Mt. Laguna

Top 5 Things to Do in the Laguna Mountains in a Day

Top 5 Things to Do in the Laguna Mountains in a Day

San Diego is a city that in many respects is unparalleled for its outdoor and wilderness opportunities. Within the confines of the county there is terrain that ranges from coastal to alpine, and covers everything in between. While much of the coastal wilderness areas are well known to locals and visitors alike, one of the wilderness gems of San Diego is not as well known, the Laguna Mountains.

Garnet Peak

Garnet Peak

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.

Penny Pines to Foster's Point

Heading South on the PCT to Foster's Point

Does this always look this beautiful? That was the question that kept rattling around in my head for the majority of my Friday hike. I had been asked that question a half mile into the hike, when I had passed the only other people that were on the trail. They were two backpackers heading to Mt. Laguna, and were only too happy to ask questions to catch their breath. I was happy to answer their question with a simple “yes” before I continued on, breaking trail for them and me to Foster’s Point. The question, however, stuck with me the majority of the day as I postholed through that section of the Pacific Crest Trail (“PCT”), while I thought about what I should have said to them, other than “yes”.


My problem with “Yes” was that it was, and is my stock answer whenever someone asks me if anywhere was that beautiful. It’s my stock answer, because, really, how am I supposed to answer that question? Am I supposed to be snarky, and say, “Nah, it’s extra beautiful today, just for you” or am I supposed to be negative, “No, not usually”. Instead of those two extremes, I always opt for honesty: every place is always that beautiful; it’s just that someone has to be there to see it and appreciate it; and subjectively wonder that human of questions: “is it beautiful”.

My thoughts on the trail from Penny Pines to Foster’s Point from that day, and other days are the following: this hike is on the edge of San Diego County off the S-1, the Sunrise Highway. The trail is literally on the edge of the Laguna Mountains, and from it, you can see what high forest San Diego County has to the West, while gaping at the tectonic drop off down to the Anza Borrego Desert in the East. From the desert floor, warm breezes cascade up and over the mountains, carrying hints of long lost geologic memories. The trail winds through quiet forests, and provides views of jagged peaks, and an observatory. Under the trees, you can smell the sound of the old growth trees of San Diego, making you wonder if you are still in Southern California at all. This is to say nothing of the other features that make this trail unique – of snow in winter, and dust in summer, and everything in between. But is it beautiful? I think so, because I keep coming back. If nothing else, it is unique, and that in itself is reason to do this hike. And that – along with, “except there’s not usually this much snow” is what I should have told the backpackers along with my simple “yes”.

 Penny Pines, where the Trailhead is located for this hike.

Directions: Take the S-1, “Sunrise Highway” to the Penny Pines parking lot located at Mile Marker 27.3 off the road. ( There is parking on both the East and West sides of the road, but you will need a Forest Service “Adventure Pass”, which you can obtain at the Ranger Stations for $5.00.

From Penny Pines, head up the trail .1 miles to the junction of the PCT, and then head South (right) on the PCT. The trail initially drops down, giving you a good view of the desert floor, and Mt. Laguna. Within the first .10 miles after you join the PCT, there will be a hidden, wrecked Packard that is rusting out in the canyon. (Details in my previous post below, and is an interesting nugget to view should you see it). The trail continues due South for 1.6 miles, before heading up the side of Mt. Laguna. I’d rate this ascent as gradual, but as you are at around 5000 feet, you will definitely feel the climb. For this portion of the hike, you’ll be surrounded by clumps of manzanita, but no trees. At two (2) miles out from Penny Pines, you’ll see a wooden signpost directing you to Foster’s Point to your left (East). Follow the sign, and you will find yourself at a great overlook with views of Mt. Laguna, Garnet Peak, San Gorgonio on a clear day, and the Anza-Borrego Desert, of course! This is what it looked like on Friday, December 23, 2011:

 Foster's Point, December 2011

At this point, you can either continue on to Mt. Laguna, or head back to Penny Pines, and Garnet Peak. To do this loop without any side trips will run you a little under five miles round-trip (4.95 miles, to be exact).


Tips: Bring ample water, as this hike is very dry due to the desert winds that come up the canyons. Other than that, enjoy the hike, and the changing weather around it, as it can be done year round!


See you on the trail!


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