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.
Part II of the saga in the Borrego Desert.
After our incident on the mountain, our steps were a bit more deliberate. At this point, we were both tiring from the constant shifting and sliding while stabilizing with the hiking poles. Remember the old Nordic Track ski machines? Yep, it was like that. We descended to an area with a ledge and took a break. I noticed something out of the corner of my eye and then I thought my mind was playing tricks on me. In the bush about 30 ft. away was a blinking red light. I thought about the burning bush but then the light moved. No, the light flew! In fact, it flew right at me and I remember saying Woah!
The light landed on another bush and then we saw what it really was. A hummingbird? The sun was setting and reflected off the bird’s chest which was an iridescent pink-red. It shined like a light and appeared to blink as the bird moved about. We must have been near a nest, because the aggressive little thing swooped at my head several times. I thought about using my hiking pole as a bat, but he backed off and started blinking on another bush. The sun and this bird’s reflective feathers created a phenomenon that was amazing.
We came out on the desert floor about a 1/2 mile from the car. The sun was low and we would make it back in time to see it sink behind the San Ysidro Mts. After dumping a good portion of the Borrego desert out of our boots, we spread the blanket out and watched as the sky changed colors from Carolina blue to various hues of pink, orange and blue. Venus and I think Mars were the first objects in view and the rest of the stars came out of hiding ever so gradually. The warm breeze turned cooler and the surroundings became even more tranquil.
After a few pics, we started to play around with some light photography. I’m not very good at it, but Mary who is always willing to go along with my silliness, did a few poses like this one:
When you are miles from the nearest town, the night sky is so incredible. To me it reveals the evidence of a creator. His intelligent design never ceases to amaze me. I love the book of Psalm and in 136 it says: “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good. His love endures forever.” In verse 9 it continues-“the moon and stars to govern the night; His love endures forever.” We could have stayed on that blanket longer, but the 75 mile drive back home over winding roads convinced us otherwise. We packed up and started down the jeep trail and passed a lone mini-camper on the side. Hmm, that would be cool to do that sometime. I imagine the sunrise is a sight to see. The dirt road out was a bumpy one complete with an occasional boulder. It was darker than dark so we proceeded slowly.
We came out on the blacktop, picked up speed and noticed that the critters in the desert really move around at night, especially the rodents. A few crossed in front of us and I made a comment – something like, “where there are mice, there are owls.” Another one darted out and I lifted my foot off the accelerator to avoid hitting him. Mary was texting our daughter about our day and within 30 seconds, the left side of the windshield filled with an enormous white creature. I heard a scream in the car which added to the excitement. A huge, white barn owl had swooped down and was chasing a mouse that ran in front of us. Hedwig narrowly missed colliding with our car. I thought that I had used up my days’ adrenaline on the slopes of the Coyote Mountains, but that event kept me awake for the remainder of the drive home.
We’ve just got to go back into the desert and find that oasis.
So, in the past couple of years, we have logged about 350 miles. I’ve done about 60 solo miles and 35 or so in the backcountry with some crazy Marines. All of the hikes with Mary have been day hikes ranging from 3-12 miles. Most of the trails have been established and fairly well marked. Sometimes, the trails are not obvious and you just wing it. That brings us to the most recent hike in the Laguna Mountains Recreation Area. Located at the southeast end of the Cleveland National Forest, the Peninsular range has some of the most amazing views in southern Cali. Alpine like landscape to the west and the Anza Borrego Desert to the east. The famous Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) passes through here before entering the desert. It’s my favorite area to hike.
With our usual late start, we arrived near the Big Laguna Trailhead and started our way to Monument Peak. We allowed two young Marines to pass who were apparently doing a section hike of the PCT. Their big packs dwarfed my daypack, and I almost envied their long journey. We came to a junction and could see Monument Peak with its’ array of microwave and cellular antennas nearby. What I’ve learned is that while a landmark may look close, the path to get there is not. We continued down the trail, rounded a bend and the late afternoon sun made the desert vista pop. Words can’t describe the various colors you see along with the contrast of peaks and canyons below. We missed the unmarked trail to Monument Peak and decided to scramble up an adjacent peak to see if it was possible to get there off trail. I think Mary was raised with billy goats because she bushwhacked her way up the first summit faster than you could say “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”. We made the first hill, climbed and picked our way around the chaparral before finally arriving at a fenced in laser testing facility near Monument Peak. I wondered how and why they tested lasers up here. Do they bounce them off of coyotes and rabbits? Hmm. The winds were about 20-25 mph and made the cool air feel much colder. We hit the summit, and could see for over 50 miles in each direction. The Coronado Islands were to the west, and the Salton Sea to the east. We got some good pics and started to look for the way back. The trail we came up on was out of the question because, well it wasn’t really a trail. The sun was starting to go down quickly and we knew that we needed to get off this peak as the temperatures drop quickly.
I could go on about how we made our way back, but the unplanned route down the access road, through the woods and back on another section of the PCT made this hike a little longer than planned. We ended up on the highway about 3/4 mile from where the staging area was and jogged down the dark Sunrise Highway with our headlamps bouncing around. We made it to the trusty Celica where I asked Mary to draw her name with the red lens on her lamp while I set the camera for a long exposure. She humored me for a bit before giving up to thaw out her slightly frigid hands. We logged about 5.5 miles on this one, half of it off trail. While not really lost, we did end up off the planned route and a bit unprepared for the cold weather.
Lessons Learned: 1. Always have a detailed map 2. Bring clothing for all weather conditions (it was 72deg in San Marcos and 45deg only an hour to the east.) 3. Running down a country road at night is kinda fun.