Day Hiking the California Peninsular Mountain Range
We are coming up on three years since we’ve started day hiking in Southern California. What originally started as a way to get in better shape has morphed into a love of the outdoors and appreciation for an awesome creation.
It is a blessing to live in an area surrounded by “hike-able” terrain. Between San Diego, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties, there are hundreds of trails to choose from. From coastal strolls to desert jaunts and a trek into the mountains, we just about have it all out here. No doubt, we live in one of the wackiest and most heavily taxed states in the union. A couple of reasons people tolerate the craziness out here is the abundance of outdoor activities and the ability to get away from it all.
The Peninsular Range of mountains in southern California runs north-south. From the San Jacinto’s to Baja California, they provide fantastic ocean and desert views. The trails encompassing the Laguna Mountains in the south are sub-alpine with areas of chaparral. They are often arid, with stiff, cold desert winds in the winter and hot, dry breezes in the summer. The famous Pacific Crest Trail winds its’ way through the Peninsular Range from Campo down by the Mexican border to Mount San Jacinto in the north. We’ve hiked a good bit of the PCT through here, 10 miles at a time. I’ve even thought about becoming a trail angel to the PCT thru-hikers one year.
The wildlife on the trails down here is sometimes sparse, but encounters are more frequent in the early morning hours and before dusk. Deer are abundant as are wild turkeys and a host of reptiles. Once the temps hit the 70’s, we occasionally run across two types of serpents – the Pacific and Diamondback rattlers. Often sunning across or along the trail, they usually slither away, but sometimes need a little encouragement from a hiking pole. Rarely will we find one coiled and ready to strike, but it has happened. Woodpeckers are the most common woodland bird and the California Quail is the ground dweller that we most often see – and hear. Red tail hawks frequently ride the afternoon drafts in their search for prey. Huge white owls are an occasional sight in the deserts after the sun goes down. We have yet to encounter a big cat on the trail, but we have seen a young mountain lion while driving out of San Jacinto. Skunks, bobcats and a host of vermin travel the same trails that the humans do.
Hiking season is year round with summer hikes around 8-9,000 ft. and winter hikes at lower altitudes. On one trip, we passed through a 106 deg desert climate and finished out at the snow-covered summit with temps in the 60’s. Wind is usually a factor and its effects are significant wind chills and increased dehydration. It’s usually the reason we layer our clothing too. Often, we are peeling layers off and putting them back on to stay comfortable. We have been blessed with amazing weather but usually check the forecast before heading out.
Our favorite trails are up in the San Jacinto area, the granite peaks provide majestic views, the Jeffrey pines provide ample shade for the rest breaks that you’ll need as you climb the 2-3000 ft. elevation changes, with the average hike above 6,000 ft. If you seek solitude, hit the trail later in the day and you will run across few bipeds on your hike. Bring a headlamp, and you will be rewarded with interesting descents through the forest as the sun drops behind adjacent peaks. Many of the trails are comprised of scree from decomposed granite and are slippery. Trekking poles are invaluable tools and have saved us from many a tumble. Even more important, the poles are knee savers. They will probably make nice spears too.
The easy to moderate trails in the Laguna Mountains are like casual strolls and make for a nice getaway from the suburbs. Take a lunch and enjoy watching the waterfowl at Big Laguna Lake and be on the lookout for the foxes as they seek out the field mice in the meadows. They’re watching you from a distance, but you can usually get a good photo with a zoom lens. This area is the best for an easy hike with mountains on one side and the desert on the other. The colors at sunset are beautiful.
All in all, the Peninsular Range offers some of the best day hikes, all within 90 minutes of San Diego. We are constantly on the lookout for those obscure trails less traveled and are often rewarded with solitude, awesome scenery and a decent workout. Wherever you are my friends, just venture out and explore.