For some, a long-distance, wilderness trail is simply a call to a destination. For others it’s all about the journey.

San Diego County is home to such a trail, perhaps one of the best hiking routes you’ve never heard of.

It’s called the San Diego Trans-County Trail, or just TCT for those in the know.

At about 150 to 170 miles, depending on your route, it’s a reality in many places, but more of a concept in other sections as it meanders toward populated urban areas.

The TCT is the current version of an idea embraced by hikers for decades who envisioned a trail extending from the Salton Sea to the Pacific Ocean.

Before being known as the TCT, it was called the Sea-to-Sea Trail and there are even a few faded signs in places reminding travelers of that.

It begins at the western edge of Salton Sea, crosses Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, climbing into Ranchita and connecting with existing sections of the California Riding and Hiking and Pacific Crest trails.

The trail drops back into the desert, trends south, then up into Cuyamaca, westerly into the San Diego River Gorge, up to the summit of El Cajon Mountain, on to Lakeside, Poway and Peñasquitos Canyon until ending at Torrey Pines State Beach.

Creating a formal trail and a clearly designated and legal route is a challenge because the path wanders through several jurisdictions, including two counties, Bureau of Land Management public land, state parks, Cleveland National Forest, Indian Reservation and private property.

There is no official map, although some hikers and trails supporters have posted suggested routes online that allow trekkers to follow existing trails or rural roads avoiding population centers.

There is not one entity that manages the entire route, and that is an important component, especially as more hikers are discovering the trail.

There are no records of how many hikers complete the TCT each year, or even enjoy section hiking. But those who do often have the same impressions.

It’s a magnificent and unique trail, crossing barren desert, pine mountains, oak woodlands, urban canyons and ocean seashore, all in a relatively short distance that can be enjoyed in 10 days to two weeks of hiking.

The route can also be confusing since it is not well marked in places, there are no legal easements in some areas, and many portions lack a constructed path. That means hikers are sometimes required to bushwhack to get to waypoints such as the summit of El Cajon Mountain east of Lakeside.

Services and support along the way are relatively easy to access, yet hikers can remain isolated from civilization most of the time.

Trixie Turnblatt has been a hiker all of her life but began seriously walking about 20 years ago when she moved to San Diego and had some health issues.

“Walking was one of the things that really helped me,” she recalls.

Since then, she has logged several thousand miles on foot, mostly section hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail, completing the Tahoe Rim Trail and many local routes.

Then she discovered the TCT.

“I was surprised at how little of this trail I had hiked in my many miles of hiking. This is a unique path,” she said.

For Turnblatt, the TCT was a journey of the heart.

She was troubled by events unfolding in January and decided she needed to get away into nature, which she considers her healing place. For her, hiking is all about the peace and quiet and the spiritual connection.

“It gave me a lot of time to think and what a wonderful opportunity it was to see the variations in plant and animal life as well as the people of the county,” she said.

She called it, “The trail that connects us.”

Turnblatt also hiked it alone, encountering few people in the 13 days it took to cover 154 miles. Those she did meet were universally helpful.

The first portion of the trail through the desert was the most challenging for Turnblatt.

“The desert was a bit frightening to me. No water and you can go miles and be close to nothing. If you make a mistake you can be in real trouble,” she said.

The ill-defined route in places also meant she was lost anywhere from 45 minutes to five hours a day, and that slowed her down.

At the end of her journey, she felt satisfaction at accomplishing a physical goal but also sees the trail as a mental health benefit to the region.

Her biggest lesson from the TCT?

“I guess my biggest lesson during the 13 days was that it’s never what I expect, but always just what I need,” she said.

The trail also taught her that no matter how different, “when there is a face, people do want to help others.”

Another TCT veteran is Pea Hicks from San Diego who made three attempts before completing the hike. Shin splints and weather ended his first two outings.

Long-distance hiker Pea Hicks of San Diego hikes along a well-defined part of the TCT through Cuyamaca.

Long-distance hiker Pea Hicks of San Diego hikes along a well-defined part of the TCT through Cuyamaca.

(Courtesy of Pea Hicks)

He found the TCT route from Salton Sea to the Cedar Creek Trailhead in Ramona the most enjoyable because of the varied wilderness terrain and the continuous, well-defined trail.

“That section, for me, is the highlight of the hike,” he said.

As the trail moves westward it is less defined.

“From Cedar Creek to the coast it gets tricky because of urban areas, paved portions, and bushwhacking required in some places,” Hicks said.

Some areas are difficult to get through without walking on private roads or through a corner of an Indian reservation.

Both hikers agree that a single agency, perhaps the county, should be the lead in coordinating all jurisdictions to map, build and clearly identify a completed route.

Maybe the San Diego Trans-County Trail is an idea whose time has come.

The demand for outdoor recreation along with the popularity of long-distance hiking is a strong reason to preserve and enhance this route.

Or maybe it’s just what we need.

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