The 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail traverses the “high road” from Mexico to Canada through three states. In this Southern California guide, local David Money Harris describes 31 day hikes and overnight treks on the PCT near San Diego; in the San Jacinto, San Bernardino, and San Gabriel Mountains; and in the southern Sierra Nevada.
Enjoy sweeping vistas, outstanding wildflowers, rugged ridges, and much more. Hikes range from a 4-mile adventure with amazing views of the Anza-Borrego Desert to a 35-mile trek following the headwaters of the Mojave River through the San Bernardino Mountains down to a remote hot spring.
This handy guide includes:
- trail maps and elevation profiles
- ratings for scenery, trail condition, difficulty, solitude, and accessibility for children
- driving directions to trailheads and GPS waypoints for key locations
- permit and fee information
- details about what to expect on the trail
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- Scenery: ***
- Children: ***
- Difficulty: **
- Solitude: ****
- Distance: 5 miles (out-and-back)
- Elevation Gain: 1,200'
- Hiking Time: 3 hours (possible overnight camp)
- Best Times: October–May
- Tom Harrison Map: San Diego Backcountry
- USFS PCT Map: Volume 1
- Outstanding Features: Remoteness and views
Laced with a web of trails, Laguna Mountain National Recreation Area in Cleveland National Forest is a playground for San Diego–area outdoor lovers. Perched atop a mile-high ridge, the trails are usually enjoyable year-round, although they may be hot in midsummer or icy after a winter storm. This popular hike combines the Noble Canyon and Indian Creek Trails with the PCT to form an appealing loop through many different ecosystems. The area was devastated by fire in 2002 and 2003, but this hike remains enjoyable.
This trip starts on the west side of Sunrise Highway at the Penny Pines Trailhead. The trailhead is named for the Penny Pines program, started in California in 1941, in which private donations are raised for planting new trees in burned-over areas. Be sure you are on the right trail; several others start in the same area. Follow the signed Noble Canyon Trail west. The Noble Canyon Trail is popular with mountain bikers, who consider the lower segment to be one of the technical classics of Southern California. However, the gentle upper segment meanders through a forest of oak and pine.
Stay right at a fork in 0.1 mile. The trail soon reaches the edge of a vast burn area. In hot, dry, and windy October 2003, much of Southern California was aflame; it was the worst firestorm in recorded state history. The Cedar Fire was started by a lost hunter who lit a fire to signal rescuers. The blaze was driven by fierce Santa Ana winds and firefighters were stretched thin by fourteen other major fires burning at the same time. The Cedar Fire soon grew to consume 280,278 acres, killing 15 people and destroying 2,232 homes. The Laguna Mountains were one of the casualties of the fire. The trail leads through ribbonwood and other chaparral that is recovering well in the first stage of plant succession. However, the forests may not return for decades.
In 1.1 miles, cross Pine Creek Rd., then recross it twice more soon after. Continue on Noble Canyon as it climbs slightly onto the edge of a hill, then descends to meet Indian Creek Trail. Turn right and follow Indian Creek Trail northwest through a burn area for 1.0 mile to reach the grass-lined creek. Indian Creek is rarely more than a trickle. Drinking the untreated water is not recommended.
Immediately after crossing the creek, leave the trail and turn right onto defunct jeep tracks. Follow the tracks up a steep hill, then alongside a grassy meadow. The tracks improve into a dirt road (not shown on park maps). Pass various side roads as you head northeast on the main road. In 1.3 miles, reach Sunset Highway at a junction with Pine Mountain Trail.
Cross the highway, jog right, and follow a paved road down to Pioneer Mail Trailhead, where you’ll find an outhouse, picnic tables, and access to the Pacific Crest Trail. At the trailhead sign, pick up the southbound PCT, which leads below the picnic area before climbing around a hill overlooking Cottonwood Canyon. This side of the highway burned in the Pines Fire in August 2002. The dramatic views down the steep eastern escarpment of the Laguna Mountains into the Anza-Borrego Desert continue to improve as you walk. In 2.6 miles, reach a junction with Garnet Peak Trail.
The optional excursion to Garnet Peak is highly recommended. It adds 1.2 miles and 500 feet of elevation gain round-trip. If you choose to make it, turn left and follow Garnet Peak Trail up to the summit; see Hike 4 (page 27) for more details. After enjoying the views, return to the PCT.
Continue south on the PCT. The trail approaches the edge of the scarp from time to time, offering impressive vistas back toward Garnet Peak’s steep face and over Storm Canyon into the desert below. The Kumeyaay band of Native Americans made the trek each spring up this rugged canyon to their summer hunting grounds in the Laguna Mountains. In 1.4 miles, reach a trail junction. The PCT veers left, but this trip turns right onto Big Laguna and Noble Canyon Trail, which in 0.1 mile arrives back at Penny Pines Trailhead.
DIRECTIONS From Interstate 8 east of San Diego, take Exit 47 north on Sunrise Highway (County Road S-1). Proceed 14 miles to Penny Pines Trailhead on the shoulder of the highway at mile marker 27.3.
PERMIT Forest Adventure Pass required.
OTHER POINTS OF INTEREST The heavily visited Laguna Mountain National Recreation Area is laced with a variety of other trails. Check in at the Mt. Laguna Visitor Information Center on Sunrise Highway for maps and suggestions. Popular campsites in the area include Laguna and Burnt Rancheria. Remote camping is allowed along the back roads outside the recreation area; a free permit from the Cleveland National Forest is required.
Table of ContentsOverview Map
San Diego Backcountry Hikes
San Jacinto Mountains Hikes
San Bernardino Mountains Hikes
San Gabriel Mountains Hikes
Southern Sierra Hikes
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