Garnet Peak via Pioneer Mail Picnic Area

View from Garnet Peak in Laguna Mountain Recreation AreaAfter last year’s Chariot fire ran through Mount Laguna, I wasn’t sure what would be left along this section of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). But I’ve always enjoyed this hike, and was optimistic that a year would have been enough time for some recovery to have taken place. I’m happy to report we were not disappointed. It looks as though the fire only hit patches of this area, and those parts that did burn are showing plenty of new life.

There are several trailheads you can use to access Garnet Peak. The shortest route is a nondescript spot along the Sunrise Highway a little past mile marker 27. You can also start at the Penny Pines trailhead and take the PCT north to the Garnet Peak turn off.

We chose the third option, starting at the Pioneer Mail Picnic Area and hiking south on the PCT. I like this route for several reasons: Pioneer Mail has the most available parking, there is a bathroom at Pioneer Mail (not the greatest trailhead bathroom you could hope for – its rather dirty and the doors don’t latch properly – but I still find it preferable to searching for a sufficiently hidden spot along the trail), this stretch of the PCT passes through a lot of wildflowers, and it’s the longest of the three routes.

Trail head for the southbound PCT at Pioneer Mail Picnic AreaWe picked up the PCT by passing through a gap in the fence along the southeast side of the parking lot and headed south/southeast. Almost immediately we could see signs of last year’s fire in the form of the charred skeletons of chaparral along the hillside, but most of the oak trees seem to have survived intact, and tall grasses and blooming wildflowers were already growing over the blackened remains.The Chariot fire burned sections of the PCT in Mt Laguna

For the first mile or so, the trail roughly paralleled the Sunrise Highway. Happily, we were out early on a weekday so traffic was almost nonexistent, but even on busier weekends its not terribly noticeable. Patches of wildflowers clustered along the trail in bunches of yellow and purple, and new green growth could be seen spreading across the hills.

Around .45 miles we passed through a break in a fence (the purpose of which eludes me) and then shortly thereafter passed through another such gap.A mysterious fence runs along the trail en route to Garnet Peak

Wildflowers grow along the PCT en route to Garnet PeakThe trail switchbacked up a small hill covered in flowers. Around .75 miles the trail started edging east away from the highway and we could see more evidence of the fire. By 1 mile, we had left the road well behind. We spotted lots of interesting animal tracks in the dirt, including what I believe were quail tracks, and the definite half moon crescents of deer hooves.Quail tracks in the dirt along the PCT en route to Garnet Peak

Heading south on the PCT towards Garnet PeakAround 1.25 miles, the trail began to climb up the mountainside at a fairly gentle slope. As we rose along with the mountainside, we began to see more and more of the Anza Borrego desert appear to the  east. Around 1.5 miles, the trail turned south and leveled out somewhat, and we got a small taste of the impressive views that awaited us at the top.View of Anza Borrego from the PCT en route to Garnet Peak

The trail continued on for about a mile, passing intermittently through burned areas, and we found many wildflowers in bloom. Numerous insects buzzed happily among the nectar laden flowers. Heading south on the PCT en route to Garnet Peak

As we approached the turn off for Garnet Peak, we rounded a bend and looked up the hillside to our left. We were delighted to see the creators of some of the tracks we had been noticing along the trail – a trio of deer were carefully making their way through the colorful patchwork of wildflowers on the hill above us. They weren’t nearly as impressed with us as we were with them, and they quickly bounded over the rise and disappeared.Deer on the hillside along the PCT en route to Garnet Peak

Intersection for the Garnet Peak trailAt 2.45 miles we reached the intersection for the Garnet Peak trail. We turned left to ascend the peak – straight ahead continues along the PCT towards Penny Pines, and the right fork goes to the Garnet Peak trailhead on Sunrise Highway.The Garnet Peak trail

Climbing the Garnet Peak TrailWe climbed up and up the rocky trail for about ½ a mile. The trail was pretty steep and gravelly in sections, so as always we paused frequently to “admire the view.”

Just shy of the 3 mile mark, the trail turned towards the right and we climbed up over some rocks to reach the summit.A tumble of rocks is your final hurdle to summitting Garnet Peak

We found a well protected summit register in easily identifiable red and signed in. Admiring the view from here, we could see the Laguna Observatory and the antenna topped hump of Monument Peak to the south and Anza Borrego stretching out below us to the east.

View from the top of Garnet Peak View from the top of Garnet PeakAfter relaxing and enjoying the views, we headed back down and retraced our steps the way we had come.

We had a couple moments of excitement on the return trip. First, we surprised what we think was a California Racer Snake along the trail. Then, once we were in the car driving back home we spotted a coyote running along the side of the highway. Sadly, we didn’t manage to get pictures of either, but I definitely think being able to visit on a weekday when there’s so few people will increase your potential wildlife sightings.

View the full photo gallery

Take I-8 East to the Sunrise Highway. Head north on Sunrise Highway to the Pioneer Mail Picnic Area, just past mile marker 29 – it will be on the right. Park at the picnic area and remember to post your Adventure Pass. map

Total Distance: 6 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Elevation Change: 1400 feet
Best Time of Year: Year round
Dog Friendly?: Yes
Bike Friendly?: No
Facilities: Less than awesome bathroom at trailhead
Fees/Permits: Adventure Pass required

More information visit:
Forest Service – Cleveland National Forest
View route on Google Maps

3 thoughts on “Garnet Peak via Pioneer Mail Picnic Area

  1. 7/10/’15 We did the hike today, enjoying the cool July weather, 75*. Your trip report is very accurate, including the pit toilets. I would add that the trail has no shade. The 360* view from the summit is great. We had a mild breeze in the pm but we were told that it had been very windy yesterday and that could have been rough at the summit.

    We only birds, not identified, but watched a runaway mylar balloon come roaring up from the desert side, entirely out of place. There were still a few wildflowers in bloom, but the stunner was stands of mountain mahogany, seeds ripe with a feathery spiral tail, glowing white when back-lit.

    Thanks for your efforts, the site is great.

  2. Hello-
    Thank you so much for all of the resources you’ve provided my girlfriend and I. We’ve done about 20 hikes here that you’ve listed and I’ve been making subsequent youtube videos of each. Feel free to view those here:

    I’m commenting here because I’m looking to tackle Garnet Peak soon and wanted to inform you the google maps link is no longer working.

    Kindest Regards,
    Colton Carter

    • Hi Colton! Thanks for stopping by. Glad you’re enjoying the site and the local hikes, your videos look great!

      Regarding the Google Maps link, are you using a phone or computer? Its working ok for me on my computer, so I’m not sure what the issue is or how to fix it for you.