real slice of California and do something authentic, roll up your sleeping bag, grab your hiking shoes and head to Cuyamaca.

Cuyamaca Rancho State Park (pronounced Kwee-a-mak-a) consists of thousands of acres of oak and pine forest, endless hiking trails and a smallish lake with great fishing about one and a half hours east of San Diego.

If that seems a bit too normal, consider that the whole place – trees, campgrounds, everything – burnt to the ground in October of 2007.

Firefighters, needing to save homes in nearby Julian, let the fires burn through the park. Left unchecked, the fire licked every surface, until color photos of the forest read as black and white.

Today, deeply charred trees contrast with a lush, green undergrowth and proud baby pine trees. Brooks bubble over ancient glacial rocks outlined with fresh grass just feet from hollow trees filled with the charcoal of their innards.

Hiking through Cuyamaca is watching the end touch the beginning and start all over again. You’re literally inside a miracle.
And there is plenty of hiking to be had. Cuyamaca boasts over 100 miles of elevation raising trails. The most popular trails begin in the Paso Picacho campsite and are quick 2 to 3.5 mile mostly uphill hikes.

The drive from San Diego is breath taking. We pulled off the side of highway 78 to snap this photo of the valley below.

The terrain is a little tricky and rocky at the top but the view of the valley, lake and even coast in some spots is worth every step.

Longer hikes plant their trail heads near the lake and the Green Valley camp site. Whether two or ten miles get your blood pumping, every hike offers nearly complete privacy and a calm only nature’s embrace can offer.

Jesse and I chose the Azaria Loop – the popular 3.5 mile aforementioned trail – as our first Cuyamaca foray.

As a reluctantly self-proclaimed city girl, the initial quiet of the trail made me nervous. There are no humming computers, purring cars, or buzzing airplanes out here; zero techno noise. Every thought in my head echoed loud and clear against my skull like stacked amps in a reverberating amphitheater.

Wild life abounds – here a blue jay takes a break from building a nest to keep watch over his turf.

I chatted annoyingly about nothing in an effort to dull the clarity of my thoughts — self-cogency is uncomfortable at first blush — but soon gave in and listened to what was already around me: clear running water, smooth stones, vulnerable leaves peeking through black soil, birds building and fighting, patterns of wind pushing through unburned tree tops.

Once I figured out how to ignore myself, the result was melodic.
The sensation of being inside an important embrace is also what camping in Cuyamaca feels like. After clearing your head and possibly an early afternoon nap it’s as if the forest is a loved one, absent from your daily grind for too long, returned and wrapping their arms around you. Your body just relaxes, remembering a natural state inside that hug.

The Manzanita Cabin site offers some creature comforts and a stinging reminder of the fires last fall.

But eventually I got sick of the Walt Whitman mumbo-jumbo and just started having a great time. My husband and I tried valiantly to start a fire with nothing but twigs and dry brush. If the cavemen figured it out, why not us?

Turns out city slickers with soft hands and hungry stomachs can only stand about 30 minutes of vigorously grinding sharp sticks into bark and banging rocks together before giving in to the modern convenience of matches. Just for the record, we got really close and are damn sure we could make sparks in a real survival situation.
Amenities – Don’t Be a Baby
Thankfully, Cuyamaca doesn’t put you in anything close to a do-or-die situation. The campgrounds are well groomed and equipped with picnic tables and enclosed fire rings at each site.

Charred trees towering above the Azaria trail. Contrasted with a lush, green undergrowth and a bright sun, the trees create a sense of awe.

Depending on your level of daring, you can choose from three types of sites: cabins, back-ins and tents. The cabin sites come with just that, a small, newly built cabin with a pair of bunk beds (4 total beds), a wood burning stove and a coat rack inside.

The cabin sites seem designed either for people who don’t know how to set up a tent and refuse to learn or for a family with too many little kids to make tent camping a good idea.

In either case, you should still bring sleeping bags, food, cookware and the rest of the camping works even though you are technically sleeping indoors on a mattress. Cabin sites are $45 per night and can accommodate up to eight people.

The back-in sites provide a dirt driveway and RV hookups along with the standard picnic table and fire ring. Even though the back-in sites may appear to have more camping credentials, an RV is even more removed from the dirt than the cabins.

The most legitimate camping experience is the tent-only sites. These sites offer a spot for one vehicle, picnic table, fire ring and a nice flat space for a tent. If you are worth any sort of California hippy salt, you’ll use a tent-only site.

Both the back-in and tent-only sites are $15 per night and can accommodate up to eight people. The best way to make a reservation is through Reserve America. All campsites also offer flush toilets, water faucets, pay showers and fire wood sales… very survivalist.

Despite our determination and best efforts, we eventually gave in and made this fire using matches. It’s harder than it looks and we were starving.

The Night Life
True to its California roots, Cuyamaca also offers a welcoming community vibe and forgiving park rangers. Case in point: after supper and a few beers, Jesse brought out his guitar and singing voice.

Keep in mind he is an excellent musician but our featured camp fire song of the night went a little something like, “My long hair just can’t cover up my redneck” in a brazen David Allen Cole imitation so I worried that our neighbors would either stage a coup or the rangers would roust us.

Instead, we attracted a sing-a-long and served as the entertainment for the night! We never saw a ranger until the following morning and all he did was tip his hat and renew our parking pass. Campfire sing-a-longs in a forest of rebirth… can you imagine anything more renewing and humane?

Camels grazing on the pastures of the Oasis Camel Dairy just outside Julian.

On the Way Back – Julian

After a leisurely breakfast of pancakes and coffee – cooked over the campfire by yours truly – our most stressful decision was whether to fish at nearby Lake Cuyamaca or drive into Julian and enjoy the best pie known to man. Obviously, we opted for pie.

Julian is a town that time forgot so its no-frills, home-made stores and wooden sidewalks are an excellent small step back into civilization. Other than amazing pie, Julian also offers delicious honey, yummy chocolate covered everything, and is the destination for Southern California Harley riders.

The free spirit embodied in a leather-bound, pie-eating grizzled biker is about as symbolically Californian as you can get and certainly worth a drive through Julian.

At the town’s edge, off the highway back into San Diego, lies a camel dairy and Dudley’s Bakery. As far as I can tell, the two are unrelated, but Dudley’s does make strangely delicious bread.

For weeks after our camping trip and Dudley’s purchase we enjoyed Potato and Rosemary toast that offered a little respite from our modern grinds. The bread is so good that after the first slice or two, you don’t care if it’s made from camel milk or not.
The Good Stuff
Even though Cuyamaca is not the stereotypical California vacation – no Mickey, celebrities or bikinis – it is quintessential California.

With an open heart, and maybe after a hike or two, anyone can appreciate the beauty, calm and rejuvenation this place has to offer.

Cuyamaca’s open spaces also offer the freedom to let loose a little and just have fun. What else is travel really about?

After an impromptu trip around the world in 2001, Dorothy Carlson knew she had to find a way to share the wonders she witnessed. To this end she teaches literature to high schoolers — reading can take you places, too — writes and travels with every excessively long vacation a teacher’s schedule provides to destinations including India, Kenya, Mexico and Costa Rica. Visit her website or email her.

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