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. Located on the Eastern edge of San Diego County, the Laguna Mountains are San Diego’s only alpine area, with peaks ranging from 4,000 to 6,400 feet. The Laguna Mountains are also part of the Cleveland National Forest, and at just over twenty miles in length, provide a number of excellent outdoor opportunities for visitors year-round. While the area has the potential for overnight adventures with backpacking and camping opportunities, it also has a number of great adventures that can be done in a day. Check out my list below to start your adventures, and let me know in the comments below what your favorite day spots are in and around the Laguna Mountains.
1) Stop at a viewpoint and take in the views. The best way to get an introduction to the Laguna Mountains is to see the scenery. Although the entire region is full of stunning natural beauty, some of the best views are easily attained from viewpoints along the Sunrise Highway which runs through the region. The best viewpoint to be found in the Lagunas is Kwaaymaii Point. Located on the edge of the Laguna escarpment, this easily accessible viewpoint provides excellent views of the mountains, and the Anza-Borrego Desert below. For those visitors looking for a little more solitude, Foster Point provides great views of the mountains with minimal effort.
2) Go on a hike. Although the Laguna Mountains have many trails, the most famous trail in the region is the Pacific Crest Trail (“PCT”), which passes through the entirety of the region. However, one does not need to hike the entirety of the PCT to experience the beauty of the region. The Sunset Trail covers some of the same ground as the PCT, and provides a great introduction to the area, as it provides great views as it passes through forests and alongside the Water of the Woods, a non-seasonal lake. At 3.2 miles roundtrip, the Sunset Trail is a great – and accessible introduction to hiking in the Lagunas.
3) Climb a Mountain. At 6,000 feet, Mount Laguna is the region’s namesake peak. Unfortunately, Mount Laguna is covered with a variety of man-made pieces of equipment, including an observatory and several radio towers. Fortunately, there are a number of other mountains in the region with equally stunning views. The most distinctive is Garnet Peak, which provides a leg burning ascent to its summit blocks for the last .3 miles of the climb.
4) Play in the Snow. Perhaps the most little known fact regarding San Diego is that it does receive snow. As the Laguna Mountains are above 4,000 feet, the region does receive snow at least once or twice a year, which accumulates on the alpine meadows and slopes of the mountain range. While snow is not common, it is the most popular thing in the region when it occurs. Outside of Julian and portions of Cuyamaca State Park, the Laguna Mountains are the only place within San Diego to receive the cold white precipitation. When it does snow, the area is a popular place for snowball fights, sledding, pictures, and all things winter (including the occasional cross country ski trip and snowshoe). During these limited periods of snow, the area is well-visited, so visitors should expect road delays, but will find more solitude in the region than the more crowded nearby town of Julian.
5) Go Mountain Biking, Off-Roading, on a Night Hike, or Stargazing. As the Laguna Mountains are part of the Cleveland National Forest, the area is a multi-use area for all sorts of wilderness activities. Noble Canyon is one of the more popular mountain biking areas in the county; and Thing Valley Road is an area with great off-road opportunities. Finally, as the Laguna Mountains are located on the edge of San Diego County, and adjacent to the Anza-Borrego Desert, there is less light pollution for stargazing and night hiking.
Directions: The Laguna Mountains are located due east of San Diego off of the Interstate 8 (approximately 55 miles from downtown San Diego). The Sunrise Highway (S-1), runs North and South through the region, and is a great scenic drive year-round. The area can also be accessed from the North, from the town of Julian.
Tips: As the Laguna Mountains are part of the Cleveland National Forest, an Adventure Pass is required when parking a vehicle in the region. These passes can be obtained numerous locations, including the Ranger station at Mount Laguna.