How to Conquer San Diego’s Potato Chip Rock

potato chip rock

“Hiking is NOT one of my superpowers,” I said to my three companions.

But it was too late to turn back; we were more than halfway there.

A week before, I had seen a photo taken at San Diego’s Potato Chip Rock – a sliver of stone hovering 2,800 feet over the ridge near the summit of Mt. Woodson, and I knew I had to get there.

Sure, when I was in my early 20’s, I easily clambered up New Hampshire’s 6,148 foot Mt. Washington. Three different times. But that was decades ago.

Comparatively, Mt. Woodson is only 2,800 feet in elevation. I did some quick math… Mt. Washington is 2.2 times higher than Mt. Woodson, and I’m approximately 2.2+/- times older than I was the last time I climbed it. Good to go!  

I convinced three of my San Diego buddies to join me.

“You do understand it’s four miles to the summit, all uphill, with no shade,” said Rebecca, more a statement than a question.

potato chip rock hiking trail

So much for my fuzzy math!

“Um, never mind,” I said. “I’m not in that great shape; I’ll never make it.”

“But don’t you want everyone to see your new Facebook profile hanging off Potato Chip Rock?” asked Diana? I hate it when my friends know me that well.

We arrived at Lake Poway Recreational Center at around 9 a.m. It was an off-season weekday, so there were few people around. The cool early morning mist clinging to the path was a welcome comrade. You could almost taste the dank vapor as the well-maintained sandy path wound around, providing stunning vistas of the southern shore of the lake.

We walked for about a mile, and while the hike is rated strenuous, so far, it was a piece of cake. The only trouble was a sign depicting a sketch of a mountain lion. It seems that mountain lions have been sighted in the chaparral. Good thing Rebecca had a walking stick.

As the lake disappeared from our rearview, the trail got narrow with lots of steep switchbacks along the boulder-strewn mountainside, and the altitude began to rise at a steady ascent.

The only person we encountered on the trail was a man who looked to be around 70 years old, not an ounce of fat on his lean biker short-clad body, jogging past us at a brisk pace. I mentally gave him a high-five.

Attention-grabbing gigantic rock formations littered the trail, some of which looked more like they belonged on the moon than earth. It seemed like a good time for a break, so with theses great natural props, we let our imaginations run wild coming up with ideas for memorable photos.

Suddenly the sun broke through the fog adding two new dimensions to the hike: heat and thirst. September days can still be hot in San Diego, and this was one of them.

The trail is well-marked with signs that tell you how far to the summit, which you swear have to be wrong. I mean, how can a ½ mile feel like three miles?

The trail turned from a dirt path to stones forming natural steps, higher and higher. Thigh-burning, killer cardio.

Multiple rest stops, water breaks, and more photo ops ensued.

If not for the photo ops, props and poses I had planned for the top, I would have abandoned the hike and turned back. But as if to encourage me on, spreading out before us were stunning panoramic views of Point Loma and Cuyamaca Peak.

Ahhhh, finally! We arrived at the pièce de résistance– the infamous Potato Chip Rock, just steps before the summit.

Now we had two choices: jump over the crevice from the main boulder over to the thin “potato” protrusion, or, scale up the side of the mammoth boulder searching out elusive fissures for hand and footholds. One entry is very, very scary, and the other is physically difficult. Marie jumped over the gap; the rest of us climbed the stone with someone in back pushing our behinds and another near the top pulling our arms. It wasn’t pretty, but we got up.

We inched our way out to the edge of this boulder for a gravity-defying picture, each with our own signature pose.

potato chip rock san diego summit

Then came the group photos; Diana took out her iPod and we did a brief dance on the Chip, for YouTube, of course. Finally, we donned our martial art Gi’s for a unique photo that hands-down is our favorite, and was also met with applause by the small group who had now gathered to watch our spectacle.

The geographically diverse and scenic hike took us about 3.5 hours to go up, one hour at Potato Chip Rock for photo ops, and 1.5 hours down. Much to my surprise, the hike down was the worst part, pounding and jamming my middle-aged knees. But it was worth all the huffing, puffing, and pain – we conquered Potato Chip Rock!

On the way down, we encountered the same elderly jogger. He had passed us going up and then going down, at least five times during the day. Totally drained, I stopped dead in my tracks, put my hands on my hips, and said, “Seriously?”

“This way I can eat as much ice cream and drink as much beer as I want,” he grinned.

I didn’t think anyone liked ice cream more than me, but apparently, I was wrong.

At long last, we exited the trail and sighted the parking lot across a grassy knoll.

“I think we should do this once a month,” said Marie as we piled into the car to drive home.

Obviously, she doesn’t understand the meaning of “bucket lis”.