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Paved all the way; optional Los Huecos Road is a good, 2-mile-long graded dirt road.
Approximate Length: 30.5 miles, counting Los Huecos
Approximate Birding Time: 4.5 hours, including the two optional hikes
Facilities: Restrooms are available at the campgrounds, picnic areas, and at the Information Center. Some of the restrooms are closed in the winter.
Directions: Take I-8 east past the turnoffs to Cuyamaca and Pine Valley, and take the Sunrise Highway exit, also clearly marked with a "Laguna Mountain Recreation Area" sign. Turn left at the stop sign and begin birding just past the turnoff to Pine Valley (which is to the left, just over the freeway).
Sunrise Highway (aka County Road S1) begins in good chaparral habitat, and there are several pulloffs from which you can check for species partial to this habitat: year round look for both California and Mountain Quail, Greater Roadrunner, both Anna's and Costa's Hummingbirds, Western Scrub Jay, Phainopepla, California Thrasher, Rock and Bewick's Wrens, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Wrentit, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, and both California and Spotted Towhee. In summer look for Ash-throated Flycatcher and Black-chinned Sparrow, and in winter look for Hermit Thrush and Fox Sparrow.
Sunrise on "Sunrise"
Chaparral habitat ascending the mountain
The pine-oak woodland pops up fairly quickly; where you can pull over periodically and look and listen for Band-tailed Pigeon, Acorn and Nuttall's Woodpeckers, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Northern Flicker, Steller's Jay, Phainopepla, American Robin, White-breasted Nuthatch, House Wren, Oak Titmouse, Mountain Chickadee, both Lesser and Lawrence's Goldfinch, Purple Finch, Orange-crowned Warbler, Dark-eyed Junco, and Chipping Sparrow. In summer look for Black-headed Grosbeak, Bullock's Oriole, Western Wood Pewee, Purple Martin, and Violet-green Swallow; in winter look for Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and on rare occasions during invasion years, Pine Siskins and Cassin's Finches. Further down, where the woodland is predominantly pine, look for Pygmy Nuthatches, Olive-sided Flycatcher (summer), and Hairy Woodpecker as well. The open meadows should be checked for Western Bluebirds, blackbirds, Lark Sparrows, and White-crowned Sparrows in winter. There are patches of deciduous trees along the road that should be checked for migrants, which can be quite plentiful. Once in the little "town" of Mount Laguna, watch for the Information Center on the left; just before the center is the turnoff to Los Huecos Road. If you have the time and inclination, there are other roads and trails you can explore from Los Huecos that can also be good for migrants, as well as the normal mountain fare. CAUTION: This road can be very slick after winter snows! Birding the area at night or an hour or so before sunrise might bag you some owls; a couple of singing Flammulated Owls caused a lot of excitement near the summit during April of 2006!
Meadow and pine habitat
Pine and oak (below) woodlands on a frosty winter day
Pines along Los Huecos Road
Return to the main drag and turn left, watching for the Desert View Picnic Grounds on your right.
Optional Hike: Desert View Nature Trail The trail begins at the southeast corner of the picnic grounds and takes you through high elevation chaparral which is great for Fox Sparrow in the winter. Go past the little spur trail to the left and continue to the "T"; for the short version, bear left here and hike down to where the trail makes a sharp right, where you can enjoy the "desert view" before heading back (be sure to watch the skies for White-throated Swifts). To take the long loop (which will take you about an hour), bear right at the "T" and follow the trail through the woodland and down into Burnt Ranchiera campground. Bear left at the bottom where you eventually hook up with the PCT, and bear left (north) again. Follow this trail to where the nature trail veers left (there's a little sign there) and takes you back to the trail you came out on. You can also return via the PCT, but you have to keep an eye out for the picnic tables on your left and scramble up the hill; else it's easy to keep going and wind up in Pioneer Mail! Besides a nice combination of chaparral, oak, and pine woodland birds, you get spectacular views of the desert. This also seems to be an attractive trail for migrants, and one summer a Gray Vireo showed up (probably a post-breeding wanderer from the Kitchen Creek populations). Should the trail be snowed in, there's an alternate trail described below.
Desert View Nature Trail
Pine/oak woodland along the trail
Optional Hike: Big Laguna Trail Continuing on the main road and leaving "the village", you'll soon come to Laguna Campground on your left; turn in here and drive almost to the very end of the road, where there's a parking area on the left for the Big Laguna Trail. If you haven't gotten Pygmy Nuthatches yet, you're bound to get them here! Listen also for Purple Martins (summer) in the parking area, and Brewer's Blackbirds in the picnic area. This trail takes you into Big Laguna Meadow, where you can sit on the big rocks and watch the sky for raptors and the lake (in wet years) for waterfowl and Red-winged Blackbirds as well as other icterids. In the event that the road to the trailhead is closed (usually in winter), you can park just outside the entrance (where the fee booth is), and walk in, taking the first campground loop on the right. Following this to the end will take you to another access point to Big Laguna Lake.
Big Laguna Trail
Big Laguna "Lake" in a dry year...
The lake from the campground after a wet year
Back on the main highway, look for the wooden platform overlook on your right, which is always worth a stop. Some years I've had a White-headed Woodpecker between here and the Shrine Camp early in the morning pretty consistently on my Breeding Bird Surveys, but overall the species is very rare any more in the county. From this point on you'll be entering the area devastated by the 2003 firestorms, but periodic stops are still worthwhile, as it's amazing how certain birds, such as Lazuli Buntings (summer), are utilizing these areas with vigor!
View from the platform
Burned pine woodland; many of the trees were already dead due to the pine beetle.
Alternate Optional Hike: Northbound PCT About 1.2 miles past the Big Laguna Campground entrance, you'll see a big pulloff at a cattle guard, which is the jumping off point for the upper end of the Noble Canyon Trail on the left side of the road. Taking a bit of this trail will give you the same mountain species you've had, but taking the PCT gives you a walk through (right now fire-damaged) chaparral and more spectacular desert views! Granted, birds may be sparse along this leg, but the hillsides might produce Rock and Canyon Wrens, and raptors and swallows might take advantage of the stiff winds. Take the trail from the parking area, and where it Ts, bear left, keeping track of your time, as you don't want to end up in Canada! ☺
"Optimist Tree" (check out the face...)
Continuing down Sunrise Highway, you'll soon leave what was pine/oak woodland and re-enter what was chaparral habitat, but then come upon meadows which are growing back quickly and are good for Horned Larks, Loggerhead Shrike, Western Meadowlarks, and Lark Sparrows. The area near the Pedro Fegas monument in the Cuyamaca basin can be good for raptors any time of year (a dark morph Red-tailed Hawk lives in the area), but look especially for Ferruginous Hawk and Prairie Falcon in winter. Watch the fence lines for Say's Phoebe, Savannah Sparrow, and Mountain Bluebird in winter, and Western Kingbird in summer. On very rare occasions, after exceptionally wet winters, Lake Cuyamaca can reach almost to the highway; when this happens, be sure to scope for shorebirds, ducks, and other waterfowl. The route ends at the intersection with highway 79.
Chaparral area shortly after the October 2003 fire
New growth by August 2004
Yes, the weather can get rough up there!
Recovering oak savannah
Closeup of the same view after the rains of 2004-2005
Wildflower enthusiasts love it here in the spring!
Personal Checklist ●=small numbers █ = large numbers (10+)
Please keep in mind that these lists are NOT comprehensive, and that some months may have had poor overall coverage. Species in red are vagrant, out-of-place, or irruptive species and are not to be expected.
|Great Horned Owl||●||●||●|
|Western Screech Owl||●|
|Western Wood Pewee||●||●||●||●||●|
|Western Scrub Jay||█||█||█||●||●||█||●||█||█||█||●||█|
|Black-throated Gray Warbler||●||●||●||●|
|"Slate-colored" Fox Sparrow||●||●||●||●||█|
|"Thick-billed" Fox Sparrow||●|
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