Big Laguna Trail – Best of Loop
|In This Guide|
|Total Distance (?)||12 miles (19.3 km)|
|Hike Time||5-6 Hours (Total)|
|Total Ascent (?)||1,740 feet (530m)|
|Highest Elevation||6,271 feet (1911m)|
|Fees & Permits||Parking Permit|
|Alerts & Closures (?)||Cleveland National Forest|
This “best of” loop on the Big Laguna Trail offers a little bit of everything, and is one of my favorites. You’ll get scenic a mountain meadow and lake, a peaceful oak and pine forest, glimpses of the highest peaks in San Diego County, a climb to a mountain summit, a stretch on the PCT, and incredible views into the desert and high mountains beyond. Even though the hike is only about 12 miles through the Laguna Recreation Area, you’ll feel like you covered more ground because of the tremendous variety.
Where is the Big Laguna Trail?
The hike starts in the Laguna Recreation Area, a section within Cleveland National Forest close to Mount Laguna. It’s off Sunrise Highway, also known as State Route 1 (SR1), a National Forest Scenic Byway. Use this trailhead address:
Penny Pines Trailhead, 12000 Sunrise Hwy. Pine Valley, CA 91962
You’ll need a National Parks Pass or Adventure Pass to park at the trailhead.
There are no bathrooms at the trailhead.
Don’t confuse this Laguna Mountain Recreation Area, where this hike takes place, with the other Laguna Mountain Recreation Area, which is run by the BLM and located in the Coastal Range between Big Sur and Fresno. Double-check your car GPS or you might be adding on 8 hours of driving.
Gear For the Hike
As you might imagine from the distance, this is a proper hike and you will be best served by proper hiking gear. I bring 3L of water. A section of the hike takes smaller use trails, which can be overgrown, and having long pants will help protect your legs from scratches. Also trekking poles and good footwear will help through this part. If you don’t feel comfortable on these smaller trails, you can also skip them. I’ll tell you how in the directions section.
Altra Lone Peak 5
For most people, the Altra Lone Peak is a solid choice that will leave your feet feeling great at the end of any hike. The feel is cushy and light, and if it had a car equivalent, this would be a Cadillac or Mercedes Sedan. The grip is great and they’re reasonably durable for this type of trail runner, which I think is better in most conditions than a hiking boot, and here’s why. The downside of this shoe is that it won’t last as long as something like the Moab 2 (see alternate footwear choices at the bottom of my gear page). I’ve been using mine for many miles and my feet always feel great. Watch my video explaining why they are a great shoe here.
Latest Price on Women’s Shoe – REI | Amazon
Latest Price on Men’s Shoe – REI | Amazon
Stay Safe Out of Cell Phone Range
If you’re not familiar with the Garmin InReach technology, it allows you to send and receive text messages where you don’t have cell phone signals. You can also get weather reports and trigger an SOS to emergency responders. Even if you don’t have an emergency, sending a quick message telling a loved one that you’re okay or are running late is well worth the cost. The Garmin InReach Mini (REI | Amazon | My Review) fits in your palm and weighs next to nothing.
Gaia GPS Mapping App
Smartphones are not backcountry instruments, but almost everyone has one today. And they all have GPS onboard. So I recommend getting a good GPS hiking app like Gaia GPS that supports offline maps. Just make sure to put your phone in airplane mode so the battery doesn’t drain. GaiaGPS not only has smartphone and tablet apps, but also an online planning tool. You can drag the GPX hike tracks from my (or any) guides into the online map and they will sync to your phone. You can also check for wildfires, weather, snow, and choose from dozens of map types with a premium membership (HikingGuy readers get up to 40% off here). Note that I also carry a paper map with me in case the phone dies or gets smashed.
Here’s my complete gear list that I personally use, have tested, and recommend, updated May 2021.
No company pays me to promote or push a product, all the gear you see here is gear I use and recommend. If you click an a link and buy gear, I get a small commission that helps keep the website ad and promotion free. There is no cost to you.
Big Laguna Trail Maps
First off, on this loop, we’re not technically on the Big Laguna Trail the whole time. We’ll take it through some of its more scenic spots, and then loop back on a spectacular stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). For the most part, all of the trails are well-marked and easy to follow. There is one stretch, a detour to Monument Peak and Hays Peak summits, where the trails are more primitive and harder to follow. The trails are there, and you can definitely see them, but they are not the well-worn thoroughfares that the PCT is. Having the GPX on your GPS unit will help.
Explore Map on CalTopoView a Printable PDF Hike MapDownload the Hike GPX File
If you try to download the GPX file and your browser adds a “.txt” or “.xml” extension to it, simply rename it as a “.gpx” file.
How are you going to navigate this hike?
To start, you should always have a paper map and compass. And it helps to print this guide out or save it on your phone. I highly recommend a GPS as well. I use the Garmin Fenix 6 Smart GPS watch ( REI | Amazon | My Review) with maps (or the more affordable Garmin Instinct). The GPS smartwatch is nice because it’s rugged, works if your phone dies, and also has a billion other features like sleep tracking, workout recording, etc.
Landmarks on the Hike
|Big Laguna Lake||2.5||5420|
|Penny Pines Trailhead||12||5450|
- We’re hiking through the most southwest forest of Coulter and Jeffrey pine in California.
- If you do this hike in the spring (March-May), you’ll probably see a lot of northbound PCT hikers, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Most hikers have covered the 45 miles or so to this point in 2-4 days. Many of them did their first resupply at the Mount Laguna General Store, a fun place to stop for a bite. Say hello and wish them luck.
- The area was originally populated by the native Kumeyaay, who would summer up here in the mountains, and then winter down in the lower elevations.
- The cabins that you see as you drive in are leased for ten years at a time to private owners by the Forest Service. If you want to stay longer and explore this beautiful area, check out the lodge or one of the campgrounds. It’s a great place to spend the weekend.
Big Laguna Trail Hike Directions
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Turn by Turn Directions
There are 33 officially named “Monument Peaks” in the USA.
The water bottles you see here are left for PCT hikers to resupply. The people who leave the bottles are called “trail angels” and the water is called “trail magic.”
Once you’re done at the summit, turn around and hike back to the last junction on the primitive trail.
This guide last updated on April 16, 2021. Did something change on this hike? If so, please contact me and let me know. I'll update the guide.
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