Eagerly awaited snowfall late last month sent a flurry of visitors to mile-high Laguna Mountain Recreation Area, a forested playground that's easily accessible via freeway.
Interstate 8 leads to the Sunrise Highway that takes you to grand scenery and welcome serenity 40 miles east of San Diego.
When the snow flies, the Laguna Mountains are a wonderland for city kids who like to build snowmen in the woods and slide down hills on snow saucers. The white blanket was 30 inches thick on March 1, and below-freezing nighttime temperatures should make it last a while.
Even if the snow melts, you'll enjoy a visit to the 8,600-acre recreation area in Cleveland National Forest. There are nature trails to walk, places to picnic and a campground that's open all year.
Nights in Rustic Cabins
At the hamlet of Mt. Laguna, visitors also can spend the night in rustic cabins with wood-burning fireplaces. A general store sells groceries and snow-play equipment, and down the road you can dine on steak or Mexican fare at Armando's restaurant.
A special treat from the pine-crested top of the Laguna Mountains is a grand view of the Colorado Desert. On a clear winter's day the vista extends miles across Anza-Borrego Desert State Park to the Salton Sea.
To reach the scenic recreation area from Los Angeles, drive south on Interstate 5 to San Diego and pick up Interstate 8 east. Beyond Alpine the freeway enters the national forest and climbs through scrub-covered foothills.
At nearly 4,000 feet elevation, exit north on Pine Valley Road to a peaceful village of the same name, then turn right on Old Highway 80 toward Laguna Mountain Recreation Area.
You can gas up and get picnic supplies in Pine Valley, or pause for a meal at Majors Coffee Shop or Pine Valley Restaurant and Bakery. The region's best-known dining place is Pine Valley House, open nightly for steak and seafood dinners.
Room With a VCR
If you're looking for lodgings later, the newer Inn at Pine Valley has 22 rooms that rent for $40 double, including a VCR player, microwave oven and mini-refrigerator. Phone (619) 473-8777.
Or you can bed down in the 38-room Pine Valley Lodge where doubles are $50 on Friday and Saturday and $29 other nights. Call (619) 473-8711. The lodge features two tennis courts.
Continue on Old Highway 80 until its meets County S1, Sunrise Highway, and turn left to wind your way up the lofty Laguna Mountains. Signs will be posted if tire chains are required, depending on snow and road conditions.
(For travel information in advance, you can phone the U.S. Forest Service Descanso ranger office between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday: (619) 445-6235.)
Chaparral soon gives way to cedar, oak and pine trees. Stop at the unmanned roadside Meadow Information Center to study a posted map of the park and its points of interest.
Stroll to Observatory
As you continue on the two-lane road, look right for Morris Ranch Road that goes a short distance to a parking area for the Star Party Trail. A sign marks the start of a forest path for an easy half-hour round-trip stroll to Mt. Laguna Observatory, operated by San Diego State University. (Open weekends in summer.)
Sunrise Highway soon takes you to the mountains' visitor facilities at the tiny town of Mt. Laguna. First along the road is the major stop for meals, Armando's El Rancho Grande restaurant. Weekend service begins at 9 a.m. for breakfast and continues to 10 p.m. Weekday hours are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Next you'll see the Blue Jay Lodge where locals gather for drinks on springy tractor seats that surround the bar. Posted operating hours are 5 p.m Friday to 5 p.m. Sunday, but the owners open at their own whim.
Just ahead on the other side of the road is the main mountain rendezvous, the general store of Mt. Laguna Lodge. It's open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (from 8:30 a.m. on Saturday). That's where you can buy plastic snow slides ($5) and saucers ($10), as well as warm hats and gloves.
Scattered in the pines behind the store are 13 cabins and a 12-room motel. A one-bedroom cabin with fireplace and kitchenette is $43 weekends, $38 weekdays, per couple. Cabins with two or three bedrooms range from $48 to $70. (Two-night minimum on weekends.) Motel rooms are $38 weekends, $32 weekdays. Call (619) 445-2342 or (619) 473-8533.
Enjoy the View
Continue north on the highway and look for signs to Desert View picnic grounds, a vista point 6,000 feet above the barren desert that spreads east from the mountains. If the short loop road is closed, you can walk in to picnic and enjoy the view.
Just beyond the picnic area the first road on the right takes you to other panoramas of the desert. The road leads to Stephenson Peak, site of a former Air Force radar installation, but you should double back to the highway.