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.
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 Peakbagger.com, 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.
Volcan Mountain February 27, 2021 Miles: 4.6 Elevation Gain: 1,121 ft Gaia Track 100 Peaks Challenge #30 Afoot & Afield 5th ed. Trip #154
Villager Peak February 28, 2021 Miles: 13.6 Elevation Gain: 4,826 ft Gaia Track 100 Peaks Challenge #31
(And the third “V” peak, Viejas, I did last month!)
This weekend’s main event, Villager Peak, is one I’ve been anticipating for years. I first heard of this challenging hike during the Wilderness Basics Course which I took in 2016. Villager is the first peak arrived at when heading north/northwest along the main Santa Rosa Mountains ridge, and is often mentioned together with the next peak up, Rabbit Peak. The two peaks together form a long, waterless backpacking challenge that is infamous within the San Diego hiking community. We discussed attempting the full two-peak overnight challenge but decided against it. Rabbit is not on the 100 Peaks list (it’s technically in Riverside County – not San Diego County), and we decided we needed to stay focused.
Doing Rabbit & Villager together as a one-night backpack is a challenge, but there are much crazier people out there. In researching this hike, Casey shared a Youtube video with us of a couple not backpacking the route over two days, but doing it as a one-day trail run. Holy crap. This led me to discover a Villager-Rabbit ultra-run called Fear the Rabbit (cancelled last year, of course), with a “Bad Ass Division” requiring women participants to carry a 30lb pack, and the men to carry a 50lb pack. WTF!?
But the truly craziest adventure on this ridge that I learned about once I fell down this internet rabbit hole (HA!) was of a 2015 point-to-point traverse of the entire Santa Rosa ridge in one shot – 20 hours over 41.8 miles and 14,755 feet climbed. The traverse crossed Villager, Rabbit, Dawn’s, Toro, and Santa Rosa Peaks, starting at highway S2 in Anza Borrego all the way to highway 74 in Riverside County. Ho. Ly. Shite.
This all put our cute little walk up Villager into perspective, I suppose. We’ve been building up to this hike for several weeks now, and felt prepared. We decided we had enough in our legs to do a pre-hike, and Volcan Mountain in Julian, en route to the desert, fit the bill nicely. On Saturday afternoon we met at the trailhead and started up this lovely hike. There were a few other people there, including a local Meetup group with some acquaintances – always fun to see people we know out on the trail. We made our way up the main trail, enjoying the oak tree lined switchbacks, amused by a woodpecker and other lovely birds. At the top we bushwhacked our way to the benchmark amongst some trees and explored the broad summit. This peak is clearly well loved by its local caretakers. We made a beeline back down the mountain, again staying on the main trail, and were done with the hike in less than two hours, including our break at the summit. We had places to go!
From there we drove down the Banner Grade into Borrego Springs. Stopped again at Los Jilbertos to pick up dinner (don’t forget, it’s cash only!), and then continued along to the Arroyo Salado primitive campground. It was a gorgeous evening under a full moon, without a breath of wind. We were too hungry to wait so we dove into our burritos before bothering to set up our tents.
The wind did arrive however. A couple of hours after hitting the sack it picked up and it was not kidding around. When I set up my tent I did not know which direction it would be coming from, so of course that meant it was broadside to the wind. The smart thing to do would have been to get up and guy it out, but I didn’t wanna… So I did not sleep much. But with the excitement of the looming challenge, I still felt plenty rested the next morning.
We arose early and packed up under the bright moonlight. My right knee pain has been flaring up, having bothered me on Volcan Mountain despite the tape job my PT had done on Friday, and another layer that I’d added on Saturday. After adding yet a third layer of tape, we made the short drive to the trailhead and started our hike at 5:50am.
The first 1.5 miles of the hike are flat and fast. We were slowed down a bit by soft sand and an evil stealth cactus attack (ouch, poor Tara’s foot) but soon arrived at the base of the ridge. The hike up Villager is not technically difficult. Unlike other desert hikes we’ve done during this challenge, little navigation was required thanks to a clear use trail and a solitary ridge meandering its way up, up, up to the peak. It was steep and rocky in sections, but with very little scrambling. In places the ridge was exposed, with a cliff dropping straight down on the west side – this was beautiful on the way back down, but on the way up the wind had not yet died down and I found it a bit terrifying. But the real challenge for this hike is its length. You seem to go up steadily forever. In no time we were eye-level across the dry Clark lakebed with Coyote Mountain, which we’d hiked only two weeks ago – it had not seemed that low when we were on it, but from here it looked like this peak’s kid sister – and we weren’t even halfway to the top.
On our way up we met another gal named Torrey who’d spent the night only about halfway up to Villager. She had been berated the day before by another hiker who was on her way back down the mountain, telling her she was nuts to camp atop Villager; that she’d die in the wind. She was intimidated enough to stop early, setting up camp in a rock shelter that had been erected by past hikers. But this morning she was irritated, realizing that she certainly could have made it. She was young and strong and flew past us in no time. Near the summit there were plenty of places to camp – windy, sure; but we were wind-blown on the desert floor too. Hike your own hike, people.
We finally arrived at the summit. We were famished, so after retrieving the peak register (I added a new notebook to it) we settled in for our lunches. By the time we were done with all our summit chores – eating snacks, signing the register, taking photos, peeing – it was time to head back down.
My knee only hurts on the descent, so I was nervous; for me, the hard part was about to begin. I decided to add to my summit chores and redo the tape job from scratch. I ripped all the old layers off, and started afresh with my last two strips of sport tape. This turned out to be an excellent decision: once we got going and my muscles warmed up, there was almost no pain. Thank goodness!
We made good time getting back down. In fact maybe we went down too fast – by the time we neared the bottom, all eight of our feet were screaming at us to slow down. At the base of the mountain is a geological feature called the Lute Ridge, the largest fault scarp in North America. Of course we passed it on the way up, but now it took center stage as we descended. Somewhat demoralizing was our bird’s eye view, from over two miles away, of the cars reflecting at us in the trailhead parking lot. Cruel, to be so close yet so far!
In the end the hike took us about 10.5 hours, including a little over a half hour at the summit. It was long (did I mention it was long??) but we kicked butt. Ready to come back next week. What? Yes, it’s true – next weekend’s plan is to hit Mile High Mountain, on the ridge just east. We are ready!
El Cajon Mountain February 20, 2021 Miles: 11.1 Elevation Gain: 3210ft Gaia Track 100 Peaks Challenge #28 Afoot & Afield 5th ed. Trip #102
Peak 3339 February 21, 2021 Miles: 5.8 Elevation Gain: 1083ft Gaia Track 100 Peaks Challenge #29
I’m sorry to report that we only completed two peaks this weekend (she says, hanging her head in shame…). This was an inverted weekend – usually the “hard” hike is in the desert, but this weekend the harder hike was in-town. We kicked things off with my first ascent (believe it or not) of infamous El Cajon Mountain. It is often referred to as the “hardest hike in San Diego County.” That is simply not true, if you consider the many challenging hikes in San Diego’s desert. In fact I don’t even think it’s the hardest non-desert hike on the 100 Peaks Challenge list – we have not done them yet, but I am expecting Agua Tibia and/or Eagle Crag to claim those titles when the time comes.
All that said, it’s still pretty damn hard. The hike begins along a driveway heading up from Wildcat Canyon Road, passing some private properties, until the “official” trail starting point. From there until the “saddle” I found it to be a very long version of Sycuan or McGinty Mountain – steep in sections, occasionally rutted and rocky. However it also had some tree-lined sections, and there was even water trickling across the trail in places. Beautiful views at every turn.
The trail reached the saddle, with El Capitan to the right, an overlook (now closed, due to nesting Eagles) straight ahead, and a well-marked (some might say excessively so…) but steep rock scramble to the left heading to the El Cajon peak. We turned left and made our way up through the rocks to the summit. Took our photos, found the three benchmarks, chatted with others up there already, snacked… the usual summit activities. Then we headed back down.
It had been relatively quiet on the way up, since we started at 6am; but on the way down we passed lots of people making their way up – this trail has become ever-popular since it was included on the San Diego Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge. We even encountered some friends making their way up, including our friend David hitting the peak for his 110th time!!! (That is NOT a typo!)
I had some issues heading down. I have a knee problem that flares up every once in a while that is probably a bone rub of some kind, as it is a sudden sharp pain that responds extremely well to sports tape… which I had not applied, and did not have with me. This caused me to slow down significantly. Every steep section I descended by hunching forward and limiting the range of motion my knee had to go through. Finally we got to the bottom and to our cars. It was noontime, so I swung by Panchos to pick up some Mexican for lunch. At home I was much more sore than I should have been – hunching forward to descend had taken its toll.
During this challenge, our Sunday hikes have normally been more mellow, in-town hikes. Following our backwards theme for this weekend we instead went out to the desert today, for a hike that was just a wee bit too long to combine it with others in the area, but perfect for a less-strenuous day. What really made this a backwards hike, though, was the fact that it is “inverted” – the downhill portion is at the beginning of the hike, with only a modest ascent to the summit. As far as I know it’s the only inverted hike on the list.
The trail started in McCain Valley, at the Carrizo overlook. We arrived after an hour drive at about 7:30am. It was windy! But that was not a bad thing – it was chilly to start but we warmed up, and the breeze kept us nice and cool. Most of the hike – unlike nearly all our desert hikes so far – started on a clear and well-defined trail. In this case the trail is used by dirt bikers, and had lots of bumps – are these just natural features enhanced by the dirt bikes? I don’t know, but for a hiker, they are pretty annoying. We undulated our way across the desert, enjoying the peacefulness provided by the steady breeze, and – unlike yesterday – the lack of literally anyone else out there. All day we saw not a single soul besides us four. Finally the route departed from the dirt bike trail and we began bouldering our way to the summit.
There are a few rock piles in this area, and we had to keep an eye on the GPX tracks we’d downloaded to figure out exactly which one was Peak 3339. To get near the summit, we crawled through a rock tunnel. Locating the highest point on the summit – a large boulder with some small rocks placed on top – we decided this would be good enough. We probably could rock climb up it, but it was exposed and windy. Not worth the risk! We found the register (two, actually) and selected our photo shoot spots. Back below the windy summit we enjoyed the view and a snack, then headed back … UP! … to Tara’s waiting Jeep.
We arrived back at the Carrizo overlook around 11:30am, and I had a hankerin’ for a cheeseburger – and no one argued with me. We were really in the middle of nowhere, so hopes were not high; but on Google maps, in the town of Boulevard, I found a place called Matthew’s Live Oaks Restaurant. It turned out to be a fully-stocked convenience store with a built-in restaurant. We ordered from the cashier, and his wife cooked our food. They had a small, empty seating area that they let us use. It took awhile but the food was good, and the service was friendly. It hit the spot.
It’s been a strenuous weekend but Tara & I just could not pass up a Monday holiday (Happy President’s Day!) to check off a couple more peaks. Both of these Poway peaks we had pencilled in for a weekday morning, but they are so close to each other, that knocking them off together made sense.
We hit Goat Peak first, because it was harder – only three miles, but it took us two hours. It was both more enjoyable and more difficult than expected, with some incredibly steep, rutted sections, a few dry waterfall scrambles, and a bit of bouldering at the summit. The trail starts out well-maintained in a lovely neighborhood, wending its way along Poway Creek. Soon it starts to climb up a steep dirt slope. The footing was tricky but the soil was damp, making it stickier and more stable underfoot. Eventually the trail dropped down to a saddle and we started seeing mountain bike jumps and obstacles – amazing that folks can ride their bikes back here! Some more scrambling and steep bits up a dry stream, then we finally arrived at the summit. We picked our way to the top, signed the register, and took our photos.
We hurried back down – we were supposed to meet Scott for our next hike, and we were behind schedule. Scott did not mind, though – it was our first time hiking with him in three weeks! (You might notice on our track that we missed the turnoff to the trail head. Duh.) Finally back at the cars we had a quick drive to the trail head for Tooth Rock at Rattlesnake Canyon. Our friend Casey hiked this last week and encountered a friendly landowner erecting fencing to block access to a portion of this trail that allows hikers to make this a loop hike – the very steep section that is described in Afoot & Afield as the descending portion of the loop. We were ok with that and took the longer way around for both directions – in fact, avoiding a steep slope was probably better for all three of us.
This trail was gradual all the way, following dry Rattlesnake Creek for much of the hike, with only one eroded portion where we had to cross the creek (in A&A, and in Scott’s recollection, there used to be a log bridge here which is no more). On the summit is the eponymous Tooth Rock, adorned with graffiti. Then back to our cars. It was a pleasant ending to our five-peak weekend.
Borrego Mountain – West Butte (via Hawk Canyon) February 13, 2021 Miles: 2.0 Elevation Gain: 544ft Gaia Track 100 Peaks Challenge #23
Borrego Mountain – East Butte (via west approach) February 13, 2021 Miles: 1.2 Elevation Gain: 390ft Gaia Track* 100 Peaks Challenge #24 *If you copy my track, I recommend taking the northernmost track (that we took downhill) both ways.
This weekend’s main event was Coyote Mountain. It is just west of the Santa Rosa range, where next weekend we will tackle Villager Peak, and Mile High Peak the weekend after that, continuing our FEBRUARY OF PAIN. Coyote’s terrain is similar to Villager’s – both are a ridge walk – so it should be a good warm-up to the much longer Villager.
Compared to last weekend at Indianhead, and our plans for the next two weekends, though, Coyote is relatively tame. So we wanted to combine this hike with something else – gluttons for punishment, obviously. We decided to start our weekend with The Buttes, a pair of short hikes that are sort of in the middle of nowhere – hard to justify the two-hour drive to get there just to do them. This worked out perfectly.
On Saturday at 1pm the four of us met at the turnoff to Buttes Pass. The normal route up to West Butte (aka Borrego Mountain West) starts at “The Slot.” Recently The Slot has become so popular that they’ve installed a bathroom, and have started charging $10 to park there. We decided to avoid all that and drive around further east to Hawk Canyon. We piled into Tara’s capable Jeep and drove down the sandy road to the somewhat crowded canyon, and parked for our hike. We started up via the canyon bottom, clamoring over up dry waterfalls and ascending one steep-ish slope to eventually merge with the main trail. The rest of the hike to West Butte was straightforward, with some attention needed to stay on the right track and not accidentally wander onto one of many viewpoint side trails here and there.
The summit was windy, and had no trail register that we could find. To the northwest we could see tomorrow’s goal, Coyote Mountain, and looking eastward, we could see our next stop: East Butte.
We began the hike back down toward Hawk Canyon. On the way down we avoided the steep portion and instead found a use trail that stayed high on the northeast side of the canyon. This turned it into a loop hike of sorts with different terrain from the way up – fun! We soon were back at the bottom of the canyon, and piled into the Jeep to head out.
We drove back up the canyon and over Butte’s Pass proper, toward the East Butte of Borrego Mountain. We parked on the side of the road, avoiding the soft sand, and headed up the ridge. Arriving at a crux we studied the terrain: to the left, the path looked easier on the map (a more gradual ascent up the ridge). But to the right, the path looked easier in real life. We chose the path to the right. Wrong choice! We soon arrived at a rock climb that was not too difficult on its own, but it was exposed, steep, and nerve-wracking. We slowly maneuvered our way up, finally arriving, relieved, at the flat ridge. From there it was smooth sailing to the summit. And sailing is right – by now the wind was really howling, adding to the tension of the climb. There was a peak register that we hastily signed, took our summit snapshots, and started back down. This time we decided to try the northern route, which was absolutely the way to go. It’s subtle on the GPX track, but if anyone decides to copy our path, be sure to take that more northerly variation!
Our day’s work was done and it was taco time. We drove the twenty minutes to Borrego Springs and stopped at Los Jilbertos (cash only!), got our dinner, and headed to Palm Canyon Campground where friends in high places managed to snag us a last-minute site. It was still blowing hard, so dinner at the picnic table was an exercise in preventing our dinner from blowing away. This weekend I brought a proper tent, knowing that we’d have some weather tonight. Unlike last weekend, instead of simply plopping down in my bug bivy and gazing up at the stars, I tucked my four-season tent up against the concrete bathroom wall to protect myself from the wind (no, it did not smell bad). We went to bed very early mostly due to lack of anything else to do – sitting outside in the wind was no fun.
A few minutes after taking shelter, Kali sent out a text message – a scorpion had invaded her duffel bag in her tent’s vestibule! Excitement! We scrambled out to come and look. It was a little baby that had tucked itself into one of the zippered pockets. We helped Kali convince it to move along and find someplace else to spend the night.
The wind howled for a few more hours but eventually died down. The sky was clear and starry when we woke up early. Tara said to me, “Erika, look up.” I glanced up and said, yes, the stars are lovely… and she said, “No, really, look up!!!” I stopped what I was doing and allowed my eyes to adjust on the sky. We were being attacked by aliens!!!! Really, that’s what it looked like!! There was a line of stars marching single-file across the middle of the sky! It was surreal. We had no idea what it was and watched it for several minutes. We learned later that it was Elon Musk’s STARLINK satellite train. Our iPhone cameras could not capture it, but here is a random YouTube video I found. We did not know that then, though, and just hoped that if we were being attacked it would be over quickly!
Ok back to the task at hand … we were off to our hike. Coyote Mountain’s trailhead is off Rockhouse Canyon Road, west of the dry Clark Lake bed. Again Tara’s Jeep got us there with no trouble, and we began by making our way across the desert floor toward the base of the ridge. Once we got on the ridge we found a use trail that generally made its way all along the ridge toward the summit. The hike was steep in places, but was otherwise a cruiser of a hike with sure footing and easy navigation. Hardly any of the plants tried to kill us, and the rocks underfoot generally stayed put. Unlike last weekend’s sufferfest, we all said we’d do this one again.
At the summit we had amazing views of our recent and future exploits – the Buttes to the southeast, jutting up alone from the desert floor; the hulking and imposing Indianhead looming over our southwestern shoulder; and the Santa Rosa crest, with Villager and Mile High peaks beckoning, due east. The wide open summit area had three benchmarks, a register (that I added a new notebook to), and a marker in a rock pile. Very satisfying. We lingered a bit and then headed down, well ahead of our self-imposed schedule.
Near the bottom we encountered a solo hiker on her way up, and shortly behind her, another solo hiker – this time someone we knew from our various hiking Facebook groups. That was neat, to meet him in person. We got back to our cars and headed home unexpectedly early – which is nice, since it was, after all, Valentine’s Day. ❤️
For our weekday hikes that we are squeezing in before work, I am focusing on the low-hanging fruit, knocking the closest, shortest hikes off the list first. (We are balancing these out by doing the hardest peaks on the list on the weekends this month.) Today’s hike, Kwaay Paay Peak in Mission Trails Regional Park, qualifies as some pretty darn low-hanging fruit.
I’ve done this short but steep climb a couple of times in the past – as pretty much all San Diego hikers have. It’s on the former Mission Trails Five Peaks Challenge, which I completed in 2017. Once, hiking it in 2018, near the bottom, I was passed by a pair of extremely fit young men who ran up by me, wearing weight vests. When I was about halfway up, they passed me heading down. When I was nearly at the top, they passed me again – heading up. I think they lapped me two times over before I was done. Once was enough for me, no extra weight needed!
Today’s hike was uneventful. We got started shortly before sunrise and made good time to the top, getting up there in about 40 minutes. We did not linger – took a couple of photos, admired the urban view – then headed back down. We saw several other people despite the early time on a weekday – interestingly, all were women. And that was it for peak #22.
We decided that February would be the month of the insanely difficult hikes. January was just a warm-up, and later in the year it would truly warm up – the time is now to take advantage of the coolest weather of the year. And the first of these hard hikes was to be Indianhead.
Contrary to popular belief, El Cajon Mountain is not the Hardest Hike in San Diego™️ (joke credit: Susie Kara). There are a few climbs that compete for that honor, and Indianhead is one of them. At least on our 100 Peaks Challenge list, it’s in the top-three – the other two being Villager and Mile High, which are both planned for later this month. So, as you can imagine, this is our Month Of Pain.
This “hike” – if you can call it that – starts at the Borrego Palm Canyon trail head. To facilitate an early start, we camped there Friday night. The campgrounds only recently reopened and I was able to snag the last site available. Four of us took two cars. It was a lovely night and I cowboy camped, gazing up at the stars until I fell asleep.
We met the fifth member of our hiking party at the trail head parking lot and got started a little after 6:30am. The hike begins in the beautiful and famous Palm Canyon, initially following a well-marked nature trail. We soon arrived at the first palm oasis, which was burned down by a juvenile arsonist in January 2020. It is making a rapid recovery with lots of new growth. Shortly past the oasis the nature trail ended and we continued, bouldering our way up alongside the flowing stream.
A little after 2.5 miles up the canyon (which we overshot and had to backtrack a bit), the route departs from the canyon to ascend a shockingly steep bowl across a loose scree-covered slope. It was not far, but it took a long time to pick our way straight up, avoiding fuzzy cholla and evil agave. Between the steepness of the slope, the loose footing, and the cacti trying to kill us, Kali observed that this mountain really did not want to be climbed! Eventually we reached the ridge and the climbing became marginally easier – but we still had quite a ways to go.
At long last the ridge leveled out before finally arriving at the summit. The total distance from the trail head to the peak was only four miles, but it had taken us about five and a half hours to get there. We were exhilarated and hungry, and enjoyed our lunch while taking in the amazing views – to the east, overlooking all of Anza-Borrego, including our upcoming peaks; and to the west, toward the San Ysidro mountains. We did not linger – it was hard work getting there, but would be just as hard in a different way to get back down.
So, down we went. Down-climbing the ridge was tiring and stressful, made more so by the knowledge that the steep bowl was yet to come. Finally we reached the bowl. We took it slow, always making sure we had four points of contact (two feet, two trekking poles). Lots of deep breaths. It was warm, with no shade on the mountainside. We were running low on water despite bringing several liters. One step at a time; take a pause when needed… and finally, finally, we crossed into the late afternoon shade, and then a bit further to the canyon itself with its lovely running water and terra firma.
We now had 2.5 miles of bouldering to get to the car. We knew the last mile and a half was along the popular nature trail, which has little numbered signs for various points-of-interest. “Where’s the damn nature trail?” became a rallying cry. The canyon is beautiful, and lush, and shady, and wet … and we just wanted to get the hell out of there! Finally, finally, we were at the parking lot. We were done, and we are proud.
I proposed Tuesdays for our weekday hike day, because my morning work calendar tends to be pretty quiet then. It seems to work ok for my hiking partners too, but today was a bit of an exception. There were five of us hitting the trail this morning, and everyone but me had a time constraint. We had decided on Iron Mountain, another classic San Diego hike that can get insanely crowded, so getting it over with on a weekday was key. I checked my track for the last time I hiked Iron via this shortest of routes, and saw that I’d clocked in at two hours and 15 minutes, not counting time spent at the top enjoying Tequila Sunrise cocktails. (Yes, it’s that kind of hike!)
With our time constraints in mind, we met at the trailhead at an ungodly 5:45am. We wasted no time hitting the trail with only a few other crazy early birds. It was surprisingly warm already and we quickly shed the few layers we’d brought. In just over an hour, us badass gals were at the top, just in time to enjoy a (tequila-free) sunrise, with dramatic clouds blanketing the sky.
We took our peak photos and wasted little time at the summit before speeding back down. We made quick work of the rocky trail, breaking into a jog at times. I may not have had been trying to beat the clock myself, but I joined in the race anyway, delighting in the adrenaline rush of our quick footwork. Arriving at our cars, I checked my tracker – our round trip moving time clocked in at one hour and 59 minutes, yeah!!! And that’s peak #20, in the bag!
For my #100PeaksChallenge, I have the peaks sorted roughly into four categories: Desert hikes, non-desert hikes that must be done in cool weather, non-desert hikes that can be done anytime, and weekday hikes. Currently we’re in prime desert season, so we’ve been doing a desert hike on Saturday (focusing on the hardest ones in this coolest of seasons) and a non-desert cool-weather-required hike on Sunday.
Of course all the hikes in the mountains are in the “anytime” category. I am expecting to do these hikes in the summer months, when other areas are off limits, so I’ve generally been ignoring the Cuyamaca & Laguna Mountains at the moment. But … it just snowed!!! After yesterday’s desert traverse triumph, we decided that today we’d mix it up a little and have some fun. List categories be damned; let’s go play in the snow!
We decided on Oakzanita Peak in the Cuyamaca Mountains because the trailhead is not too far up highway 79. After hearing nightmare stories of traffic caused by San Diegans going “to the snow,” this was a big selling point. We set a stupid early start time to try to avoid other humans and their cars, and arrived in a near-empty parking lot.
The snow was patchy for the first mile, but as we ascended it became deeper and more consistent. Soon we strapped microspikes onto our boots – we could have done the hike without them as there were plenty of tracks in the snow, but it definitely made us faster and more sure-footed. We made quick work of it and arrived at the summit in about an hour and a half. The weather was cool and windy at the summit, and I was grateful for my wind breaker. In fact I went in and out of all the layers I’d brought today – probably a little unnecessary as it was not that cold, but it’s fun to test out all the gear we don’t get to use very often in San Diego.
We’d seen one other couple within the first mile of the hike (who did not make it to the summit), and then no one at all until nearly the end of our hike, when the hordes arrived. Cars were vying for our parking spot, and we were happy to let them have it as we drove away from our quick and lovely recovery hike. Peak #19, done!
A few words about gear, just because I got to use some gear today!
I own a pair of Yaktrax as well as microspikes. The microspikes I have are not the fancy Kahtoola ones, but are instead Chinese knockoffs from Amazon – Unigear brand, $30. I have only used them once before, and today’s hike certainly did not test them to any extent. I think for simple occasional hikes like this in SoCal they are a good option. I would probably not trust them for any kind of “real” hike. I regretted not thinking to bring snow baskets for my trekking poles – the poles kept digging into the snow, requiring me to pull them out at every step – and plan to slip them in the bag with the spikes for future use. The Yaktrax, on the other hand, I have used in challenging situations and they’re great for what they are (no spikes). I have decided to keep them clipped to my pack through the winter, since they are lightweight and there have now been two hikes where I wished I’d had them.
I have also made good use of my wind breaker on a couple of hikes. It’s featherweight and does not make me hot, and does its job (breaking wind!) better than much warmer and heavier layers would. It’s a hand-me-down from Tad, Drop brand, and so it fits very loosely, making it easy to toss on over any other layers I might have. Also, it’s orange. It’s similar to the Patagonia Houdini (not orange).