Neighborhood (and Namesake!) Peaks

Bell Bluff
May 15, 2021
Miles: 7.33
Elevation Gain: 1,673ft
Gaia Track
100 Peaks Challenge #63

Gaskill & Lawson Peaks
May 16, 2021
Miles: 7.47
Elevation Gain: 2,050ft
Gaia Track
100 Peaks Challenge #s 64 & 65
Afoot & Afield, 5th ed., Trip #192

My original plan for this weekend was to renew my Wilderness First Aid certification. The class was scheduled for two eight-hour days, starting at 9am each day. My fabulous peak bagging pals were willing to work around my schedule – we were going to hike two easy/short peaks early both days so that I could get to the class on time. But a few days before the weekend I was given the option of switching to a one-day, six-hour recertification class later in the summer. YES PLEASE!!! Given the forecasted cool weather it was great not to waste the opportunity, and instead to tackle some harder peaks.

First up was Bell Bluff. This peak is one I’d not heard of prior to embarking on this challenge; ironic, since it was just about in my backyard! My car routed me to the trail head via backroads about twenty minutes away. We parked on a lovely neighborhood street in the town of Alpine and hit the trail. The hike initially passed some homes and we encountered a friendly woman still in her pajamas walking her dog – unleashed, because clearly this was their daily routine and she usually has the trail all to herself. The dog was growly and barky – oh no, intruders!!

Very soon the trail dropped steeply down to cross a murky green branch of the Sweetwater River with a board to help cross it. Up the opposite bank we waded through tall grasses, noticing at least one tick, a couple of fuzzy caterpillars, a ladybug, and a few other bugaboos within the space of a few paces. I did a tick check when I got home, for sure! It was short-lived and soon our normal San Diego hiking terrain took over. 

Bell Bluff’s hiking profile is sort of a witch hat – gradual up the brim, then sharply upward for the hat. Actually the hat part was small, so maybe more like a witch’s tit? The whole way we were hiking on the brim we were looking toward our peak, looming over us. We’re gonna climb that, really?? And yes, that was it! Of course I blew right past the well-cairned turnoff to the steep bit. A quick backtrack and we began our climb. There was only one sketchy slippery section, and one small tricky bouldering section. Other than that it was just steep, and soon enough we were at the summit. Peak #63!

Sunday was even cooler than Saturday and called for something a bit harder. We somehow managed to collect a pretty good-sized group of nine super strong hikers and we hit the trail to the dual peaks of Lawson and Gaskill. Yes, I said Lawson! Not only is this hike also in my backyard, but it is named after ME! And yet somehow I’ve never done it – how can that be!?
Less than a year ago this area burned in the Valley Fire, and for a while the road up to the peaks was closed. We never found explicit confirmation that the trail was open, but plenty of trip reports led us to believe that it was good to go, and so we went. This hike starts on a fire road – in the past the gate would sometimes be open and we have friends who have driven up, but now it has enormous boulders across the road that seemed to have been placed there intentionally to keep vehicles off. No one’s driving this road nowadays.

The trail first passes by the turnoff to Lawson Peak and we decided to continue on to bag Gaskill first. There are two routes up Gaskill: one continues along the fire road, and the other turns at some cairns to bushwhack up. We decided to make it a loop and headed up the bushwhacking route first – which was probably not nearly as bushy as before the fire.
The weather today was cool and foggy, and the views were obscured all day. The mist swirling around the burned out tree skeletons made for an eerie scene. It was fun navigating through the gloom, and soon we arrived at the summit block. We worked our way around it until we found a good route up, through a rock crevice and then up to a tricky spot. I’d brought some climber’s webbing but there was no great place to attach it to – and everyone did fine with us all helping each other up. The weather atop the summit block was even cooler with a bit of a breeze – lovely! #64!

Down the backside of the peak back toward the road, we crossed the most beautiful portion of the hike yet, with wide open meadows and “pioneer” flower blooms abounding. (Unfortunately this included the feared poodle dog bush, beware!) I was starting to fall behind the speedy group because I could not stop taking photos! 

Finally we arrived back at the saddle and started up the shorter – but more boulder-y – spur trail to Lawson Peak (after talking some other hikers out of attempting it with their small dogs). We picked our way up the trail until we arrived at the infamous Lawson chimney. A rope was in place, but it kept pulling out which made me nervous, so I did my best to climb up without it (mostly successful) until I was able to inspect it. It was fine, and the others worked their way up as well. The chimney tops out inside of a cave (very cool) and then up through an opening, a bit more bouldering, and then we were at the summit. #65!

Bell Bluff

Gaskill & Lawson Peaks

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Mother’s Day Hiking

Paradise Mountain
May 8, 2021
Miles: 7.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,881 ft
Gaia Track
100 Peaks Challenge #61

Boucher Hill
May 8, 2021
Miles: 0!
Elevation Gain: 0!
No Gaia track!
100 Peaks Challenge #62

In our continuing effort to hike peaks now that we won’t be able to do when it gets truly hot, we headed out to Valley Center (I think that’s where we were??) to Hellhole Canyon Preserve to bag Paradise Mountain. We arrived at 7am… to find the gate closed. We were able to park just outside the gate and walk up the hill to the huge parking area at the trailhead proper and use the exceptionally clean facilities… when the county park ranger arrived to open the gate (an hour early)! After moving our cars, we started the hike.

This is an inverted hike (not an introverted hike, LOL!) and we descended, steeply at times, to Hell Creek – still flowing and lovely. The hike headed uphill from there but never got too steep. Compared to last week’s hike in South Clevenger Canyon, the flowers were not as showy; but the views were impressive, especially gazing over toward Rodriguez Mountain. We arrived at the summit, but had to check our phones – was this it? I think it was the most inconspicuous peak we’ve done yet. We paused to take some photos and admire the view, then continued on. (#61, yeah!) After crossing a saddle we rose again to a secondary peak – Ditch Benchmark – then continued looping around back – and more steeply – back to the trail we’d come up. We saw a few people – and one rattlesnake warning (but no sighting) – as we began the ascent back up to the trailhead.

When we were planning this hike, I was looking for ways to combine this peak with others on the list for the sake of driving efficiency, since this peak is pretty much in the middle of nowhere. I saw that Boucher Hill was a 45 minute drive from this trailhead. That may not sound very close; but from my house, Boucher Hill is an hour and 45 minutes. So heading up from Paradise trailhead would save two hours round trip – let’s do it!

This was the first peak in the challenge that we drove up to – there will be a couple more that we’re saving for hot weather. When I was first considering taking on this challenge, I figured that for these driving peaks I would walk at least a mile each way, just to keep in the spirit of the challenge. Welp, we didn’t do that. First of all, we’ve hiked this peak before. Secondly, we just hiked nearly 8 miles! Lastly, there is a parking lot right at the peak – and no parking along the way. It was all or nothing.

We arrived at the summit just before noon. The fire lookout tower volunteer was home, and he enthusiastically pointed out the nearby summits for us. He also settled an age-old debate: how is this peak pronounced? Apparently it’s “BOOKER” – and this was corroborated by the spelling on the peak’s benchmark. We walked around, took our photos, and began the long drive home. Peak #62.

The next day was Sunday, and it was Mother’s Day. I had intended to bag yet another peak (it’s Mother’s Day, and I like to hike, right?), but my family expressed interest in a nearby trail that is a favorite of mine, and I’ve wanted to go to for a family hike for a while. So we did that, and it was great! A nice relaxing stroll through a local park. Afterwards, at home, Lane made breakfast – eggs Benedict, that he’d been practicing with his grandmother Mackie. Delicious!

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Weather Wrangling

Hot Springs Mountain
May 1, 2021
Miles: 9.8
Elevation Gain: 2,094 ft
Gaia Track
100 Peaks Challenge #59
Afoot & Afield 5th ed. Trip #137

Peak 1755 and the South Clevenger Canyon Trail
May 2, 2021
Miles: 4.6
Elevation Gain: 1,132 ft
Gaia Track
100 Peaks Challenge #60
Afoot & Afield 5th ed. Trip #50 (“San Pasqual Trails, South”)

Last week’s weather left us San Diegans with our heads spinning. Monday of last week, it poured rain and never got above 60. Then by Friday, the high temp at our house hit 101. Saturday was in the 80s, and by Sunday it was in the 60s again, with a little rain. What the heck?? Is this really southern California? Isn’t this part of the plot of L.A. Story??

And I gotta say, we managed the weather perfectly. We decided to hike Hot Springs Mountain on Saturday. The forecast was warm for hiking, but since this is the highest peak in San Diego County we knew we’d be in cooler weather after the first few miles. This peak is on the Los Coyotes Indian reservation, and the gates don’t open until 8am. When we arrived we saw that there was an “after hours” drop slot for our $10 per-person payment, but the signage still indicated that hikers aren’t allowed in after hours. Hm, confusing.

Past the security gate, we drove to the start of the trail at the campground, which was in the process of getting some trees trimmed to get it ready for reopening. This hike’s profile is “mound-shaped” – it starts somewhat steep, gradually becoming less so as the scrub bushes make way for pine trees. The trail is a degraded Jeep trail – Tad & I drove up to this peak about two decades ago, before the road was closed. This was my second time hiking it. The peak is now part of the San Diego Six Peak Challenge, and the signage has significantly improved. Near the summit is a derelict fire tower, beyond which is a much narrower but well-marked trail leading about a quarter mile to the summit block itself.

We arrived at the summit block and managed to climb atop it – aided by some bolts and ropes. It was not a hard climb but had a minor exposed bit that required a few deep calming breaths. A bigger challenge was that up there on the block the wind was howling! We squeezed in to take our summit photos and then hustled back down.

Aside the block, sheltered from the wind, we had some snacks and were about to head back down when another pair of hikers arrived – I immediately recognized Gina from one of my Facebook hiking groups! She is an avid hiker who helps the tribe with keeping this trail accessible to the hiking community, coming up every weekend to check things out. Today she and her friend were replacing the summit register – we got to be the first ones to sign the new notebook. She also clarified that they are in the midst of changing the gate entrance hours to, indeed, allow hikers to start before 8am – using that after hours mail slot we’d seen. Yeah!

Sunday was much cooler, so we picked a trail that would not have been much fun in the heat. The trail that leads to Peak 1755 is sometimes called South Clevenger Canyon, and sometimes the San Pasqual Trail – South (the latter name is used in Afoot & Afield, with the word “Clevenger” appearing nowhere in the text). So this hike with three names was our target this morning. It was a long drive for a relatively short hike, but it was worth it – the flowers were over the top! So beautiful!

To add yet a fourth way to refer to this hike, it is also known as the “chairs hike.” Near the end of the trail, bolted atop a boulder, is a pair of lawn chairs – perfect for the ‘gram, amiright? We hiked past the turnoff to our peak destination since of course we could not do this hike without going out to the chairs. We took our pics, then continued along the last bit of trail to the very end (which is apparently Peak 1635). We picked up our true goal, Peak 1755, on the way back. On my drive home it was raining. WTF?

With that, I’m personally at 60 peaks bagged so far in my 2021 100 Peaks Challenge. The desert is done except for some that we’re saving for the end. We’re nearly out of weekday hikes, except for a few minor peaks that we’ve agreed to do on our own. We are now focusing our planning on the hikes that can’t be done when it’s very hot. We’ll pencil these in and if the weather decides not to cooperate, we’ll swap them for the mountain hikes. That’s the plan at least – we’ll see how much this whacky weather cooperates!

Hot Springs Mountain

Peak 1755 / Clevenger Canyon South

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Where the mountains meet the desert

Chariot Mountain
April 24, 2021
Miles: 5.68
Elevation Gain: 1,279 ft
Gaia Track
100 Peaks Challenge #57

Oriflamme Mountain
April 24, 2021
Miles: 4.37
Elevation Gain: 856 ft
Gaia Track
100 Peaks Challenge #58

The trailheads for both of these peaks are along Sunrise Highway north of the Mount Laguna Recreation Area. But both peaks are east of the Laguna Crest, with the trails descending into canyons before rising up again to their respective peaks. Even though these seem like “Mount Laguna” hikes, they are really both desert hikes, nearly all within the boundaries of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (Oriflamme’s peak itself is on BLM land). So even though I have said we must be done with the desert until the fall, we thought we could squeeze these two in before it gets even hotter.

This weekend seemed perfect – the weather was forecasted to be cool and breezy. Also Tad & I were planning on heading up to our property near Mount Laguna this weekend to get some work done (building a latrine), so it was convenient for me personally. When we have multiple hikes planned, we always like to do the harder hike first, and that was Chariot Mountain. At 7am we met at the Pedro Fages trailhead. Today we had company – Bianca joined us! Yay! I have not hiked with her in quite some time, so it was great catching up with her.

Both of these hikes are inverted hikes, meaning they descend before ascending. The route to Chariot started along a singletrack trail but soon diverged across an open grassy meadow – there were even two small marshy streams we had to hop across. At just under a mile we intersected with the Pacific Crest Trail and then soon descended steeply along a drainage channel with some minor bushwhacking until we arrived at the Mason Valley Truck Trail.

We had discussed possibly driving part of this route to shorten the hike. Kali & I had hiked this section of the PCT recently and encountered a few cars, so we knew it was possible. I did not do much research, but I’m pretty sure it’s a long dirt road that makes its way up from Banner, way over past Julian. Given the short length of this hike versus the logistics of a long 4wd drive, it was not worth it. So, we road walked this portion instead.

Finally we came to the turnoff toward the peak, “marked” by a pile of woody dead brush. The slope was not too steep and soon we reached the ridge and then the summit. The peak marked in Peakbagger as “Chariot Mountain” is not the same as the summit with that name on all of our maps. I don’t know why there is a difference, but since the peak labeled on our maps would have been a much longer and more difficult hike, we were ok with it.

On the way back the conversation was flowing and the navigation was forgotten for a moment until I realized I was briskly leading us down the wrong ridge – whoops. (That’s the little detour you can see in my Gaia track.) We got back on track quickly. The hike back up the steep drainage was hard – inverted hikes are always demoralizing. (Except the Grand Canyon. Hiking in the Grand Canyon is never demoralizing.) As we neared the top, a biplane came buzzing over our heads low to the ground – this trail is near an airstrip off the S2 and we guessed it came from there.

The flowers in the meadow were stunning in this direction. On the way out, the wind was blowing their little faces away from us; and also we were hiking into the sun. On the way back all the flowers were facing toward us and it was like we were walking on sunshine! 🎶

Back in our cars we headed south to the next trail. I swung by the Sunrise Trailhead to drop a few gallons of water and some snacks at the cache there for the PCT hikers – the spigot that is there is broken, so us local trail angels are trying to keep it stocked with water jugs (that’s a tough water carry).

I joined the others at to park at the Lucky 5 Ranch turnout – we had not carpooled today and squeezing another 5 cars in there was tight. The trail to Oriflamme Mountain was entirely along a dirt road. There was ample evidence that the road is used, but back at home studying my map I can’t figure out how a driver would get there. Another inverted hike, but fortunately this one had no off-trail steep bits. Another hike with beautiful flowers – it’s that time of year, after all. The off-trail trek to the summit was straightforward with a bit of a use trail here and there. The summit itself was broad, with a couple of boulder piles, and it took us some poking around to find the register (it’s on the southwest pile) and decide which boulder pile was the highest (the northeast one).

We were done for the day just before 1pm. It ended up being pretty warm despite the forecast so we are glad we got these two peaks done now and did not save them for the summer. This is an easy weekend for me – I’m taking Sunday off!

Chariot Mountain

Oriflamme Mountain

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The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful

Palomar High Point
April 17, 2021
Miles: 0.6
Elevation Gain: 180ft
Gaia route (I did not record the track)
100 Peaks Challenge #54

Eagle Crag & Agua Tibia
April 17 & 18, 2021
Miles: 21.6
Elevation Gain: 3219ft
Gaia track day #1 (Eagle Crag)
Gaia track day #2 (Agua Tibia)
100 Peaks Challenge #s 55 & 56
Afoot & Afield 5th ed. Trip #123

I like hiking, and I really like peak bagging. But you know what I love? I love backpacking!! Eagle Crag and Agua Tibia peaks, north of Palomar, are remote enough that we decided an overnight trip was called for. They can be done as day hikes – two looong day hikes – but that just sounded hard. And you don’t really need to twist my arm to convince me to go backpacking. Yes, it would be a dry camp (i.e., we’d have to carry all our water), but I’ve done plenty of those (I live in San Diego, after all) – and honestly, we’d need nearly as much water on a super long day hike too. These are the only peaks on our 100 Peaks Challenge list that would be a backpack trip, and I was excited.

We decided to do this as a point-to-point hike, from the Cutca Trailhead to Dripping Springs. We got an early start, dropping one car at our end point, and carpooling over to our start. The Cutca Trailhead is en route to a third peak: Palomar High Point. We were considering doing that one on Sunday afternoon, but we made a last minute decision to do it right off. We drove the windy dirt road all the way up the north side of Palomar Mountain, and parked at the gate leading up to the high point itself. It was a short road walk to get to the top. Atop Palomar High Point is a fire lookout tower – one of three in San Diego county. Visitors cannot climb the stairs but there is a nice open area around the base. We took our pics and looked around for a bit, then headed back down. Peak #54!

We started our big hike around 9am. One of the reasons I was glad we were doing this as a point-to-point hike is that it allowed us to include the Cutca Trail, which is remote and hard to get to, and has been on my to-do list for a while. Afoot & Afield considers this hike to be one of the “best backpacking routes” in the book. The trail starts out inauspiciously – descending steeply and overgrown for the first mile, to a dry stream.

This trail really did have everything – good, bad, and beautiful. It was a long hike that meandered through beautiful lush oak groves; ceanothus tunnels; desert-like chapparal shrubs and manzanita; and open meadows. Spring flower blooms were stunning, and the smell of the lilacs perfumed the air. The first few streams were dry, but as we continued we found water in pools and some even flowing (albeit a bit green). We literally saw no other hikers all day and in this remote part of San Diego county it felt like another world, and like a true adventure.

As for the “bad,” well, there was poison oak everywhere, and ugh, the bugs!! I inhaled at least four of them. We all had bug nets and made good use of them, but they are hot and impair visibility so all day I was pulling mine on and off. But the worst part was that the portion of the trail along the stream just below the switchbacks was completely washed out. It seemed to have suffered a flash flood sometime within the last several months. For about three quarters of a mile we were climbing over ripped-out trees and boulders, and scrambling up the sheer sides of the drainage to get past obstacles – at least once requiring descending a sandy cliff back to the streambed. It was exhausting, and a little after noon we stopped for a nice long lunch break (I took a nap).

We got started again and ascended up the switchbacks until we arrived at the intersection with Palomar Divide Road. Our first possible campsite was here, but we wanted to get further first – and it was still early afternoon. We continued on to the base of Eagle Crag, dropped our packs, and “cameled up” – gulping down some water so that we did not need to bring any with us. The off-trail route to the peak began extremely steep but with a fairly clear use trail. Eventually the route leveled out and the bushwhacking began. We arrived at the rocky outcrop that was our destination. Peak #55!

Back on the main trail we continued northwest, descending now. The ceanothus were really encroaching on the trail here but I had no more shits to give – I was just plowing through them. It’s a miracle I never drew blood. Finally we arrived at Crosley Saddle, and right at the intersection with the Wild Horse Peak Trail, several camping sites appeared, and we stopped for the day.

It was only 4:30pm but it had been a long, hard day. I’d gotten my pack base weight down to 10 pounds, plus 17 pounds of water and 3 pounds of food for an even 30. I decided that with this glorious weather I’d skip the tent and bring only my bug bivy, and my warm weather quilt. It was the right call. Our campsite was lovely, with a bit of shade and a view of Pauma Valley to the south.

We got started early on Sunday morning. We knew from trip reports that our hike from here to Agua Tibia Mountain would involve a notorious blow-down section with several downed trees to navigate, as well as about 800 feet of climbing. We soon reached the blow-down area and worked our way over and under the limbs and branches … and then we were through. I think we were past the downed trees in about twenty minutes. Well that was nothing! Compared to our obstacle course yesterday this was a piece of cake.

Sooner than expected we arrived at Agua Tibia. The off-trail jog to the peak was a simple walk-up, and soon we were at the summit block. All four of us were able to do the quick climb to the top for our photo shoot. We admired the view and signed the register and then kept going. #56!

The rest of the hike, descending the Dripping Springs Trail, was easy but long. Finally around 8am we encountered our first other human on the trail – a super fast trail runner who had started his run only an hour earlier. We encountered a few more folks on this steady and well-maintained downhill – it was a lovely trail, but downright boring compared to yesterday’s adventure. A few miles from the bottom we even bumped into someone we knew (this actually happens fairly often – it’s such a cool hiking community here in San Diego).

Finally we got to the bottom, arriving at the Dripping Springs Campground, and began the drive to retrieve the car we’d left at our starting point. Doing this as a point-to-point hike took some time to deal with the car shuttles but in hindsight it was a fantastic way to tackle these peaks.

Day 1 Photos

Day 2 Photos

Downed trees section on Palomar-Magee Trail – really not that bad.
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Epic final desert weekend

The Thimble & San Ysidro Mountain
April 10, 2021
Miles: 4.48
Elevation Gain: 1,915 ft
Gaia Track
100 Peaks Challenge #s 48 & 49

Bonny & White Benchmarks
April 10, 2021
Miles: 4.07
Elevation Gain: 1,048 ft
Gaia Track
100 Peaks Challenge #s 50 & 51

Pinyon Ridge & Wilson Benchmark
April 11, 2021
Miles: 8.61
Elevation Gain: 1,243 ft
Gaia Track
100 Peaks Challenge #s 52 & 53
Afoot & Afield 5th ed. Trip #240

Back in early March, when we hiked Mile High Mountain, I said to my husband Tad that our overnights in the desert were done, at least until the fall. I figured the hikes up by the Ranchita area would not be too hard to squeeze in before it got hot; or if not, they could wait until fall. But we had a weather window and in a surge of ambition we decided to bag ALL SIX IN ONE WEEKEND. Tad was like, yay. Ok now THIS is the last desert overnight until the fall, seriously, for real this time!

We knew we’d have our work cut out for us. The Thimble is particularly notorious for having a lot of bushwhacking, and if you don’t approach the summit block from the correct direction, it can be almost impossible to summit. The other benchmarks north of the main road were no slouches either, despite the moderate stats. We were doing this because the forecast predicted relatively cool temps, but “relative” is the key word – it would still be in the mid-70s and sunny by the afternoon.

We headed up early on Saturday morning and met up at the PCT trail junction at Barrel Springs just west of Ranchita. From there we piled in to Shadow (Tara’s trusty Jeep) and, turning left onto Lease Road and right onto Landmark Lane, arrived at the trail head for our first objective: The Thimble. These rural dirt roads were not bad – high clearance would have been sufficient. When we arrived we were not that surprised to see Travis Curry there! Love following all these other peak baggers around as we all work down our lists! Travis was shooting for East San Ysidro so had an even longer day in store than we did. Our trails started together so it was fun walking with him as we hiked up the dirt road which wound its way around an unnamed hill to our right. We arrived at our cross-country turnoff for the route that our friend Chris recommended. Travis continued on his journey and we began our bushwhack.

Chris’s route was spot on. There were definitely some bushes that required whacking (I brought some clippers and did a little landscaping along the way) but nothing too severe. We arrived at the scramble to the summit and had no trouble. Peak #48 was done!

We opted to backtrack down our known route rather than try to make a beeline to the northwest toward our next objective – that just looked sketchy and we knew from our research it would be tough. So we sucked up the extra distance for a ways until we finally cut toward the north and bushwhacked to the wash leading up toward San Ysidro Mountain.

San Ysidro proved to be straightforward if a bit straight up in places – nothing we had not encountered before. The summit was broad with a few boulders to climb and check out the trio of benchmarks. There was another pair of hikers atop the summit. They introduced themselves as being from Orange County and working on the Sierra Club Hundred Peaks Section list.

After a rest and a snack we made a straight shot back to the car and debated whether we wanted to continue. Yes, it was hot, but not that hot. We had not done a lot of mileage but we had still worked pretty hard to get these summits. Should we call it a day and do something closer to home tomorrow? Or even drive back out in the morning to do tomorrow’s planned hikes?

Well we are nothing if not determined, and we decided to stick with the plan and DO THIS! In hindsight it was hard and if we weren’t so tired I’m sure we would have enjoyed the next pair of hikes more, but it was also good to get them done.

Bonny and White Benchmarks were straightforward. No trails to either of them, but the cross-country hike was clear, with no bushwhacking or steep sections, thank goodness. We summited Bonny Benchmark first – and were disappointed that we could not find a way to climb atop the summit block! We searched around the boulders a bit and found a possible route up the south side, but it was just too windy on that side. This challenge has no “rules” per se, and typically for these peak lists, if the climber is not comfortable with the exposure, or not able to get atop the summit block due to the technical difficulty, you can still “count” it. So far there have been a few other examples – Tooth Rock (of course – who would climb that??) and Mt. Woodson are standouts, although I’d like to take another crack at Woodson when the summit block is not covered in ice. But it was disappointing. I also regret not finding a better spot to take my summit photo. Maybe I have to revisit this one someday.

White Benchmark redeemed us – the hike from Bonny to White was absolutely beautiful. We were scampering (ok, trudging…) on a carpet of flowers, with wide open meadows and views all around. The summit block only required a tiny bit of easy climbing yet it looks really impressive on the photos. We took turns up there and then started heading back.

There are several other benchmarks in this immediate area including Clyde (of course – right next to Bonny), Hut, and Chimney. Most people collect these as they go. This was another drawback of us doing this hike while tired and hot – there was no way we were going to do anything other than what the challenge required of us! FOCUS!! Maybe another reason to come back to this area and explore more.

Our original plan was to camp at Culp Valley. Not surprisingly, it was totally full. We headed over toward the Paroli Homestead to camp there, but there were “no camping” signs. (I still have not figured this out – it’s marked on all maps as “Paroli Homestead Primitive Camp,” but it’s within a cultural preserve where camping is not allowed. Something to investigate on a future exploration.) By now we were just done. We ended up driving around toward tomorrow’s trail head and as soon as we had crossed out of private property and onto the state park, and found room to pull off the road, we stopped. It was not the most pleasant of campsites – I squeezed my tent between Tara & Casey’s cars, where they slept (Kali had headed home to deal with some work issues) – but it was fine. Once hiker trash, always hiker trash!

The plan for Sunday was to meet at the turnoff from the main road. To get to today’s trail head, the driving route headed south on Wilson Road and then left onto Old Culp Valley Road. The first part of this latter road is severely rutted – in fact we were impressed that Casey got her RWD pickup through – go Casey! We had stealth camped just past the rutted section, so Tara & I climbed into Shadow to backtrack to the S22 and pick up our hiking companions who had departed from San Diego at o’dark thirty to join us. On our way to the trail head, beyond our shitty camp site, of course we passed some gorgeous spots!!! LOL! Turned out if we’d been just a wee bit more patient we would not have had to sleep in the gutter! Oh well. As I have said before, one of my favorite things about this challenge is getting to know the nooks & crannies of San Diego County better – and here’s a great example.

Unlike yesterday, today’s hike was along a trail, with no bushwhacking or significant steep sections. Today was less breezy than yesterday so it was good to be getting started early. The trail passes by Pinyon Ridge before continuing on to Wilson, so we decided to hit Pinyon first. The off-trail section was straightforward with only a few minor navigational decisions to get around some boulders and bushes, and we soon arrived at the base of the summit block. This block was not as exposed or challenging as Bonny. Kali scampered to the top without hesitating. For the rest of us it was not so easy. There is no doubt in my mind that I could have climbed up there, but I just wasn’t feeling it today. Now as I sit at my desk typing this I am regretful – I barely even tried, and I wish I had. I’m really racking up the reasons to come back to this area sometime!

We cut cross-country due east, eventually meeting back up with the trail. Wilson Benchmark was just off trail. We chose to mostly follow a route that was marked as a trail on my Gaia layer but not on the USGS layer. This worked out well for us, with no bouldering required. The summit block was photogenic and not challenging. The summit area was broad and lovely, and we enjoyed our lunch and a rest. From there it was a fast four miles straight back to the cars. We all really loved the hike out to Pinyon & Wilson and agreed we should come back sometime for sure (reason #4??), maybe on a cooler day. In fact Kali pointed out that this would be a great WBC trip – something to consider in the future.

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Long Valley, at Long Last

Long Valley Peak
April 6, 2021
Miles: 4.1
Elevation Gain: 1,109ft
Gaia Track
100 Peaks Challenge #47

I had intended to hike Long Valley Peak a couple of weeks ago on another weekday, but hit Cowles & Pyles instead. My hesitation was that it’s long enough that I’d have needed to start well before down, and LVP is fairly remote. I don’t mind hiking in the dark; and I don’t mind hiking solo; but not both at the same time on this trail. Last weekend while enjoying spring break in Tucson, a couple of my peak squad knocked LVP off their lists, and I wanted to get it done too, so when Casey agreed to join me for a weekday hike I jumped at the chance. It was particularly nice of Casey to join me since it’s a long drive for her.

We planned to meet at the trail head around 6am and we were both about twenty minutes early – since I had a 9:30am meeting, I was eager to get started. This trail head is immediately off the freeway in Pine Valley, and appears to be a popular spot for motorbikes. The trail wasted no time in climbing up a steep slippery slope immediately. The first mile and a half or so followed a rugged Jeep road in a straight-line to the southwest before taking a sharp left turn onto a narrow trail. The trail soon started ascending – motorbike tracks were with us for a while but eventually gave out as the bouldering started. The bouldering near the summit was minimal, not exposed, and super fun. We made quick work of it and soon emerged at the summit. The trail is almost entirely on the west side of the peak, so it was not until the top when the early morning sun burst into view.

There was a register at the summit but it was full. I had a scrap of paper with me but forgot to replenish my pack with a fresh book – I try to keep an all-weather notepad and a pen with me just for this reason, oh well. We left our names, took our photos, and started heading back down.

We were moving along but not running – it felt like a good pace. The weather was perfect, nice and cool and shady. When we compared our moving time with our friends, who hiked this in the middle of a hot day, the times were surprisingly similar. And the moving time was also identical to another hiker whose track we followed. I guess 2:22 is the magic number for this hike! Ok, forty seven down.

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Easter Hiking

Battle Mountain
April 3, 2021
Miles: 0.45
Elevation Gain: 273 ft
Gaia Track
100 Peaks Challenge #44

Bernardo Mountain
April 3, 2021
Miles: 7.32
Elevation Gain: 793 ft
Gaia Track
100 Peaks Challenge #45
Afoot & Afield 5th ed. Trip #46

Mount Israel
April 3, 2021
Miles: 4.37
Elevation Gain: 961 ft
Gaia Track
100 Peaks Challenge #46

Last weekend was a trinity of hikes appropriate for the day before Easter Sunday. Battle Mountain was our first peak of the day. In the pre-dawn light we climbed up the short-but-steep neighborhood hill toward the brightly-lit white cross that beckoned from the summit. Later in the day there would likely be Easter services held here, so getting this one done before daylight was, ahem, a Godsend. Before heading out on this hike, Casey sent me some info about this peak – apparently the cross atop it is to memorialize the nearby Battle of San Pasquale. Scroll down to the “Legacy” section of the Wikipedia page to learn that the cross was erected on Easter Sunday in 1966!

After knocking that one out in a half hour or so, we took a short drive over to the Bernardo Mountain trailhead, alongside highway 15. This was the longest hike of our day, but logistically it made sense to do this one second. As with all the hikes today, I had never done this one before, so I was not aware that adjacent to this trail is the Lake Hodges Bridge, which is apparently the longest “stress ribbon bridge” in the world! The day had dawned thick with fog, limiting the views but keeping the temps nice and cool. The climb was gradual and lined with lilacs. There were a few other hikers on the trail but not too many. This one is harder to squeeze into my Easter theme, but certainly there were plenty of Saints Bernard, so hey, it fits.

Our third hike today was a bit further west. Most folks know of this peak as just an Elfin Forest overlook. We only learned of its name, Mount Israel, from doing this challenge – certainly a fitting name for our Easter weekend of hikes. Elfin Forest is a popular area, and it was getting to be late morning and sure to be crowded. Thanks to Casey’s local knowledge, we drove to an alternative trail head off Del Dios Highway, and it was a good call. The trail to the summit was a bit shorter from this trail head, which usually means steeper, and this was no exception – it was a butt burner! The weather was our friend all day today – the sun did not break through the clouds until we started on the descent. We made a bit of a loop on the way back just for some variety, and to enjoy the views over Olivenhain Reservoir.

Three more hikes down and it wasn’t even noon on Saturday, yeah!

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Hitting It Out of the Park!

Cowles Mountain & Pyles Peak
Miles: 5.8
Elevation Gain: 1600 ft
Gaia Track
100 Peaks Challenge #42 & 43
Afoot & Afield 5th ed. Trips #79 & #82

This morning for my weekday hike I had planned to do Long Valley Peak. Next week we’ll be out of town for spring break. My hiking companions plan to do this one, and we are trying to stay somewhat in sync. But when I started figuring out the logistics, I realized it wasn’t going to work. The hike is only four miles, but a 30-minute drive (each way). To be done in time I’d have needed to start well before dawn. For a somewhat remote hike that I have never done before, and that may require some off-trail navigation, I was not comfortable doing it solo in the dark. Oh, and there was rain in the forecast. That’s a nope.

So I changed my plans and hit literally the most popular hike in San Diego County: Cowles Mountain. And Pyles Peak, of course – the trail to Pyles first passes by Cowles, so they are a two-fer. Cowles Mountain is in Mission Trails Regional Park, and as the highest peak in the city of San Diego, it gets a LOT of visitors. I have also done these peaks several times. The main trail up Cowles is fairly rocky, but well-marked and even though I was hiking solo I knew I would not be alone. The out-and-back was longer than Long Valley, but with no qualms about starting well before sunrise, it was a perfect choice for a dark, damp morning.

I arrived at the main trailhead parking lot at 5:45am and it was already nearly full. I pulled into a spot and started the climb. I have done Cowles many times but usually from Big Rock Park, so it was actually nice to hit the main trailhead. At this early hour on a weekday I did see other hikers but not too many. In just a little over a half hour I was at the summit.

I barely paused to take a blurry photo of the summit marker in the dark and kept going straight to the Pyles trail. In fact I meant to avoid the summit so that I could say I did Pyles before Cowles, but it was dark and the trail naturally led me to the summit. The trail to Pyles starts with a gradual downhill to the saddle between the two peaks. It’s less rocky than the Cowles trail, and was a perfect time to pick up the pace. I jogged on the flats and the downhills, and hiked briskly on the uphills, over a few intermediate peaks on the way to my destination.

I arrived at Pyles within just a little over an hour – I was pretty proud of that! The day was dawning to fog and dampness, but no rain, and not cold at all – in fact I was a bit warm. I saw a few other people on the Pyles trail but had it mostly to myself. I first hiked Pyles in April of 2017 and vividly remember feeling like I was inside an issue of Sunset Magazine – the flowers were in full bloom, like they had been landscaped. Today, some flowers were blooming, but I know there are more to come in the next few weeks.

Heading back I jogged my way across the saddle and back up to Cowles. Now that it was light out, it was worth stopping for my summit selfie. Back down the rocky main trail, with lots more people coming up. I got to the parking lot in just a little over two hours. Perfect timing. With these two peaks I am done with the five peaks on the list that are in MTRP.

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Top Ten! Maybe Top 5!

Ant Benchmark
March 20, 2021
Miles: 1.6
Elevation Gain: 328 ft
Gaia Track
100 Peaks Challenge #39

Sunshine Mountain
March 20, 2021
Miles: 3.5
Elevation Gain: 828 ft
Gaia Track
100 Peaks Challenge #40

Mount Gower
March 21, 2021
Miles: 7.2
Elevation Gain: 1691 ft
Gaia Track
100 Peaks Challenge #41

This weekend we were planning on heading up to Mammoth, but that didn’t happen due to work conflicts. So we put together a last-minute plan to knock out Ant Benchmark and Sunshine Mountain on Saturday, two peaks we had intended to do after Eagle Peak, but didn’t due to my bad decisions on navigation. It was good to get these two peaks out of the way as this area can get hot. Also it’s weirdly annoying to drive up there (the long and winding road…).

We had some mini-hikers with us on this day. Tara had Madelyn with her and I brought Paige along. My husband & son had plans that day (which is a whole ‘nother story) and I couldn’t leave Paige home for that long alone. She could have gone to her grandmother’s house, but I enticed her with promises of bushwhacking and bouldering. She later said, “Mom, you said we were going on a hike. You didn’t say we were going on TWO hikes!”

We were doing these hikes in the afternoon, which is unusual for us, due to Kali’s work commitment. We decided to do Ant first and drove up through Cuyamaca and along the winding Engineer’s Road (yay! A road I’ve never been on!) to Boulder Creek Road, where we parked at a turnout after getting a bit distracted by cows (there always seem to be cows in this area!). The others arrived, and we suited up – Tara had some boots for Paige, which was nice – and headed out. Ant Benchmark is a short, trail-less hike. We walked down the road a bit before turning up a use trail through oak and manzanita groves – in fact some of the biggest manzanita trees I’ve ever seen! Soon the route cuts across a field to the base of the mountain, and the climbing starts. There was some bushwhacking but not too bad. Lots of fun bouldering, and we soon arrived at the summit.

The summit had an informal register but with no pages left, so we did not sign in. We found two survey markers, but they were blank! I don’t know what that means – Tad thinks maybe they were installed unofficially for some local surveying.

We headed back to the cars at a slower pace than usual due to our additional companions. Back in the cars we headed over to the Three Sisters trailhead. Our plan had been to drive along the dirt Cedar Creek Road to the Sunshine Mountain trailhead, and shave a mile round trip off the hike … but alas, the gate was closed. Every time I’ve been up here, and in every trip report of this hike I’ve read, the gate has been open. Why today, of all days, when we had grumpy tweenagers in the backseat, was it closed!? Sigh. We guessed that it was due to the recent rains.

Well we were there, so we were going to hike. We parked in the Three Sisters lot (which was half empty due to the late hour) and began our trek down the dirt road. We turned north where we would have parked, and followed a relatively clear use trail past the dry pond and up the slope. Eventually we had to depart from the use trail and bushwhack in earnest. We did not have to bushwhack far, and in fact there were lots of little clearings amidst the shrubs, so it was kind of fun – like following a corn maze. Finally we arrived at the base of the rocky mountain.

By this point, the girls were done. We coaxed them up to a rocky outcrop and got them settled with candy and promises not to climb around too much while we were gone. I gave Paige my InReach satellite messaging device, with tracking enabled. I showed her the SOS button but cautioned her not to press it unless it was a TRUE DEADLY EMERGENCY – like one of their heads falling off! And with that, off the grown-ups went to bag the summit. From there we were able to follow a cairned route most of the way up the rocks until we arrived at the top. Took our pics, signed the log, and hustled back down to the young ladies in waiting.

The rest of the hike back was fairly uneventful – the girls got a second wind from their rest, and downhill is easier, so Paige was chatty on the way, and we enjoyed the early evening scenery. By the time we were back at the cars and headed home, the sun was setting over the canyon. It was a harder day than Paige expected but we both enjoyed the mother-daughter time together.

And now on to Sunday. I probably should make these into two blog posts but this is easier. For Sunday we decided to make an attempt on Mount Gower. My first hike on this challenge was a “failed” attempt on Mount Gower – I prefer to think of it as “practice” though. There are three summits in (or just beyond) the Mount Gower County Preserve, and the peak that most people think of as “Mount Gower” is actually False Gower. The next one on the ridge is Middle Gower, and then finally the actual Mount Gower. I hiked False Gower back in December when I had decided to do the challenge, and scouted the beginning of the bushwhack across the saddle to the other two summits. It looked doable, and with the hike so fresh in my mind I decided to do it as my first summit of the challenge. As you can read in that post, the bushwhacking defeated me.

After that experience I did more research and learned about a route that skirts False Gower entirely and wends around to the other side of the peak. The review I read said there was no bushwhacking and that it was a cairned route. We also decided to shorten the mileage a bit by taking the shortcut by the water tower.

On Sunday morning our crew met up on the side street in the San Diego County Estates neighborhood and headed up the paved pathway. We skirted around the barbed wire fence enclosing the water tank and joined the main trail. Gower is a tough hike, and the steep ups & downs took work. Finally we arrived at the “dragon’s teeth,” which is where we’d normally turn off for False Gower, but we continued straight along the main path. Here the trail descends a bit and curves around to the east. Soon we departed from the main trail – an easy point to miss – to head cross-country nearly due west toward the peak.

As we crossed the flat open space we marveled at the ground cover – red-hued grasses and yellow flowers were abundant. The rocks were covered with multi-colored bunches of moss and lichen. As we ascended we passed lush rock gardens with streamlets trickling across the granite. Dudleya were peeking up between cracks in the rocks, and yucca blooms were emerging from their spiky leaves. Cairns were well-spaced and very clear. Where the brushes became thick, someone had recently trimmed them back! This was turning out to be one of the loveliest trails I’ve hiked during this challenge, maybe in all of San Diego! We were astonished.

There were some rocky bits to climb over, and some care with footing, but in general it was a straightforward climb to the summit. The top of True Gower turned out to be broad and wide, with amazing views and a flat granite slab on which to have our snacks. We could have stayed up there for lots more time, but we’d promised our families we wouldn’t be out all day. Reluctantly we packed up and headed back down. We all agreed that this hike is in our top ten, maybe even top five, for San Diego County.

One note: Yes, we took the possibly-not-quite-legal shortcut up past the water tower. If you have more time and are up for the challenge, doing the whole hike from the preserve’s trailhead (with it’s surprisingly clean bathroom, according to Tara!), it is much more challenging (probably over 10 miles), but the little canyon it drops into is also lovely. So definitely do it at least once.

Ant Benchmark

Sunshine Mountain

Mount Gower

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