By Wendy Lemlin
When there’s rain and cold in America’s Finest, chances are there’s snow in our highest mountain areas. Here’s a flurry of snow-possible locations close enough to San Diego to spend a day or overnight getaway.
But even at higher elevations, snow around these parts doesn’t last long. So, when it does fall, go ahead, be a flake - blow off work or school for a day and enjoy it.
I remember one day last winter...
After the previous day’s cold and blustery rainstorms, the morning finally glistened under cloudless azure skies, as my friend and I loaded our dogs, cross-country skis, lunch and extra layers of clothing into the car and headed east out I-8.
By the time we reached Alpine, we could glimpse the peaks of the Cuyamacas and the Lagunas glinting white in the distance. We continued another 13 miles to Exit 47 and turned north on Sunrise Highway toward Mt. Laguna, one of the primo places to enjoy snow in San Diego County.
As we climbed the winding road towards the 6,000-foot peak, the temperature dropped to the high-30s, and the light dusting of snow became full coverage, with melting icicles sparkling like holiday decorations on the pine tree boughs. Having left downtown San Diego and 60-degree weather just an hour before, we were now surrounded by the proverbial winter wonderland.
Luckily, it was midweek, because, although there was a good deal of traffic on the freshly plowed mountain road, it wasn’t backed up to a crawl as it can often be on a snow-filled weekend. We stopped at a popular turnout that overlooked a panorama of virgin white meadows and blue tinged far-off peaks, snapped a few photos of the magnificence and continued on.
A little further down the road, shrieks of glee rang out from a short hill on our right where families with kids ditching school for an impromptu snow day were sliding on whatever worked: sleds, toboggans, boogie boards, even pool floats. We by-passed the familial commotion, and, having just entered Cleveland National Forest, drove to the Laguna Mountain Lodge and General Store at mile marker 23.5 to fill our thermoses with steaming hot cider and purchase a $5 Adventure Pass for the day - a necessity for parking anywhere along the road in the National Forest. (You will definitely get a ticket if you don’t display the pass in your car.)
Next, we approached, a small, barely plowed parking area on our right led to a wooden platform with an ahhh-inspiring, miles-long overlook of the Anza Borrego Desert to the east, thousands of feet below. We took a few minutes to be blown away by the view and then continued to just past mile marker 27, where we parked near what would have been the Noble Canyon and Big Laguna trailheads, if the trails hadn’t completely covered by eight inches of snow.
The dogs bounded out of the car, energized to puppy-playfulness by the white stuff, as we strapped on skis and looped poles over our wrists; in short order, humans and canines headed into the silent, magical, crystalline realm of the snow queen.
(If Rover wants to romp as well, keep in mind that California State Parks do not allow dogs on any of the trails - you’ll have more fun with your dog in the areas under the jurisdiction of the National Forest.)
We skied out to Laguna Meadow where we picnicked and drank our cider under that impossibly blue sky in the ever-warming sun, made snow angels and tossed snowballs for the dogs to catch, and then gradually made our way back to the car.
In the three hours we had been out on the skis, we never saw another person once we left the vicinity of the road, although we had crossed some snowshoe tracks early on. It was a peaceful, beautiful and fun filled day, and by 4 p.m., we were back home and heading to the beach to catch the sunset. This is winter life in San Diego!
Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
Head east on I-8 about 40 miles from Ocean Beach, and take exit 40 (about 7 miles before the Sunrise Highway exit) for CA 79, the road that runs north through the almost 25,000-acre Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. There are meadows, valleys and 5-6,000- foot peaks - forested in oak, cedar and pine - which are postcard-perfect when blanketed in snow; there are creeks and waterfalls that 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 (or at least look toward) the higher peaks, such as Cuyamaca or Stonewall. The reward for the hike? On a clear day, the 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 festive holiday decorations in a quaint historic mining town, then keep heading north on 79 about 13 miles from Cuyamaca Rancho State Park to the town of Julian. As you head into town, you’ll pass Lake Cuyamaca (you’ll meet up with the other end of Sunrise Highway there), especially picturesque when surrounded by snow.
An alternate route is to take I-8 to Highway 67 towards Ramona, where it becomes Highway 78, then follow 78 east into Julian. Either way, it is about an hour’s drive from San Diego.
Julian sits at about 4,200 feet of elevation, so it generally gets some of the white stuff every winter. Wander through art galleries and gift shops, enjoy the pies the town is famous for 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 (maybe combined with a day at Mt. Laguna or exploring Cuyamaca Rancho State Park), lodging options run the gamut from B&Bs to small hotels, but call ahead for reservations, as snow brings a huge influx of visitors to Julian.
Some 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 5,000 feet (High Peak rises 6,100 feet) and annual precipitation of 40 inches, Palomar has more frequent and deeper (up to three feet) snowfalls than other areas in the county.
Access Palomar Mountain State Park, about 77 miles northeast from San Diego, by taking I-15 north to CA 76, going east about 20 miles, and then following either South Grade Rd., which is steep and winding, or East Grade Rd., which is a longer, more gradual ascent. Both offer amazing views and scenery. (Check for road closures before heading out.).
There are numerous areas for enjoying the snow, whether you want to snowshoe, cross country ski, hike, snow camp or just walk around and take photos. Check out the world-famous Palomar Observatory while you are there. You won’t be able to look into deep space through the 200-inch Hale telescope, but you can enjoy photos of distant worlds it has spotted.
About two hours from San Diego, the rustically quaint town of Idyllwild, nestled in the San Jacinto Mountains of Riverside County, receives about 60 inches of snow per year (mostly from January through March) and is a popular getaway from both San Diego and Los Angeles. Rent a cabin, stay at an inn or camp.
If you’re heading to Palm Springs this winter, bring snow clothes as well and take the Aerial Tramway up to the 8,500 foot high elevation of Mt. San Jacinto, graced by snow most of the winter and incredible views over the desert anytime. The Adventure Center at the top of the tramway rents cross-country ski equipment and snowshoes. Note: there is generally about a 30-degree temperature drop from the desert floor to top of the tramway.
If You Go
If you drive to any of the mountain areas such as Sunrise Highway during or immediately after a snowstorm, chains will be required on your tires, and you will not be allowed on the roads without them. (Occasionally, roads are closed completely.) However, if you wait a day or so until the roads are cleared, you can usually get by without them. Check with CHP before leaving home.
Avoid weekends if possible. Weekends immediately after a snowstorm mean traffic snarls and excessive crowds. 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.
Mt. Laguna: Laguna Mountain Lodge and Store sells a few groceries and camping supplies, sandwiches, hot and cold beverages, 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 a day pass, $30 for the year).
You can also call ahead of time to inquire about snow conditions and whether you need chains. The Lodge has rooms and cabins for rent; some are dog-friendly. 10678 Sunrise Hwy., Mt. Laguna, 619.473.8533, lagunamountain.com
Just north of the Store is a Cleveland National Forest Visitor’s Center (open weekends) and rest room facilities (open daily).
There are no gas stations on Mt. Laguna.
Rancho Cuyamaca State Park: Camping and hiking, equestrian trails available. $8 day use fee per car. Dogs not allowed on trails except on paved roads and Cuyamaca Peak Fire Rd. parks.ca.gov
Julian: Julian Chamber of Commerce, julianca.com
Palomar Mountain: Palomar Mountain State Park camping and hiking ($8 day-use fee per car). Dogs not allowed on trails. There are no gas stations on Palomar Mountain. parks.ca.gov
Idyllwild: Peaceful, woodsy small town with all shops and restaurants locally owned. Dogs can play off-leash at the wilderness Idyllwild Park, 54000 Riverside County Playground Rd. 951.659.2656, rivcoparks.org
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway: 1 Tram Way, Palm Springs. Tickets: $21.95-$23.95 adults. pstramway.com
Make it and Fake it
By Allie Daugherty
The guide to fake snow in San Diego
In San Diego, a winter wonderland is exactly that: wondering what a real winter is like. Thanks to Science, now the wondering can be quelled! Check out the different way to cover those palm trees in the white powdery stuff you’ve seen on TV, all while keeping those flip-flops on.
1. Snow in seconds
The idea is cheap and easy: buy the powder, add water and watch it expand into fake snow you can mold just like the real stuff. Also goes good on Christmas trees. snowinseconds.com
2. Instant snow Powder
This is very similar to Snow In Seconds, except it comes in many different colors. You still shouldn’t eat the yellow snow, or the red, blue, green... stevespanglerscience.com
3. Snow machine
A substance called “snow liquid” is poured into a machine to produce a mist of extremely fine foam particles. These are dispersed by the internal fan and look and fall like real snow. Can be rented at any party rental business.
4. Snow cone maker
Okay, so this isn’t exactly snow, but it’s close enough and is a sticky pile of deliciousness that can cure the winter blues. There are a plethora of models at various stores.