Distance: 4.4 miles round trip
Elevation: 5400 - 5880 feet
Difficulty: Moderately Easy
Season: Any time (could be snow in winter and hot in summer)
Garnet Peak in the Laguna Mountains of San Diego County offers one of the most stunning and broadest panoramas I have ever seen. From it's summit, you can view the Pacific Ocean to the west and all the way across the Imperial Valley to Arizona to the east. You can see from the mountains in Mexico to the south all the way to the San Gabriel Mountains north of Los Angeles. This hike takes you right along the Laguna Mountains Escarpment that rises nearly 6000 feet above the surrounding deserts.
To get to the trailhead, drive on I-8 to exit 47 and follow the Sunrise Highway 14.6 miles to the Penny Pines Trailhead on right. You can get there from Julian by taking CA-79 south, turn left onto the Sunrise Highway and following it 9.2 miles. The trail begins by accessing the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from the Mexican border, just a few miles to the south, all the way to the Canadian border in North Cascades National Park in Washington. To do the entire PCT as a "thru trip" requires you to hike 2663 miles starting in early spring in Southern California (to avoid the summer heat) and work your way up (but, not too fast or else you'll encounter deep snows in the Sierras and Cascades) arriving at the Canadian border around September.
|Fire devastation from the 2003 Cuyamaca Burn|
But, you need not do the entire PCT to enjoy certain of the most stunning segments of it. And this little 2-mile stretch of it certainly must be one of the highlights of the entire trail. The trail starts out following the edge of the escarpment with beautiful views out across the Anza Borrego Desert to the farmlands of the Imperial Valley and the Salton Sea, which are below sea level.
|A first look out across to Whale Peak and the desert below|
The 2003 Cuyamaca Fire, the largest in California history devastated this area, burning out large stands of Coulter and Jeffrey pines, as well as, oak woodlands. Some of the pines survived in the vacinity of Laguna Meadows, but there are not any along this hike, other than some burned tree trunks and small resprouting oaks and manzanitas. So, be prepared for lots of sun exposure. That's good in winter at this elevation, but not so much in the summer.
|The first glimpse of Garnet Peak over a small grove of oaks that survived the fire|
The trail continues along the edge of the escarpment where you can watch regeneration in action. Young chaparral shrubs, adapted to constant fires, are sprouting up everywhere. One thing the loss of the larger trees did was to expose the panoramic views to an even greater detail. The trail can be muddy in places where snow is melting in the sun, but there are enough rocks along the way to make the going not too sloppy.
After a small rocky summit with spectacular views, the first full on view of Garnet Peak comes into focus. It looks very rocky and intimidating, the but the trail will take you to the backside where the ascent is much more gradual.
|The Pacific Crest trail on its way north to Canada|
As you get onto the northwest side of the peak, a small way trail heads off to the right and is signed "Garnet Peak". From here the Pacific Crest Trail will continue its onward march toward Mount San Jacinto, the San Gabriel Mountains, and beyond to Canada. From the summit of Garnet Peak, you can essentially follow the topography of the landscape to see where it goes. Follow the way trail as it leads you higher and higher and offering even greater panoramic views of Southern California.
|The view north with 11,000 foot Mount San Jacinto rising up above the Los Angeles Basin in the distance|
Upon reaching the summit of Garnet Peak and incredible view in all directions beholds you. Looking out across the escarpment, you can easily see the Imperial Valley and the Salton Sea off to the east. Mighty Whale Peak (the 5,300 foot desert island) suddenly doesn't look so large as you view down onto its summit dotted with pinyon pines.
Even more impressive perhaps, is the view of the Pacific Ocean from the summit. It's blue horizontal line and the glare of the sun off its waters reminds you that you are still in the coastal influences. You can even see San Clemente Island, of the Channel Islands offshore. One thing I will warn you about...If you get vertigo when exposed to heights, then the summit may be a difficult place or you. From the rocky top, there are sheer cliffs literally dropping 4000 feet down to the desert floor. The geology of this escarpment is fascinating.
|A view out toward the ocean (faint horizontal line in distance)|
The late afternoon lighting was not very good to get a clearer view
All in all, this is an easy hike that offers one of the most stunning views you will ever find. The ability to see ocean, mountains, and desert all in one spot is a combination hard to find outside of Southern California. If you are in the San Diego Area sometime, this is definitely a hike worth checking out.
Once you've had your fill from the summit, just retrace your steps back the way you came to the parking area. That is, unless you have decided to continue the next 2600 miles north to Canada...