On foot or on cross-country skies, follow the Agua Dulce loop route through the Laguna Mountains.

Crouching in the rain shadow of the slightly higher Cuyamaca range, the Laguna Mountains still manage to collect a respectable share of precipitation. Some 30 inches of rain (and melted snow) might arrive here over the length of the present rainfall season. This is barely enough enough precipitation to support a fairly uniform cover of Jeffrey pines and black oaks at the higher elevations. In at least one area, Agua Dulce Creek, these two types of trees are joined by a third: incense cedar.

By following the directions given here, you can piece together a rewarding spring, summer, or fall loop hike down along Agua Dulce Creek and across Laguna Meadow. When snow falls at 5000 feet elevation or lower -- as it may two or three times over the next two months -- the same looping route becomes excellent for cross-country skiing.

Start hiking or skiing near the Meadows Information Station, mile 19.1 along Sunrise Highway (about 5.5 miles up from Interstate 8), where plenty of parking space is available on the wide road shoulder. Be sure to display a National Forest Adventure Pass on your parked car.

Proceed 0.2 mile uphill, off the road but parallel to it, to the second gated road intersecting Sunrise Highway on the north. That road is a segment of the "Old County Road" which was replaced by the wider, straighter Sunrise Highway several decades ago. Follow the crumbling macadam (or smooth snow-covered) surface gradually uphill through serene oak and pine forest.

After 1.5 miles, where the old road reaches a crest and begins a slight descent, look for a gap in the barbed-wire fence on the left. Follow the dirt road going through that gap and veer right soon afterward to stay on the main road. A short, somewhat steep descent then takes you to the Agua Dulce Creek ravine bottom. Press on for another 1.5 miles, paralleling the creek heading north, until you reach a disused pumphouse, part of the infrastructure for the former Mount Laguna Air Force radar station.

Push on ahead through a small meadow and bear left into Boiling Spring Ravine. Hook up with the well-worn Big Laguna Trail on the ravine's far side and follow it westward toward the broad south arm of Laguna Meadow, which lies a short distance away. After passing through a gate at the edge of the meadow, leave the main trail and stay to the left side of the meadow. Work your way generally south or southwest, bypassing a cluster of buildings and corrals at the Laguna Ranch. Ahead and farther south lies Sunrise Highway and your starting point.

Crossing the meadow on skis is straightforward, as long as there are several inches of snow on the ground. By late winter or early spring, though, you'll encounter soggy or muddy ground. During the warmer months, the meadow is dry and firm. Several dozen head of cattle graze here in summer, but they seldom take much heed of passing hikers.

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