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Big Laguna-Gatos Spur

Aromas of butterscotch and grape soda in Cleveland National Forest

Lupine is one of the many species of flowers found along the trail.
Lupine is one of the many species of flowers found along the trail.

When it becomes too warm to hike in the desert but it’s still overcast at the beach, it is time to head to the mountains. Wooded Hill in the Laguna Mountains is a lovely escape, but if you are looking for a longer, less-steep hike, a loop through the Big Laguna Trail spurs hits the perfect note. True to the area named Wooded Hill, this loop trail features large Jeffrey pine, black oak, and incense cedar, providing intermittent shade throughout the loop.

Walk north through the metal gate, continuing down the paved road. After approximately one-quarter mile, you will see a barbed-wire fence with wooden supports to the right of the road. Walk through the opening, turn right at the graveled road, then left as the fire road follows the Agua Creek. Continue taking left turns on trails until getting back to this point, where a right turn and then a left on the Old Country Road brings you back to the start of the trailhead. While on the trail, note the following:

Just past the left fork on Agua Dulce Road, there will be an old, lichen-covered incense cedar, dramatically tall, and a huge pine tree riddled with holes from acorn woodpeckers. Some holes are filled with acorns, where the woodpeckers secure their larders. These are known as granary trees. You will hear and see stellar jays, juncos, nuthatches, crows, ravens, and many other birds among the trees. Through the tree branches you can spot red-tail hawks and turkey vultures soaring overhead.

With the presence of so many old, large Quercus kelloggii (black oak trees, more than 200 years old, judging by the size), you can expect to encounter morteros — divots in stone outcroppings where the Kumeyaay Indians used to grind the acorns into flour. The black oak acorns were prized for their relatively low tannin content, requiring less rinsing and processing to prepare for food. About 2.8 miles from the trailhead there are three large rocks; morteros can be seen on the top surface. This shaded area is a good place to stop for lunch.

Native plants found along the wooded trail include checkerbloom, Indian paintbrush, white and yellow yarrows, wild rose, western chokecherry, ceanothus, yellow violets, and stinging nettle. Horkelia, a favored food for Laguna Mountain skipper butterflies, may also be encountered.

After leaving the morteros, the trail crosses fields with many different plants sporting yellow flowers in the spring, including baby yellow stars, goldfields, tidy tips, and the cream puff poppy, which dots the meadow. Fortunately, there is not much poison oak, although if you cannot tell the difference between basket bush (common in this area) and poison oak, it would be prudent to give the “leaves of three” a wide berth.

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 pine has a sweet, 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 grape-soda lupine (yes, it smells just like grape soda!) and giant lupine. Take care not to get too entranced with the aromas and pay attention to what’s ahead and behind you on the trail since mountain bikes and horses share this space.

This loop can also be traveled in the opposite direction by taking the second left once off the Old Country Road. Be on the lookout for bicyclists.

  • Distance from downtown San Diego: 53 miles. Allow 60 minutes driving time to the Cleveland National Forest. From I-8, exit north on Sunrise Hwy. (SR-1) and go 8.3 miles to Wooded Hill Rd. Turn left and drive about 0.4 mile to the Agua Dulce Trailhead parking lot. A National Forest Adventure Pass is required to park. Facilities.
  • Hiking length: Six miles.
  • Difficulty: Intermediate with an elevation gain/loss of approximately 700 feet. Gatos Spur has a bicycle track. Bring a lot of water (it can get hot between the shady areas), snacks, and sunscreen.
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Lupine is one of the many species of flowers found along the trail.
Lupine is one of the many species of flowers found along the trail.

When it becomes too warm to hike in the desert but it’s still overcast at the beach, it is time to head to the mountains. Wooded Hill in the Laguna Mountains is a lovely escape, but if you are looking for a longer, less-steep hike, a loop through the Big Laguna Trail spurs hits the perfect note. True to the area named Wooded Hill, this loop trail features large Jeffrey pine, black oak, and incense cedar, providing intermittent shade throughout the loop.

Walk north through the metal gate, continuing down the paved road. After approximately one-quarter mile, you will see a barbed-wire fence with wooden supports to the right of the road. Walk through the opening, turn right at the graveled road, then left as the fire road follows the Agua Creek. Continue taking left turns on trails until getting back to this point, where a right turn and then a left on the Old Country Road brings you back to the start of the trailhead. While on the trail, note the following:

Just past the left fork on Agua Dulce Road, there will be an old, lichen-covered incense cedar, dramatically tall, and a huge pine tree riddled with holes from acorn woodpeckers. Some holes are filled with acorns, where the woodpeckers secure their larders. These are known as granary trees. You will hear and see stellar jays, juncos, nuthatches, crows, ravens, and many other birds among the trees. Through the tree branches you can spot red-tail hawks and turkey vultures soaring overhead.

With the presence of so many old, large Quercus kelloggii (black oak trees, more than 200 years old, judging by the size), you can expect to encounter morteros — divots in stone outcroppings where the Kumeyaay Indians used to grind the acorns into flour. The black oak acorns were prized for their relatively low tannin content, requiring less rinsing and processing to prepare for food. About 2.8 miles from the trailhead there are three large rocks; morteros can be seen on the top surface. This shaded area is a good place to stop for lunch.

Native plants found along the wooded trail include checkerbloom, Indian paintbrush, white and yellow yarrows, wild rose, western chokecherry, ceanothus, yellow violets, and stinging nettle. Horkelia, a favored food for Laguna Mountain skipper butterflies, may also be encountered.

After leaving the morteros, the trail crosses fields with many different plants sporting yellow flowers in the spring, including baby yellow stars, goldfields, tidy tips, and the cream puff poppy, which dots the meadow. Fortunately, there is not much poison oak, although if you cannot tell the difference between basket bush (common in this area) and poison oak, it would be prudent to give the “leaves of three” a wide berth.

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 pine has a sweet, 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 grape-soda lupine (yes, it smells just like grape soda!) and giant lupine. Take care not to get too entranced with the aromas and pay attention to what’s ahead and behind you on the trail since mountain bikes and horses share this space.

This loop can also be traveled in the opposite direction by taking the second left once off the Old Country Road. Be on the lookout for bicyclists.

  • Distance from downtown San Diego: 53 miles. Allow 60 minutes driving time to the Cleveland National Forest. From I-8, exit north on Sunrise Hwy. (SR-1) and go 8.3 miles to Wooded Hill Rd. Turn left and drive about 0.4 mile to the Agua Dulce Trailhead parking lot. A National Forest Adventure Pass is required to park. Facilities.
  • Hiking length: Six miles.
  • Difficulty: Intermediate with an elevation gain/loss of approximately 700 feet. Gatos Spur has a bicycle track. Bring a lot of water (it can get hot between the shady areas), snacks, and sunscreen.
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