MOUNT LAGUNA, Calif.
For visitors, the San Diego area is more than beaches, beautiful weather and lively, walkable neighborhoods.
Fifty miles east of downtown San Diego and nearly 6,000 feet higher is Cleveland National Forest — 720 square miles of woods, meadows and chaparral ideal for people who like to hike, camp, ride mountain bikes or go horseback riding.
In size comparison, St. Louis County covers 523 square miles. The Cleveland covers three separate areas within the Laguna and other mountain ranges that comprise the Peninsular Range of southern California. It’s the southernmost national forest in California. Typical of national forests —including the Mark Twain in the Missouri Ozarks —the Cleveland is checkered with private property.
Unlike the Ozarks’ muggy and buggy summers, southern California’s mild and dry Mediterranean climate is suited to year-round hiking. Heavy snow sometimes falls at the Cleveland’s highest elevations, providing San Diegans rare justifications to dust off their sleds and snowshoes.
The region’s mountains scrub moisture from breezes off the Pacific. As a result, precipitation on the western slopes sustains grassy meadows, dense chaparral shrubland and groves of oak, spruce, pine and fir. Over the mountains’ crests, the arid eastern slopes are rugged desert.
Running along mountain ridges among the starkly different landscapes is Sunrise Highway, a national scenic byway. The designation is deserved, as motorists get panoramic views of forest and desert.
Along Sunrise Highway are the entrances to trails within the Cleveland’s Descanso Ranger District.
A kindergartner wearing flip-flops would struggle, but a trail suitable for hikers of nearly all ages and fitness levels is the Big Laguna Trail. The trailhead, named Penny Pines, is on the highway four miles north of Mount Laguna. Penny Pines is also an access point to the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. The Pacific Crest Trail Association says the trek can take five months and cost a hiker $4,000 to $8,000 in gear, supplies and whatever.
A day hike on the Big Laguna costs $5 for a parking permit, plus — if desired — water and a snack. The reward is disproportionately large.
Hikers pass through meadows, woods and chaparral. Steep climbs are few and short. Hiking boots are fine for the dusty trail but sneakers are OK, too. Dogs are welcome but must be kept leashed. Now and then, hikers share the trail with horseback riders and, more often, with mountain bikers.
(The western turnout at Penny Pines also is a trailhead for the 19-mile Noble Canyon Trail. It’s more difficult than the Big Laguna and popular with backpackers.)
The Big Laguna is a network of loops and spurs. Parkers at Penny Pines may hike loops of five to more than 13 miles with little backtracking before returning to their cars. The Forest Service’s history of the Cleveland notes that many of its trails follow routes used by the Kumeyaay, Luisenos, Cahuilla and Cupeno people who lived in the area before Spanish missionaries and other Europeans arrived in the 18th century.
A good Big Laguna overview, including a map, is at alltrails.com/trail/us/california/big-laguna-trail.
The Cleveland is not wilderness. It’s federal land overseen by the U.S. Forest Service, part of the Department of Agriculture. As such, cattle ranchers, for a fee, use some of the Cleveland for grazing. For example, a trio of hikers watched this summer as two cowboys steered a small herd of black cattle on the broad meadow that slopes up from Big Laguna Lake.
“A thing I like about the Cleveland is that it’s great hiking close to the city,” said Felicia Smith, one of the three hikers.
Smith, a Connecticut native who moved to San Diego in 2006, said she enjoys the views, greeting mountain bikers on the trail and seeing the cattle that she and her companions thought for a moment were bison.
Though not wilderness, the Cleveland isn’t a city park either. Grizzlies are long gone, but the forest’s diverse landscape provides habitat for coyotes, foxes, rattlesnakes, weasels, mule deer, bobcats and mountain lions. About those rattlesnakes: Experienced hikers don’t charge through brush — prime rattler territory — or step over fallen trees without first checking to see what’s on the other side.
The Cleveland, named for President Grover Cleveland and established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt, is a result of the Forest Reserve Act of 1891. The act, intended to combat illegal logging, found watershed protection as its focus in California. Some of San Diego’s water comes from precipitation that falls on part of the Cleveland, which initially covered nearly 2 million acres.
Because it’s California, the region that now includes the Cleveland has experienced major wildfires. In 1889, the Santiago Canyon Fire scorched about 300,000 acres. Scars remain from the Cedar Fire that propelled by Santa Ana winds — burned more than 273,000 acres in 2003.
Development on private property within the Cleveland also is an issue. For years, landowners and supporters of more construction inside forest boundaries have battled conservationists intent on preserving the Cleveland as open space. For now, the forest seems remote despite its proximity to San Diego.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: First, go to San Diego. It has a big airport with lots of flights. Second, get a car. Rental agencies abound. Third, drive east on Interstate 8 to Sunrise Highway, also known as county highway S1, then head north. The highway climbs steadily to Mount Laguna, which is a town in name only.
More info: fs.usda.gov/activity/cleveland/