Pine Mountain Loop (Laguna Mountains)
- Location: Pioneer Mail Picnic Area, Cleveland National Forest, eastern San Diego County. From I-8, take the Sunrise Scenic Highway exit (47) and head north for 15.8 miles. The picnic area will be on the right. If you are coming from the north, the picnic area will be on the left side of the road, 8.3 miles southeast of the split with Highway 79. 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: 5 miles
- Elevation gain: 600 feet
- Suggested time: 2.5 hours
- Difficulty Rating: PG
- Best season: October – June
- Dogs: Allowed
- Cell phone reception: Weak to fair on the higher parts of the trail; none on the lower parts
- Water: None
- Restrooms: Vault toilets at the Pioneer Mail Picnic Area
- Camping: The nearest campgrounds are the Laguna Campground (about four miles south on the Sunrise Scenic Highway) and the Burnt Rancheria Campground (about 6 miles south).
- More information: Trip descriptions here and here; All Trails page here; Map My Hike report here
- Rating: 7
The Pine Mountain Trail doesn’t quite deliver what its name promises, as it cuts across the southeastern slope of Pine Mountain without actually reaching the conifer-dotted summit, but it still offers wide-ranging views and a level of solitude that is unusual in the United States’ fifth most populous county. The loop described here uses the Pine Mountain and Indian Creek Trails plus a few abandoned dirt roads to make an enjoyable jaunt through the northern Laguna Mountains.
After leaving the Pioneer Mail Picnic Area (so named because it was once thought to be on the historic Jackass Mail route from San Antonio to San Diego) carefully cross the Sunrise Scenic Highway and pick up the signed Pine Mountain Trail. (The paved route descending from the highway, Skyline Drive, will be the return route; hiking counter-clockwise as described here allows you to break up the climbing.) The Pine Mountain Trail skirts the north end of a wide meadow. To the south, you can see the white dome of the Mt. Laguna Observatory while southeast are Garnet Peak, Monument Peak and glimpses of the desert.
After crossing a service road (1.1 miles from the start), the trail continues its gradual ascent, eventually taking in views of the Cuyamaca Mountains to the west. At 2.3 miles, you reach a T-junction. This spot is known as Champagne Pass, named to celebrate the 1989 completion of the trail before you: the Indian Creek Trail. Before continuing with the loop however, don’t miss a short side trip on a overgrown but easy to find use trail, continuing south and uphill to a view point with a 360-degree panorama.
After retracing your steps, head downhill (east) on the Indian Creek Trail, which drops into a quiet ravine. Just before crossing the Indian Creek streambed (3.6 miles from the start), the trail reaches an unsigned junction. Bear left and follow old jeep tracks north toward a pine-dotted ridge. A short but steep climb over somewhat rocky terrain brings you to the top of the ridge. Turn right and almost immediately turn left on an old dirt road.
For the next mile, the dirt road meanders across a pleasant meadow, past stands of pines, eventually hooking up with Skyline Drive. Bear right and follow Skyline Drive, at first dirt and then paved, back to the Sunrise Scenic Highway and your starting point.
Photo gallery (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)
Text and photography copyright 2016 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.