Distance: 9 miles round trip on trail and cross country
Summit Elevation: 3968'
Elevation Gain: 3145'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 2.51
Round trip time: 7 hours 30 minutes
Recommended water: 144 oz.
Parking/Fees: $7 parking at campground
Indianhead Peak is in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. To get there from the OC, take the I-5 south to the 76 east, then 79 north, left on Montezuma for 17 miles, then left on Palm Canyon. Parking in the campground costs $7. It is 116 miles from my house, adding about 5 hours of drive time to an already difficult hike. To get an early start, I left at 4:30 am, got my parking permit, and started the hike at 7:05 am. The temp was a brisk 47F, but it climbed all the way to 80F on the ridge line. It would be scorching in the summer. Despite the heat, I would not attempt Indianhead without long pants because of the abundance of thorny plants.
The terrain reminded me of Death Valley, with desiccated, crumbly, rocks piled high. The boulders in the canyon and near the summit were house sized like the giant boulders in Black Star Canyon. There is a trail heading up the canyon about 1.5 miles to the first palm oasis. The trail ends there and you are on your own to navigate past that point. The canyon had a healthy stream flowing through it and stream crossing was required several times in addition to the boulder hopping. During one crossing, I dropped my Garmin GPS into the stream and it sunk about a foot down. It took me a minute or two to retrieve it, but it kept on working. Whew!
I had downloaded the coordinates that others have used for the ridge ascent and was tracking my position. Once I got to the final oasis, it was time to start the steep climb. The final ascent of Smith Mountain was as steep as Indianhead, but only a third as long. There were short sections of Iron Mountain just as steep, but none of my previous climbs had the boulder problems on top of the climb or constant cliff exposure. Most trip reports I read rate the easier route as class 2 with some class 3 sections. There are definitely a couple of places with scary exposure, maybe due to route finding mistakes I made. This was the most technical hike I'd done so far and the raw numbers on elevation gain and distance don't come close to measuring the difficulty.
When I got near the summit, I ran into more house sized boulders that appeared to block the path to the summit. It took some trial and error and giving up a little elevation to find a way around to continue up to the summit. I was also fighting cactus and thorny bushes all the way up and down. I removed at least 20 cactus needles from my legs and arms before it was over. For the first time on any hike, I stopped and applied some anti-bacterial lotion and a band-aid.
When I finally made it to the top, I signed the summit register and read some of the old entries. The way down was steep and slow. There were a couple of places that I could not find a way down based on my ascent track, and found a slightly different route down. Despite all the difficulties, the hike was an epic challenge and was very satisfying to complete. The views were spectacular and the weather was perfect. Due to the distance from my house, I probably won't be back for a while.
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