The Sunset Trail

Perched atop a rolling plateau in the Peninsular Ranges in eastern San Diego County lies a vast, sumptuous meadow, rimmed with pine trees and studded with small, ephemeral lakes. This landscape, which may be one of the most beautiful in all of San Diego, offers contrast, solitude, silence, endless vistas, and cool, shady forests to any hiker willing to drive an hour out of San Diego.

Stats

Distance: I didn’t keep track, but I’m guessing this trip is about 7-8 miles
Elevation Gained: The entire plateau is between 5,500-6,000′, so there isn’t much gain
Time: 4 Hours
Difficulty: Moderate
Critters: A fleet of ducks and what was either a very large hawk or a golden eagle

Get there like this.

Important: Bring an Adventure Pass

Details

This was my third visit to the Laguna Mountains, and, as with every repeat visit, I experienced something new and memorable. On this visit, the last remnants of fall color clung stubbornly to the black oaks. I explored a new stretch of the Sunset Trail, and I later tackled Garnet Peak (subsequent blog). More than anything though, I enjoyed a long, slow stroll in the woods. If Laguna is best for anything, it is for long, slow strolls in the woods.

This mountain range gets its name from the Spanish word for “lake,” and it is due to the presence of a few small lakes here that this mountain is so called. Like most water bodies in Southern California, these lakes dry up during the summer and then come back to life once the rain begins falling in the fall. Ranchers who have long raised cattle on these meadows increased the availability of water by creating dams to hold in the creeks that drain the vast meadows of the plateau.

People have long been attracted to the Laguna Mountains due to the abundant source of food and reliable sources of water. The Kumeyaay indians first lived her, and they were later displaced by cattle men looking for good pasture. Most of the cattle are now gone, replaced by day-trippers and campers from the city who are looking for fresh air, views, peaks, and trees.

A wide array of hiking options awaits visitors at the Lagunas. The Pacific Crest Trail runs along the eastern rim of the plateau. At this rim, the mountains end abruptly in an escarpment that descends almost directly down into the Anza-Borrego desert some 3,000′ below. The Big Laguna Trail winds its way around the edge and into most of the arms of Laguna Meadow.

The majority of this trail was taken on the Sunset Trail, which hugs the western rim of the plateau and reveals views that reach the ocean when the air is clear enough. This trail goes up and down small ravines and through a tranquil forest of Jeffrey pine and black oak. There are numerous spots for views, which encompass the mountains west and south into Mexico.

One of the great things about hiking here stems from the number of options available. Several spurs branch off of the Sunset and Big Laguna Trails, which eventually connect to the PCT, the Agua Dulce fire road, and a number of other destinations scattered throughout the heavily-wooded plateau. One can take a short hike to a small lake – perfect for children. Or, one can take a long, rambling hike that covers all of the sites this area has to offer.

I took the Sunset Trail from the Meadows Information Station on Sunrise Highway. The trail quickly offers two choices, and I took the choice leading left. One of the great things about the Sunset Trail is that it, like the PCT, is closed to mountain bikers. This comes in really handy once you get onto the Big Laguna Trail and find yourself constantly stepping off the path to let a steady stream of mountain bikers go by.

Woodpeckers drill holes in trees to store acorns for lean times

Just so you know, mountain bikers are supposed to yield to hikers by stepping off of the trail and letting the hikers go by. None of them ever seem to know this. They feel that YOU are in THEIR way, which is probably why so many of them seem like they never left their cars. Although it only reinforces their lack of etiquette, it’s best to step off the trail when mountain bikers come by. And yes, I know you shouldn’t have to cater to mountain bikers simply because they’re seemingly ignorant of the rules, but it’s better than getting run over.

I know. I really am a total curmudgeon about this, and I recognize that everybody has their ways of enjoying life. It’s more sad feeling that some people don’t get a chance to experience how tranquil a place like this can be without having it blocked out by all the clanging and rushing of mountain biking. And those God-awful mountain bike clothes. Do you have to look like you’re in the Olympics when you’re cruising around a meadow?

Anyhow, the Sunset Trail winds up, over, around, and into a number of shallow ravines and hills, while occasionally stopping at sunny viewpoints. Eventually, the trail comes to the charmingly named Water-in-the-Woods, which is a small man-made lake teaming with ducks. Here, you can continue on to Laguna Meadow, or you can continue on the Sunset Trail, which will eventually deposit you at the northernmost end of the same meadow.

At this point, I turned right and walked along Big Laguna Lake, although I could have gone further to Noble Canyon or to the PCT – yes, there are many options, so take a picture of the trail map at the trailhead if you have a smart phone, and use it for reference. I followed the Big Laguna Trail through the meadow, in and out of the pine forest, past black oaks decked out in glorious gold foliage, and finally returned back to Water-in-the-Woods.

From there it was a quick jaunt down another arm of the Sunset Trail back to the highway. When I first got there, I was the only car in site. At 11:00 am, the shoulders were filling up fast with cars, many of which were cranking loud music and unloading bikes. (Seriously, do mountain bikers place any value on quiet, or does it all have to be a big rush of excitement?)

This illustrates the importance of getting here early if you value solitude. While the Lagunas are beautiful, they are also popular, and you can expect to have a lot of company unless you get here early. And well you should since you also get the chance to watch the sun rise over Anza-Borrego, listen to the birds waking up in the pine forest, and enjoy the stillness and silence of the meadow before the mountain bike brigade comes tearing through.

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