With all the mountains in San Diego County, a picnic in the wilderness is only a few minutes away for the thousands who have high-ground-clearance vehicles. Qualifying are most of the SUVs on the road, including crossovers.
The Mount Laguna area, at around 6,000 feet, has all the necessary features — trees and dirt roads. Pick a day like I did, when there’s hardly anyone around, and it makes for a perfect afternoon getaway.
My vehicle for this San Diego day trip, back in the summer of 2007, was a bit more than just something with high ground clearance. It was a 2007 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon, the four-door version loaded to the gills with bigger tires, assorted skid plates underneath, a hard top and interior almost as comfortable as a passenger car. Clearly too much for the roads, but fun nonetheless. The version you find today in your local Jeep showroom will be about the same.
Head east on Interstate 8, but don’t forget to pick up a sandwich along the way. I stopped at one of my favorite delis, located at Alpine Frontier Liquor, 1730 Alpine Boulevard, unit 201. Exit I-8 at Tavern Road; it’s located in the same center as the Carl’s Junior, right off the freeway. One caution… the sandwiches are huge.
Continuing on I-8, I exited at Sunrise Highway, taking the pleasurable drive up the hill. It has a couple of designations: county Highway S-1 and the Sunrise Highway Scenic Byway. Whatever it’s called, drivers curve up the sides of the hills, passing the timber line after a few minutes.
At the top is the small community of Mount Laguna. Mostly inside the Cleveland National Forest, there’s the Laguna Mountain Lodge, with small store, restaurant, cabins, and where I made my first stop, the Visitor Information Center. There, knowledgeable volunteers will help plan a day in the mountains. Trail maps are available, as are National Forest passes ($5), needed only for parked vehicles. Cruising around is free.
If you’re looking for formal picnic areas, the volunteers can direct you to one of several that are on the mountain. My plan was to just park somewhere, pull out my folding chair, and enjoy the secluded spot, rather than go to an official picnic area.
Most of the roads are closed to private vehicles. One that is open, at least for 2.5 about miles, is Los Huecos Road, which runs west from the visitor center.
An easy, well maintained dirt road, it’s one place a passenger car wouldn’t have any trouble. It was still a bit early to eat, so I stopped back in at the visitor center to get some more directions. While there, I ended up chatting with a couple of volunteers who were having their lunch at the picnic table behind the center; I joined them and managed to eat half the huge sandwich I picked up in Alpine.
There was another road to explore, Thing Valley Road, which is about a mile south on Sunrise Highway. A sign posted says the gate is closed three miles ahead, but it was still worth the trip.
Thing Valley Road is named after the Thing family, which still owns property near Las Posas Road and Interstate 8. On Mount Laguna, the road winds through a beautiful forest. It is narrow, rutted and rocky in spots, so it was a bit more of a challenge for the Wrangler. And although I put the Jeep in four-wheel-drive high at one point just to make sure it was working, any vehicle with high ground clearance would have an easy time on this road.
This trail does have its ups and downs. It rises and falls about 500 feet, with the highest point I saw being 6,040 feet, according to the Jeep’s built-in GPS system, which actually had Thing Valley Road in its database.
And off road, what a nice Jeep it was. The last time I drove a Wrangler — a second-generation model — was back in 2002. The new-for-2007 third-generation still looks back to its CJ and World War II roots, with removable top and doors, and a Spartan (at least for 2007) interior. This one has a V-6, replacing the inline 6 that originally powered the American Motors Rambler. With four doors and a big tire hanging out back, it seemed a bit long.
On the twisting drive up Sunrise Highway, it was fun. On the freeway, however, it seemed a bit underpowered, with the automatic transmission doing a lot of shifting and my right foot spending a lot of time near the floorboard. Still, it was quiet and much more civilized than that 2002 Wrangler. I can see why the factory in Toledo, Ohio, can’t keep up with demand.
After a pleasant drive through the trees for a mile or so, the road hugs the edge of Quail Springs Meadow. A beautiful open patch surrounded by peaks, its grasses were a patchwork of green and gold in the sun when I visited in mid-August. If I hadn’t eaten lunch back at the visitor center, this would have been the spot.
A few minutes down the road are several homes, and about the only traffic I saw that day was on Thing Valley Road, where a couple of residents and a Ranger Sally, who patrols the area for the Forest Service, drove by. It’s a one-lane road, but there are turnouts here and there. Be polite and back up, if you’re the closest to the turnout.
Sure enough, the gate was locked about four miles in. There was plenty of room to turn around, and the drive back was as pleasant as the drive in. Since the trip back to Sunrise Highway was mostly a gentle uphill grade, it was here that I shifted into 4WD high, just to give it a test.
Sure, this wasn’t a long drive, but it did put me in nature for a few hours. The sandwich and the company at the visitor center were great, and the Jeep got a little exercise. Stake out some time to give your senses and your SUV a little exercise.
Route and Info
- From September 2007
- An easy, off-road drive.
- 33-mile round trip from Interstate 8. Exit is about 45 miles from central San Diego.
- Interstate 8 east to Sunrise Highway (S-1).
- Turn left onto Sunrise Highway after exiting freeway.
- Visitor Information Center is about 10 miles north.
- Los Huecos Road runs west adjacent to the visitor center.
- From the visitor center, Thing Valley Road is less than a mile south (toward I-8) on Sunrise Highway and runs east.
- Return to I-8.