Big Laguna Trail
- Location: Eastern San Diego County in the Cleveland National Forest, near the town of Mt. Laguna. From San Diego, take I-8 to exit 47 (Sunrise Highway or County Road S1). Head north (left) for 14.6 miles and park at the Penny Pines Trailhead on the right side of the road. From Julian and points north take highway 79 to Sunrise Highway/S1 and head southeast (left) for 9.2 miles. The Penny Pines Trailhead will be on the left. A National Forest Service Adventure Pass ($5 for a day or $30 for the year) is required for parking. Click here to purchase.
- Agency: Cleveland National Forest/Descanso District
- Distance: 10 miles
- Elevation gain: 900 feet
- Suggested time: 5 hours
- Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (distance)
- Best season: All year
- USGS topo maps: Monument Peak
- Recommended gear: sun hat; sunblock
- Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield San Diego County
- More information: Trip descriptions here and here
- Rating: 8
This long but moderately graded loop showcases the scenic variety of the Laguna Mountains, including meadows, pine woodlands and dramatic views of the Anza-Borrego Desert to the east. There are several possible starting points, but this post assumes you will hike from the Penny Pines trail head near mile marker 27.5 on the Sunrise Scenic Highway and go clockwise. This saves the best views for last and allows you to warm up with four virtually flat miles; advantageous for hikers sensitive to altitude (the trail head is a mile above sea level.) The Big Laguna Trail is actually a network of trails and the route described here (6 miles on the Big Laguna and 4 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail) doesn’t have to be followed exactly for an enjoyable experience; do as much or as little as your time and energy allow.
From the Penny Pines trail head, pick up the Noble Canyon Trail on the west side of the highway. Go through a gate and pass by an information board and soon reach a junction where you’ll turn left on the Big Laguna Trail and follow it through a pleasant woodland of Jeffrey pines and black oaks.
Just under a mile from the start, you enter the upper end of Big Laguna Meadow and reach a junction. Both trails are part of the Big Laguna system but the quickest route is to stay straight, following the eastern side of the meadow (it will be on your right).
After entering the woods again, stay right at the next junction, a spur leading to a campground. At about 2.5 miles, you reach a T-junction where you’ll head left and walk through a smaller meadow. If there have been recent rains, Little Laguna Lake will come to life. The trail splits but both forks soon reconnect. At 2.8 miles, you reach a fence where you will turn right and cross over a boardwalk (on the opposite side of the fence, the trail continues toward the Laguna Campground.)
Follow the trail with the fence on the left to a service road under a telephone line. Bear left, go a short distance and make a hard left on the Big Laguna Trail which now travels through an attractive grove of tall pines. At about 4 miles from the start, you make another hard left and begin the first significant climbing of the entire route, crossing dirt Los Huecos Road in half a mile. Beyond, the trail passes a primitive campsite and follows a road bed through pines and oaks; when the trail bends north you may get a glimpse of the Cuyamaca Mountains to the west. After a little while the trail splits off to the left and descends toward the Sunrise Scenic Highway.
At 5.5 miles you cross the road and ascend for another half mile to meet the Pacific Crest Trail. This is an alternative starting point. Turn left and follow the P.C.T. out of the woods and up to a ridge, where you will get good views of the Cuyamaca Mountains. If visibility is good you may even get a glimpse of the ocean. The rocky outline of Garnet Peak dominates to the north.
Soon you reach a saddle where you get some excellent views of Storm Canyon and the desert below. The P.C.T. meanders through the meadow, dropping into a ravine and climbing to a spot where you can observe the view either from a bench or a wooden deck (8.8 miles from the start). This is also an optional trail head.
Past the bench, the P.C.T. continues, switch backing once again down into a canyon and continuing north before finally reaching a spur that leads back to the Penny Pines trail head.
Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.