Encounter shy mariposa lily and showy penstemon on Desert View Trail

Gaze into the desert from this mountain viewpoint.

Views to the east and the desert from Desert View Trail.
  • Views to the east and the desert from Desert View Trail.

For the first-time visitor to the lush green pine and oak forest covering the more than 6000-foot Mount Laguna, it can be astonishing to learn that the desert is only a short distance away. If you have never experienced the wonder and thrill of looking down into the arid desert lands that lie east of the mountains, here is one place to do so with a short easy hike. Additionally, the Burnt Rancheria Campground, where the Desert View Trail starts and ends, is a great place to bring your family for the weekend.

The trail begins from the day-use parking area. There is a “Nature Trail” sign next to one for the amphitheater. Do not confuse the concrete path leading to the amphitheater for the Desert View Trail. Start the walk at the signed “Desert View Trail” that begins about 15 yards south of these other signs. For the first 0.25 mile the trail goes southeast and crosses two paved campground roads before merging with the adequately signed Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). For the next 0.2 mile the PCT continues in a southeasterly direction before turning north.

California thistle, common at higher elevations

California thistle, common at higher elevations

The PCT continues under a mixed forest of Jeffrey pines and black oaks with an understory of chaparral shrubs including Eastwood and big berry manzanita, Palmer lilac, and chaparral coffeeberry. If here in late March through early June, many of these could be in bloom, along with such colorful wildflowers as pine paintbrush, the shy mariposa lily, showy penstemon, scarlet bugler, wine cup clarkia, and the grand collomia. These wildflowers are not abundant in the shady oak-pine forest but are more common along this part of the trail as it goes in and out of the transition between pine forest and montane chaparral. The elevation is too high for poison oak — the plant you may see with three leaflets is likely to be basket bush and not poison oak.

Notice the rocky outcroppings while walking north on the PCT. These were once layers of sediment that accumulated under an ocean, then subjected to intense heat and pressure that transformed the layers into a type of metamorphic rock known as gneiss. These layers are now tilted nearly 90 degrees from the beds in which they first formed, as the Laguna Mountains were pushed up over the past 5 million years.

The view to the east is down to chaparral-cloaked upper slopes of the Posta Creek Valley, extending down toward McCain Valley and the desert hills beyond. After going about 0.5 mile, there is an unexpected drinking fountain, constructed here on the PCT in 1993 to slake the thirst of hikers who walk from the U.S.-Mexico to the U.S.-Canada borders. Continuing for about another 0.25 mile, the trail goes up over a gentle rise with a desert view with over a 2000-foot drop within a half a mile. Continuing on up the PCT leads to even more spectacular desert views on Monument Peak, Garnet Peak, and especially Kwaaymii Point, near the Pioneer Mail Picnic Area, but these will add many miles to your adventure. Instead, go left on the Desert View Trail, which separates here from the PCT to complete the loop at the day-use parking lot.

Desert View, Pacific Crest Trail

Desert View, Pacific Crest Trail

Distance from downtown San Diego: 55 miles. Allow about 1 hour driving time (Mt. Laguna). Take I-8 E to the Sunrise Highway/S-1 exit and turn left (north). Drive 9 miles to the Burnt Rancheria Campground on S-1, on your right. Park near the signed “Nature Trail” in the day-use parking lot near the entrance. An Adventure Pass must be displayed or a day-use fee can be paid.

Hiking length: 1.6-mile loop.

Difficulty: Easy. Elevation gain/loss less than 300 feet. Facilities and water.

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