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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: Climbing Cuyamaca: Part 1

By: Jim Bishop.

This is the first of two articles about the recovery and revival of plant life at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park following the October 2003 Cedar Fire.

Back in the mid-1990s, I did several mountain bike rides in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. I especially recall a ride along Green Valley Trail, which passes the upper and lower falls of the Sweetwater River and runs through large stands of fragrant pale blue Ceanothus. Another time, I rode between the three peaks of the Cuyamaca Mountains on a trail that passed through large stands of pine forest. However, in the fall of 2003, the Cedar Fire burned over 24,000 acres of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, killing 95% of the pine trees in the park. Disheartened by the damage, Scott and I hadn’t visited the park much since the fire. However, with the abundant rain and snowfall this year, we decided to take a closer look at Cuyamaca Peak in early May on an 8-mile hike climbing 1800 feet to the top.

Lake Cuyamaca, desert peaks and burned pines remaining from the 2003 Cedars fire

The trail up is a wide graded dirt fire road. Most of the roadside has a very dense cover of Ceanothus up to twelve feet high that has grown to replace the pine forest. Most of it is so dense as to be impenetrable. Pockets of wildflowers grow in openings along the road and when we visited, white Ceanothus was in full bloom at lower elevations. Higher up, the Ceanothus was not yet in bloom, but at the very top the mountain, a dark blue species of Ceanothus was in bloom. There were some small oaks that had survived the fire and were mostly recovering from dense growth at the base of very large burned tree trunks. Dead trunks of burned pines remained upright in many places. Also, new short, dense, beautiful pine trees were mixed in with the Ceanothus.

White Ceanothus and blue skies

Without the forest cover, the views from the mountain are spectacular and they only improve moving up the trail. Looking to the east, there’s a good view of other peaks in the park, Lake Cuyamaca, the Laguna Mountains, high desert peaks, and the Salton Sea. At the top of the mountain, we gazed towards the desert across the green hills of the park and then turned westward to see out as far as the Pacific Ocean. The vegetation changes with elevation and those who reach the top are rewarded with the chance to see some species that don’t grow elsewhere in the County. The fire spared a few large cedars, pines, and fir trees on east side of the peak, giving a sense of what the forest looked like before it burned. Most notable were some very large manzanitas (Arctostaphylos) in full bloom covered with honeybees and black native bumblebees. The bell-shaped flowers were a bright pink color against large dark green leaves atop several beautifully sculpted smooth red-bark trunks. Any of us would grow this plant in our gardens, if only we could.

A very pink Manzanita

Other notable wildflowers sprinkled along the trail were yellow-orange wallflowers, bright red Penstemon, blue-eyed grass, both white and pale pink Phlox groundcover, several species of lupine, chaparral pea, and clumps of red-orange paintbrush. New to me was Viola pedunculata, with yellow pansy-like flowers and fuzzy leaves, and near the top of the peak stood a single large dogwood tree in full bloom.

Pink Phlox on the Azalea Glen Trail

We decided to take the Azalea Glen Trail back down. It was much narrower—to the point of being overgrown in some places—and very rocky with little flat ground. We never did find any western azaleas, which are supposed to grow in the area, but noted a white-flowered shrub related to blueberries that might have been mistaken for an azalea. We also observed some Humboldt lilies that will bloom later in the season. The lower portion of the trail crossed a few small spring-fed creeks and some areas that weren’t burned. As we got closer to the parking lot, we again entered the large stands of snow-white Ceanothus surrounding burned pine trees and set off against the bright blue sky with firecracker-red Penstemon along the trail.

Stay tuned for Part 2, my follow-up hike in the Cuyamacas, next month.

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