Powdery snow was softly crunching beneath my skinny skis as I kicked and glided across West Mesa in the Cuyamaca Mountains. In the blue-shadowed gloom of the oak forest, a doe bounded across my path. She was the first of about two dozen deer I would spot that January morning on my circle tour of Cuyamaca Peak. Only an hour's drive from my home on the balmy coastal plain, I was enjoying a winter sport--cross-country skiing--in a region that hardly recognizes winter.
San Diego County's mountains aren't high enough to retain snow from a big storm for very long. But even if the current rainy season turns out to be as dry as the last several, the next few weeks should still bring at least one cold front capable of blanketing the higher elevations, albeit briefly, with a foot or more of white powder.
Spontaneity is the key to exploiting these rare opportunities. Follow the weather forecast closely (reports may be heard 24 hours a day by dialing 289-1212). If stormy weather is about to turn to clearing skies the following day, then it's time to dust off your cross-country skis or snowshoes, and gather together some warm clothing for an outing the next day. (You may be able to rent cross-country ski gear--several ski and outdoor shops in the county provide this service.) Don't forget tire chains; they may be required at the higher elevations.
Plan to rise early and make haste so you can beat the multitudes of "snow bunnies" that will surely (on a weekend at least) clog the mountain roads by late morning.
Spur-of-the -moment strategies aren't necessary if you don't mind traveling 2 1/2 hours or longer to reach the ski slopes north and east of Los Angeles, or farther afield in the Sierra Nevada. There's a certain satisfaction, however, in looking down upon your own home town, and the blue Pacific beyond, from the white-mantled heights of our back-yard mountains.
Here are San Diego County's best areas for cross-country skiing or, for that matter, any kind of snow play:
LAGUNA MOUNTAIN RECREATION AREA
Three-mile-long Laguna Meadow, in the heart of the recreation area, is San Diego County's biggest single playground for cross-country skiing. With flat to gently sloping terrain averaging about 5,500 feet in elevation, the area is perfect for experts, beginners and youngsters alike.
Park at the Meadows Information Station (near the 19.0-mile-marker on Sunrise Highway) and go north to reach the south arm of the meadow. You may also begin from points farther along Sunrise Highway (County S1), such as Laguna Campground. Outside the meadow area, a multitude of dirt roads beckon the intrepid traveler.
For more information, call the Descanso Ranger District of the Cleveland National Forest, 445-8341.
CUYAMACA RANCHO STATE PARK
More than 100 miles of trails and fire roads wind through this 25,000-acre park, most of which is at elevations between 4,000 and 6,000 feet. Because of their steepness, many of these routes are quite challenging for the average cross-country skier. You can park in any of several turnouts along California 79, and ski up toward higher ground to the east or west. Relatively flat areas can be found right off the road in the Stonewall Mine area at the north end of the park, and near the Sweetwater River bridge near the park's south end.
Expert skiers with the proper equipment, map and navigational skills can try to reach Cuyamaca Peak, the county's second-highest point. The perilously steep and direct Cuyamaca Peak Fire Road can be avoided for the most part by choosing more gradual but longer approaches, such as the route up the West Mesa and Burnt Pine fire roads.
For park information, call 765-0755.
Unplowed roads in Palomar Mountain State Park and through Fry Creek Campground (2 miles below the observatory) may be ski-able, but be sure to stay off private roads and property adjoining these areas.
Elevations average about 5,000 feet. For park information, call 742-3462.
LOS COYOTES INDIAN RESERVATION
This 25,000-acre reservation, 5 miles east of Warner Springs, includes the county's highest peak--6,533-foot Hot Springs Mountain. Most of the reservation is open for camping and day use, but call first (782-3269) if you'll be arriving on a weekday.
From a point just beyond the entrance booth, a dirt road winds steadily uphill to Hot Springs Mountain's summit, gaining 2,700 feet. For an ascent on skis, timing is critical as snow melts quickly on the road's lower, sun-exposed end.