When it becomes too warm to hike in the desert but still overcast at the beach, it is time to head to the mountains. Wooded Hill in the Laguna Mountains is a lovely escape with both a short 0.5-mile loop and a longer 1.5-mile figure-eight loop along a nature trail that leads to the top of 6223-foot Wooded Hill Peak, the highest wooded summit in the Laguna Mountains with great surrounding views. But, if you are looking for a longer, less steep hike, take a loop through the Big Laguna Trail spur. True to an area named Wooded Hill, this loop trail features large Jeffrey pines, California black oaks, and California incense cedars, providing intermittent shade throughout the loop.
Walk north through the metal gate, continuing down the paved road. After approximately 0.25 mile, you will see a barbed wire fence with wooden supports to the right of the road. Walk through the opening and turn right at the graveled road, then left as the fire road follows Agua Creek. Continue taking left turns on trails until back at this point. Then take a right turn followed by a left on Old Country Road to return to the trailhead.
Before you go, check to ensure the trail is open. Visit the Cleveland National Forest website to learn more.
Just past the left fork on Agua Dulce Road, there is an old, lichen-covered California incense cedar, dramatically tall, and a huge pine tree riddled with holes made by acorn woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus). Some holes are filled with acorns, stored by the acorn woodpeckers. Trees with stored acorns are known as granary trees. You will hear and see many other birds among the trees. Through the branches you may spot red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures soaring high overhead.
With the presence of so many old, large California black oak trees (Quercus kelloggii), some perhaps more than 200 years old, you might expect to encounter morteros, holes worn in boulders where the Kumeyaay Indians ground acorns into flour. The black oak acorns were prized for their relatively low tannin content, requiring less rinsing and processing to be prepared as food. About 2.8 miles from the trailhead there are three large rocks, where morteros can be seen on the top surface. This shaded area is a good place to stop for lunch.
After leaving the morteros, the trail crosses fields with many different colorful wildflowers in the spring. A noticeable plant is paintbrush (Castilleja spp.), a hemiparasitic plant that robs nutrients from the roots of grasses and herbaceous plants. There are over 200 species in the genus with a variety of flower colors. The species typically seen are orangy-red on a brush-like stalk.
Just past the barbed wire fence enclosure, take the left fork onto the Gatos spur, which has technical challenges for bicycles along the trail, including logs to ride either lengthwise or multiple ones laid crosswise.
The trail can be an aromatic experience as well. The bark of the Jeffrey or yellow pine (Pinus jeffreyi) has a sweet, vanilla or butterscotch-like aroma. The cedars carry their own characteristic fragrance. If lupines are in bloom when hiking, note the many varieties along this trail, including the large grape soda lupine (Lupinus excubitus var. austromontanus), which really does smell like grape soda!
Pay attention to what’s ahead and behind you on the trail since mountain bikes and horses share this space. This loop also can be taken in the opposite direction by taking the second left once off Old Country Road.
From the Sunrise Highway (S1) turn north into the Wooded Hills Campground, 8.1 miles north of I-8 and 15.8 miles south of CA-79. Go 0.6 mile to the Agua Dulce Trailhead parking lot on right. Trailhead GPS: N32.85813, W116.43842
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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