By Wendy Lemlin
(Published in About Town Magazines, Winter 2015 as “Let It Snow”)
Ah, the joys of winter: sledding, cross country skiing, making snow angels and building snowmen… think you can’t do that in San Diego County? Well, think again—-and head for the hills!
When rare winter rains drench the city and the temperatures drop at the coast, it’s highly likely that snow will cover the tallest mountain peaks in the eastern reaches of the county. It may only happen a few times a winter, and any accumulation will certainly melt within days after a snowstorm, so, if you’re yearning for the quintessential snow day, be ready with your call-in-sick-to-work excuse, put on those layers of clothes and drive east ASAP!
Here’s a flurry of snow-possible locations, each only about an hour’s drive from San Diego—close enough to spend the day and still be back at the beach by sunset.
Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
Head out I-8 about 40 miles from its start in Ocean Beach, and take exit 40 for CA 79, the road that runs north through the almost 25,000 acre Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. The meadows, valleys and 5000 foot peaks, forested in oak, cedar, and pine, are all postcard perfect when blanketed in snow. Creeks and waterfalls rush ever faster with the snowmelt. You might find snow at the lower elevations close by the road, or you might have to hike up the higher peaks. The reward for the hike? On a clear day, the incredibly panoramic view from these peaks stretches from the Salton Sea in the east to Catalina Island in the west.
If you like your snowplay with a slice of warm-from-the-oven-apple pie, and think that fresh snow is the perfect adornment for a quaint, historic gold mining town, then keep heading north on 79 about 13 miles from Cuyamaca Rancho State Park to the town of Julian.
Wander through the art galleries and gift shops, enjoy the pies for which the town is famous at several bakeries along Main Street, tour an old gold mine, or stop in at the Pioneer Museum for a history lesson. If you want to make an overnight trip of it, lodging options run the gamut from B&Bs to small hotels.
At 6,000 feet above sea level, Mt. Laguna, is my go-to winter wonderland. Not only does the higher elevation usually translate into more snow depth, but the picturesque two-lane Sunrise Highway, (exit 47 off of I-8) winds along the mountain top, where icicles sparkle like ornaments on the boughs of Jeffrey pines, meadows of virgin snowfields cry out for exploration on snowshoes or skis, short hills provide opportunities for sledding and sliding, and scenic overlooks reveal breathtaking vistas. Stop at the Laguna Mountain Lodge and General Store at mile marker 23.5 and purchase a $5 Adventure Pass for the day—a necessity for parking anywhere along the road in the Cleveland National Forest, in which Mt. Laguna is located (and, yes, you will definitely get a ticket if you don’t display the pass in your car). Pick up a trail map while you’re at it (or download one before leaving home) and get away from the crowds and the steady stream of traffic by parking at one of the many campgrounds or trailheads and venturing even a little ways from the road.
There are some that consider the high country around Palomar Mountain to have the most quintessential mountain scenery in the county, with thick forests of fir, pine, oak and cedar, gentle valleys, sparkling streams and landscapes reminiscent of more northern mountain ranges. With an average elevation of about 5000 feet (although High Peak rises 6100 feet) and annual precipitation of 40 inches, snowfalls are more frequent here than other areas in the county and can be as deep as three feet. Palomar Mountain State Park, about 77 miles northeast from San Diego, is reached by taking I-15 to CA 76, going east about 20 miles, and then either South Grade Road, which is steep and winding, or East Grade Road, which is a longer, more gradual ascent—both offer amazing views and scenery. Check out Palomar Observatory while you are there; although you won’t be able to look into deep space through the 200 inch Hale telescope, you can enjoy photos of distant worlds it has spotted.
IF YOU GO:
If you drive to any of the mountain areas during or immediately after a snowstorm you will not be allowed on the roads without tire chains. However, if you wait until the roads are cleared, you can usually get by without them. Check with CalTrans before leaving home.
Avoid weekends immediately following a storm if possible, when excessive crowds can mean traffic snarls—in fact, cars are sometimes turned away from Sunrise Highway because of overly high traffic.
Go early in the day. Snowy roads tend to melt during the day, and then become icy as the temperature drops in late afternoon and evening, resulting in a slippery drive down the winding mountain roads.
Get snow ideas and info from the San Diego Tourism Authority, www.sandiego.org.
Mt. Laguna: Laguna Mountain Lodge and General Store sells a few groceries and camping supplies, sleds and other slideable things (at a premium), gloves, hats, scarfs, etc. This is where you buy your Adventure Pass to park anywhere in the Cleveland (or other) National Forest ($5 for day pass, $30 for 1 year). You can also call ahead of time to inquire about snow conditions and if you need chains. The Lodge has rooms and cabins for rent. 10678 Sunrise Highway, Mt. Laguna 91948 619-473-8533