Looking for Winter in San Diego

by on February 28, 2012 · 12 comments

in Environment, Popular, San Diego

Snow or hail at Mt. Laguna, Feb. 27, 2012. All photos by Frank Gormlie.

With weather reports promising 6 to 8 inches of snow in local mountains for yesterday – February 27th – I nosed my PT Cruiser east on the old venerable Highway 8, and punched the accelerator in a mini-adventure to find Winter in San Diego County.

Gray skies, billowing clouds, and even some sunshine filled my vision for the first half hour in the cruise up the elevation towards Mount Laguna. If it was too snowy by time I reach the turn-off for Sunrise Highway, I thought to myself, I’ll go into the small town of Pine Valley for shelter and comfort, imagining flurries cutting off my visibility in the trek into the snow.

But actually, when I reached Sunrise Highway, I hadn’t even seen any rain. And there was a News 8 van sitting alongside the road, waiting to file the first report on the promised snow.

As I headed up the mountain on the twisting two-laner, the only vehicles I encountered were Border Patrol, ICE, immigration trucks and SUVs. They were all heading down the mountain.

No one else was on the road – the solitude was lovely. Yet the clouds were turning grayer the higher I drove on.

At 5,000 feet, there is a wide meadow that opens up to the driver and a place to pull in. When I did this, the very first precipitation started to hit my windshield. It wasn’t really rain or even hail as it was too wispy, too light and flighty to even leave a spot on my windows.  As I watched with my motor off, the wispy stuff started to get whiter and make very small little balls – tiny bits of hail.  “Popcorn snow” the locals call it.

This was promising, so I continued up the highway. I knew the Mt. Laguna Lodge was around 6000 feet and that would seem a level where the snow would actually stick – if there was any.  Over the next 1,000 feet of elevation, patches of dirty snow began to appear. Once at the peak, I drove toward the desert overlook.  The popcorn was getting heavier and beginning to accumulate on everything.

Once at the overlook, I parked, found the trusty camera and headed for the metal platform where visitors can stand to get great views of the desert below and mountains to the north and east.

And there it was – a gorgeous rainbow – more faint than opulent – but precious as it formed a boundary between the mountains and the low lands. I clicked away to get the perfect shot.

Then I realized how cold it was. It was freezing. How typical, I thought, another Southern Californian unaccustomed to the cold away from the coast.

The popcorn continued to fall, and at times, was coming down at a 30 degree angle – almost horizontal. I guided the machine back to the Lodge that I had passed, this time eager for some warmth. I climbed the steps into the long, wooden building, and found some brewing coffee and a styroform cup.

How cold was it outside, I asked the gray-haired guy behind the counter. “32, with a wind chill of 25!” was his reply, as he strained to look at the thermometer right outside the window.

Outside on the porch and cupping my java, I chitchatted with the manager who was having a smoke while leaning on the side of the store.  I asked about the snow. “We’re only gonna get 3 to 4 inches here,” he stated with authority. “Palomar will get 6 to 8 inches.”

I told him I was out looking for winter in San Diego. He said immediately, “Well, you found it.”

As I headed slowly across the mountain, aiming for the southern end of the butte, the flurries of small hail grew wilder and crazier, with the wind blowing up small clouds of them. The hail, the popcorn was filling up the landscape, making everything white. I had to stop and take some more photos in order to prove to the flat-landers what was coming down.

Once off the summit, the hail disappeared. Gliding down the hill, I noticed that there weren’t any patches by time I reached that meadow at 5,000 feet. On the way down, the TV van passed me going up the hill. I hit the freeway and at 1,000 feet, it was a full on rain storm, with visibility doing a serious drop for one stretch of I-8.

There is winter in San Diego – believe it – even if you’re in your swimsuit on the beach. And it’s freezing in the winter in San Diego, so take more than your shorts and flip flops. Yet, it’s beautiful, so enjoy it while you can.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Alissa February 28, 2012 at 10:58 am

Thanks so much for sharing your adventure! I’ve been dying for some mountain time. Congratulations on finding winter! Gotta love San Diego.


Debbie February 28, 2012 at 11:17 am

Looks like you had a great adventure …. great photos!


RB February 28, 2012 at 11:44 am

When you are up in the Laguna’s you need to park the car. There are several great hikes up there, even during the winter.

You can combine the Big Laguna Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail to make a ten mile loop hike which includes both the Big and Little Laguna Lakes and great view of the desert. If you want to make the trip a twenty mile (eight hour) hike just park near the Info Center and add an out and back on the five mile Sunset Trail which ends on the Laguna loop. Finally for those who like to go down hill only, you can park at Penny Pines (parking is just off the Sunrise Highway) and take the Nobel Canyon Trail all the way to Pine Valley.


Dickie February 28, 2012 at 11:59 am

up here in Burney, CA we are expecting 4 to 8 inches of the white stuff tonight after almost zero all winter. I wish I had to go driving to find the snow . . . when it falls I have to worry about getting out of the driveway without a cardiac’s worth of shoveling. I guess it is just more special if you have to work for it.

and by the way, I know that overlook, and the rainbow pic is spectacular!!


Frank Gormlie February 28, 2012 at 12:28 pm

That’s one of the big difs between north and south of ol’ Cali. You’re in the snow and we have to drive to get in it. Some have even said over the centuries that the north and south don’t belong together, and have invented schemes to forge a break-up. This state is so huge, that when activists say let’s go demonstrate at the capital, it’s 500 miles from San Diego, one-sixth of the distance across the entire country.


Dickie February 28, 2012 at 1:24 pm

“Some have even said . . .” indeed: there is a mythic state of Jefferson that includes parts of northern California and southern Oregon . . . there have been sporadic movements over the last century to actualize that vision, with zero political success, but some cultural: one of the local NPR stations is Jefferson Public Radio “serving the mythic state of Jefferson for 40 years . . .”. But I think that it has more to do with rural interests and attitudes than snow . . .
after they split off we could put the state capitol in Disneyland . . .


judi Curry February 28, 2012 at 12:50 pm

A great read, Frank. Makes me miss Maine. Thanks for the gorgeous pictures.


Dickie February 28, 2012 at 1:25 pm

FYI judi: all regular obrag writers have an open invite to visit us ex-OBers up here in snow country . . .
[disclosure: I once lived in Vermont . . .]


judi Curry February 28, 2012 at 3:36 pm

I’ll remember that Dickie. It may be sooner than later! Thanks for the invite.


Debbie February 28, 2012 at 1:35 pm

Burney looks like a cool place….how are the people up that way?


christopher dotson February 28, 2012 at 2:43 pm

Nice! I wonder if ole Smokey knows where the OB Woodman is?


Frank Gormlie February 29, 2012 at 8:18 am

I did ask him, but he said “Mum’s the word.”


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