Spring is finally arriving in upper-elevation San Diego County. At mile-high elevations you can find lingering bursts of wildflower color amid the somber pines and bright-green black oaks. For a wide-ranging introduction to this mountain landscape, plus a startling view of the Anza-Borrego Desert, try the following, easy-going, eight-mile walk around the north end of the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area. Much of this area was singed in the 2002 Pines Fire, which means the trees took a hit and look a bit ragged. Nonetheless, the pioneering undergrowth (and its consequent springtime blossoming) is especially impressive in a wet year like this. Note that you will be following the Pacific Crest Trail much of the way, and on that particular trail it is illegal to ride a mountain bike.
Begin at the Penny Pines trailhead, mile 27.3 on Sunrise Highway (about four miles north of the community of Mount Laguna), where parking is available along the highway’s wide shoulder. Be sure to post a National Forest Adventure Pass on your parked car. Start by following the Noble Canyon Trail, a popular hiking and mountain-biking path, west through Jeffrey pines. After gaining the north slope of a hill, dropping to cross dirt roads three times, and ascending once again to circle around the north end of a ridge, you’ll come to a junction with the Indian Creek Trail, 2.4 miles from the start. Turn right at this junction and descend about 0.8 mile through black oaks and chaparral to the grassy banks along trickling Indian Creek.
Indian Creek Trail now sharply ascends to the left, but you head north, upstream along Indian Creek, following the remnants of an old road on the left bank. Keep going on what becomes a better dirt road until you reach Pioneer Mail Picnic Ground — 4.6 miles, across Sunrise Highway. Just below the picnic tables, find the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and follow it to the right (east). You parallel Sunrise Highway for a stretch and then crookedly ascend oak- and pine-shaded hillsides dotted with yellow wallflowers, blue lupines, and crimson Indian paintbrush blossoms. Leveling, the trail proceeds through ceanothus (wild lilac) chaparral. The upper reaches of Cottonwood Canyon, which leads toward the desert, lie on the left.
Next comes an oblique intersection with a wide trail to Garnet Peak. Find the continuation of the PCT on the far side, maintaining a course along the rim of the desert-facing Laguna Mountain escarpment. Here and there you can try working your way east through some intervening chaparral growth to reach the brink of the escarpment. Or you can wait until you get to a stretch of trail where you look straight down into the yawning depths of Storm Canyon, which drops sheer toward the desert floor. A final descent on the PCT, through oaks and pines, takes you back to the Penny Pines trailhead.
This article contains information about a publicly owned recreation or wilderness area. Trails and pathways are not necessarily marked. Conditions can change rapidly. Hikers should be properly equipped and have safety and navigational skills. The Reader and Jerry Schad assume no responsibility for any adverse experience.
Indian Creek Loop
A rambling loop utilizing several Laguna Mountain trails offers beautiful springtime scenery and panoramic desert views.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 57 miles
Hiking length: 8 miles
Difficulty: Moderately strenuous