Distance (round-trip)

10 mi

Time

5 hrs

Elevation Gain

1000 ft

Season

Spring
Summer
Fall
Winter

Weather

From the tip of Baja California to the tectonic collision that gave birth to Mt. San Gorgonio and Mt. San Jacinto, the Peninsular Ranges provide some of the most startling contrasts and expansive views anywhere south of the Sierra Nevadas. This chain of ranges includes (from north to south) the San Jacinto, Santa Rosa, San Ysidro, Santa Ana, Palomar, Volcan, Cuyamaca, and Laguna Mountains. The contrasts and views present in these ranges are a product of their north to south alignments, which allows them to catch incoming Pacific Storms and milk them dry. On the west sides lay relatively verdant Riverside, Orange, and San Diego Counties and their millions of people. On the east sides are Southern California’s deserts, including the Coachella Valley and Anza-Borrego Desert. The Laguna Mountains, a relatively dry range east of the Cuyamacas, offers a fine example of the stark contrasts present in this long line of mountains.

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Sunrise from Laguna Meadow

The Big Laguna Trail (herein referred to as the BLT) and the Pacific Crest Trail (herein referred to as the PCT) complete a 10 mile loop around the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area, which is governed by the National Forest Service. The PCT runs along the eastern crest of the Lagunas for four miles while hugging the Laguna Escarpment, which drops precipitously to the desert floor 3,000’ below. After connecting with the main BLT network, the remainder of the trail traverses oak and pine woodlands and forests, a vast meadow, and a lake, which seem out of place in San Diego’s semi-arid backcountry. The multiple ecotones on display on the BLT provide a great example of San Diego’s rich biodiversity.

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Wallflowers on the PCT

Until about 170 years ago, the Laguna Mountains had been occupied by the Kumeyaay Indians for over 9,000 years. The ready availability of food from prodigious acorn crops and wildlife, in addition to reliable water sources made Mt. Laguna an important summer and fall residence for indian tribes. These tribes would summer in the mountains, collect food in the fall, and then spend the colder months near the coast, where weather was mild and fish were plentiful. As Spanish settlers and cattle ranchers took over the area’s vast meadows, the natives were driven out. The United States later took the land from Mexico, and during the 1950’s, the Air Force placed a strategic radar installation near Monument Peak, which took advantage of the clear air and binational views. The same clear air prompted San Diego State University to open an observatory here, which their astronomy department still operates today.

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Wooded section of the PCT

Today, the area is mostly dominated by recreation, with a small community of about 57 residents nearby. The village of Mt. Laguna is an important re-stock point on San Diego’s segment of the PCT, and there is also a lodge and two campgrounds. While cattle still graze occasionally in the meadow, the wildest animals you’re likely to see are dogs led by hikers. Given the relatively easy access from Interstate 8, the Lagunas are one of San Diego’s more popular outdoor recreation areas.

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Jeffrey Pines near Laguna Meadow

To begin, head clockwise from the Penny Pines Trailhead along a brief connector trail that quickly connects with the PCT. Turn right to head south along the trail as it clings precipitously to the Laguna Escarpment above Storm Canyon. The stark canyon drops dramatically on your left, emptying into a wide alluvial plain above Blair Valley. 

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Wildflowers at the Chariot Fire burn zone

This portion of the PCT runs through the Chariot Fire burn zone, which burned through a lot of chaparral before taking out the Al Bahr Shrine and a few other buildings in Mt. Laguna.  As it crosses through burnt forest onto a now-barren flat, the PCT eventually reaches a vista point that contains an expansive and illustrative view of the Peninsular Ranges stretching out to snow-capped Mt. San Gorgonio. An option to follow a short spur trail toward Foster Point is present nearby.

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Sunrise from the PCT

After 4 miles, the PCT comes to a junction that turns right and heads down a wooded slope to the Big Laguna Trail. Cross the highway and continue following the tread. Keep your eyes peeled for a tiny grove of planted Sequoias. They’re pretty small, so don’t expect monoliths, but it is a fun little easter egg on this hike. The trail climbs lazily up a modest ridge before reaching a fire road. Turn right at the fire road, which will continue along a ridge through a sparse woodland of black oaks and coulter pines, whose massive, spiked cones look like medieval torture devices.

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Laguna Meadow

Keep your eyes peeled for the BLT signs that guide you past another fire road, down a modest ravine, and into a forest that skirts a meadow and usually dry Agua Dulce Creek. After bearing right, you’ll pass through another shallow ravine and emerge at the end of one of the many arms of Laguna Meadow. This meadow is a vast, remarkably flat open space, rimmed by Jeffrey Pines on all sides and containing a few man-made and man-reinforced lakes. 

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Big Laguna Lake

As you skirt the eastern end of the meadow, you’ll notice a lot of dead oaks mixed into the pine forest here. These trees are the victims of the gold spotted oak borer, which was inadvertently introduced in the late 90’s. The beetle hitched a ride on firewood imported from Mexico, and has since taken a heavy toll. San Diego County’s oaks have no natural defense, and coupled with droughts, this bark beetle wiped out and continues to wipe out a substantial fraction of black oaks in Cuyamaca and Laguna, which are responsible for the fall color displays in the area. The black oak’s prodigious acorn masts provided the main food staple of the Kumeyaay, and they still feed the local wildlife. Keep an eye out for the occasional pine tree riddled with holes. The acorn woodpecker stores the acorns in these “banks” and will feast on the grubs and larvae that grow in the acorns.

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Black Oak on the PCT in November

After passing through more pine forest and meadow, you’ll emerge at a junction on the east bank of Big Laguna Lake. This wide, shallow lake always existed but has been shored up by ranchers to hold water more consistently for the resident bovines. The trail travels on either side of the lake, and this is a good place to stop and rest at the 7.5 mile mark. If you keep to the trail traversing the lake’s east shore,  you’ll gain more excellent views of the meadow and the forest around it. This forest is primarily comprised of Jeffrey pine, which favors dryer mountain climates and exudes a wonderful butterscotch/vanilla odor. You’ll catch a nose-full while passing through sunny stretches of sun-baked pine needles. Better yet, put your nose up to the fissures in the bark and inhale deeply. It’s a wonderful scent.

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August Wildflowers

After you’ve sniffed a tree and looked around for the hidden cameras, continue north on until you reach a junction with the Noble Canyon Trail. This burn area is a scar from the catastrophic 2003 Cedar Fire. The damage is fairly bad, but it is fortunate that the blaze left most of the Lagunas unscathed. The trail will undulate gently through recovering woodlands before emerging back at the trailhead.

Updated and 1st Revision: 3/20/2018

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Laguna woods panorama near sunset

Scott is an L.A. native and San Diego transplant who pulls every trick in the book to get out on the trail. His first book, a revision of Afoot and Afield San Diego County, is now out.

Dog-Friendly

Multi-Use Trail

Shade

Views / Vista

Water Features

23 Comments

Melanie Ottino

Melanie Ottino Mar 8, 2017 16:03

Love this hike! I made this into an overnight trip, but if you just want to do the Big Laguna Trail loop it's a relatively easy day hike. After parking at the Penny Pines/Nobel Canyon trailhead (as of fall 2016 an adventure pass is no longer required), I headed east and took the PCT south for about 8-9 miles. You'll pass the BLT junction about 4.5 miles in, but you need to continue south a few more miles to exit the Laguna Recreation area if you want to do some dispersed camping. After a beautiful night, I headed north on the PCT again until I hit the BLT junction. I turned left and did the rest of the loop, which takes you through a varied terrain of trees and meadows...you'll even have a serene lake featured! The hiking is easy, the views gorgeous, and the mileage not too high. It can still get cold at night (mid 30s), so pack accordingly. Also, there were no wildflowers when I went (3/8/17), but I'm sure they are on there way. 10/10 recommend!

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chasingbelle Jan 21, 2017 20:01

My husband proposed to me on this hike, so this is definitely one of our favorites! I love all the pine trees, mountain views, and the varied terrain. This is a great hike in SD and I'm glad you're featuring it!

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Scott Turner

Scott Turner Apr 25, 2016 20:04In reply to: Coni

Precisely because of the length. While rating a hike is a fairly subjective thing, I generally classify hikes like this. Keep in mind that elevation often skews the rating in one direction or another:

1-3 miles, easy
3-6 miles, moderate
6-10 miles, moderate difficult
10-15 miles, difficult
15+, very difficult

This takes into account what the average hiker traveling at a 2 mph pace might experience.

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Coni Apr 24, 2016 14:04In reply to: Casey Schreiner

Thanks! I did this hike Sat. The contrasting views of the desert and pine forest were phenomenal. I was a little worried about the drop offs but they didn't bother me. Really nice hike.

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Casey Schreiner Apr 24, 2016 10:04In reply to: Coni

For many people, 10 miles is a lot to hike, yes.

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Coni Apr 21, 2016 15:04

Why do you consider this a moderate/difficult hike? Is it the 10 mile length?

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Scott Turner

Scott Turner Sep 8, 2015 20:09In reply to: sdfan

Unfortunately, you can't backpack within the boundaries of the Laguna Mountain Recreation area. However, you could piece this loop together with a stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail south to a place called Long Canyon, which is outside of that boundary. If you read through the post, you'll see mention of where the Pacific Crest Trail turns off on a connector that leads toward Sunrise Highway and the Big Laguna trail. If you were to keep going south there for another 5.5 to 6 miles, you'd reach Long Canyon. This would add a total of 11-12 more miles onto the Big Laguna Trail. This may seem like a bit much, but Long Canyon really is pretty, especially in November. There's no guarantee that there will be any water here, though, so you'll have to pack all of your own water. You can do the same thing traveling north, but I'm not quite as aware of where you can camp there. You can also elect to backpack into one of the campgrounds. If you do, I recommend Burnt Rancheria Campground as it seems to be a lot quieter.

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sdfan Sep 8, 2015 09:09

I am looking to take a 2-day hike close to San Diego while visiting and would love to check out this trail. Do you have any specific recommendations for a loop trip that would allow me to backpack camp for two nights?

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Scott Turner Jul 17, 2015 18:07In reply to: staciemac13

Specifically - you cannot camp within the boundaries of the Recreation Area, which encompasses this entire route. There are spots outside the R.A., such as portions of the Pine Mountain, and you were wise to check in with the ranger first on where to go.

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Scott Turner Jul 17, 2015 18:07In reply to: Mario

Hi Mario,

Long Canyon is one option - 9.3 miles, with about 600-700' of gain. That one may not have flowing water in the creek, so you'll have to pack in your own. Head south on the Desert View Trail from Burnt Rancheria and hook up with the PCT. Turn right to go south, and stick with the PCT for about 4.5 miles. You'll need a permit.

Cuyamaca has two options: Granite Springs CG on East Mesa and Arroyo Seco west of Green Valley Campground. We've got a route on the site that goes to Granite Springs (search East Mesa). For Arroyo Seco, I recommend you refer to Jerry Schad's Afoot and Afield in San Diego. You can go straight there via fire road, but there's a really nice route (Arroyo Seco and Airplane Monument) that will allow you to stretch the trip out. (About 7-8 miles).

Also in the Mt. Laguna area is the Noble Canyon trail. You'll also want to refer to Schad on that one. May not be any water there either. Very dry time, although heavy thunderstorms this weekend may change that.

Happy camping!

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staciemac13 Jul 16, 2015 12:07

We did backpack camp there and yes you can do it as long as it is outside the park. Check in with the rangers and they will give you some good spots. We found a spot on pine mountain. We did the indian creek trail and then crossed over to the PCT. Perfect 2 day hike.

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Mario Jul 16, 2015 11:07

Dang, just when I thought I was going to backpack through this area and do some backcountry camping, I see that it is not allowed. Scott, can you please recommend a weekend backpacking trip (Fri-Sun) that I can do with my 15 yr. old son. I see that you mentioned one in Long Canyon and one near Cuyamaca State Park. Please include specifics. Thank you. Mario

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Scott Turner

Scott Turner May 22, 2015 12:05In reply to: staciemac13

Backcountry camping is prohibited within the Laguna Mountains Recreation Area, which includes nearly all of this trail. You'll have to stick with the two established campgrounds for camping. Backpacking is available nearby at Cuyamaca, or anywhere outside of the recreation area.

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Scott Turner

Scott Turner May 22, 2015 12:05In reply to: Julie Russell

A good short backpacking option in San Diego would be the Arroyo Seco Campground in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. You can reach it via Arroyo Seco Fire Road, which travels west from Green Valley Campground. It's about 1.5 mile each way, which would be suitable for children.

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Scott Turner

Scott Turner May 22, 2015 12:05In reply to: Julie

Hi Julie,

Camping is actually prohibited within the Mt. Laguna Recreation Area. The PCT skirts that area, and through-hikers often camp at various spots. However, there's a lot of traffic through this area, which makes it less appealing (at least to me) for backpacking. There are nearby backpacking options in Long Canyon, which is particularly nice, and there are a few backpacking options in nearby Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. If you'd like specific directions, please let me know.

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Julie May 18, 2015 19:05In reply to: Scott Turner

Have you ever camped along the way?

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Julie Russell May 18, 2015 19:05

I would love to do this loop with my family. Can we camp along the way? We are introducing our kids to backpacking and need a short loop to do that. I can't find any info about camping on the big Laguna loop

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staciemac13 May 8, 2015 22:05

Can you camp along the trail or only at the campground mentioned above?

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Scott Turner

Scott Turner Apr 22, 2015 18:04In reply to: Samuel C

No. You will have to bring all of your own water. There may often be water in the lake, but that must be treated before drinking.

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Samuel C Apr 14, 2015 01:04

Is there drinking water along the way?

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Scott Turner

Scott Turner Nov 24, 2014 12:11In reply to: PhotogJenn (@photogjenn)

To be honest, most times of the year are lovely here. I've seen it in all four seasons, and each season offers something lovely. It's easily one of my favorite spots in SoCal.

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PhotogJenn (@photogjenn) Nov 13, 2014 14:11

Looks like you went during a lovely time of year!

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Jenny Andersson May 29, 2014 12:05

This looks like a wonderful hike. Particularly love the Laguna Meadow and Lake. My dog would love this area, but sadly we are in the UK. Have only explored hiking around Palm Springs and Joshua Tree when I was in the area for work, but the whole Laguna area looks wonderful. Another area to add to the ever lengthening bucket list!

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