Of the many hikes in San Diego we’ve done, this 10 mile loop through the Mount Laguna Recreation Area might just be my favorite. The first half traverses the Big Laguna Trail, which takes you through some beautiful pine tree forests that are becoming so hard to find in San Diego after the many devastating wildfires of the past decade. It passes the wide, open fields of Big Laguna Meadow and the sometimes wet Big Laguna Lake. Eventually it meets up with the Pacific Crest Trail which traverses the boundary of the forested mountains and the arid Anza-Borrego desert below. If you’re lucky enough to hike it at the right time of year (late spring or early summer), you will enjoy colorful displays of wildflowers along the way. It really showcases the wide variety of landscapes in San Diego.
The Big Laguna Trail has a number of “spur” trails that branch off and reconnect in various places. It can be a little confusing if you’re not already familiar with the area. You might find it worthwhile to stop at the Visitor’s Center on the Sunrise Highway, where you can purchase a nice copy of this trail map for only $2. We found that most of the trail junctions were well-marked, and that the direction we wanted was generally indicated by markers indicating the Big Laguna Trail leading to the Pacific Crest Trail, so if you keep your eyes peeled for the PCT symbol you should be good.
From the Penny Pines staging area we headed west, passing through a metal pipe gate just off the side of the road. An informational kiosk with a map and the local rules stood just to the right.
Just a few steps onto the trail, I could already tell this was going to be a beautiful hike. White ceanothus was blooming like crazy, and the tall grass was still mostly green.
About 100 feet from the road, the trail forked in two directions. To the right was the Noble Canyon trail, a most excellent hike we had done last year. Today we headed left.
The narrow single track trail wound through the tall, flowering ceanothus, which grew above our heads.
At .14 mile we passed through another gate.
When the tall ceanothus gave way, we found a variety of wildflowers mixed with the tall grass surrounding us.
And while tree cover was a bit sparse along this section of the trail, there were still some oak and pine trees here and there.
Around .95 mile we found another trail junction where the Filaree Flat Spur joined our trail on the right. We kept straight, heading into a slightly denser stand of trees.
Big Laguna Meadow began to come into view on our right – a wide, open plain lined with a dense forest so rare in San Diego.
Around 1.05 miles we came to another “Y” junction. The right fork headed off to the west edge of the meadow and the Sunset Trail beyond. We continued straight, which would keep us on the east edge of the meadow.
We left the trees, crossing an open field of grass.
There were plenty of flowers to enjoy along this section of trail as well.
It wasn’t long before we were back among the pines again.
At 1.75 miles a side trail leading to the El Prado campground branched off to the left. We continued straight.
We were still along the eastern edge of the Laguna Meadow, which we could see through the periodic breaks in the trees that surrounded us.
We had a number of feathered companions sharing the beautiful morning with us. As usual, most weren’t willing to stick around to get photographed, but we did come across one moderately cooperative robin.
Around 2.5 miles we spotted a large mud puddle that was Big Laguna Lake.
The trail gently turned east, heading away from the lake, and at 2.65 miles we came upon another trail junction. Once again we continued straight.
We quickly came upon another junction, this one unmarked. You can go either way here, as the two trails converge again in a short distance. We chose the left fork as it appeared to have a few more flowers and trees.
We breathed deeply, enjoying the sweet scent of the pine trees that lined the trail.
At 2.9 miles, we met up with the other trail again and turned left to continue on.
We quickly came to yet another junction. We took the right fork, staying along the outside of a wire fence which helped to confine the local cattle.
Around 3.1 miles there was a break in the fence and a trail leading to the Laguna Campground. We continued straight along the fenceline.
At 3.67 miles we came to a “T” junction underneath the power lines. We turned left.
We passed a superfluous gate and continued back into the trees.
Around 3.8 miles there was another “Y” junction. The right fork led towards Agua Dulce, another fantastic hike we’d done last fall, but we took the left fork, diligently following the signs marked “To PCT.”
The trail made its way through lush pine forest, and birds hopped through branches all around us.
The shady hills around us were thick with flowers, including purple lupine and tiny white popcorn flowers.
At 4.25 miles the trail made a sharp left and began climbing uphill.
As we climbed, we found ourselves among flowering ceanothus shrubs again.
Around 4.6 miles we crossed the gravel Los Huecos Road and picked the trail up again on the opposite side.
A short single track led us across another dirt road, and we continued straight. Here, the Big Laguna Trail followed an old dirt road, giving us a wide path to follow.
Here, black oaks mingled with the pines.
At 5.08 miles, we turned left as the Big Laguna Trail branched off to the side.
Once again, we were on a narrow single track lined with beautiful wildflowers.
We began to hear traffic sounds as the trail descended towards the Sunrise Highway.
Around 5.5 miles we crossed the highway.
On the other side of the road we found the Big Laguna Trailhead. The trail continued east from here.
We found some lovely fallen logs amid the grass and flowers, and decided to take a break and eat our sandwiches here. We were far enough from the highway that we didn’t hear any traffic, and aside from some birds we had the place to ourselves.
After our snack break, we resumed our journey and were rewarded with still more wildflowers.
We made our way up a gentle ascent, occasionally glimpsing the golf-ball like form of Laguna Observatory on the distant ridgeline ahead of us. Around 6.1 miles the Big Laguna Trail ended upon reaching the PCT.
We turned left onto the PCT, and enjoyed one last short stretch of forest.
Before long the trees disappeared, replaced by a more arid landscape and tall chaparral. Manzanita and Mountain Mahogany dominated the hillsides.
Occasional breaks in the surrounding brush allowed us some nice views. Looking northwest we could see Cuyamaca Peak and neighboring Middle and North Peaks.
In the far distance to the west, we could see the majority of San Diego was still blanketed by a thick marine layer while we basked in the warm mountain sunshine.
And as we continued, we eventually started to get glimpses of the desert mountains in Anza-Borrego.
Here we were on the edge of the area burned during the 2013 Chariot Fire. There were some burnt and singed pine trees, but the chaparral was recovering nicely.
Around 6.8 miles, we noted an unmarked “Y” junction. The PCT continued downhill to the left. The righthand path led a short way to a viewpoint overlooking the desert below. Naturally, we had to check it out.
We were not disappointed, as the colorful expanse of western Anza-Borrego was spread out before us.
After enjoying the views, we returned to the main trail and continued on. There were more reminders of the Chariot Fire in the form of burnt sticks poking out above the regrowth, but new life was everywhere in the form of flowering lupine and other wildflowers was taking over.
Around 8 miles we came to a turn off on the right leading to Foster Point. This is a short (approximately quarter mile round trip) side trail to another scenic overlook. A large group had beaten us up there though, making picture taking difficult, so we decided to leave it out of this write-up and do it as a separate hike on another day.
We were well consoled with the beauty of the PCT as we continued on.
We found some very large patches of Poodle Dog Bush, which as we’ve mentioned in previous posts is a highly irritating plant that can cause allergic reactions worse than poison oak. It’s beautiful when it blooms, but we were careful to admire it with making contact.
The trail bent eastward, and we soon saw the Sunrise Highway come into view.
The landscape became slightly more forest-like as we moved away from the edge of the desert. There were charred remains of trees, but we started to see a few survivors as we continued on.
Around 9.25 miles, the trail passed below the Storm Canyon Overlook. This is a wooden observation deck, just off the side of the Sunrise Highway where less ambitious visitors can pull off the road and walk out on the deck to enjoy the fabulous views of Storm Canyon below. The Overlook was pretty much destroyed by the Chariot Fire, but thanks to the hard work and dedication of the Laguna Mountain Volunteer Association it has been completely rebuilt. It’s a very popular spot, and there were a number of people enjoying the view as we passed just below. We were pretty content with the trail-level view of the canyon.
The trail stuck pretty close to the highway for a ways, but once again we had a plethora of flowers to focus our attention on.
The views weren’t too shabby either.
Around 10.25 miles we came to a 4-way junction.
We turned left, seeing the parking area a short distance ahead.
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From I-8 east take the Sunrise Highway exit and turn left onto Sunrise Highway (S1). Follow Sunrise Highway for approximately 13.8 miles to the Penny Pines trailhead where you can park on either side of the road. map
||Moderately Strenuous (due to length)
||Leashed dogs allowed
||Bikes not allowed on PCT section
||Water near trailhead; no bathrooms
For more information, visit:
Forest Service – Cleveland National Forest
Laguna Mountain Volunteer Association
Laguna Mountain Recreation Area Map
View route or download GPX from CalTopo