Garnet Peak – Mt. Laguna, Cleveland National Forest, San Diego County
This is the best trail we did so far in San Diego County. The 360-degree view from the peak, which stands at the edge of the Anza-Borrego Desert marking the division between the mountain and the desert, is fantastic whichever way you look. Located in the Cleveland National Forest, the southernmost U.S National Forest in California, this is one of several popular trails found in the area. Part of Garnet Peak trail is along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), so you might find yourself hobnobbing with some of the backpackers along the trail. We did. Watching sunrise here is said to be a spectacular event, if you happened to be camping near the village of Mount Laguna and get on the trail very early.
TO GET HERE
Coming from downtown San Diego it is a little over an hour drive via CA-94 East and I-8 East/Kumeyaay Highway. Then take exit 47 to Old Highway 80/Sunrise Highway (County Route S1) all the way to the Penny Pines Trailhead. Drive another half mile and you will reach the shortest trail to Garnet Peak, the Garnet Peak Trail. Another 1.6 miles north is to the Pioneer Mail Trailhead/Picnic Site, the longest trail to Garnet Peak.
Coming from Ramona, it is a little less than an hour drive (37 miles) via CA-78 East/Julian Road and CA-79. Then turn left to Sunrise Highway/County Road S1, a National Scenic Byway. One-mile past Kwaaymii Point is the Pioneer Mail Trailhead/Picnic Site. To the Garnet Peak Trail is another 1.5 mile and another 0.4 mile to the Penny Pines Trailhead.
It is your choice which trail you want to take for your hike. The shortest one is at the Garnet Peak Trail, about 2.3 mile hike to the top and return. The longer one is at Penny Pines Trail, about 4.0 miles, and the longest one, which is where we started, is by the Pioneer Mail Trailhead/Picnic Site. Wherever you begin your hike you will share part of the trail with lots of backpackers along the Pacific Crest Trail. This is rated as easy to moderate hike, but that depends on your hiking capabilities.
GARNET PEAK via PIONEER MAIL TRAILHEAD - 6.5 miles
This trailhead serves several hiking trails, as well as a picnic site for day users wanting an easy outdoor activity. This trailhead is also a stopping point for backpackers who want to replenish their water supply, rest, have breakfast or lunch, and refresh themselves.
The Pioneer Mail Trailhead is named in memory of the first overland mail line west, which took over 30 days through the desert using mules and stagecoaches. Imagine how long it takes for a person to get the news back then?
Since we were here on a weekday, ours was the only car in the parking lot when we arrived. But we found several backpackers at the picnic site doing whatever they need to do before continuing on the trail.
Several yards from the trailhead, near the picnic site, is a PCT sign. It's a reminder for backpackers of how many miles they have to go to reach their destination. I wonder what they think looking at that sign? It's a long way still.
The Pacific Crest Trail is about 2,650 miles and takes an average of about five months to complete. It begins at the border of Mexico then through California, Oregon and Washington ending at the Canadian border. This months-long route is definitely not for us. It's for young people with more energy and enthusiasm for roughing it in the wild for months.
Some of these backpackers are doing it solo and some in groups; young women, men and couples. Some even came all the way from Europe to do this hike. I'll say, this is a fun trail! Those we chatted with seemed to perk up at the mention of water to be found at the picnic site.
On this trail, you don't even have to hike far to get your first view. The Anza-Borrego Desert State Park located on the east side is the largest state park in California.
Since it's spring some wildflowers are out and blooming. Some hikers will just pass them by but I just can't resist taking pictures of them.
Soon enough Garnet Peak appears. Looking from below it seems gentle all the way up but it takes a little scrambling on rocks to get to the peak. But nothing major, just be cautious where you step.
One great thing about this trail is the different landscapes all around. Just before the summit of Garnet Peak, looking towards southeast is Monument Peak. It's another trail we plan to take another time.
Then once at the top, the contrasting 360 degree views of the mountains and the desert make for such a "Wow" moment. It is definitely a much different landscape than what we used to see hiking in the high mountains of Colorado.
Looking towards the east, the wide open view of the Anza-Borrego State Park from above is "awe inspiring". So brown and dry, but yet beautiful. This state park, is named after the Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza who crossed the desert in 1774, “Borrego” is a Spanish word for the region’s native bighorn sheep. The park encompasses 600,000 acres of desert terrain. That's a lot of desert land to explore.
I should say, this is a great hike. But you don't want to do this in summer. We had the peak to ourselves, once again, until a group of cheerful CAL FIRE troops on training arrived while we were having lunch. Thanks to these guys, their hard work protects us against forest fires.
An Adventure Pass is required to use this site. If you have a senior pass (the all-agency pass, also the America the Beautiful Pass )then you are good to go.
Garnet Peak Trail, captured from GPS and downloaded to Google Earth