Agua Dulce Loop (Laguna Mountains)
- Location: Laguna Mountains, east San Diego County. From I-8, take the Sunrise Scenic Highway exit (47) and head north for 5.5 miles. Just past mile marker 19, park at a small dirt turnout on the left side of the road. From Julian, take Highway 79 south for 5.8 miles. Bear left onto the Sunset Scenic Highway. Follow it for 18.4 miles and park on the right side of the road. 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: 6 miles
- Elevation gain: 500 feet
- Suggested time: 3 hours
- Difficulty Rating: PG
- Best season: All year
- USGS topo maps: Mt. Laguna; Monument Peak
- Recommended gear: insect repellent
- More information: Trip description here (same route with an extension) here; here; Map My Hike report here
- Rating: 8
For quality and variety of scenery, it’s hard to beat San Diego County’s Laguna Mountains and this loop showcases some of the visual highlights of the range, including wide meadows and secluded canyons. It offers a similar experience to the longer Big Laguna Loop; while that hike provides excellent desert views, this one has better vistas to the west, in particular the Cuyamaca Range and El Capitan. The only drawback of this hike is that the bugs can be annoying.
The Big Laguna Trail is actually a network of several connected segments, meaning there are many possible routes in this area. The six-mile loop described below, based on the trip listed in “Afoot and Afield San Diego County” is a moderate hike which is long and varied enough to satisfy veteran hikers while easy enough for almost anyone in decent physical condition. It is enjoyable in either direction; by hiking counter-clockwise, as described here, you get the main ascent out of the way earliest. You’ll also be facing oncoming cars on the short stretch of walking along the road that is required to complete the loop.
Head northeast on the Sunrise Scenic Highway for 0.2 miles. At the second gated road (the first is private), turn left and begin following “Old County Road” – the Sunrise Scenic Highway’s abandoned predecessor. Tall pines provide welcome shade as you make your way first north and then abruptly southeast. At 1.6 miles, you leave the woods and enter an alpine meadow where you’ll enjoy views of the Cuyamacas to the west. Continue past a single-track trail to a junction (2.2 miles) where you’ll leave Old County Road, turning left. Make a quick right and begin a descent into sublime Agua Dulce Canyon, shaded by incense cedars, black oaks and Jeffrey pines.
At 3.4 miles, stay left at a “Y” junction and shortly after, at another junction, stay right, pass through a fence and enter a meadow. At the far side of the meadow, pick up a segment of the Big Laguna Trail as it parallels some telephone lines and continue northwest to another junction (4.2 miles) at the edge of Big Laguna Meadow.
Here, leave the main trail and bear left onto a narrower path which heads southwest through the pines at the edge of the meadow. At 4.9 miles as you approach Laguna Ranch, head right and follow the trail as it parallels the fence holding in the cattle. In another 0.3 miles, turn left and follow the Big Laguna Trail through a gap in the fence. Continue south for another 0.8 miles through pleasant rolling terrain dotted with oaks and pines before completing the loop back at the Sunrise Highway.
Text and photography copyright 2015 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.