We have some “Big Sky Country” bragging rights in our own backyard with the Laguna Mountains. Tucked in the Cleveland National Forest, The Lagunas are an impressive mountain range with the highest point at 6,271 feet, high enough for snowfall during winter. One of the best hikes in The Lagunas is the lower Sunset Trail section, a 3.25-mile loop filled with vast meadows, dense pine forests, a pond, and a couple of lakes. It offers fantastic views of the mountains and, on a clear day, the Pacific Ocean and downtown San Diego.
The trailhead is off Sunrise Highway (S-1) where you can park along the highway at the Meadows Information Station at mile marker 19.1. The trailhead is located off the highway shoulder on the north side of the highway. There are several trails connecting to Sunset Trail, but the route is easy to follow with trail markers at each intersection. Sunset Trail connects with the Big Laguna Trail to make for an enjoyable and easy 2 to 4-hour loop with about 500 feet of elevation gain/loss. Sunset Trail is a hiking trail that allows leashed dogs.
After 1.5 miles into the hike, the trail heads toward the Laguna Meadows, passing through a forest of California black oaks, Englemann’s oaks, and giant Jeffrey or yellow pines. After about one mile, Big Laguna Trail intersects with Sunset Trail in the meadows at Water-of-the-Woods, which is a good place for a snack before returning. Water-of-the-Woods is a small pond brimming with flowering water lilies and ducks during the spring and early summer.
This is a decision point to either extend the walk via a combination of Sunset/Big Laguna trails north or take Big Laguna Trail south to leisurely finish the 3.25-mile loop. This loop hugs the Big Laguna Lake, situated in the middle of Laguna Meadows with views of the Laguna Mountains, surrounded by pine forests on all sides.
Take a deep breath. Jeffrey pines (Pinus jeffreyi) are closely related to Pacific ponderosa pines (Pinus ponderosa). Both have needles in bundles of three, but Jeffery cones are smooth to the touch, as compared to the prickly ponderosa cone, and only Jeffery pines have a distinctive smell, reminiscent of vanilla.
One mammal found here you are unlikely to see is the California weasel (Mustela frenata), primarily because it is nocturnal. Weasels are a small, slender animal with a small head, short legs a long body, and a tail almost as long as its body. They are solitary and live in underground burrows or dens under logs. They are carnivores with a big appetite. They consume about 40% of their body weight each day, mostly in small mammals and birds. Their small heads and long thin bodies make it possible for them to follow prey—mice, rabbits, and gophers—into their dens where they quickly kill them by crushing their skulls with their strong jaws.
Birdwatchers will have no problem spotting several types of waterfowl, red-winged blackbirds, Steller’s jays, and robins. It's always lovely here, but the best time to visit is in the spring when the ponds and lakes are full of bird activities and flowering water plants, or during the autumn when the air is crisp and mountain-fresh and the black oak leaves turn to autumn colors.
From the Sunrise Highway (S1) park on the side of the road at the Meadows Information station, 5.5 miles north of I-8 and 28.4 miles south of CA-79. The trailhead is on the north side of the road. Trailhead GPS: N32.86093, W116.46209
Looking for more great hikes? Check out our Canyoneers page or purchase the book,
Coast to Cactus: The Canyoneer Trail Guide to San Diego Outdoors.
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