Cuyamaca Rancho State Park and the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area are two of my favorite hiking spots in San Diego County. Not coincidentally, they happen to be right next to each other. Both of these areas feature long miles of accessible trails where one can find a quiet solitude that is hard to come by in much of the county. This nearly 13 mile hike connects both areas together in a long, but beautiful journey that showcases some of the best of each park.
Since this is a point to point hike, we both drove separately to the western trailhead in Cuyamaca where I left my car. We then took our other car down the Sunrise Highway to the Penny Pines trailhead in Mt. Laguna. We got our packs on and set off along the Noble Canyon trail on the west side of the road.
Less than .1 miles up the trail, the path split. We continued to the right, following signs for Noble Canyon.
The trail traveled uphill, weaving through ceaonthus, pines, and oaks.
We were last here in February when we hiked the entirety of Noble Canyon. This time around it was much greener, and there was a respectable display of wildflowers along the trail as well.
Looking northwest across the open valley, we could see Garnet Peak in the distance.
Just shy of 1 mile, we crossed the #5 spur of the Big Laguna trail and continued along the Noble Canyon trail as it curved through the pine trees.
While the covering of trees here was thin, it was a forest by San Diego standards, and we reveled in the pine scented air.
At 1.2 miles, the trail crossed Laguna Meadow Road and picked up again on the other side. The smattering of pine trees faded away and we were deep in thick ceanothus here.
After a brief climb, the trail leveled out for a bit and we soon found a few more trees.
The trail then began to climb again as it wound its way up the side of a hill. It was sunny and exposed here, and we soon began to feel the warmth of the day.
We quickly came to the top of the incline and paused to enjoy the view.
Around 2.1 miles we came to a junction. This is where we diverged from the Noble Canyon trail and headed right along the Indian Creek Trail.
The Indian Creek trail led us downhill through more thick chaparral.
We continued down the gentle slope for almost a mile until we reached the grassy canyon that, during wetter times, housed Indian Creek.
Now, the creek was little more than a series of damp muddy patches in the tall grass.
We crossed the creek by stepping over a small patch of mud. Once safely across, we picked up the trail on the other side, and began climbing uphill again.
The trail wound up the mountainside through thick chaparral and beautiful red rocks. As the trail bent southward we were fully exposed to the sun. Heat radiated upwards from rocky mountainside making us even warmer. We were glad we hadn’t put off this hike until any later in the summer.
The trail continued gradually upwards. All around, we were surrounded by hillsides covered in thick green chaparral.
At 4.1 miles, we reached Champagne Pass. To the right the Pine Mountain trail led back towards the Sunrise Highway. To the left, a subtle use trail led a short way uphill to a small promontory with some nice views. We continued straight along the Indian Creek Trail, heading towards Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.
We continued winding along the hillsides. To the west, the prominent form of Cuyamaca Peak reassured us we were heading in the right directions.
We had more deep green manzanita and chaparral, red rocks, and colorful wildflowers to enjoy as we continued on.
Far in the west, we could see the marine layer still blanketing the lower elevations.
After a while the trail began to descend, taking us down into the valley below.
Eventually the rocky trail gave way to a more a level and grassy stretch.
Then once again we began to see oak trees as the trail resumed its descent into the valley. As we made our way down the hill, we were assaulted by swarms of gnats. I swatted maniacally at the annoying creatures as I invented colorful new phrases to convey my irritation. If I were a superhero, my arch nemesis would undoubtedly be Gnatman.
Just shy of 6 miles we came to Deer Park Road. We paused here to douse ourselves in bug spray, then picked up the trail on the other side.
In about .1 mile we passed through an old gate that marked the boundary to Cuyamaca State Park. A trail sign informed us we were now on the Deer Park Trail.
We continued uphill along the rocky trail. The gnats had pretty much disappeared by this point as were back among the arid chaparral.
By this point the day had warmed up considerably, and while the incline we were traversing wasn’t terribly steep, it was enough to make us sweat. It was of course, entirely worth the effort, especially as we found the trail was practically covered in lavender mariposa lilies and other colorful wildflowers.
We finally got some relief from the heat as some of the large puffy clouds that were filling the sky passed in front of the sun. The light dimmed noticeably and we picked up the pace a little as the air around us cooled.
We found some nice logs on the side of the trail amid a field of flowers, and decided it was time to sit down and eat our lunch.
It was a beautiful spot, and it had been hours since we had last seen another person. We sat quietly, devouring our sandwiches, and I decided this was officially one of my favorite hikes.
We wanted to make the most of the limited cloud cover while we could, however, so didn’t linger longer than it took to eat our lunch. Donning our packs again, we set off on our way.
We continued uphill through chaparral until 7.1 miles, when we topped a rise and found a welcome stand of pine trees awaiting us.
On the other side of the rise we descended through more thick ceanothus and oak trees, with the occasional pine tree thrown in for good measure.
The brush thinned out a bit, replaced by open fields of grass edged with more pines. There were more than a few dead trees, their coppery brown needles a stark contrast to the deep green of the surrounding canopy.
Around 7.8 miles we came to a “Y” junction where the Deer Park Trail ended as it ran into the Harvey Moore trail. We headed left towards Granite Springs Campground.
The trail wound up along the grassy hillside. More oaks and pines stood further in the distance.
We crested another rise and began to descend again. I kept my eyes open for wild turkeys as we got closer to the trees since I’ve often found a flock wandering in this area, but I think it was a bit warm out for them this late in the day as we didn’t see any critters at all.
Just shy of 9 miles, we reached the Granite Springs campground. Granite Springs is a small, primitive campground with only a couple of sites. We took advantage of some of the provided amenities like the bathroom and this lovely bench where we enjoyed a good rest in the shade.
Once rested, we set off again up the Harvey Moore Trail/East Mesa Fire Road for the last leg of our hike.
After about a quarter of a mile, the Harvey Moore Trail diverged from the fire road, and we took the right branch to continue on the trail.
We were getting pretty tired by this point, and it was downright hot by now. But the trail was level and easy going as we passed through wide open fields of grass and flowers.
We shortly encountered another trail junction where the Grass Trail forked off to the left, but once again we continued to the right, staying on the Harvey Moore trail.
We descended gradually into the wide open fields of East Mesa.
As frequently happens to us towards the end of very long hikes, a flock of turkey vultures appeared, circling in the sky. No doubt they were waiting for us to keel over, but although we were tired we were still going strong and not quite ready to be eaten, thank you very much.
Continuing on, the unmistakable form of Cuyamaca Peak, along with neighboring Middle Peak and Stonewall Peak came into view.
At almost 10.5 miles, we passed the junction for the Dyar Springs trail on our right. We continued straight along the Harvey Moore Trail, knowing we only had a couple more miles to go from here.
The open fields of grass gave way to scrubby brush and oak trees, and an explosion of blooming buckwheat plants.
Eventually the buckwheat subsided and thick growing ceanothus took over.
As we continued on, we were able to view surrounding peaks from various angles.
Around 11.5 miles we passed the turn off for the Pine Trail on our right. Just a little over a mile to go from here.
We came to a level stretch with more buckwheat and lower growing chaparral, which afforded us some nice views. It was also around this point that we each drained the last of our 3 liters of water from our Camelbaks, and had to pull out our reserve water bottles. We’d be back to the car soon, so we had calculated our water needs perfectly.
We happily came to the very final stretch – a somewhat steep and rocky downhill that wrapped around the southwestern flank of an unnamed promontory.
More flowering buckwheat and the occasional wildflower bloom decorated the trail side.
Finally, the trail turned northward and soon the Sweetwater parking area came into view.
We happily piled into the car, cranked up the AC, and made the drive back to Penny Pines to retrieve our other car so we could head home.
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Western trailhead (leave one car here): Take I-8 East to the CA-79 N/Japatul Valley Road exit. Turn left and follow 79 north (towards Julian). After 2.7 miles, there is a sharp left to stay on 79 – make sure not to miss this turn (follow signs for 79 and Cuyamaca Rancho State Park). Continue on 79 for 4.9 miles to the large Sweetwater parking area on your right. map
Eastern trailhead (begin hiking here): Continue on CA-79 N for approximately 9.5 miles. Turn right onto the Sunrise Highway and continue for approximately 10 miles to the Penny Pines trailhead where you can park on either side of the road. map
||Dogs not allowed in Cuyamaca
||Bikes not allowed on Harvey Moore trail – possible alternate route on East Mesa Fire Road
||Water but no bathroom at starting point, vault toilet at Granite Springs Campground (~9 miles in)
For more information visit:
Cleveland National Forest – Noble Canyon Trail
Laguna Mountain Volunteer Association
Laguna Mountain Recreation Area Map
California State Parks – Cuyamaca Rancho State Park