Amidst interview transcriptions, video editing, and scrambling together enough work hours to save money, the two of us haven’t been able to explore our backyard as much as we would have wished. However, every time we’ve gotten out these winter months it’s been straight to the snow. It wasn’t until my fourth year of living in San Diego that I realized how much winter outdoor recreation existed within a three hours radius. From day trips up to frolic in some snow, all the way to mountaineering expeditions there is so much exploration to be done every single month.
Easy Day Trips
Off highway 10 on the way to Palm Springs, there’s a tram which allows explorers of all abilities to experience the beauty of Mount San Jacinto. The lift takes you from roughly 2,000 feet elevation to 8,516 feet over a thrilling ride through the Southern California forests. From the mountain station, trails connect through the state park and all the way to the 10,834 foot summit. With snow on the ground in the winter, bring some snowshoes and explore around!
Famous for its award-winning apple pie, the town of Julian is a popular mountain getaway from San Diego. Stonewall Peak is a quick hike on the way to this little town, offering views of Cuyamaca State Park and the eastern San Diego County mountains. In the winter months, there may be snow at the summit and views of snow-capped peaks and valleys in every direction. Plus, isn’t apple pie always better in dirty hiking boots?
Situated in northeast San Diego County, Palomar Mountain offers miles of trails with vistas all the way to Catalina Island. The majority of the state park is above 5,000 feet elevation, with rolling trails looping around the mountain’s gradual slopes. If you’re looking for snow, head up to Palomar in the few days after a San Diego rainstorm! There’s likely to be snow on the ground throughout the winter, but for a full winter wonderland experience it’s best to go right after a fresh dusting.
A moderate day-hike without snow, Tahquitz Peak becomes an expedition in the winter. The route follows Devils Slide Trail for 2.5 miles and connects with the PCT, where snowshoes and/or micro-spikes are necessary in the winter. Even though the lookout will be accessible anytime during the day, starting the trail shortly after sunrise is most effective. When the sun hits and softens the feet of snow built up on the trail, every step is incredibly challenging.
Mt. Baldy never disappoints, no matter the season. From ski huts, to mountaineering opportunities, and a chance to dip your toe into the winter hiking game this peak has it all. There are many different hiking routes to reach the summit, with Ski Hut Trail being the shortest. Because deep snow can seriously impede timing, we would recommend starting with this shorter trail and a pair of micro spikes. Last winter, a 10 mile loop took us 10+ hours as we fought through waist deep snow. Next time, we’ll be opting to climb Baldy more efficiently in the winter – without sacrificing the breathtaking views of the snowy San Gabriel mountains.
Neither one of us can ever pass up an opportunity to set our feet on the PCT. Mount Laguna is one of the first mountains thru-hikers will reach as they march through the desert, eyes set on the Canadian border. Laguna doesn’t hold snow all winter, so if you’re looking for a chance to break out the micro spikes it’s best to go a few days after a rain storm in San Diego. From Mount Laguna, you can either drop down into Anza Borrego Desert Park, the largest state park in California, or pass through Julian and grab a slice of apple pie. Win win.
Accessible Mountaineering Expeditions
If you’re looking to climb any of the Cascade Volcanoes in the summer season, Baldy offers a perfect opportunity to practice the rhythm of mountaineering. Climbers start at Ski Hut Trail, and turn off to climb up the Baldy Bowl – a short yet unforgiving hill that requires self-arrest and avalanche knowledge. This mountain is also a great place to try ski-mountaineering during the winter months when most peaks are inaccessible due to storms.
San Gorgonio is an absolute unit of a mountain any time of the year. The peak is accessible in the snow via the same route used in the summer, but with navigational skills you can mountaineer your way up the switchbacks past halfway camp. Consider either setting up a base camp and summiting in the early morning, or starting at the trailhead shortly after midnight in order to avoid soft snow midday while climbing.
Not into the idea of a 22-mile day-hike to get to the top of the contiguous US? Consider tackling Whitney via the Mountaineer’s Route – which cuts the mileage in less than half (while still keeping all that sweet elevation gain). This trail still requires a permit, though they are easier to obtain due to the level of skill and knowledge needed to approach the Sierra Nevada in the winter. This climb can be done in either one (long) day, or with an overnight stay at Trail Camp.
Where the Sun (almost) Always Shines
Anza Borrego Desert State Park
Spring super blooms drive tourists out to the deserts in massive crowds, so exploring the diversity of Southern California’s deserts in the winter months is prime. The cool temperatures during the day might allow you to explore Anza Borrego’s slot canyons and palm oases without fighting 100+ degree temperatures.
Joshua Tree National Park
Widely known as the Mecca of outdoor climbing, Joshua Tree is accessible year-round and often offers prime weather in the winter months. Though the desert received a dusting of snow this season, the park is mostly dry throughout the winter. If you’re prepared for chilly nights under the stars, snagging a campsite in the off-season might save some of the stress from crowds.
We’ve still got a solid month or two before the snow melts and the super bloom takes its place, so here’s to hitting the trails as much as we can! Both of us were crazy inspired by the progress our mountaineering skills had made this summer, and don’t want any of that to slip away. Though we’re always itching for new, foreign adventures – we have to remind ourselves all there is to do in our backyard. An entire lifetime could easily be dedicated to exploring the diversity of Southern California’s trails.