San Diego has a number of unique hikes, from desert hikes, beach hikes, and foothill hikes. But one of the little known facts about San Diego is that it also has a number of great mountain hikes, from summit ascents to hikes through mountain meadows. While San Diego will always be a beach town, it does have over one hundred tall peaks, and terrain that ascends slightly higher than 6,500 feet. A great deal of this high alpine terrain is located on the Eastern side of San Diego County in the Cleveland National Forest, in the Laguna Mountain Range. While there are many great hikes in the Lagunas, one of the best hikes is the Sunset Trail to the Water of the Woods, as it provides great opportunities for solitude amongst some unique and stunning San Diego terrain.
Directions: The trailhead for the Sunset Trail is located directly off of the Sunrise Highway (S-1) at mile marker 19.1. This is a popular area for hiking and biking, as it is also the staging area for the Noble Canyon Trailhead. As the Sunset Trail is located in the Cleveland National Forest, an National Forest Adventure Pass is required for parked vehicles. From mile marker 19.1, hikers will want to cross the Sunrise Highway (S-1) and head West to the trailhead, which is readily apparent. The trail leaves directly from the North side of the Sunrise Highway, and is well-signed, with an interpretive panel and map regarding the various trails and meadows in the region. From the gate, the trail curves slightly to the west, along a wide open meadow that is framed by various pines and black oaks.
After .1 miles, the trail splits into two trails – the Big Laguna trail to the right (North), and the Sunset Trail to the left (West). There are no signs at this trail junction, however, the Sunset Trail is a foot-only trail, whereas the Big Laguna trail is a multi-use trail for mountain bikers. If for some reason you are not hiking this trail with a map, note which fork of the trail has bike tracks (or actual mountain bikers) on it, and continue along the other trail. The Sunset Trail to Water of the Woods route described here can also be hiked as a loop with the Big Laguna trail, as both trails again intersect at the Water of the Woods; and a hiker may elect to return on whichever trail they did not use earlier. From the initial trail junction, the Sunset Trail heads slightly uphill and into the first pine forest along the trail.
While portions of the Cleveland National Forest have burned recently in a number of minor fires, this area of the park is currently untouched, which is fortunate, as it is some of the most unique terrain in San Diego County. The terrain is unique because of its alpine nature which features tall pine and oak forests which appear better suited for Central or Northern California. These forests are also quite tranquil, and regularly feature nothing but the sounds of the wind passing through the trees, interrupted only by the sound of birds chirping. From the entrance to the pine forest, the trail ascends gradually uphill over the course of .2 miles, to a great boulder covered spot that overlooks the Southern portion of the Laguna Mountains.
After the “overlook”, the trail ascends gradually to the top of a rise, before descending a number of looping switchbacks down into a forested canyon. To me, this stretch of trail is somewhat magical, as all that can be seen is rugged, heavily forested terrain that could be located anywhere in North America; and the overall effect of the forest makes one feel like they have completely departed Southern California – or civilization in general. After 1.4 miles, the trail gradually descends back toward the East at while passing along a slight rocky outcrop above a canyon. After this turn, the trees thin, and one can see the second unique feature of this hike – the Water in the Woods, which is a pond located in a giant mountain meadow.
Irrespective of what time of year one elects to do this hike, this mountain meadow area is unique as the Water in the Woods is a constant year-round water source, which is rare for Southern California as most water features are seasonal at best. The Water in the Woods is also the halfway point for this hike, and is a great spot to stop and watch the clouds passing over the mountains, or just marvel at the features in the meadow and the surrounding forests. To the East, the Mount Laguna Observatory can be seen rising just above the trees. Once one is done exploring the Water in the Woods, and its other seasonal pools, follow the Sunset Trail back through the forest for an easy 3.2 mile roundtrip out-and-back hike. Or, alternatively, as noted above, one can make this a loop trip by returning on the Big Laguna trail to the mutual trailhead at mile marker 19.1.
Tips: This is one of the hidden gems of San Diego hiking, and offers something different during each season, from seasonal wildflowers in the spring, thunderstorms in the summer, fall colors, and possible snow in the wintertime. It is accessible for just about any skill level, and is also a great introductory to the Pacific Crest Trail (“PCT”) and the backcountry regions of the Laguna Mountains.