The Azalea Glen Loop Trail is on the slopes of Cuyamaca Mountain, the second highest peak in San Diego County. The 2003 Cedar fire devastated most of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, but it is recovering and there is a wealth of fascinating things here to see and experience.
From the trailhead, begin hiking through a mixed conifer forest, with a shrub understory of montane chaparral. There are several trails branching off in other directions, but always with an instructive sign; just note the directions on the sign and continue the Azalea Glen Loop Trail. At about 0.7 mile from the trailhead, the Azalea Glen Loop Trail merges with a California Riding and Hiking Trail as it approaches Azalea Creek. Even under drought conditions, this is perhaps the most delightful part of the trail as it enters the lush riparian vegetation bordering a flowing stream with dogwoods, western azaleas, willows, rushes, and horsetails lining the banks of the stream, shaded by towering incense cedars, white firs, western cottonwoods, and California black oaks.
Further ahead the trail leaves the creek and rises more rapidly as it passes through tall, dense growths of white-flowered (in May and June) Palmer’s-lilacs. The Azalea Spring Fire Road is 1.7 miles from the trailhead, with the Azalea Spring just beyond. At this point are interesting views off to the east of mountains in the desert as well as the nearer Lake Cuyamaca and Stonewall Peak. Go left, down the Fire Road, perhaps 0.2 mile, and watch for the continuation of the Azalea Glen Trail branching off to the left. Take it back to your vehicle at the campground.
We’ve rated the difficulty for this hike moderate, with elevation gain up to 500 feet. Bicycles and horses are allowed on some sections. Before you go, check to ensure the trail is open. More detailed information about the area can be found at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.
The trail was named for the western azalea (Rhododendron occidentale) that occurs here. It is a showy shrub occasionally found along streams in mountainous areas. If it is in bloom when you pass by, stop to enjoy its captivating fragrance. The white to deep pink flower is funnel-shaped and is typically four-inches long. Yellow to orange blotches appear on the flower typically in April and May.
In spring also look for western redbud (Cercis occindentalis) in bloom. Calliope hummingbirds (Stellula calliope) may be feeding on its nectar. The calliope hummingbird is the smallest American bird with a weight about equal to that of a penny. Despite its diminutive size, it is here only in spring and early summer, leaving in July to spend winters in Mexico. It is one of six species of hummingbird found in San Diego County and the only one commonly found in our mountains.
A prescribed burn occurred here in 2011. A prescribed burn is a deliberate fire meant to create a more favorable habitat for conifers. With the exception of scattered patches of forest, the 2003 Cedar Fire left few trees unburnt with little hope for the recovery of the extensive coniferous forest that occurred there before the fire. Cuyamaca Rancho State Park is in the process of replanting conifers in key locations in order to establish sources for conifer regrowth using seedlings germinated from local seed. Part of the process is also controlling the growth of Palmer’s-lilac (ceanothus palmeri). Though native, its strong recovery has created a monoculture of dense chaparral where forest formerly existed. Restoration of forest vegetation is a long and sometimes aesthetically challenging process but one should keep the end goal of forest restoration in mind. Treatments and prescribed burns have removed most of the lilacs in an attempt to tip the balance in favor of pines. However, opening the land for conifer seedling planting leaves it appearing barren or somewhat weedy until the trees can become well established.
From CA-79 turn west into the Paso Picacho Campground, 11 miles south of Julian and 12 miles north of I-8. Park in the day-use area and find the Azalea Glen Trailhead, visible just southwest of the parking lot.
Trailhead GPS: N32.95932, W116.58048
Looking for more great hikes? Check out our Canyoneers page or purchase the book, Coast to Cactus: The Canyoneer Trail Guide to San Diego Outdoors.
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