Volcan Mountain – Julian
Type of trail: Out and back.
Composition: sand, decomposed granite, scree.
Distance as hiked: 6.0 miles
Approximate elevation: Trailhead-4,000ft., Top of summit- 5,300 ft.
Temps: 75-82 deg
Difficulty: Moderate; strenuous when hot!
Looking for a shorter hike on this hot day in San Diego, we found ourselves driving to Julian. Volcan Mountain seemed like a fairly easy trek and the hiking guidebook mentioned that the trail was easy to follow. It also promised decent breezes over the rolling hills north of the little tourist town. Julian is a now known as a quaint mountain town with its’ apple pies and small shops. The town is located on/near the site where a former slave in 1869 panned for gold. The area is surrounded by abandoned gold mines. In 2003, it was almost wiped out by one of the largest fires in California. The views of Anza-Borrego Desert and coastal San Diego County are often amazing.
From North San Diego County, we decided to take a longer route on the 76 as it wound around Palomar Mountain and Lake Henshaw. This area has some scenic drives as the terrain changes from rocky chaparral, rolling hills to sub-alpine. Much of the land around here has been set aside as national forest and public use. It’s so nice to drive 45 minutes or so and escape the megalopolis of San Diego. We made our way south to the Main St. intersection in Julian. It was late morning and the tourists were everywhere. Ugh, I find tourist traps annoying, but it’s a living for the townspeople. We turned left on Main and within 2-3 minutes were winding our way through an area with farms and ranches. We parked along the road with the sign that marked the Volcan Mtn trailhead.
Apple groves surrounded this area. The main part of this trail is actually a fire road. I prefer a nice single track trail, but this one had an option to take a hiker’s only trail as a spur. We decided to take the road up and the trail back down. The temps were already into the 80’s as we began a steady 1,500 ft. climb through mixed chaparral. For the first 1/2 mile it was all sun, but eventually we came upon big oaks which provided a great place to catch our breath. This was also the spot where the Five Oaks Trail began, a spur which roughly parallels the fire road but provides scenic views along the southern facing ridge-line ,with views into Julian. The road was rutted and washed out in some areas. There is ample shade the middle half of this trail. 1.2 miles into the hike, you intersect the top part of the Five Oaks Trail and things really open up into rolling hills with expansive views to the west and south. You can see part of Cuyamaca State Park and in the winter, I imagine you can see the coast. The views to the west are limited in the summer due to the haze. The breeze from the ocean started wafting up the hills. The effect was like a swamp cooler. We saw many varieties of oak, hence the side trail name. The road widens and the last mile is less strenuous while transitioning from chaparral to conifers and cedars, eventually leading to wide open grassy meadows bordered by oak trees. We passed a historical marker indicating this was the remnants of a cabin that was used as a potential site for the large telescope that is in the Palomar Observatory. So much history in these hills. Nearby to the east, Anza-Borrego Desert and my favorite, the Pacific Crest Trail.
As we reached the summit, the road looped around. I noticed a fenced in area with a tower and plaque.
While we enjoy getting out on the trail, I enjoy the history. I never knew they used a light beacon system to help guide the airborne postal carriers from the last century. This area, part of the San Dieguito River Park includes a segment of the 55 mile Coast-to-Crest Trail, which stretches from the coast to the PCT.
We would have lunch under the shade of an oak whose branches touched the ground. It was at least 10 degrees cooler under this old tree. We noticed two other couples walking by and started down the mountain. After a mile or so, we took a left on the marked Five Oaks Trail, a nice single track with great views of the south ridge and Ramona.
It was still very warm, but going downhill was easy on this single track trail. The switchbacks meandered through the forest and the terrain gradually started changing to the coastal desert that is so familiar to those who live in San Diego. We heard a siren and hoped that there were no brush fires around here. One thing that a hiker fears is a swift moving wildfire. As we made our way around the ridge, we saw a Cal Fire truck about 200 yds from the road where we parked.
We emerged on the original fire road and within 10 minutes ran into three firemen going up the hill. We asked the second fireman what was going on and he said someone needed medical assistance. That’s a fairly common occurrence on trails in SoCal. Lots of people are unprepared for the heat and physical challenge of the terrain. Many don’t bring enough water or hike in flip-flops. Hopefully, they would be ok. I felt bad for the firemen who were trudging up the mountain in their full gear. As we neared the bottom, we passed two other dudes. They wore dark clothing, no hats and no water. Yes, they will probably require medical assistance too. Apparently, common sense isn’t as common as it used to be.