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Hiking Corte Madera in the Pine Creek Wilderness

Hiking Corte Madera in the Pine Creek Wilderness

Corte Madera

Sitting in the Pine Creek Wilderness in east San Diego, stands Corte Madera, or as some refer to it, San Diego’s Half Dome. This peak offers some impressive views of Baja California, Los Pinos, Anza Borrego, Mount Laguna, and Cuyamaca State Park. This challenging trail has some stunning vistas as it climbs toward the summit.

Trail Details
Summit Elevation: 4,659′
Distance: 7 miles
Time: 4 hours
Difficulty: Strenuous
Elevation gain: 1,700 ft
Dogs: Yes, on leash
When to go: Spring, Fall, Winter

Getting to the Trailhead

From anywhere in San Diego, take the 8 freeway to the Buckman Springs Road exit (exit 51). There are no facilities at the trailhead, so stopping at the Buckman Springs rest stop might be a good idea. Head south on Buckman Springs Road for about 3 miles until you see the sign for the Corral Canyon OHV Area. Make the right hand turn on to it and continue for about 4.8 miles. This road will be a mix of dirt and paved sections, but most cars should have no issues driving it. You will come to a hairpin turn and should see a locked gate on your right, just past this on the left will be a small parking area. With care, five cars should fit.

There are some additional spots to park further up the road. You will need to display your National Forest Adventure Pass or similar pass on your windshield. The daily pass is $5 and can be purchased from several locations.

Hiking Corte Madera

The hike begins by making your way around that locked gate and then along the dirt road that passes through some dense coast live oaks and some tree-sized manzanita. The dirt road will make a hairpin and you will reach the junction with Espinosa Trail. There should be a metal garbage can with a trail sign to point you in the correct direction as past this point the road enters private property.

The Espinosa Trail begins a moderate climb toward the saddle between Los Pinos Mountain and Corte Madera. The coast live oaks and manzanita are replaced with chaparral.

Once at the saddle, you will see signs for the Los Pinos Peak to the left, Espinosa Trail straight ahead, and Corte Madera to the right. The Valley Fire in 2020 had closed the Espinosa Trail beyond this point, but it has since reopened. Here you get your first views of the impressive cliff face of Corte Madera.

Keep an eye out for raptors flying in the skies above you. That southern face is host to a number of birds of prey, including falcons, hawks, and golden eagles. In fact, Cleveland National Forest has seasonal closures along the mountain’s sheer cliff. While these closures will not affect your hike, if you are seeking to do some rock climbing, they will.

From this saddle, continue north on the Los Pinos road until it dead ends. Note that this is an active dirt road, so you may encounter dirt bikes or other off-road vehicles. There will be a forest service sign reminding you to be mindful of the nesting raptors that call Corte Madera home.

Raptor information and sign pointing toward Corte Madera

Your hike will now continue along a use trail to the summit. The condition of this trail varies from good to poor at times, so be prepared. It will get a bit rocky at times and you will have some minor climbing over some rocks.

The use trail wraps around a small peaklet before dropping down some. This is probably the toughest section as you have a short steep scramble to navigate.

The tough section
Rocky section around the “peaklet”.

From here you have about another mile or so to the summit, the route weaving its way through the chaparral and boulders.

Eventually, you will come to a large cluster of boulders that denote the summit of Corte Madera. There should be a register in an old ammo box for you to sign.

Corte Madera summit and register

The summit offers many spots to sit and take a well-earned break. You will have stunning views in all directions. Downtown San Diego will lie due west, and with some luck, you can spot Point Loma.

Many of the familiar peaks of San Diego should be visible as well; El Cajon Mountain, Mount Woodson, Cuyamaca Peak, Palomar Mountain, just to name a few. If the air is clear and if San Gorgonio has some snow on its summit you should be able to see it.

When you are ready to leave, just retrace your route back to the trailhead.

For the more adventurous, you can combine this hike with the summit of Los Pinos. If you choose to do this, at the junction with Espinosa Trail, continue south along the road toward the lookout tower atop Los Pinos. This will add about two miles each way and another 900 feet of gain. During the fire season, that tower is staffed and offers some great views.

Corte Madera Trail Map & Elevation Profile

Download file: corte-madera.gpx

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