Day hike: 4.4 miles round-trip: Penny Pines to Garnet Peak
Backpack: 11.2 miles round-trip: Storm Canyon Vista to Kwaaymii Point
One of the easiest and most rewarding places to access the PCT in Southern California is in the rugged Laguna Mountains in eastern San Diego County. The PCT runs roughly parallel to the Sunrise Scenic Byway (Route S-1), which bisects the small mountain range. People unfamiliar with San Diego’s backcountry will be surprised to know that the elevation here is 6,000 feet—roughly the same as Lake Tahoe—so you won’t see any palm trees. In winter, snow falls here, and year-round the Laguna ridgeline provides astonishing vistas from every high point—especially of the Anza-Borrego Desert to the east, 5,000 feet below. Plan a sunrise hike here—or spend the night in a tent and get up early—and you’ll witness a Kodachrome sky turn gold and pink in the dawn light.
For an easy PCT day hike, start at the Penny Pines trailhead on Sunrise Highway (make sure you purchase a National Forest Adventure Pass and hang it from your rear-view mirror). Follow the PCT north (left) toward Garnet Peak. The trail hugs the Laguna Mountains rim, offering nearly nonstop views of Storm Canyon and the Anza-Borrego Desert. A few short spur trails lead to viewpoints that broaden the vistas, but the big payoff comes at a junction about 1.5 miles from your car, where you leave the mostly level PCT and go right and uphill to Garnet Peak’s summit. In less than a mile, you’re on top of the jagged, 5,900-foot summit, and your reward is a full 360—and it’s not just the massive desert thousands of feet below, but also Mount San Jacinto and Mount San Gorgonio, the Cuyamaca Mountains, the Salton Sea, the “white golf ball” of the Palomar Observatory, and more. Look closely at Garnet Peak’s rocks and you may see the tiny reddish-coloured crystals that give this mountain its name.
Backpackers who want to take advantage of the Laguna Mountains’ unique beauty can do an extended version of this day-hike. First, obtain a Cleveland National Forest visitor’s overnight permit. Then start your trip at Storm Canyon Vista Point along the Sunrise Highway and follow the PCT north. You’ll join the day hikers on the trail from Penny Pines to Garnet Peak, then continue onward to Pioneer Mail Picnic Area, the site of a historic stagecoach route. Your destination is Kwaaymii Point, one of the best spots in the Lagunas for knock-your-socks-off views of the Anza-Borrego Desert. The wide, half-mile stretch of trail chiselled into the cliff was once the roadbed of the Sunrise Highway. Choose a wind-protected spot to set up camp—you’re going to want to stay up late and enjoy the astonishing star show.
The Pacific Crest Trail extends for a whopping 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada, forging an unbroken footpath through three states—California, Oregon, and Washington. It crosses over deserts and tunnels through forests, travels across glaciated mountain passes, and skirts the shoulders of conical volcanic peaks. To hike the entire trail takes about five months—if all goes well—walking an average of 16 to 18 miles per day. Many hikers plan on six months to account for the vagaries of mountain weather and the need for rest and resupply days.
The tri-state trail was the dream of Harvard graduate Clinton Churchill Clarke, who had been a Boy Scout as a child. In the 1930s, he and his friend Warren Lee Rogers created the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) System Conference, which united several hiking clubs and youth groups. The men began lobbying to link together existing trails to create a border-to-border trail. Members of the Young Men’s Christian Association and the Boy Scouts organization supported their efforts by scouting the trail’s planned route. Even world-famous photographer Ansel Adams played a role on the PCT conference’s executive committee.
Progress was slow. In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson finally signed the National Trail Systems Act, which named the East Coast’s Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail as the first two national scenic trails. Over the next 25 years, countless individuals built nearly 1,000 miles of the PCT. It was completed in 1993.
The PCT was mostly known only to serious hiking enthusiasts until 2012, when Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, detailing her 1,100-mile solo journey on the trail, was published. Her book was later made into a film of the same name starring Reese Witherspoon, and the accompanying notoriety led to a spike in the number of people attempting all or part of the trail.
Typically, a few hundred people each year hike the entire PCT, but thousands more hike some portion of it. Whether you choose to day hike or take a short backpacking trip, here are six major Pacific Crest Trail access points—from San Diego County up to the Shasta Cascade region—where you can go have your own Wild California experience, listed south to north.
– Ann Marie Brown