Saturday, March 17, 2018

Vallecito Mountains High Point

Hiked: 3/16/2018
Distance: 5.9 miles round trip cross country
Summit Elevation: 3583'
Prominence: 803'
Elevation Gain: 1415'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 1.13
Round trip time: 4 hours 30 minutes
Recommended water: 56 oz.
Parking/Fees: Free on Fish Creek Wash
Difficulty: Moderate

Matt and I met at Scissors Crossing, then drove to Fish Creek Wash and completed the roughly 18 mile jeep trail to Dave McCain Spring, the trailhead for the Vallecito Mountains High Point (SDC #60). Technically, Whale Peak is the highest point in the Vallecito Mountains, while this peak is the high point of the eastern part of the range. The road to the trailhead has large rocks, a couple of tight spaces, and deep sand. 4x4 is strongly recommended, high clearance may not enough. The drive through Fish Creek Wash alone took about 1.5 hours. We started hiking around 7:45 AM in cool weather with a steady 20-25 mph wind. The hike had three distinct phases: boulders, plateau, boulders.

A faint use trail left the parking area over a small saddle and dropped into the dry spring below. We followed the spring a short distance before heading straight up a large wall of boulders. We found a route up that never exceeded class 2. At the top, we started across a large, sandy plateau. Vallecito was not visible from the plateau. Nearby, Peak 3450 looked like the obvious high point, but fell 133' below that honor. The plateau had healthy and abundant vegetation though it was sparse enough to allow easy travel. We found bighorn scat along the way and some bleached bones, but never spotted one of the elusive animals. At the end of the plateau, we stopped for a break at the bottom of the ascent gully. A giant boulder field surrounded Vallecito. There was no use trail, but we stayed slightly right of the ascent gully on the way up. At the false summit, we got our first look at the summit on the other side an 80' dip.

Start, use trail goes over the shallow saddle

First boulder wall

Long plateau, Vallecito HP at the far end, but not visible

In the ascent gully, second boulder wall

First view of Vallecito summit

There was a small camping spot at the saddle below the summit, somewhat protected from the wind. The final scramble was short. At the top, we found a yellow register can with a glass jar inside. We took turns occupying the highest boulder. The best views were east into Borrego Valley. Whale Mountain filled most of the western view. Parts of the Santa Rosa Ridge were visible and snow capped San Jacinto beyond. This summit and route are extremely remote and seldom visited. The register included the front cover of the first register book (and probably first ascent) from February 9, 1980. Because we were exposed to the wind, we didn't stay on top for long. After signing the register, we started back, taking a slightly different descent route. We looked for an easier way around the boulders, but it ended up being about the same difficulty. We crossed the plateau and started down the final boulder wall. We were about 200' north of our ascent route and ran into some larger boulders that forced adjustments to our path. Back at the truck, the adventure wasn't quite over. I made all right turns at each junction in Fish Creek Wash on the way in, so I planned to take all left turns on the way out. This should have worked, but I took a left onto an unmapped and unnamed jeep trail somewhere along the way. I noticed this when the navigation system showed us well north of Fish Creek Wash. The nav system didn't know how to get us back and neither did Google Maps. Matt checked a satellite view of the area on his phone and thought the trail we were on would meet up with Fish Creek Wash so we continued forward. The road was no worse than Fish Creek Wash and after a few miles, it met the main jeep trail. Getting lost on the drive out would have been bad mojo. The upside of the diversion is that we got some bonus scenery shots.

Looking east to Borrego Valley and Salton Sea


Matt on the Vallecito summit block

Whale Peak

Original register book cover from 1980

Close encounters with agave and cat's claw,
my legs were only slightly better off due to long pants

Giant boulders on the final descent

Budding cholla on the way out

Scenery on the drive out

"Tiramisu" Rock

Saturday, March 10, 2018

San Mateo Peak and Peak 3064

Hiked: 3/10/2018
Distance: 4.7 miles round trip on trail
Summit Elevation: 3591' (San Mateo), 3064' (Peak 3064)
Elevation Gain: 1164'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 0.93
Round trip time: 2 hours 10 minutes
Recommended water: 24 oz.
Parking/Fees: Adventure Pass at Morgan Trailhead
Difficulty: Easy

This was my second trip to San Mateo Peak. It is on the Sierra Club Lower Peaks list and even though it is short, it is one my favorites in the Santa Ana range. It has great scenery and boulder options along the trail. The first time I did this hike, I started from a closed turnout on South Main Divide Road. This time, I started from the standard Morgan Trailhead. I was not sure an adventure pass was required, but I always display it when in doubt. Not far down the trail, a use trail branches hard left (about 120 degrees). It is a connector to the San Mateo Peak trail. A sign near the start of the connector trail suggests a 5.5 mile round trip loop to the Rancho Capistrano subdivision.

The use trail was green from recent rain and more rain was on the way. It followed Lion Spring until it intersected San Mateo Peak Trail. I poked around in the spring and off trail for awhile assessing possible future trailcam locations. One part of the connector trail was covered with dead trees, but it was easy to bypass. A sign at the junction pointed toward the peak and the first of two plastic dinosaurs was mounted in the same area. At the top of the first hill, I took a side trail to Peak 3064 where a worn flag hung from a pole. The summit of 3064 is a little beyond the flag. I got back on the main trail and made it to the summit quickly. Views east were gratifying with layers of low clouds threatening rain. I signed the register and started back as soon as I felt the first few rain drops. On the way back, I wanted to stop at an intermediate peak with a cluster of boulders but the rain encouraged me to continue down. The rain was light but I was pretty wet by the time I got back to the truck. Fortunately, I had a dry shirt and other shoes to make the drive back comfortable.

First dino and a basketball that was not there last time

Summit of Peak 3064

San Mateo Peak from Peak 3064

Friday, March 2, 2018

Stanley Peak

Hiked: 3/2/2018
Distance: 5.8 miles round trip on trail
Summit Elevation: 1983'
Elevation Gain: 1126'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 0.90
Round trip time: 2 hours
Recommended water: 24 oz.
Parking/Fees: Free at Daley Ranch Parking Area
Difficulty: Easy

Stanley Peak is one of two major peaks in the Daley Ranch Preserve in Escondido, the other being Burnt Mountain. I remembered Stanley from my trip to Burnt Mountain a couple of years ago. I parked at the main parking lot on LaHonda Drive, already half full. There was a mix of hikers, runners, and mountain bikers.

I started on the Creek Crossing trail, the first trail on the right, took a sharp left on the East Ridge trail for a tenth of a mile before turning right on the Coyote Run trail. I stayed on Coyote run until it ended at the Sage trail, then turned left. From the satellite view, I saw a clear trail running up from behind the old water tank, so I turned on the OWT trail to check it out. The tank was rusted and clearly not in use any more. On the left side of the tank (as you approach it), a sign marked a maintained trail that connected to the Stanley Peak trail a little further up. I turned right at the Stanley Peak trail and followed it a short distance to the top. Stanley Peak overlooks Valley Center Road to the east and has great views back into Daley Ranch. An easy boulder was the high point. I found stubs on two boulders where benchmarks once lived but this a popular summit and they were probably taken long ago. I didn't find a register though I had seen pictures of an ammo box in other reports. I stayed on the Stanley Peak trail on the way down and was back at the car in 2 hours. It was an easy but thoroughly enjoyable hike.

Stanley Peak from the Coyote Run trail

Looking east over Valley Center toward Palomar

The summit boulder

Looking south from the summit

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Where the Wild Things Are v2

Hiked: 2/24/2018
Distance: 8.4 miles round trip on trail and cross country
Summit Elevation: 1538' (at trailhead)
Elevation Gain: 1415'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 1.13
Round trip time: 3 hours 30 minutes
Recommended water: 48 oz.
Parking/Fees: Free at Fisherman's Camp Trailhead
Difficulty: Moderate

And the wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth
and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.
-- Maurice Sendak

The trailcam was originally placed in October, 2017. In November, I went back to swap out the memory card and found a close up video of a young buck. I moved it to a different tree in the same location where it stayed for more than 3 months. I picked it up today and was happy to find several videos of a large mountain lion. It captured four almost identical videos on 4 different nights. This lion is obviously patrolling the area where I found a dismembered deer in December, 2016. There was a big storm in January that soaked the camera. Some of the files on the memory card were damaged so I feel extra lucky to have found anything at all. I removed the camera and will find it a new home next month. If I ever want to meet a lion face to face, I know where to camp.

Huge lion on patrol on 11/20/2017

Probably the same lion on 1/15/2018

Some kind of relatively large bird

This looks like a doe ear, but the camera was mounted too high

See also:
Where the Wild Things Are v1
Fisherman's Camp, Bluewater Canyon, San Mateo Canyon

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Pyramid-Villager Loop

Hiked: 2/2/2018
Distance: 19.2 miles round trip cross country, use trail, and trail
Summit Elevation: 3480'(Pyramid), 3320'(Marble), 5000'(Rosa Point), 5320'(Mile High), 5756'(Villager)
Elevation Gain: 7107'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 5.68
Round trip time: 14 hours 45 minutes
Recommended water: 212 oz.
Parking/Fees: Free at Villager trailhead on Highway S22
Difficulty: Very Strenuous (combined)

Everybody's looking for the ladder
Everybody wants salvation of the soul
The steps you take are no easy road
But the reward is great
For those who want to go
-- Prince, The Ladder

The weather was favorable for a partial traverse of the Santa Rosa range crossing five peaks, four of them on the Sierra Club San Diego Peaks list. The plan was to start at the Villager trailhead, ascend Smoke Tree Canyon to the major ridge, then hit five peaks in this order:
  1. Pyramid Peak (SDC #62)
  2. Marble Peak (Unofficial)
  3. Rosa Point (SDC #28, DPS #67, HPS #281)
  4. Mile High Mountain (SDC #24)
  5. Villager Peak (SDC #12, HPS #208)
The descent would be down the long Villager ridge back to the open desert and the truck. Short winter days meant I had to start and finish in the dark. If things didn't go well for whatever reason, I had a bail out plan after Rosa. I decided to back load the night hiking, figuring it would be easier to follow the VIllager trail down than ascend a canyon. I started at 5:45 AM, an hour before sunrise covering the mile or so up Palo Verde Canyon to the Smoke Tree Canyon split. There was enough predawn light that finding Smoke Tree wasn't a problem. The entrance is a short class 2 scramble and the canyon itself was mostly clear of obstacles. Not far up the canyon, a use trail appeared on the south side making travel easier. I made enough upward progress when the sun rose to get some nice views during the golden hour. I made a short side trip to the Natural Rock Tanks, interesting formations that held water most of the year. Despite the lack of rain, there was water in the first tank I visited. Back on the trail, I finally got a look at Pyramid Peak. The trail hit the major ridge south of the summit and it was an easy finish. The first small victory provided a fantastic panorama of Travelers Peak below and the Salton Sea. The most recent register entry was from Gus Safar's group that did a Traveler's to Villager traverse only 5 days earlier. I would see their names in all the summits to follow. I did not find a benchmark.

Climbing out of Smoke Tree Canyon

Golden hour

One of the natural rock tanks with water

Pyramid Peak

Travelers Peak and Salton Sea from Pyramid

Rosa Point, imposing and distant

I dropped off Pyramid on the connecting ridge for the short hike to Marble Peak. Marble is an unofficial bump with marbled granite stripes. It was marked in Peakbagger but was unnamed on the topo map. It might have been a 100' diversion from the trail to climb it, where I discovered no benchmark and no register. Next was the long 1700' climb to Rosa Point, one of the toughest sections of the day. Several large bumps were in the way and it's hard to see the connecting ridges. The trail did a nice job avoiding unnecessary gain but faded in and out on the climb to the saddle below Rosa. A short cluster of summit rocks held two registers. An old register started in the mid-1980s was in the double cans. It looked fragile so I only looked at the first few pages. A more recent register was in a magnetic, waterproof pouch. I hunted around the long flat summit until I found the benchmark. It was about 100' southeast of the summit rocks in an open, flat area. I marked it as an unnamed waypoint in my GPS track for future hikers. From Rosa, great views opened up into the southern part of Clark Valley and Pyramid looked like a distant memory far below. Rabbit Peak was dominant to the northwest, but only the tip of Mile High Mountain was visible over the many large protrusions in the way. I was feeling good so far and took a break. If I had the time, I would have basked on the comfortable summit rocks, but time was not on my side. I headed due west to catch the connecting ridge toward Mile High.

Rosa Point summit rocks

Salton Sea from Rosa Point

Looking back at Pyramid Peak

After slogging over a few false summits, I spotted Mile High Mountain. The terrain above 5000' started to change. Pines and junipers grew here along with other shrubs missing from the lower desert slopes. Plants and trees were still sparse so none of it impeded forward progress. It was still desert, just a little greener. After dropping off Rosa, there was about 800' of gain to Mile High. The trail wound around and through the rocky outcrops on the final ridge. There were three registers on Mile High Mountain, but no benchmark. I sat down for a longer rest here before facing the climb to Villager's unending ridge. Rattlesnake Canyon spread out below. Beyond the Villager ridge, Coyote Mountain stood in isolation with the San Ysidro Mountains rising further behind. Rested and hydrated, I followed the use trail that led down from the summit toward the saddle below. The first half of the 1100' descent was steep but easy. The last half was a scree slide. While inconvenient, it was certainly much easier going down the scree than it would have been going up. At the saddle, the use trail faded out but it was obvious which finger of the ridge to ascend. The traverse from Mile High to the Villager ridge was the second testy section of the hike and the steepest of the day. It gains about 1000' in half a mile. The footing was mostly good with vegetation and grass keeping things in place. Most of the ascent was class 2 with some class 3 outcrops. Most of the class 3 was avoidable, but it was usually easier to climb the outcrops than navigate around them. Oddly, I stumbled over a white baseball cap someone lost on the way. I gathered it for later disposal. At some point below the ridge, I starting running low on energy and required frequent breaks. The climb started to take on a different mood and became more work than fun. 100 steps, rest 10 seconds, rinse, repeat. I was relieved to reach the main ridge and stunned by the expanse of Clark Valley.

On the way to Mile High Mountain

Pink cholla

Villager Peak from Mile High

Rattlesnake Canyon

Villager looming large

The saddle between Villager and Mile High

Ascent finger ridge

Looking back at Mile High

It had taken longer than I wanted to reach this point, but I was energized again by the scenery. I turned north to tackle the final mile and 500' gain to Villager Peak. The trail was well defined and the pines and junipers more common. It was almost lush compared to the stark terrain that came before. At the Villager summit, I quickly dug into the ammo box that held many registers and signed after the Gus Safar group again. Though Villager is only 5756', it felt ten thousand feet high. I understood why this peak was so popular. I didn't celebrate long because the sun was already far along a downward arc. I wanted to get as far down as possible since the night is dark and full of terrors. At sunset, I stopped to unpack lights (headlamp and flashlight) and take inventory. I was behind schedule, a mile in the air and 5 miles from the truck. Worse, I was dehydrated and down to 8 oz. of water. Despite drinking two bottles of water on the drive to the trailhead, I hadn't brought enough. None of the bars or food I had left was appealing, but I forced my self to eat something to power the descent. Thankfully, the trail remained clear and well defined. I was moving just under 2 mph in the dark but it seemed to drag. I kept checking the GPS as it ticked down each painful tenth of a mile. My knees, hips, and lower back all complained from accumulated minor insults, yet I shambled along. I thought I would be back at the car by 7:00 PM. When that time came, I was still 3 miles out, watching tiny car headlights below dance along the S22. I had cell service so I texted my wife to let her know I was fine, but 90 minutes behind schedule. I finished the last drops of water but couldn't force down any more food. Along the way, I became vaguely aware of cliffs on my right. A gaping abyss hid what I suspected were striking views. When I reached the car, I sat down to guzzle two bottles of water before starting the drive home. At over 14 hours, this was the second longest hike, time wise, that I've ever done. Only Mt. Whitney took me longer. It was a solid black pin hike. I arrived home at 11:00 PM to end a 20 hour day.

Everybody's looking for the answers
How the story started and how it will end
What's the use in half a story, half a dream?
You have to climb all of the steps in between
-- Prince, The Ladder

Approaching Villager Peak

Villager summit

Clark Valley

The endless ridge down

Good night, Mile High

Twilight's last gleaming


Pyramid-Villager Loop from Keith Winston on Vimeo.

Other Trip Reports:
Pyramid-Villager Loop (Ben Baumann)