Katie & I love this loop. It’s San Diego’s version of Pines to Palms. This three to five-day weekend get-away requires little drive time and lots of time outside. We did this trip in January when there was a bit of chill in the air but next to no crowds. Ideal travel times to these areas are Spring, Fall and Winter yet be sure to check the weather in advance whereas it can snow at Mt Laguna if traveling during winter months.
We chose to do our first 2 nights at Mt Laguna which is an easy drive from Adventure KT east on Hwy 8 to the scenic Sunrise Hwy which takes you into the Mt Laguna recreation area. Mt Laguna campground is fairly deserted in January so we had our pick of places to stay. The camp host was helpful in telling us which loop to pick from to avoid the wind. We choose site 87A on the Roadside loop which was only 100 yards from the trailhead we wanted to bike out in the morning. During the other seasons it’s highly recommend to reserve in advance using this site.
Mt. Laguna Campsite Roadside Loop #87A
Mt Laguna recreation area has trails for all types to choose from and most are mountain bike to trail running friendly. Be sure to bring your mountain bike bell whereas to give heads up to the hikers and runners. Our goal was to explore the area so we choose a 18 miles easy terrain loop of mostly single track winding through the pines. Here’s a link to our ride on Natural Atlas: Big Laguna 18 Mile Loop If you are new to mountain biking and want a shorter and equally beautiful version then take the Kemp Spur cutoff at about 1 mile into the ride and bypass heading back out to the Sunrise Hwy which is about a 9 mile loop in total. You will still get all the lake and meadow views but without the longer steep uphills, however, you will miss the super fun and built for mountain biking trail Gatos Spur. Either way, you can’t lose with the riding up here. As with all mountain biking and hiking, bring plenty of water as there are no water stops along the trail.
Big Laguna Mountain Biking
Lake overlook from Sunset trail intersection
After a full day on the trails we settled in back at camp and made one of our all in one meals in our Instant Pot and with the fire roaring, we stayed nice and toasty listening to the wind through the pines.
We packed up early in the morning and headed back out on the road. Our loop continues on Sunrise Hwy up to the town of Julian (another fun weekend trip with camping at William Heise County Park and only 2.5 hours of total driving time for the trip!). As we head down the Banner grade we started to see the landscape change from Pines to Desert. Passing the famed intersection crossing Scissors Crossing you travel through a rocky canyon and enter the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. We then dropped down into the town of Borrego through the Yaqui Pass Rd. Slow and steady driving is required as some of the turns are a little tight going over the pass. Before going over the short and windy pass you drive through some great boon-docking (free) camp areas in the State Park. We stopped at some of these areas for a short break on the mountain bikes. So much to explore in the park!
Blair Valley Borrego State Park
After arriving at Borrego Palm Canyon Campground we could see why this place is so popular. Have we mentioned how incredible the winter weather is here? Sunny and 72 with an expected low of 45 at night. The State Park campground is nestled at the canyon opening. We chose one of the dry camp spots up closer to the canyon mouth but you have many choices here including full hookups. If you can get one, try to camp at the old stone campsites in the furthest loop. We set up camp, got our fire going and put out some appetizers and watched the sun slowly settle out behind the rocky desert mountains.
Campsite Fire Borrego Palm Canyon State Park
Borrego Palm Canyon campground gives you easy trail access to the Borrego Palm Canyon Oasis trail. While there are many great RV parks and some first class in the area, the state park campground gives direct access to the easy 3 mile trail loop to the beautiful Palm Canyon grove oasis with year round water spring. Like all popular camp destinations, it’s always advised to reserve your site in advance, which you can do so here. I imagine that weekend traffic during peak weekends though could diminish the experience so if you’re able, go mid week. In early January we had the grove to ourselves to explore. Hiking past the grove was a little rocky but if you find some adventure spirit in you, and maybe have some hiking poles to assist, you’ll eventually find yourself on the un-marked trails leading to additional groves. Always be on the look out for the canyon’s famous Desert Big Horn Sheep.
Palm Canyon Grove
Hiking out Palm Canyon Trail
We loved this trail so much that the next morning had me doing it again solo as a trail run for some morning exercise while Katie took to her mountain bike and headed into town to explore the local coffee shops for her morning ritual – a good non-fat, no-foam latte. Our nephew, Christian, was joining us on this trip and he is a great biker so he chose to join Katie on her latte ride versus lacing up his shoes again to join me on the trail run.
After more exploration and a visit to the state park headquarters and visitor’s center, we packed up and headed home. We were traveling in one of our Mercedes Class C 24ft RVs so we headed up the Montezuma-Borrego Hwy right outside the campgrounds. This very steep and winding highway is not for anything much bigger. So if you are in a larger RV, I would suggest going back out the same way you came in and once in the town of Julian then descend towards Santa Ysabel and Ramona and then continue on the loop as mapped. While we did this over 4 nights, it is a great 3-night weekend trip with less than 4 hours of total driving. No wonder San Diego is an outdoor mecca with so much to explore and do.
Author enjoying the view