Fiery name, cool climb

Special to The Times

I’M working my way up a graded fire road on the sunny slope of Volcan Mountain, en route to the Five Oaks Trail. I’m reflecting not only on the stifling heat but also on the conflagration that resulted in a grayish patch of freshly burned timber visible a couple of miles away.

“Volcan,” Spanish for volcano, was the name early travelers gave to this miniature mountain range squeezed up between two geologic faults -- owing to the dome-like profile of its crest when seen from certain directions. The mountain is certainly no stranger to disaster.

On a somewhat routine basis, small-plane pilots flying west toward San Diego misjudge the downdrafts blasting into the desert from the mountain and fail to clear the crest. The dragon’s breath has licked at the mountain repeatedly -- along the east slope during the Pines Fire of 2002, on the southeast corner during the mammoth Cedar Fire of 2003 and on the crest by the relatively small wildfire that flared last month.


I’m inhaling the toasty scent of dried buckwheat blossoms, which drape the lower slope of the mountain like a reddish-brown shag carpet. The road at this point bends sharply right and pitches even more steeply upward, but a few oaks and tall manzanitas cast dark pools of shade big enough for me to huddle under for a moment.

Presently I arrive at a sign announcing Five Oaks Trail, a scenic, 1.2-mile-long alternative to plodding upward on the interminably steep and dusty fire road. Completed two years ago with the assistance of industrious young California Conservation Corps members, the trail promises and then delivers some delightful scenery, not to mention adequate shade.

Tree-sized manzanitas line the new trail, even larger than those along the old fire-road route. My habit when passing these red-barked shrubs is to grab a ripe berry or two (manzanita is Spanish for “little apple”) and let the tart-sugary flavor of the minuscule fruit tickle my taste buds -- but there are no fruits left hanging this late in the season.

Just ahead, the trail swings past an opening in the trees and shrubs, revealing a westerly view of mom-and-pop-scale apple orchards, ready for harvest, sticking like postage stamps to the rolling plain at the foot of the mountain. Within a month, visitors to nearby Julian will be savoring apple pie.

There’s a pungent whiff of white sage, borne on the sun-warmed slope, then the trail darts into one of what turn out to be several groves of black oaks. Instantly the temperature on my skin drops about 10 degrees.

After a long mile of perspiration on Five Oaks Trail, I rest on a stone bench, thoughtfully provided at a breezy spot in the shade, with a view opening to the south. Julian’s outskirts lie in that direction, with the historic town hidden just around a hill. The sound of a roaring motorcycle floats upward from the bottom of the linear gash right below known as Banner Canyon, traced by the twisting ribbon of Highway 78, alias Banner Grade. The canyon owes its existence to displacement along the Elsinore Fault, which comes to life every now and again (geologically speaking) with a magnitude 6 or 7 rumble.


With my T-shirt blow-dried to a reasonable comfort level, I walk over to the fire road and descend straight back to the foot of the mountain. It’s been a very good day, but it won’t be complete until I’m relaxing in Julian with an old-fashioned chocolate ice cream soda sliding down my parched throat.


The particulars

Where: Volcan Mountain Preserve, near Julian in central San Diego County.

What: Moderately strenuous, steep, 3.2-mile hike up and down the slope of Volcan Mountain. In early November, leaves of black oaks turn their brightest shade of yellow.

How: From Julian, drive two miles north on Farmer Road to Wynola Road, jog briefly right and turn left to remain on Farmer Road. Park along Farmer Road, 200 yards north of Wynola Road. Hike the gravel access road going east to reach Volcan Mountain, the preserve’s entry gate (no charge) and the fire road beyond. After 0.4 mile of climbing on that road, look for Five Oaks Trail branching to the right.

Details: Volcan Mountain Preserve, (760) 765-4098,


Jerry Schad is a San Diego-based freelance writer and the author of “Afoot and Afield” Southern California hiking guidebooks published by Wilderness Press.