With all of the trails crisscrossing the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area, the possibilities for loops both small and large and seemingly endless. This loop takes advantage of a 3.5 mile stretch of the PCT and includes segments of trail through Laguna Meadow and Agua Dulce Creek. This varied and rewarding loop is slightly more strenuous than the Big Laguna Trail, which accomplishes the same effect.
Note: The trailhead for this hike is shown as coming from Laguna Campground, where I camped before gusty winds made the whole experience unpleasant. You can start this loop from several points along the loop. An Adventure Pass will be needed no matter where you park. You can pick one up at the Laguna Mountain Lodge and Store.
It still boggles my mind that a place like the Laguna Mountains exists so close to San Diego. Less than 1 hour from downtown, you can find a thick pine and oak forest, rolling meadows, lakes, streams, and stunning desert views. Considering how densely populated and developed the city is, it is almost shocking to find a landscape that is unique to all of Southern California awaiting exploration.
However, unique does not mean that the Lagunas are any kind of secret. On weekends, the place fills up with a steady stream of mountain bikers and weekenders looking to get away from traffic, noise, and chaos in the lowlands. It’s not common to find solitude here, unless your timing is good. Fortunately, my timing was great, as I came up on a Thursday in November to camp out. I saw two other people on the trails, whereas I am usually spending a good chunk of the time stepping aside for mountain bikers. A rare sense of solitude makes the Lagunas that much more enjoyable.
My goal on this hike was to include some of the PCT around Burnt Rancheria and Desert View Picnic Area. Over the next 12 months, I hope to hike the entirety of the PCT in San Diego, which clocks in around 150 miles from the Mexico Border to Riverside County just north of Warner Springs. To date, I estimate that I’ve hiked about 32 miles of the trail in the county, so I’ve made a pretty good dent. This segment from a junction just south of Monument Peak and Burnt Rancheria Campground is probably the nicest, or at least the most shaded.
I got here on the tail-end of the peak for fall color. Most of the black oaks that haven’t succumbed to the gold-spotted oak borer were sporting just a fraction of their leaves. Recent gusty winds from east and west had stripped most of the trees clean, but there were enough trees still cloaked in gold to make this a rewarding fall color experience. I’ll grant that the fall color here doesn’t touch New England or even the Eastern Sierras, but there is still a lovely, if somewhat muted array of colors to experience here.
This trail also included a stretch of PCT featuring desert views. While most of Laguna Mountain consists of forest and sunny meadow, the eastern rim features startling views of Anza-Borrego Desert some 3,000′ below. This vast, scorched wasteland contrasts sharply with sighing pine trees, and when the day is clear enough, it is said that one can see all the way to Mexico.
This trip ultimately proved to be slightly more than I could chew. I pushed a boundary by hiking 19.3 miles in one day when I hadn’t touched that distance in quite some time. My quads are still very sore, and I doubt I could have done the twelve mile trek through Split Mountain on the following day had I tried. It’s a good yardstick of how far I am along as I prepare to take on gruesome segments of trail like the San Felipe segment of the PCT, which travels along 24 miles of sun-blasted hills in Anza-Borrego. My body will respond, but it’s going to take a lot of training and dedication.
By the time I was near the end of this trail, the sun had sunk and the moon had risen. I concluded the last 1.5 miles under a nearly full moon that cast dim shadows across a wide, grassy meadow. Walking through a forest under a full moon in the dark is a beautiful and eerie experience. Sounds seem amplified, and distances become distorted. I’d like to come back here during summer under a full moon and take a long loop around the meadow. As for this trip, the Lagunas, as always, did not disappoint.