The Superlative Laguna Trail

The Laguna Mountains, with their idyllic meadows, sighing pine forests, ephemeral lakes, and endless views, represent some of the finest hiking in San Diego County, if not the entire southern portion of the state. This popular recreation area offers an abundance of different outdoor experiences, and this hike includes most of them.

Distance: 15.1
Elevation Gained: 1,750′
Difficulty: Strenuous
Time: 7:45
Critters: Hawks, squirrels, doves, woodpeckers, coots, a coyote

Get there like this.

Note: You will need an adventure pass to park here.

This is the fifth time I’ve visited the Laguna Mountains, and, with each successive visit, I fall more and more in love with the place. The rare combination of forest, meadows, lakes, endless vistas, and soaring peaks makes this one of the most inclusive wilderness experiences in San Diego County. Every time I come here, I take on a different variation of the Big Laguna Trail, which will invariably include some portion of Laguna Meadow. The other features are great in their own right, but somehow it always comes back to the meadow.

I took this hike with Kyle as we continue to prepare for a backpacking trip to the Grand Canyon. This is also a continuation of Kyle’s introduction to hiking in San Diego. With Agua Tibia a few weeks ago, and the Lagunas this week, I am trying to put San Diego’s best foot forward in regard to introductory hiking experiences. That said, Kyle has now hiked about 36 miles in San Diego, which is a pretty impressive sum for two days of hiking.

For this hike, we took what I am calling the “Superlative Laguna Trail.” The “Big Laguna Trail,” in all 10 miles of its glory, is a definitive San Diego hike. Since this version includes several sections that go beyond the classic BLT, I’m calling it the Superlative Laguna Trail as an example of the best of everything this area has to offer. However, this only holds until I do a 20 mile version in Spring or Fall, when this place is at its best, including everything from Noble Canyon to Wooded Hill to the PCT. One day.

This version started at the Meadows Information Center. From there, we took the Old County Road parallel along Sunrise Highway. Old County Road was the original road up to the Lagunas, which has since been replaced by the better-engineered Sunrise Highway. This crumbling and forgotten asphalt lane, while beautiful on its own, is the weakest part of the trail, and yet it is still full of beautiful sights.

The next segment included the old access road through Agua Dulce Canyon. This ravine features a somewhat reliable water source, and, as a result, it supports incense cedars in addition to the ubiquitous (and butterscotch-scented) Jeffrey pine. This cool, shady stretch of forest is a great table-setter for one of the most dramatic changes of scenery in San Diego.

After connecting for a brief segment of BLT, the trail passes Huecos Road and descends past a mysterious cluster of planted Sequoia trees to reach the PCT trailhead on Sunrise Highway. From here, it’s a quick .5 miles to the PCT, which winds over the chaparral-covered eastern rim of the Laguna Mountains. This eastern rim features the 6,300′ Monument Peak, which provides endless views of Anza-Borrego Desert and the Peninsular Ranges. This is an inspiring place to stop for lunch and enjoy the spectacle of hundred-mile views toward Mexico, Arizona, and the Transverse Ranges in the L.A. Basin.

After Monument Peak, the PCT winds another 3.5 scenic miles along the eastern crest of the Lagunas. Numerous views of Anza-Borrego open up to the east, while the rolling summits of the Peninsular Ranges rise up to the north. After crossing a few riparian canyons, the trail finally comes to the Noble Canyon Trailhead. On weekends, the trailhead is packed to the brim with mountain bikers. Numerous car accidents have been caused by the terrifyingly bright outfits mountain bikers like to wear. Okay, I totally made that up. It’s probably much safer for everybody when you’re dressed like a human caution sign.

Noble Canyon Trail quickly brings you to the Big Laguna Trail. This stretch of the BLT winds through one of the areas affected by the 2003 Cedar Fire. The Cedar Fire mostly avoided the Lagunas, leaving the area mercifully intact. Aside from this stretch of devastation, the Lagunas are one of the only mountain areas in San Diego that has managed to escape significant damage from the cataclysmic fires of the last 10 years.

Laguna Meadow beckons the hiker to wander along its seemingly infinite folds and creases. No matter how many times I hike here, I still feel like some part of this vast meadow has eluded me. So many side fingers branch off in so many directions that a stroll of the Meadow’s perimeters would probably encompass at least a 10 mile hike.

At the heart of it all is Big Laguna Lake. Big Laguna Lake, with its nearby siblings, Little Laguna Lake and Water o’the Woods, are ephemeral lakes that have been reinforced with levees and dams. The lakes fill up during winter and spring storms, only to slowly evaporate through the hot summer months. Come Fall, the lakes are barren stretches of meadow that slowly begin to refill with the first fall rains. They are a marvelous and rare sight in arid San Diego County, and they represent the crown jewel in the County’s vast trail network.

After a brief stop at Water o’the Woods, which is a lovely as it is quaintly named, it’s a 1.5 mile jaunt on one of two legs of the Sunset Trail, which is itself a worthy segment to be added on to a future version of a Laguna adventure. And that may be the greatest thing about this area. There are so many options and so many different ways to take things that it is virtually impossible to exhaust the different possibilities. In that way, the wonders of this place remain fresh as no two hikes are ever likely to be the same.

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