After 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.
We 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.
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.
The 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.
Around 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.
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.
At 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.
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.
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.
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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|
|Elevation Change:||1400 feet|
|Best Time of Year:||Year round|
|Facilities:||Less than awesome bathroom at trailhead|
|Fees/Permits:||Adventure Pass required|