Title quote credit: Kali Madison
February 6, 2021
Elevation Gain: 3,075ft
100 Peaks Challenge #21
Afoot & Afield 5th ed. Trip #206
We decided that February would be the month of the insanely difficult hikes. January was just a warm-up, and later in the year it would truly warm up – the time is now to take advantage of the coolest weather of the year. And the first of these hard hikes was to be Indianhead.
Contrary to popular belief, El Cajon Mountain is not the Hardest Hike in San Diego™️ (joke credit: Susie Kara). There are a few climbs that compete for that honor, and Indianhead is one of them. At least on our 100 Peaks Challenge list, it’s in the top-three – the other two being Villager and Mile High, which are both planned for later this month. So, as you can imagine, this is our Month Of Pain.
This “hike” – if you can call it that – starts at the Borrego Palm Canyon trail head. To facilitate an early start, we camped there Friday night. The campgrounds only recently reopened and I was able to snag the last site available. Four of us took two cars. It was a lovely night and I cowboy camped, gazing up at the stars until I fell asleep.
We met the fifth member of our hiking party at the trail head parking lot and got started a little after 6:30am. The hike begins in the beautiful and famous Palm Canyon, initially following a well-marked nature trail. We soon arrived at the first palm oasis, which was burned down by a juvenile arsonist in January 2020. It is making a rapid recovery with lots of new growth. Shortly past the oasis the nature trail ended and we continued, bouldering our way up alongside the flowing stream.
A little after 2.5 miles up the canyon (which we overshot and had to backtrack a bit), the route departs from the canyon to ascend a shockingly steep bowl across a loose scree-covered slope. It was not far, but it took a long time to pick our way straight up, avoiding fuzzy cholla and evil agave. Between the steepness of the slope, the loose footing, and the cacti trying to kill us, Kali observed that this mountain really did not want to be climbed! Eventually we reached the ridge and the climbing became marginally easier – but we still had quite a ways to go.
At long last the ridge leveled out before finally arriving at the summit. The total distance from the trail head to the peak was only four miles, but it had taken us about five and a half hours to get there. We were exhilarated and hungry, and enjoyed our lunch while taking in the amazing views – to the east, overlooking all of Anza-Borrego, including our upcoming peaks; and to the west, toward the San Ysidro mountains. We did not linger – it was hard work getting there, but would be just as hard in a different way to get back down.
So, down we went. Down-climbing the ridge was tiring and stressful, made more so by the knowledge that the steep bowl was yet to come. Finally we reached the bowl. We took it slow, always making sure we had four points of contact (two feet, two trekking poles). Lots of deep breaths. It was warm, with no shade on the mountainside. We were running low on water despite bringing several liters. One step at a time; take a pause when needed… and finally, finally, we crossed into the late afternoon shade, and then a bit further to the canyon itself with its lovely running water and terra firma.
We now had 2.5 miles of bouldering to get to the car. We knew the last mile and a half was along the popular nature trail, which has little numbered signs for various points-of-interest. “Where’s the damn nature trail?” became a rallying cry. The canyon is beautiful, and lush, and shady, and wet … and we just wanted to get the hell out of there! Finally, finally, we were at the parking lot. We were done, and we are proud.