Cleveland National Forest's Sunset Trail

The Sunset Trail facilitates easy access by foot to the entire west rim of the high Laguna Mountain plateau. Like analogous routes to the east -- Sunrise Highway and the sunrise-facing Pacific Crest Trail -- the Sunset Trail offers sweeping views of the lowlands, but on the "sunset" side. Through the clear air that often accompanies late-autumn days, that western view encompasses the Pacific Ocean and scattered parts of metropolitan San Diego.

The intensity of autumn color in the Lagunas is probably peaking right now, especially in the bright yellow leaves of the black oak tree, the only deciduous oak native to San Diego County.

Park along Sunrise Highway at the Meadows Information Station, mile 19.1, about five miles uphill from Interstate 8 at Pine Valley. (Here, as nearly everywhere within the Cleveland National Forest, you'll need to display a National Forest Adventure Pass in your car for the privilege of parking.) Walk a little way up the highway shoulder to reach the trailhead, marked by a wooden sign. The gradual climb up the trail takes you toward a gently undulating ridge crest dotted with vanilla-scented Jeffrey pines and black oaks. After nearly a mile, the trail suddenly veers left to circle a rocky outcrop. There, a view opens of velvet-smooth Crouch Valley, some 500 feet below, and of a broader distant panorama, weather permitting.

The trail then loses about 200 feet of elevation, drawing near a tributary of Noble Canyon draining Laguna Meadow. Rising again briefly, you reach, at 1.5 miles, the lowermost edge of Laguna Meadow and (as soon as significant winter rain or snow comes) a sparkling pond called "Water-of-the-Woods." For a casual hike of just three miles round trip, simply turn back at this point and return to your starting point.

Onward, the Sunset Trail follows the edge of Water-of-the-Woods for a short while, then slants up the ridge to the left. Go an additional mile or two north along this ridge if you want to see more of the Laguna Mountains. For a loop hike totaling eight miles, continue north on Sunset Trail as far as Big Laguna Trail. Head south on Big Laguna Trail, but veer across Laguna Meadow to get back to the start as soon as Big Laguna Trail starts to turn east. Once the heavy winter rain or snow arrives, however, don't do this traverse -- the meadow will be too soggy. Wait until next spring or summer, after the ground dries out.

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