Saturday, May 30, 2015

Eagle Crag

Hiked: 5/29/2015
Distance: 18.2 miles round trip on trail and cross country
Summit Elevation: 5077'
Elevation Gain: 3900'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 3.12
Round trip time: 7 hours 30 minutes
Recommended water: 188 oz.
Parking/Fees: Adventure Pass
Difficulty: Strenuous

Deep in the Agua Tibia Wilderness, Eagle Crag is on both the Sierra Club HPS list and San Diego Peaks list. It's long, isolated, and requires a bit of off trail thrashing. Right up my alley. I wanted to climb it as part of a marathon day with Agua Tibia, but it was raining that day and I didn't feel like spending the extra hours getting soaked. Instead, I went back on the Cutca Trail since it offered new scenery. The Cutca Trail does have a logistical problem since it starts on High Point Road (8S05). The road is seasonally closed for winter and the gate was only opened last week. I had been monitoring it and jumped on it when the opportunity came up. The road is in pretty good shape up to the seasonal gate at about 3 miles. After that, it gets worse and I recommend a high clearance vehicle.

I started down the trail, dropping immediately into Cottonwood Canyon and the first of several stream crossings. In the canyon, I ran into one of two stretches of trail with poison oak intruding. About a mile of the trail here has a poison oak problem. Once you climb up to Cutca Valley, it tapers off and only hovers off trail. The first part of the valley is serene with large oaks. However, as you get close to an unnamed canyon before starting the climb out, the forest becomes dense with the worst stretch of poison oak, lasting another mile or more. The second stretch of poison oak intrudes into the trail from both sides, completely covering it in places. Long pants are a must. I also wore a long sleeved shirt, but you might get away with short sleeves if you are careful. The other annoyance you may face is swarming bugs. I had a halo of bugs and flies around my head in the canyons until I neared the summit. Periodically, I stopped to cover my head with a deet-based insect spray and rub it on my face. Each stop bought me about 10 minutes of freedom before my bug halo returned. I was glad to start the switchbacks up out of the valley and soon I was on the pine forested ridge. A little further, I spotted two obvious cairns marking the off trail gully to the top.

Cutca Trailhead

Signs in Cottonwood Canyon

Poison oak starting to crowd the trail

Serene section of Cutca Valley

Flower and bee

First signed junction, turn right

Mountain lion prints

Second signed junction

Looking back while climbing out of the valley and canyon

Cairns marking ascent gully. From other trip reports, there may be another gully with cairns 0.2 miles further down the trail. Faint use trail on right side of this gully.

The gully was steep class 1 with a faint use trail winding up the right side, marked by frequent ribbons. About half way up, a smaller gully comes in from the right and the faint use trail moves up the left side of this gully until it dumps you out a short distance from the summit. From there, you need to pick your way through poodle dog and manzanita. I put on gloves for the gully ascent but took them off about half way because I didn't really need them. The summit register is in a rocky outcrop, the crag, with a big drop and big views. A nearby bump, slightly higher, held no secrets or benchmarks. I perused the register and noted that Mars Bonfire had completed his 25 summits and was therefore done with it. What a monster! I found a lot of names I recognized before signing. Thankfully, the bugs did not follow me into the bright sun on the summit. I pulled out my sandwich and started for a large slab just below the summit for some grub. I stopped as I took my first step since the slab was already occupied by a basking rattlesnake, a Southwestern Speckled Rattlesnake according to a local expert. I took a few photos of the snake, then found another rock that was unoccupied. I finished my food, and checked on the snake again, still happily soaking up rays and oblivious to my presence. I took some care getting off the summit around sun exposed rocks or dirt, then started back.

I was moving at a good pace down the trail until I got back into the valley. I was blasting down the trail when I noticed a large snake only a few feet away from me. My reaction was to bolt about 10 more feet up the trail before turning around to get a better look. Damn, another rattlesnake. This one appeared to be a large adult, another Southwestern Speckled Rattlesnake despite the color variation, again according to the local animal rescue expert. It didn't rattle at me until I came back for some photo ops. The second snake raised my freak factor another notch. From that point on, I slowed way down and was laser focused on the trail. Getting bitten this far out meant either dying or a basket of other bad outcomes. No third rattlesnake made an appearance, leaving me to deal with the just the poison oak and bug halo. I found one tick on me all day and he didn't get attached. As the day warmed up to hot, the final 500' climb back to the trailhead put an exclamation point on a tough, satisfying hike. I cranked the AC and drank extra water on the drive home. It had been a great day in the mountains.

Approaching Eagle Crag

Looking down from Eagle Crag

View north

Register and MRE pastry

Southwestern Speckled Rattlesnake on a boulder just below the summit


Large adult Southwestern Speckled Rattlesnake on the trail in the valley

Big snake getting bored with me

Snake crawling through poison oak

Metal art along highway 79 on the way back


  1. Wow! I had no idea the Aqua Tibi Wild. had that many pine trees! Nice. Awesome rattlers. Thanks for the pics of them. I'm heading up Strawberry tomorrow again via Class 3...possibly adding on Lawlor. I'm getting trained for Mount Langley on June 12th......and some big Sierra hikes in the Rock Creek Lakes basin.

    1. Joseph,

      Pines start to show up the higher you get in Agua Tibia. It's really nicer the higher you go. Have fun back on Strawberry and in the Sierras.

  2. Keith,

    Outstanding pictures and trail trace-lines and highlights. +1 for the cat prints. Glad you had another safe, fun day of hiking.

  3. I'm getting you a bug net for X-mas.

    1. Dude, I needed it. Persistent pesky bugs.

  4. Was there water on the trail anywhere? Thinking of doing a point to point from Cutca to Dripping springs and trying to figure out how much water to bring.

    1. mhanan,

      There was a trickle in Cottonwood Creek and I think there was one other small creek crossing with a trickle, both within the first 2 miles of Cutca TH. I think there is some water on the Wildhorse trail, but I wouldn't count on it. Nothing on the Agua Tibia side. Also, I would plan on filtering any water you do find. Good luck, that is long haul!

  5. Thanks! Sounds like I'm lugging a ton. Will likely do an overnight on Eagle Crag, meeting a couple folks starting from the DS side and swapping keys. Maybe we can each cache a jug halfway.

    1. Sounds like a great trip. The Cutca trail to Eagle Crag is pretty wild country. Should be a fun camping spot.