Montana is not the only state that can boast being “Big Sky Country.” We have the same bragging rights in our own backyard: the Laguna Mountains (locals call it “the Lagunas”). Tucked in the Cleveland National Forest, the Lagunas is an impressive mountain range with the highest point at 6300 feet, high enough for snowfall during the winter. One of the best hikes in the Lagunas is lower Sunset Trail section, a 3.25-mile loop filled with vast meadows, dense pine forests, a pond, and a couple 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 (SR-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 2–4-hour loop with about 500 feet of elevation gain/loss. Sunset Trail is a hikers-only trail and one of the few in the mountains that allow dogs on leash.
After 1.5 miles into the hike, the trail takes you into the Laguna Meadows, covered with native black oaks, Engelmann oaks, and giant Jeffrey pines. Make sure you stop and plant your nose very close to the bark of a Jeffrey pine tree. You’ll look silly, but the reward is worth it — the bark emits a delicious vanilla scent. The scent is addictive and you will be sniffing every pine tree in your path.
After about another mile, Big Laguna Trail intersects with Sunset Trail in the Meadows at “Water-of-the-Woods,” a small pond brimming with flowering water lilies and ducks during the spring and early summer. During the winter, when ice appears, pine cones rest on the surface. This is a good place for a snack and a decision point to either extend the walk via a combination of Sunset/Big Laguna Trails north or take Big Laguna Trail south for a leisurely finish of the 3.25-mile loop. This loop hugs Big Laguna Lake, situated in the middle of the Meadows with views of the Laguna Mountains, surrounded by pine forests on all sides. Birdwatchers will have no problem spotting several types of water fowls, red-wing blackbirds, stellar jays, and robins. Because the Lagunas contain several habitats, many native plants thrive here, including prickly pears, typically found in deserts and chaparral; mountain mahogany, found mostly in chaparrals and woodlands; and wart-stemmed ceanothus, a California lilac occurring in coastal and mountain areas.
Best times to visit are 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. So, go get yourself a National Forest Adventure Pass ($5 per vehicle at sporting-goods stores and in Ramona, Pine Valley, or Laguna locations), grab the leash and the dog, the camera, and enjoy San Diego’s Big Sky Country.
Distance from downtown San Diego: Either 50 or 62 miles. Allow 1 or 1.5 hours driving time. Drive east from San Diego on I-8 and take Sunrise Hwy (SR-1) north. Drive to either mile-marker 19.1 at the Meadows Information Station or to the Penny Pines turnout at mile-marker 27.3. A National Forest Adventure Pass is required to park at either location. No facilities guaranteed.
Hiking length: 3.25 miles or close to 9 miles, depending on combination of Sunset and Big Laguna Trails taken. A car parked at each end could also enable a one-way down Sunset Trail, which is hikers-only for about 4 miles. Big Laguna Trail allows hikers, horses, and bikes.
Difficulty: Easy 3–6-hour loop hike with a 500-foot elevation gain/loss.