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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In Defense of Hiking Boots

Twin Peaks (well, one of them anyway…)
March 16, 2021
Miles: 2
Elevation Gain: 600ft
Gaia Track
100 Peaks Challenge #38
Afoot & Afield 5th ed. Trip #53

I am a trail runner convert. I wore Hoka Speedgoats for all fifteen days of my John Muir Trail hike last summer. More recently I’ve switched to Topo Ultraventures – more toe room. Nothing beats trail runners for the cush factor, and the “trail feel.” They are much lighter than boots, which is absolutely key on long-mileage days. And with Lock Laces, I don’t miss camp shoes (mostly) when I go backpacking.

But there are times when the conditions call for a sturdy pair of old-fashioned hiking boots. Obviously, if there is snow on the ground, and spikes or snowshoes are required, boots are better. Last February when we hiked Oakzanita I wore my trusty boots. Over my microspikes I was getting some hotspots and I wanted to confirm that they were caused by the spikes, and not due to my feet being too un-used to boots. Last weekend when we hiked McGinty right after a rainstorm was a perfect opportunity. The combination of steeply rutted and rocky trail, plus some mud, seemed like it called for boots. This turned out to be a good call – my Vasque Breezes handled it all with ease. The length of the hike – only four miles – meant that the boots didn’t really have a chance to weigh me down. And, no hotspots.

I made the same choice on today’s weekday hike. I hesitated doing this hike today because I’m already ahead of my hiking companions for the 100 Peaks Challenge and I want them to catch up – we need to finish together! But I again had a doctor’s appointment (yes, I have a lot of those – have you seen my sister blog, Project Perky?) in Rancho Bernardo. A quick Google Maps check and I realized that the trailhead for Twin Peaks was a mere seven minutes from the doctor’s office – and almost 40 minutes from my house. I couldn’t NOT do it!

The trail starts in Poway at Silverset Neighborhood Park. I laced up my boots and started up the gravel-covered path. I had to pay more attention to my map than expected, as there were several trail junctions to work past at the beginning. Soon the path narrowed and started to climb steeply toward the mountaintop. It we never really muddy, but there were a few rocky climbs and rugged sections, and I was glad to have my boots. For such a short hike, my feet were grateful.

Soon I arrived at the summit. By myself, I played a bit with my Apple watch (need to get more familiar with that) and took my summit photos. It was fun climbing around on the top and checking out the views. But I had that appointment, so I had to keep moving. I headed north off the peak to take the “long loop” down the mountain.

The boots were nice on the way up, but trail runners would have been better on the way down. The backside loop descent was more gradual, and I was in the mood to run. I ran anyway, despite the boots – it was so short my feet did not complain. The trail came surprisingly close to one large home, complete with a gate door leading to the trail (I can’t decide if I would want to live there or not), and then turned back to the southwest, eventually to regain the main trail. As has been the case for all these urban hikes outside my own part of the county, I was left impressed by this trail that I’d not even been aware of, and hoping to someday come back. Back at the car I was grateful for my now-muddy boots, and made it to Dr. Champ’s office with plenty of time to spare.

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Easy Weekend

McGinty Mountain
March 13, 2021
Miles: 4.6
Elevation Gain: 1,218ft
Gaia Track
100 Peaks Challenge #35
Afoot & Afield 5th ed. Trip #114

Jacumba Mountain
March 14, 2021
Miles: 3.1
Elevation Gain: 1,090ft
Gaia Track*
100 Peaks Challenge #36

Mount Tule
March 14, 2021
Miles: 0.8
Elevation Gain: 403ft
Gaia Track
100 Peaks Challenge #37
Afoot & Afield 5th ed. Trip #271

*Follow our route back, not our route up.

It was nice to get a break this weekend. We did manage to bag three peaks, but all three were pretty easy – a respite from the last couple of weeks of hard hiking. Two of the three peaks were still desert peaks that had to get done before it gets hot, so we still feel accomplished!

Saturday morning we hit McGinty Mountain. I had this one pencilled in as a weekday hike – at a little over 4 miles it would have been doable. It’s also the closest trailhead to my house, so there’s that. But one of our group had an obligation on Saturday, so we needed a hike that fit our schedule, and McGinty fit the bill nicely. I have hiked McGinty several times – as mentioned, it’s super close to my house. In fact I led a Sierra Club hike on McGinty once, and it’s where I met Kali! What is funny to me about McGinty is that all along the mountain’s spine there are alternate side trails that lead to local peaks along the way, and I don’t think I’ve ever climbed this darn mountain without inadvertently taking one of these diversions. It’s never a big deal, as they always lead back to the main trail. But one of these days I’ll get a clean track, I swear!

McGinty is an interesting mountain in that there are some rare plants that grow here, due to the nature of the bedrock (called “gabbro,” according to Afoot & Afield) that makes up this mountain. I looked into this a little before leading that Sierra Club hike, and had no luck identifying these unusual plants. To my untrained eye the Dehesa bear grass (for example) looks like all the other chaparral grasses that I see everywhere else. It would be fun to do this someday with a naturalist who could point them out.

This trip up McGinty was after a couple of days of rain, so we were lucky to be greeted by a full rainbow! I decided to wear some proper hiking boots today – I normally hike in trail runners, but given the mud and the rocky terrain I thought the boots might be useful, and I was grateful to have them. We made excellent time – certainly faster than my previous trips up this peak. We were done in no time, and even with running a bunch of errands afterwards, I was still home before lunch.

Sunday was our desert day. We had two more peaks to finish in the southeast “low desert” corner of the county. Our original plan for this weekend was to backpack Agua Tibia Mountain and Eagle Crag, but those – on the north side of Palomar Mountain – almost certainly got a bunch of snow this past week. Other peaks in the desert that are on our list require driving over the mountains – and through the snow. So, Jacumba Mountain and Mount Tule – straight east on highway 8 – were our obvious Plan B. Also, it was the morning of “spring forward” Daylight Savings Time, so it was nice not to have to get up excessively early.

The challenge with both of these peaks, especially Jacumba Mountain, is that the trailheads require some serious 4wd driving to get there. Jacumba Mountain has three possible routes to the summit. One is an extremely difficult cross-country traverse from Mortero Palms – that’s a nope. The other two require a rugged 4wd ride from the In-Ko-Pah exit off the 8. First you come to the trail head for a six-mile hike option. If you continue on the dirt road you can get to a three-mile hike option. I was under the impression that the truly difficult four-wheeling was the section between the two, but that turned out not to be the case: if you can make it to the first trail head, you can certainly make it to the second. Tara’s trusty Jeep and her mad driving skills got us right up to the shorter option – but it took nearly an hour of offroading once we got off the highway, so budget time for that.

The hike began by crossing a wash to the base of the climb. Somehow I managed to lead us to the wrong drainage at the beginning of the steep part. It ended up requiring some bouldering, which was fun, but not the easiest way to go. Eventually we met up with our intended route, attaining the ridge, and making our way to the summit. Aside from our little bouldering diversion, it was a lovely and straightforward hike, with cool and windy weather.

Back in the Jeep, we headed back down the rugged road and back to the 8. Next stop was McCain Valley Road, up a ways to the Sacatone Overlook road, which led to the Mount Tule trailhead. The road was fairly rugged and flooded in areas – high clearance is definitely required. The route described in Afoot & Afield has you park just past the turnoff to the road leading up Mount Tule. We decided to check out the road up the mountain and save a little bit of mileage. It turned out to be a perfectly fine Jeep road, and again Tara made it up with no trouble. This cut off about 3/4 of the hike! For me to count an Afoot & Afield hike as “completed” I typically require myself to hike the full hike as described in the book – but in this case it would have annoyed the crap out of me to drive a rugged road, park, and then walk along an equally rugged road that I could have easily driven! So this one is getting a checkmark in the “done” column, thankyouverymuch.

We parked just below a section of jagged rock that would have been unwise to do without another vehicle – and that turned out to be perfect as the road ended just above there anyway. From that point we were able to follow a clear trail the whole way to the summit. This was a lovely hike, with no steep sections, no navigation issues, and no prickly plants trying to attack us. We were on top of the peak in less than 30 minutes. It was cool gazing back at Jacumba Mountain, where we’d just been. Unfortunately we found no peak register. We took our photos and headed back down the mountain.

In all we did about four miles of hiking on Sunday … and about five hours of driving. Yikes!! But that’s what the list required. I don’t object – there is a whole blog post in this, but briefly, one of my favorite things about this challenge is getting more familiar with all the nooks & crannies of the San Diego desert and outer areas.

McGinty Mountain

Jacumba Mountain & Mount Tule

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Mountain Monday

North & South Fortuna Mountains
March 8, 2021
Miles: 5.6
Elevation Gain: 1,134ft
Gaia Track*
100 Peaks Challenge #s 33 & 34

*I don’t really recommend this route due to one section that is better for mountain bikers. See post for full details.

Our typical routine for this challenge has been to hike both days on the weekend: one hard day and one easier day. Well, last weekend’s challenge – Mile High Mountain – was hard enough for both days, and we took Sunday off. By Monday, Casey & I decided we were up for something not too hard, and we opted to stretch our legs on North & South Fortuna in Mission Trails.

I have hiked both of these peaks a few times before. There are probably a half dozen routes that can be taken, with one of the nicest being a 6.5 mile loop starting from the West Fortuna Staging Area in Tierrasanta – do it clockwise and you get to descend on the infamous South Fortuna stairs. Today, however, I needed to get the thing done – I could only play hooky from work for so long. So I pulled up a map and pieced together the shortest route I could find – a five-mile out-and-back route that also started in Tierrasanta, from the Corte Playa Catalina trailhead.

Casey & I met up in the quiet neighborhood and got started. There is construction taking place at Mission Trails right now, and it is in full swing in this location, but we got past it quickly. This route turned out to be a bit of an inverted hike, as the trail descended initially, crossing a dry stream with a wooden footbridge.

This portion of the hike is clearly used more for mountain bikers than for hikers, and we did see a couple of bikers out there. The trail rolled along with sudden up and downhills. It looked like fun, if you were on a bike. It was pretty annoying as a hiker. Eventually the roly poly trail merged with the main route and climbed steeply to the familiar Fortuna saddle.

We hit North Fortuna first. We got to the point on the map that was marked as North Fortuna – both in Gaia and on Peakbagger – but apparently this is not where the park thinks the peak is. We looked around for the summit marker for a moment, but quickly realized it must be further along the trail – and there it was.

We were hustling, and we wasted little time backtracking to the saddle, and then up the slightly longer but more gradual trail to Fortuna Mountain’s slightly lower southerly neighbor. The trail was perfumed with blooming lilacs, and I almost stepped on a toad. Got to the broad summit, took our pics, and headed back the way we came.

I almost made it home in time for my first conference call – five minutes short, so I dialed in from my car. My favorite thing about these weekday hikes is that I just feel so accomplished after I get home – I’ve started my day by being outside and enjoying nature. The downside is feeling rushed, which I did today. Oh well, it’s still a walk in the park.

Studying the map a bit more afterwards I am now thinking that a better short route would be to start from Mission Dam. It’s only a few tenths of a mile longer than the route we took, and would be a more enjoyable hike, avoiding the roly poly trail. Of course parking at Mission Dam has its challenges (the gate has to be open, and there are few spots) – but better if you can pull it off.

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Why are we doing this again?

Mile High Mountain
March 6, 2021
Miles: 14.5
Elevation Gain: 4365ft
Gaia Track
100 Peaks Challenge #32

And here it is, the peak we’ve been building up to. I don’t want to take anything for granted, and you never know what challenges lie ahead, but at least based on statistics we have now completed the hardest of the desert hikes on the 100 Peaks Challenge list: Indianhead, Villager, and now this one, Mile High Mountain. This is a huge relief as it’s already starting to get too warm to hike out there. This also completes the hikes in the immediate Borrego Springs area, although there are still several elsewhere in the desert, and plenty others that are a long drive away.

This hike was tricky to plan. No matter what, it’s a long, hard hike. There are four routes to choose among and they all have significant challenges. My initial inclination was to take the most direct ridge route. This is the route described in Afoot & Afield (5th ed., trip 223). In fact, I have heard that there is discussion of renaming this peak – at least colloquially – to “Jerry Schad Mountain,” after the original author of this book, as this was one of his favorite peaks. This route takes Palo Verde Wash up the first few miles, then ascends the ridge above the wash, which it traverses all the way up to the summit. It seemed to me to be the most direct and least technical route.

The biggest problem with this route is that … no one seems to go this way. We typically research these hikes by checking, public tracks on Gaia and AllTrails, and other sources. We found almost no tracks taking this seemingly direct route. My theory as to why that is is that most hikers want to bag an additional peak – Rosa Point. This requires taking a different ridge up, and adds a bit to the mileage and elevation. In the interest of staying focused, we did not want to add in Rosa Point. In addition to being longer, this route still includes some steep scree-filled sections, according to reports.

The third route used the Villager ridge, which we’d hiked last weekend, and knew to be fairly easy. The problem with this route is that the saddle between the Villager and Mile High ridges is infamously brutal.

Finally, there is the route we ended up taking: up Rattlesnake Canyon. We enlisted a guide on this hike – Susie’s friend Matt graciously offered to take us up this route, which is his favorite of the options. The advantage of this route is that the majority of the hike is relatively easy as it follows a narrow wash up between the two ridges, passing Rattlesnake Spring. The elevation gain is gradual and steady, and the footing is solid. The challenges with this route are three (3!) dry waterfalls (aka exposed rock climbs), and then, well, at some point you need to get up off the canyon floor. So 7 miles of easy wash hiking followed by 1.5 miles of straight up.

We camped out Friday night and met up at the trailhead at 6am on Saturday. I knew immediately it was going to be a tough day. First of all, I am a dumbdumb, and I did something to my hamstrings at my normal weekly workout on Thursday. I did not think it was a very intense workout at the time, but two days later and my hammies were still sore. That is not good when you’re about to climb 4000+ feet. The second huge challenge of the day was that it was HOT. The weather forecast was originally low-70s, which would have been bad enough; but now the updated forecast was for over 80 degrees. And not a breath of wind until we were much higher up. In hindsight we should have rescheduled but with nine people on the trip that would have been annoying. Also, summit fever – wanna get this done!!

All this challenge added up. It was a looooong day. I’m sure if my hamstrings were less angry, and it was cooler, this hike would not have taken so long. The hike up, for me, was miserable. The rock climbs and boulder scrambles were super fun, but otherwise trudging uphill in the heat with angry legs was an additional challenge I did not need. We began the brutal climb out of the canyon at midday, and the heat really started getting to a couple of us. It was insanely slow-going. There was a false peak that at least I did not realize and it almost killed me with demoralization. Tara & I were both near heat exhaustion, but we both recognized this and kept a close eye on each other, and moved very slowly. At long last the summit was underfoot, and the Salton Sea – previously hidden behind the peak – came into full, unobstructed view. It was glorious, and we were relieved to summit… but it was also 1pm. Way too late to be up there.

We rested a bit and had some snacks, did our usual summit chores. While we ate, Susie read to us the many repeated entries of the infamous Sierra Club climber Steve Fausset – sounds like he comes up here every Tuesday! I guess it’s one of his favorite peaks too. We debated our options for descending. Our original plan was to split into two groups, with my group heading back the same way, and the other group proceeding toward Rosa Point & Pyramid Peak. But it was getting too late to bag additional peaks, and quite honestly we needed the help getting down. I can’t articulate how grateful we are that the others abandoned their plans to stay with us.

We descended a ridge slightly further south from the one we came up, which most of us found slightly easier (although at the bottom it was harder to get back to the main canyon). We were now chasing daylight. The upper waterfall cannot be avoided and fortunately was the least technical of the three. At the middle fall, the group split, with folks not comfortable with down-climbing hitching up and over. Those of us who decided to down-climb realized that we needed a spotter … but none of us were capable of getting down without one, so we were stuck. We were about to backtrack and join the others, when they appeared over the ridge. A few minutes later, the incredible Matt arrived, and, scampering over the waterfall like Spiderman, he helped the four of us find our footing. It was not difficult with the help, but impossible without it. At the last fall we split again, and this time Matt spotted us before helping the others. Again his help was essential. Again his agility and willingness to go back & forth was inspiring.

For me, heading back down the wash was truly fun and I was able to enjoy myself – by now it had cooled off, and my leg issue appeared to be isolated to my climbing muscles; my descending muscles (quads) were fine, and hopping down the rocks was super fun. That said, all the bypassing and one-at-a-time guiding down the waterfalls took a very long time. Fortunately we’d gotten past all the tricky spot before it got dark, but we still had several miles to go. Out came the headlamps as we rushed down the canyon. At the canyon’s exit, we were a bit spread out, and Kali & I zoomed right past the cairned turn to the south toward the cars. We realized it pretty quickly and backtracked. Another mile and a half and we were at the cars.

Normally after these hikes we rush home for a late dinner with our families, but at this point we were clearly not going to be home until 10pm – so no need to rush. Instead, we made one last stop at Los Jilbertos in Borrego Springs where we are practically regulars at this point. Since with this hike we are done with the hikes in the immediate BS area, it was like a goodbye dinner.

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