More than a foot of snow fell on East County, San Diego’s Laguna Mountain in late February, turning the pine-oak forest into a true mile-high winter wonderland. I strapped my snowshoes onto my waterproof hiking boots and adjusted my trekking poles, stepping out from the trail head along the Sunrise Highway a few minutes before 8 a.m.
The temperature was 19 degrees. The sun slowly climbed higher into a crystal clear bluebird sky. Children laughed and played in the powder on the hillside next to the highway.
Seeking solitude, I decided to take the connector trail over to the Old County Road.
The gradual grade was perfect for warming up. Cross-country ski tracks and a set of foot prints laid a day prior broke the snow’s pristine condition, but I did not mind, as it meant less work for me.
Deer crossings and scatterings of footprints left by small creatures zig-zagged across the white forest floor. I saw a set of squirrel tracks, I guessed, that went from one tree to the next, covering 20 or so feet between the bases.
Chico Ravine trail junction was my immediate destination. At a small rise, I found the vista I suspected was out there. Southern California’s Peninsular Range lit up with snow caps.
Turning at Chico Ravine trail, I knew it would descend all the way to the Big Laguna Meadows. I did not want that stretch of trail to be a passing thought, though. The thicker pines and quiet moments with them was what I wanted.
The Lagunas receive sizable snowfalls every winter, enough to go snowshoeing. A little planning and good luck timing may be needed, considering that the snow often melts as quickly as it arrives. When forecasts predict six or more inches of snow above 5,000 feet in East County, San Diego, make your plans for a winter outing and get there as soon as you can.
In this adventure, I stood and listened to snow melting from tree branches. I followed what seemed like coyote tracks a short distance to where an obvious pouncing took place; the snow was dug out more than a foot deep.
My breathing was the only sound around, except for the melting snow and ice that fell carelessly through the tree limbs. The air was still, not even a breeze blew.
I saw a pine tree pockmarked with holes. I went over to inspect the tree a bit. Sure enough, a good portion of the storage holes had acorns in them, winter’s sustenance for woodpeckers.
Fence rows of barbed wire reminded me that this is a multi-use forest. Laguna Mountain Recreation Area of the Cleveland National Forest served as my winter playground on this fine morning, with no cattle present, likely not returning to graze until the spring.
In the distance, I saw the unmistakable slate-to-blue color of the big lagoon. It surprised me that it was not frozen over, at least a thin layer, considering the several previous cold nights.
I made my way to the opening in the fencing that then connected me to a trail that would take me back up to my car. I turned around and saw that, out in the meadows, there were two snowshoers and a cross-country skier. Up ahead on the trail, gobs of people frolicked in the winter bliss.
At the top of the rise, where the terrain flattened out, I stood and listened to what sounded like running water, only it was running from above. The melting snow and ice that I had enjoyed the entire walk was now melting at a hurried pace.
It was the first time that I heard a soothing stream come down to the earth from the tops of trees in the forest. Thousands of falling droplets of water amidst hundreds of trees put on a show that left me in the splendor of nature.
Content in that moment, I walked in the direction of my car, happy that I woke early and drove up the road.
If you go
If you visit Laguna Mountain Recreation Area, you need to purchase and display an Adventure Pass ($5 daily) in your vehicle when you park along the Sunrise Highway. A National Parks pass will work as well.
Snow chains are often required on the Sunrise Highway. Four-wheel drive vehicles with all-season tires may not be required to put them on, but California Highway Patrol checkpoints may requite you to have them in your vehicle.