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-colored 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 chiseled 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.