This is one of my favorite hikes in San Diego. I wanted to share the experience with everyone as a sort of “virtual vacation.” My hope is that you can imagine yourself out on the trail seeing what I see.
The sunlight flickers through the trees as I drive higher and higher on this winding mountain road. Cruising past the green 4,000-foot elevation marker, the yellow leaves of the black oak trees are dancing in the breeze. I exhale a long, “Ahhhhhhhh, after inhaling the fresh crisp air rushing in through my window. I arrive at the trailhead and park, many miles away from the churn of the city.
Exiting the car, I gaze up at the brilliant blue sky. Relaxation is my body’s immediate response. My hike begins. All I can hear besides the wind is the snapping of the grasshoppers hopping and jumping about on the trail before me as if they’re leading the way, showing off their beautiful green wings.
Despite the fire that swept through this area four years ago, the chaparral has recovered nicely. The vibrant yellows and purples of tiny desert flowers are waving in the wind, reminding me of how life always finds a way. I drink in this metaphor for my life and pause in gratitude to be amongst so many other forms of life.
A lizard scampers across the trail in front of me and up onto a rock where it freezes and looks back at me, maybe trying to be invisible, maybe just catching some rays. Its rubbery skin glistens blue in the sunlight, a color I had never noticed before on one of these little creatures.
To my right as I continue walking are several Jeffrey Pine trees, that unlike some of the charred trunks I’ve already passed, remained untouched by the fire. I stop for a moment to listen to the whoosh of the wind through the green pine needles right in front of me. The five-year-old in me has to reach out and touch the needles just to see how sharp they are.
The trail soon begins to ascend, winding up onto the mountain ridge, and I reach the intersection with the Pacific Crest Trail. I pause to imagine the stories and experiences of those that have crossed this place before, the hikers who continued for hundreds of miles to Bridge of the Gods in Oregon, or perhaps even all the way to the Canadian border.
The rocks and the sand glisten as the trail continues its switchback ascent, the chaparral a sea of green off to my left. The San Gabriel Mountains to the north appear as my climb approaches 6,000 feet in elevation, my heart beginning to beat faster with anticipation of the summit view that awaits just around the corner.
I scramble over a few rocks and the trail suddenly stops. I’ve made it.
The white dome of the Laguna Mountain observatory stands out from the dark green of the Laguna Mountains to the south, a sharp contrast to the brown barren expanse of Mexico’s Laguna Salada (a dried-up “salt lake”) to the southeast.
My eyes widen as I drink in the vastness of the Anza Borrego Desert to the east, including the largest official state park in the contiguous 48 states. The flat desert floor gives way to the Pinyon and Vallecito mountain ranges, rising up almost high enough to be at eye level.
The roads that wind through the desert are so far away that it almost seems like I’m looking out at a map, not an actual landscape. There’s an element to it all that is totally surreal.
Today the conditions are clear enough that I can see all the way to the mountains on the far side of the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake by over 100,000 acres.
I turn to the north, and again it looks like a postcard. Mountains upon mountains layer the view all the way to a distant, snow capped peak: Mt. San Jacinto near Palm Springs.
My gaze west reveals rolling green hills, with Middle Peak and Cuyamaca Peak in Cuyamaca State Park rising up to greet the sinking sun, shining its orange light back in my direction. I can still feel its warmth on my skin even though it’s late in the day.
The sun is setting, so I take one last inhale of the crisp mountain air as a gust of wind whips across the summit, and I begin to make my way down from a view that I will never forget.
This is my experience on Garnet Peak Trail, beginning off Sunrise Highway near Mt. Laguna, just an hour from downtown San Diego.