Distance: 16.7 miles round trip on trail and use trail
Summit Elevation: 4779' (Agua Tibia)
Elevation Gain: 3300'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 2.64
Round trip time: 7 hours 45 minutes
Recommended water: 156 oz.
Parking/Fees: Adventure Pass
It was almost exactly a year ago to the day when I was last in the Agua Tibia Wilderness hiking to Wild Horse Peak. Wild Horse was great fun and I was looking forward to Agua Tibia, #4 on the Lower Peaks List. I expected a long day, so I started early to avoid traffic and give myself time for Eagle Crag as a bonus if things worked out. Weather.com showed a 20% chance of rain, but it rained most of the way to the Dripping Springs Campground east of Temecula off highway 79, finally dropping off to a light mist. I decided to give it a go and headed out in pitch blackness and light rain. Few things wake me up like charging alone into a remote dark forest. It always gets the juices flowing. I wasn't surprised to be signing the hiker register alone at the trailhead. Had I known it would rain on me all the way to the summit, I might have gone looking for a different hike.
The beginning of the trail is the same for Wild Horse and Agua Tibia, but splits at a junction in less than a mile. In the dark and mist, I followed a use trail into the Arroyo Seco riverbed and wasted 20 minutes backtracking to the trail. It would be hard to make that mistake in daylight. Once on the trail, I made steady progress. The grade is gentle to moderate, especially spread out over such a long distance. Somewhere around 3000', I entered the low clouds and visibility fell to about 20'. Clouds blocked my view all the way up. All the vegetation was wet, lush, and intensely aromatic. Higher up, oaks and pine trees appeared, adding to the assortment of trees along the trail. As I neared the summit, the rain picked up turning me into a drowned rat. Fortunately, it returned to a mist as I reached the cairn for the use trail. The use trail started out reasonably but there were sections completely overgrown. Pushing through wet vegetation is like hitting yourself with water balloons. Whatever small patches of dry I still had on my body were drenched. Worse, the manzanita refused me access to the summit without a small blood sacrifice.
Once at the summit, I climbed the two wet summit blocks, the higher one class 3. The register and benchmark were sort of between them in a flat clearing. The rain had finally stopped, but I had a hard time signing the register without dripping water on it. There were two registers in the cans, the newer one was placed in 2012 and didn't have too many entries. I didn't want to pull the older register out for fear of getting it wet. I placed the register back in the baggie and cans, then rested for a few minutes. Since I was about 30 minutes behind schedule and sopping wet, I decided to save Eagle Crag for another day, maybe approaching from the other direction on the Cutca Trail. On the way down, my cheap point and shoot camera fell victim to the water. The shutter stuck open and every picture after that was a dud. I went back to my phone for the remaining photos and will need to find another cheap camera for hazardous duty. I met 3 other hikers on the trail near the bottom, none looking prepared for a summit run. Despite the difficulties, it was another great day in the mountains. Agua Tibia may be the most difficult Lower Peak of the 54 I've done so far, or maybe it was just the cold November rain.