El Niño Snowshoeing in the Laguna Mountains of San Diego

East of San Diego’s famous sun drenched beaches, some 40 miles as a bird flies, sit the Laguna Mountains, reaching more than 6,000 feet into the blue sky.  Up there, amidst conifers, oaks, and meadows, are numerous trails spanning the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area, situated inside the larger boundaries of Cleveland National Forest.  When the weather conditions stack up “just right,” it can be a true winter wonderland, especially when El Niño visits and drops more than a foot of snow.

Sunset Trail, Laguna Mountains, San Diego

Sunset Trail to the Big Laguna Trail and the Meadows

I woke early to get out on the road before the snow tourists arrived to the mountain.  By 7:30, I was crunching my way over already trampled snow, heading in the direction of Sunset Trail.  Once on it, I stopped and took it in the scenery, the gentleness of a winter wonderland on display all around me.  Pine needles shined like icicles.  Bird footprints scattered here and there on the snowy floor, which was a foot and a half deep.  A woodpecker hammered a tree and I thought of how warm s/he surely was in a downy, plumage coat.

Up the steep, short shoot through the rocks, I traipsed, my breath a little labored.  Topping out at the vista, before me was a view that defined transformation:  how so incredibly different the Lagunas looked in white, a rarity in this piece of southern California’s peninsular range where the colors are variations of green and tan all year long.  The radical change was an excellent reminder of impermanence.

I wandered along, the early morning having an air of ease, not due to lack of required effort related to snowshoeing, but rather a feeling of contentedness.  It had been a few years since I had walked on fresh snow, or any snow for that matter.  The day was still young, and I was feeling the same.  Grateful.  Thankful.

Iced Pines

Snowshoeing along the ridge’s backbone, I did not see another person until I dropped down to the teeny tiny St. Mary of the Woods pond.  Solid ice and covered in snow, I smiled knowing that when it thawed, the water level would be deeper, likely putting smiles on the faces of winter’s waterfowl and of those that would fly in all spring and summer.  Do birds smile, was not a question on my mind.

On past the ice pond, I went, continuing up the Sunset Trail, a steady uphill taking me back away from people and into the denser forest.  Back there, after going up in elevation some more, I reveled in the solitude and the feeling of aloneness, not loneliness, while back on the mountain’s spine.

View from Sunset Trail, Laguna Mountain Recreation Area

The air was warming, the big ole’ sun shining bright high above the land.  I stood and stared at the great big nothing, meaning like you do when you “space out,” but instead listened to snow and ice falling through the trees from the top of the canopies down through their stiff branches.  Chandeliers crashed and I loved it each and every time they did.

Clambering up on some rocks and boulders, I came across beaver tail cactus nearly covered in snow.  Out here, on the far reaches of the Colorado Desert, a subsection of the greater Sonoran Desert, desert and mountain and sky combine to create an eco-zone that is unparalleled.  I chuckled at the sight; what a nice blanket for the cactus, a blanket that slowly will melt and provide it life-sustaining water.  The sun, by this point, was warm on my skin, feeling like a campfire.

Cactus and Snow, Sunset Trail, Laguna Mountains, San Diego

A thought entered my head: There is a seeming disconnect when you think of snow on cactus more than a mile high in southern California’s winter sky. Until you see it, and when you do, it all makes sense, perhaps not in a ecology-science-academic perspective, unless you have studied it, but rather in a stepping back and taking a pause and simply observing it kind of perspective; it is somewhere in the in-betweens that we can sometimes find beauty.

On and on and on, the trail meandered.  I did, too.  Together, we, the trail and me, were making our way to its northern terminus, where it joins in with the Big Laguna Trail system that sprawls like a spider web around the meadows and through the trees.  I opted to stay on the west side of the Big Meadow, going back in the more direct route to my car.

Big Meadow, Laguna Mountain Recreation Area

Back at the Sunrise Highway, indeed the snow tourists had arrived.  Hundreds of people were sledding down hillsides, walking on the nearby trails, snapping photos and selfies.  Food and drink was abundant, as were hoots and hollers and cries and pouts.  All ages had descended on the snowy Lagunas, some likely seeing snow for the first time.  Traffic on the two lane mountain road was bumper to bumper. People strategized and jockeyed for parking spots.  Many of them would leave trash behind, ranging from broken sleds to plastic bags to beverage containers.

Quickly, I tossed my things into the back of the car.  The sense of solitude and wonder I had over the eight miles of trails and five hours of the day was now a memory.  Nevertheless, it was, and still is, a memory that motivates me to get back out there to where nature presides and is less impacted by human hands.

Red-Tailed Roost

Longview of Cuyamaca Peak

Another nice spot in the Lagunas for snowshoeing is Red-Tailed Roost loop.  It is about 3.5 miles long, with a moderate rating, as far as strenuous levels are concerned.  I recommend doing it clockwise.  Again, it is pine-oak forest, with spectacular winter long views to the nearby Cuyamaca Mountains.

You could link up trails in the greater Big Laguna Trail system, if you wanted a longer day in the mountains.  There is a parking lot at the trailhead, right off the Sunrise Highway.

Wooded Hill

Wooded Hill Nature Trail is a 1.4 mile figure eight (2 loops) trail that sits down a dirt forest road.  If the road is not open, you could snowshoe in from the Sunrise Highway.  I recommend going left from the trail head at the parking area that is down the forest road (Wooded Hill Rd).  Follow it around and up, staying left at the junction.  You will get great views looking south into Mexico on a clear day, once you are up top in the boulders.  Continue on and loop it back around and down to the trailhead.  If you start out by the Sunrise Highway, round trip on the forest road adds about 0.6 miles to your trip.

More Information

Featured TrailsBig Laguna Trail System and Surroundings, including the Sunset TrailRed-Tailed Roost Trail, and Wooded Hill Nature Trail

Big Laguna in the Meadows, Laguna Mountain Recreation Area, Cleveland National Forest

To Get There From San Diego:  If you are staying in San Diego, it is a solid hour’s drive to the Lagunas on Interstate 8.  During snow events, chains are often required to be put on your car tires when you exit I-8.  There is a pull out area on the right side of the road on the other side of the overpass, which is the Sunrise Highway.  It is a safe location for drivers to put the chains on without much worry of getting hit.  Sometimes, California Highway Patrol is there to monitor the goings-on, so to speak.

Food and Lodging: 

Pine House Café and Tavern has yummy pub food and dinners that will add the calories back on that you burned off while snowshoeing.  They have a little coffee shop in the front on the weekends.

Laguna Mountain Lodge and Store has motel rooms and cabins to rent.  The general store has the kinds of things that general stores do, it being a stop for Pacific Crest Trail backpackers.

Alpine Beer Company is a great place to stop if you are heading back down to San Diego.  You really cannot go wrong with one of their famous IPAs and some house-made BBQ.

If you are staying up in nearby Julian, many lodging and eating options abound.  Yes, you should eat some apple pie!  Grab a beer at one, or both, of the two local craft breweries in town:  Nickel Beer Company and Julian Beer CompanyJBC has a food menu too.

About the author

James Murren

James Murren is the author of 3 books and numerous outdoor adventure and travel articles. More of his writings are available at: https://jamesmurren.com/

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