Sunset Trail/Big Laguna Loop

The Meadows Information Kiosk trailhead in Mount Laguna is the starting point for a number of great hikes. It’s an easy access point for the many interconnecting spurs of the Big Laguna Trail, so it’s highly popular with hikers, horseback riders, and mountain bikers. It’s also the starting point for the somewhat quieter Sunset Trail, a hiker-only trail that travels through dense forest and along some ridges, which as the name implies, provide some lovely west-facing views well-suited for watching sunset.

Since we were doing this hike in late November and a storm was slated to roll in later that day, we decided to get an early start. While I’m sure the winter sunset would be beautiful, snow is cold enough during the day – I didn’t relish the thought of a night snow hike. But since we had nice, cool weather, we decided to bring along one of the dogs. This week it was the ever-vigilant Apollo’s turn.

We arrived early enough that there were only a couple other cars parked along the highway. After donning our packs and cold weather gear, we stepped through the gate at the trailhead and set off down the path.

Within a couple hundred feet we came upon the first junction. To the right was a trail marked “To Old County Road.” We stayed to the left.

We admired the mature pine trees that surrounded us. So much of San Diego’s forests had been lost to fire in the past couple of decades, it is always nice when we can enjoy some of the trees that still remain.

At .25 miles we came to another “Y” junction. We took the left fork, following the trail marker denoting the Sunset Trail. We would be returning from the path to the right.

We continued on through the dry grass and thin trees.

Before long, the trail passed through a gap in a barbed wire fence. The woods became denser here.

Around .9 mile there was a rocky outcropping along the left side of the trail. From here, we had some beautiful views towards the southwest.

The trail went over and around some large boulders and continued on. We caught a few glimpses of Cuyamaca Peak, Middle Peak, and North Peak in the west.

We continued on through the trees. There were a few short, rocky descents to navigate but nothing major.

The trail began to wrap around the flank of the hillside and turn somewhat eastward.

The trail skirted along the edge of a large lichen-spotted mound of granite.

On our left the sloping hillside led down to a small gorge that connected with Noble Canyon in the west.

At 1.67 miles we came to a “T” junction at Water of the Woods and turned left. This was the center point of our figure-8 loop. (If you’re looking for a shorter hike you can take a right turn here and head back to the highway).

Ahead lay the muddy depression known as Water of the Woods. In wetter times, this is a lovely little pond full of ducks and birds. Today however, there were just a few sparrows hopping around, and no water.

We followed the trail along the left edge of the watering hole for about .1 mile. Here there was another “Y” junction. We continued following the markers for the Sunset Trail and took the left fork. The right fork was the Big Laguna Trail upon which we’d be returning.

We quickly found ourselves heading uphill through dense pines again.

With the grey skies, cool temperatures and numerous trees, it almost didn’t feel like San Diego.

But as we continued uphill we began to encounter more chaparral brush like Mountain Mahogany and Scrub Oak, reminding us of where we were.

We climbed fairly steadily until around 2.4 miles. Here the trail leveled out for a bit. In spots where the brush thinned out, we were able to enjoy some awesome views. We spotted Pine Valley Bridge in the southwest.

And of course, to the west was Cuyamaca. I imagine this would be a phenomenal spot to catch sunset, hence the name of the trail.

We continued to enjoy some easy hiking for a little ways.

The chaparral brush gave way to more trees and grassland.

We once again found ourselves heading uphill.

Finally around 3.25 miles we reached the top of the ridge. There was a nice, rocky area just off the trail so we went over there for a short break to rest and enjoy the views. In the northeast we could see Garnet Peak.

And to the west, the presence of antennae marked Monument Peak.

Apollo drank a bunch of water, and then posed on the rocks for some photos.

After everyone was properly rested and hydrated, we continued on. It was easy downhill travel as we descended the other side of the ridge.

We had a nice mix of chaparral, grass, and trees to admire as we hiked.

Just shy of 3.9 miles the Sunset Trail came to an end as it met the Big Laguna Trail. We turned right to begin heading back towards our starting point.

Here, we had a long, 1.5 mile straightaway along the edge of Big Laguna Meadow.

While we had only encountered one other group of hikers on the Sunset Trail, the Big Laguna Trail was much busier. Big Laguna is open to mountain bikers, and is a very popular riding spot. We found ourselves stepping aside several times to let bikers pass. All of them were very polite, and happily many had biker bells so we could hear them coming.

Eventually we saw another large depression in the field to our left – Big Laguna Lake. It looks much more lake-like when there’s water.

Around 5.4 miles we reached the southern edge of the “lake.” A spur of the Big Laguna Trail turned left and crossed the meadow. We stayed straight, following the trail as it bent around a hill to the right.

The trail curved around back towards Water of the Woods.

We spotted some morteros ground into a large granite slab on our left, and my mind briefly wandered to what it would be like to live out here, grinding acorns for your dinner along the water’s edge.

We continued around the north edge of Water of the Woods. Then the trail turned south, passing the junction for the Sunset Trail we had taken earlier.

On the southern side of the pond, we continued straight on the trail, following the sign for the Sunrise Highway.

Looking across the meadow on our left, we spotted the Laguna Observatory in the distance.

Around 6.2 miles we turned right off the main trail and passed through a cattle-proof gate.

We headed uphill through more pine forest.

Around 6.8 miles we came upon another junction – yet another spur of the Big Laguna Trail merged in from the left. We stayed straight.

At 7 miles we reached the first junction for the Sunset trail, and stayed straight.

From here it was just a short distance back to the highway and our car.

View the full photo gallery

From I-8 east take the Sunrise Highway exit and turn left onto Sunrise Highway (S1). Follow Sunrise Highway for approximately 5.5 miles to the Meadows Information Center trailhead where you can park on either side of the road, just past mile marker 19. The trail head is on the west side of the highway. map

Total Distance: 7.2 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Total Ascent: 970 feet
Dog Friendly?: Leashed dogs allowed
Bike Friendly?: Bikes not allowed on Sunset Trail, OK on Big Laguna Trail
Facilities: Port-a-potty at trailhead; No water
Fees/Permits: Adventure Pass required

For more information, visit:
Trail Map
View route or download GPX from CalTopo

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