The sun was just rising as we parked the Subaru at the start of the Cutca Valley Trail for our hike out to Eagle Crag. This peak was a special one for me. My first attempt at the 100 Peak Challenge ended with 5 peaks left to summit, and Eagle Crag was one of those ‘Final Five’. When I began my ‘reboot’, I knew that this peak would be one of the challenges left to overcome. First, we checked the condition of the road to the actual trailhead. Thankfully, the High Point Truck Trail was in really good shape as it wound its way up from the Rancho California RV Resort just off the 79.
We knew the day was going to be a long one, some 18 or so miles of hiking with some decent elevation gains both there and back, not to mention the very steep ascent to the summit. The weather was going to be sunny and in the mid-70s, so having enough fluids with us was critical.
Once we passed the trail sign for the Cutca Valley Trail, we quickly plunged some 500 feet into Cottonwood Canyon. This ascent at the end of the day was not going to be fun. We followed the dry creek bed for a bit, taking care to avoid the poison oak that encroached onto the trail. The trail then began its climb up through a steep and narrow ravine before reaching Cutca Valley. There was some nice shade along this section, which we would appreciate upon our return. Every so often a blue and white ribbon would line the trail, not that they were truly needed for this section of the hike, but they gave us something to look for. The trail then came upon a wide clearing, and I thought this would be the perfect spot to stash one of the extra bottles of water I had brought. My idea was to have this reserve available to us to rehydrate if needed before we made our climb back out of Cottonwood Canyon. Also about this point, the small flies were becoming bothersome, so we donned our bug nets (the best $9 I ever spent) and continued on.
The trail then transformed into the remains of an old road and it would work its way up and down along the contours of the landscape for several miles. Nothing dramatic, but it would be something to deal with upon the trek back. While we had been hiking on the Cutca Valley Trail, we now segued onto the Cutca Trail.
Around the 4 mile point we took a break under the shade of a coastal oak before continuing on. The views to the south of the Palomar Mountains were impressive as we munched on some snacks. Eventually, we came to the turnoff for the Cutca Trail. We would be leaving the old road that we had been on and return back to a traditional trail. Next to this trail sign, Ted and I both stashed a water bottle, no sense in hauling the weight up to the summit.
The trail now began gaining some real elevation, and along with it some of the first real challenges with navigation. As we were now under the canopy of mostly alders, with some Douglas fir and Coutler pine tossed in for good measure, the trail would become harder to find. First, all those trees would provide leaves that would mask the trail at times. Second, the trail would cross back and forth across the currently dry creek bed. We could carefully work our way through the rocks, looking for where the trail would pick back up along its banks. The poison oak would be making its return along the trail, adding another level of caution as we pushed on.
The trail eventually leaves this section behind and starts a series of switchbacks for more elevation gain. The upside was the trail was again easy to follow, and as an added bonus, some great views of the mountains to the north again. Eventually, the trail reaches the junction with the abandoned Palomar Divide Road. Continuing westward, we began looking for the rock cairn that would mark the bottom of the steep ravine that would lead us to the summit.
This portion of the hike was brutal. To call this steep is an understatement, and pictures do not do it justice. Foot by foot we would work our way up the ravine. I had a recent GPX track loaded, as I did not spy any ribbons or other markings to guide us. This gave me an approximate sense of where we needed to go. Although we did have to punch through some brush and dead trees at times, we found ourselves on the plateau staring at the summit. Weaving our way through the manzanita, we made it to Eagle Crag!
This was a tremendous sense of accomplishment for me! One of the ‘Final 5’ was summited! (yes, I knew I still had 9 miles back to the car). There was also something that made it stand out personally for me. As I sat upon the crag and soaked in the view, I flipped through the register, spotting many familiar names. It was touching to see many thanking Jerry Schad, the original author of Afoot and Afield in San Diego. I also saw two groups had summited it the day before. I would be remiss as not to point out that this perch is not for those afraid of heights, as the drop-off is almost 1,000 feet down.
After a tasty and well-earned PB&J, some oranges, and some Gatorade, we finished up taking our photos and wandered to the north end of the summit to snap some more photos of our recently conquered Three Saints. It was a bit before 1 pm, so we decided to begin the 9 miles back to the car. We safely navigated our way back down the steep ravine, at times almost sliding. It reminded me of the descent of False Sombrero, just without the rocks.
While the summit was behind us, we knew that in addition to the miles we needed to cover, we still had some climbing ahead of us before we reached the car. Soon the switchbacks were behind us, and we again worked our way through the canyon, enjoying the shade (but not the bugs or the poison oak). As we reached the sign that marked the turn-off, we gathered our water cache. The day had become warmer, and this section of the hike was certainly more exposed as we retraced our route. I could feel both the temperature and the effort of this hike as we trekked on. We did hear the telltale sound of a rattle, and Ted spotted the tail before quickly moving on.
Finally, we came to where I had placed that first bottle. Ted was still feeling good, so I quickly drank it down, along with the last few slices of orange I had kept for the end of the hike. As we descended into Cottonwood Canyon, I broke out my final trick, a small can of Coke. I figured a nice burst of sugar and caffeine would help power me up that 500′ of elevation.
The sun was starting to set and cast its golden glow over the hillside as we plodded upward. We soon reached the car and our journey was complete. 18.4 miles and over a cumulative 3,600 feet of elevation gain. Carefully, we shed our hiking gear and wiped down to hopefully keep any poison oak from triggering a rash. With the sun now set, I carefully drove back down the dirt road and to a hearty dinner at a Mexican restaurant back in Temecula. With that my #72 peak of my #100PeakChallenge was in the books and the ‘Final Five’ is now the ‘Fantastic Four’!
I am an avid peak bagger, sometimes backpacker, and former sea kayaker living in San Diego. In 2019, I became the third person to complete the San Diego 100 Peak Challenge. Not stopping with that accomplishment, I set my sights on the harder San Diego Sierra Club 100 Peak list, which I completed in 2021. In addition, I have conquered several Six-Pack of Peaks challenges (SoCal, San Diego, and Arizona-Winter). Beyond attempting the San Diego Sierra Club 100 Peak list a second time, I am looking forward to exploring new summits and new adventures across the southwest.