PCT: Mount Laguna to Scissors Crossing

Mile 41.5 to Mile 77 of the northbound PCT: Tracing the highland rim with a huge view over the desert, and gradually descending to the parched lower elevations.

Hiking Moderate

Distance
56 km
Ascent
1.3 km
Descent
2.4 km
Duration
1 day +
Low Point
687 m
High Point
1.8 km
Gradient
VIEW ON MAP
PCT: Mount Laguna to Scissors Crossing Map

Description

This segment of the PCT makes up the middle of California Section A (Campo to Warner Springs). It delivers hikers from pine-forested highlands at 6000 feet to cactus-laden desert at less than 2500 feet––in only a two days’ journey. Following the spine of the Laguna Mountains, much of the trail traces the airy highland rim, where one side of the range falls away dramatically to the Anza Borrego Desert below. On parts of this traverse, the trail feels like a balcony suspended above the escarpment, making this the most scenic stretch of Section A by far. For northbound hikers, this might be where the PCT first feels like truly walking a “crest” across California.

Another bonus of this section for northbound hikers is that it’s mostly downhill. The bad news, though, no matter the direction of travel, is the lack of water. This segment has one half of what could be the longest waterless carry on the PCT, depending on seasonal sources. Northbound from Sunrise Trailhead (NB mile 59.5), there may not be natural water until Barrel Spring (NB mile 101.1). You can consult the PCT Water Report for an idea of what to expect. You can also hope for a public water cache at Scissors Crossing, but this shouldn't be relied upon. Another option is to hitch from Scissors Crossing to fill up in a nearby town.

As mapped here, the segment begins from northbound mile 41.5 at Burnt Rancheria Campground. It’s a short detour to the lodge at Mount Laguna, where long-distance hikers can ship resupply boxes or buy goods from the store. A bit farther down the trail is the Desert View Picnic Area (NB mile 42.6), and in this vicinity, you’ll get your first good look over Anza Borrego to the east. Fill water at the picnic area if you need it, then continue as the trail climbs just a bit higher before beginning a long and gradual descent. Pine trees give way to scrub meadows near the rim of the highlands, granting unobstructed views over the desert valleys and ranges. Though never too far from the paved Sunrise Highway, the trail in this section can feel like it’s on the edge of the world.

With a short detour to Laguna Campground (NB mile 47.5) you can find water, bathrooms, and coin-operated showers. Dispersed camping is not allowed until north of the Pioneer Mail Picnic Site (NB mile 52.6), per regulations of Cleveland National Forest. Once you get north of the picnic site, you may find some decent dispersed camping spots, though they’re likely to be dry.

The most popular spot for dispersed camping is in a windy field near Sunrise Trailhead (NB mile 59.5), where water is available from a concrete tank. It's a short detour from the PCT, across Sunrise Highway. Between here and Scissors Crossing there are some seasonal water sources, but nothing considered reliable. The trail continues to descend, but with some noticeable uphill portions as well, transitioning to a hotter and drier climate.

Coming out of the mountains, the trail makes a beeline across the desert floor, through scrub vegetation and cholla cacti. At Scissors Crossing (NB mile 77) the PCT meets two highways. Beneath the bridge of Highway 78 is a well-known cache point, where trail angels frequently leave jugs of water. Also, the hiker-friendly town of Julian is 12 miles west along the highway, so it’s common to hitch into town for resupply and perhaps a good night’s rest.

Permits: Cleveland National Forest requires permits for dispersed camping, either the PCT Long-Distance Permit or a national forest wilderness visitor permit. Dispersed camping is prohibited, even with a permit, within the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area (Mile 40-53). You might also need a California Fire Permit for cooking, regardless of where you camp.

Sources: https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/cleveland/home/?cid=FSEPRD488307 https://pctmap.net/trail-notes/ https://www.pcta.org/discover-the-trail/maps/

Difficulty

Moderate

Hiking along trails with some uneven terrain and small hills. Small rocks and roots may be present.

Medium Exposure

2 out of 4

The trail contains some obstacles such as outcroppings and rock which could cause injury.

Remoteness

2 out of 4

Away from help but easily accessed.

Best time to visit

March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November

Features

  • Wildlife
  • Historical
  • Picturesque
  • Dog friendly
  • Wild flowers
  • Water features
  • Family friendly
  • Forestry or heavy vegetation

Guidebooks in this area