One of my favorite spots in San Diego County is one that most people haven’t heard about. No, it’s not Cowles Mountain. It’s not Iron Mountain. It’s Garnet Peak, a medium sized mountain that’s located on the Eastern edge of San Diego County in the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area. Even though the peak is somewhat unknown to the hiking community in San Diego, the Laguna Mountains are well known to everyone in the county as “the place with the snow”. Yes, you read that right – San Diego gets snow! While it is not a lot of snow, San Diego – and the Laguna Mountains definitely get snow during the winter months as the range is above four thousand feet. Don’t believe me? Well, you can check these pictures here. This is one of the amazing things about San Diego County; it has a variety of biomes that range from coast, alpine, and desert; and from the summit of Garnet Peak, you can see all of these on a sunny day.
Directions: The trailhead to Garnet Peak leaves directly from the S-1, which is commonly known as the Sunrise Highway. It is located at mile marker 27.3 of the highway; and it is located on the East side of the road. On weekends, this parking area does become quite full as the trail on the West side is popular with mountain bikers. Do also note that you will need a National Forest Adventure Pass to park here year round, which you can get at the Mt. Laguna ranger station or store, which is located five miles to the South on the S-1.
From the parking area, the trailhead is located right next to the Penny Pines sign, and passes through an area of Jeffrey Pines that did not burn in the 2003 Cuyamaca Fires. Unfortunately, other portions of the area did burn in the 2003 fires, but as of my last recent visit, the area was recovering nicely. After .3 miles, you will be through the Jeffrey Pine forest and onto the great trail of the West Coast, the Pacific Coast Trail (“PCT”). Depending on the season, you may pass or be passed by people hiking part, or all of the PCT, which travels from the US-Mexico border to the US-Canada border. If you do encounter PCT hikers, chances are they will be fairly chipper at that point, as they will have just left from Campo, California a few days before! After .3 miles you will find yourself heading slightly uphill along the edge of Storm Canyon, which is the start of many great views that you will experience along this trail.
Frankly, I keep returning to this hike year after year because of these views. There is nowhere in San Diego County where you can stand slightly above five thousand feet and look down to the desert floor at sea level below. To me, it feels like you are standing on the edge of the world throughout the entirety of this hike, and it is a great experience. Once you wind up and around, you are on a plateau, and you have a great view of the peak up ahead. The trail is fairly well maintained year round, although there are some stretches of talus in many of the sections. I have never had a problem with the rocks when I’ve been hiking; but if you were trail running, or proceeding at a quick clip, you will want to watch your footing. From the plateau, the trail heads down a series of switchbacks, before again heading up a series of switchbacks to again level out.
At 1.5 miles, you will want to leave the level PCT and head East (to your right and uphill) on the spur of the well-signed Garnet Peak Trail. From this point, the trail is all uphill, and this is the part where you will gain most elevation on the hike. This section of the trail is also full of loose rock, so if you are running, you will want to watch your footing as the trail is narrow and would be considered “single track”. As you head up the trail, you will curve around the North side of the mountain, which provides good views of the PCT below. After 2 miles, the trail levels out on a small “saddle” just below the peak, which allows you to rest before scrambling up a series of rocks for the last .05 miles to the summit. Once you are on the summit, stop, catch your breath, and look around. There are few places with a view like this. On a clear day, to the North, you can see the tallest mountain in Southern California, San Gorgonio and San Jacinto. Irrespective of whether it’s a clear day to the East, you will see the Anza-Borrego six thousand feet below; and to the South, you will have a great view of Mt. Laguna and Storm Canyon. If it’s a particularly clear day, you’ll see the Salton Sea to the East; and the Pacific Ocean to the West. Granted, the days you can see all of these sights are now few and far between, but even on a “bad” day, the 360 degree view is spectacular from 5,900 feet. Once you are done partaking in the view, sign the summit register and head back down the trail for a very moderate 4.1 mile roundtrip hike.
Tips: In my book, this is the best place to watch the sun rise in all of San Diego county, and I have the pictures to prove it here. Similarly, this is a great spot to watch meteor showers, or other astral phenomena, as you are quite high, and there are few natural light sources around to ruin the view.