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A Guide To Cuyamaca Rancho State Park

Dark green hillsides studded with tan rocks cover much of the sprawling Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, a must-see destination east of San Diego, California.

The park boasts over 100 miles of trails and encompasses over 24,000 acres of meadows, forests, creeks and streams.

In this article, we’ll break down the history of the park and list the best hikes and activities at Cuyamaca Rancho so you can make the most of your time at this rugged state park. 

History of Cuyamaca Rancho

Native Kumeyaay people lived in the Cuyamaca mountains from ancient times until the mid-19th century, when Spanish settlers took over Kumeyaay land and built ranchos on it.

By the late 1850s, most Kumeyaay had been forced out of their land by the settlers. 

A gold rush attracted miners to the area in the late 1880s, but mining fizzled out in a decade and operations shuttered completely in 1906.

The mining company town, Cuyamaca City, operated as a mountain resort until businessman Ralph Dyar bought the whole Cuyamaca Rancho property in 1923.

He intended to build a new resort development along part of the lakefront, but the Great Depression made him change plans.

Dyar sold the property to California in 1933 for its new state park system.

Cuyamaca Rancho as a State Park

Cuyamaca Rancho State Park was formally established in March 1933 with no official hiking trails, fire roads, campgrounds, picnic areas or public amenities, according to the California Department of Parks and Recreation.

Throughout the 1930s, workers in the Civilian Conservation Corps improved roads and trails and were also involved in construction, pest control and fire prevention in the park. 

In the early 1940s, several military training exercises took place at Cuyamaca Rancho — the Marines turned part of the park into a defense fort and infantry regiments put on war games in the meadow close to Camp Rancho Cuyamaca.

After World War II ended, the California State Parks system acquired more land around Cuyamaca Rancho, eventually expanding the park to its current size. 

What Can You Do at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park?


Begin your trip with a 0.5-mile walk along the Paso Picacho Nature Trail, an easy hike with minimal elevation gain.

You’ll see several key Cuyamaca landmarks as you walk, including towering Stonewall Peak and glistening Lake Cuyamaca.

You’ll also have a great view of the Three Peaks — Cuyamaca Peak, Middle Peak and North Peak — which range from 5,800 to 6,500 feet tall.

Continue exploring Cuyamaca Rancho via the Stonewall Peak Trail, a moderately challenging 3.8-mile hike.

If you choose to tackle this Stonewall Peak climb in the winter, consider bringing hiking sticks for support as you traverse slick mud and ice on the trail.

Finally, check out Cuyamaca Peak, a moderately challenging 7.4-mile loop trail that takes about four hours to complete.

You’ll want hiking shoes with microspikes to give good traction as you navigate rocky, muddy switchbacks on your way to the summit, where your hard work will be rewarded with beautiful views of the wooded valley. 


There are two campgrounds at Cuyamaca Rancho — Paso Picacho, which has 85 sites, and Green Valley, which has 81.

Every campsite has a fire ring and a picnic table, and there are water faucets close by.

Both campgrounds have dump stations and sell firewood and ice, but there are no hookups.

Campsites cost $40 per night and reservations are required for weekends April through October. There is a limit of eight people per campsite.

If you would rather stay at a rustic camping site, try Granite Springs or Arroyo Seco Environmental camps, which are open on a first come, first serve basis.

These primitive, hike-in camps have chemical toilets, non-potable water and tent sites.

Both camps also have corrals where you can keep your horse if you ride into Cuyamaca Rancho. 


Fishing is a popular pastime at Lake Cuyamaca open to anglers 16 and older who have both a California State Fishing License and a Lake Cuyamaca Fishing Permit.

Fishing is permitted between the hour before sunrise and the hour after sunset, but night fishing is not allowed.

A one-day California state fishing license costs $19.18 and can be purchased online or on-site at the Lake Cuyamaca tackle shop.  

You can also take a boat out on the lake, either your own or a rental from the tackle shop.

All boats are first come, first served except for the pontoon boat, which must be reserved ahead of time.

Some other options include motor boats, which cost $50 for an all-day rental; row boats, which cost $25 for an all day rental and pedal boats, which cost $15 per hour. Kayaks are only available May 1 - Oct. 31, and a single kayak costs $15 per hour. 

Getting There

Cuyamaca Rancho is 6000 feet high in the Peninsular Mountain Range and about 5 miles north of the I-8 highway in Descanso.

To get to Cuyamaca Rancho, drive about 40 miles east of San Diego on Highway 79 and you will soon reach the park.

The best time of year to visit Cuyamaca Rancho is in the late spring, summer or fall as all campgrounds are closed seasonally Dec. through March. 

Conclusion: Cuyamaca Rancho State Park

Before your trip comes to an end, check out the accessible 1.35-mile Azalea Glen Little Loop trail for more stunning views of the Cuyamaca mountains.

Savor the sight of the peaks as you walk through oak trees along the wooded path.

Enjoy the rugged beauty of Cuyamaca Rancho’s rocky land and glistening lake when you visit these must-see attractions. 


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