Friday, September 4, 2015

Stag BM

Hiked: 9/4/2015
Distance: 9 miles round trip on trail and cross country
Summit Elevation: 2272'
Elevation Gain: 2080'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 1.66
Round trip time: 5 hours
Recommended water: 80 oz.
Parking/Fees: Adventure Pass plus OC Parks $3/$5 on weekends
Difficulty: Moderate

Looking around the topo map for the Santa Ana Mountains, Stag benchmark caught my attention. It is north of the San Juan Fire Station (Ortega Highway) between Cold Spring Canyon and Crow Canyon. It seemed an odd place for a benchmark, since there is a slightly higher hill close by. Some research help by Pat on the San Gabriel Forum unearthed a National Geodetic Survey datasheet of the benchmark last updated in 1986. In addition to the benchmark, two reference marks were mentioned in the datasheet. I could not find any trip reports or beta on it anywhere else and decided an exploratory hunt was in order. It is possible this benchmark has not been visited in 30 or more years.

The nearest trail to Stag is the Los Pinos Ridge Trail, but getting there from the trail would involve crossing a very steep, nasty, and likely poison oak filled section of Cold Spring Canyon. The NGS survey suggested approaching on a dirt road from Ortega Highway followed by some cross country travel on firebreaks. I plotted a route close to that starting at the fire station off Ortega Highway. There are two possible fees involved with this route. The one public parking spot at the fire station requires an Adventure Pass (presumably), then you enter Caspers Wilderness Park, a county park with a day use fee, then head north into the Cleveland National Forest to hit Stag. We started up Hot Spring Canyon Road, then quickly turned left down Sievers Canyon Road. This road is in Caspers Wilderness Park and we paid the day use fee, though the signs at the northern border discourage entry at that point. There is a picnic area just past the gate. A short distance down the road, we ran into several mule deer. Before we got to Cold Springs Trail junction, we saw a lone stag cross the road (aces!), but it bounded away before I got a photo. We followed Cold Springs Trail through a shaded area, crossed a dry creek, then ran into another group of mule deer.

Caspers Wilderness Park and Sievers Canyon Road

Mule deer

Junction with Cold Springs Trail

On the trail, we found a tarantula hawk wasp. I had seen many in my travels but this was the first one I was able to photograph. We continued up the switchbacks until it met the Oso Trail. A right turn at Oso Trail junction got us deeper into Caspers Wilderness Park. The next junction was not signed, but our track had us make another right turn and continue north. Then we ran into a gate that separated the park from Audubon property. From what I had read, public access is allowed on Audubon property as long you stay on a trail. Probably less than a half mile of the trail passes through the Audubon bird sanctuary so we figured we were OK to continue. We quickly got back into the Cleveland National Forest and reached the northern most point on the trail. From there, we started weaving our way through brush toward Stag.

Tarantula hawk

First glimpse of Stag BM

Before leaving the trail for the 0.6 mile one-way thrash, I stopped to put on knee high gaiters to reduce the damage to my legs. There were reasonably good animal trails heading up the first bump, down to a saddle, and up to the second bump (peak 2213). Near the top of the second bump, we found an overgrown firebreak and followed that down to the saddle with Stag. Then, everything got thick with no clear path forward. I stopped again and put on a long sleeved top, got out the clippers and handed them to Noel who was in the lead at the moment. Noel clipped some brush and we pushed through slowly until the clippers broke on a beefy branch. We briefly considered turning back but were less than a quarter mile from the top. We steeled ourselves and started bashing through. Fortunately, the firebreak reappeared and the brush got a little thinner. It was still light to moderate bushwhacking, but the heaviest stuff was behind us. I thought I had entered the coordinates of the benchmark in my GPS, but when I checked, it wasn't there. We forged ahead to the high point and scoured the area but could not locate the actual benchmark or any reference marks. I had hauled up a green register box, a register and a couple of pencils. We signed the register and placed the box at the summit of Stag BM. The bushwhacking had left us looking filthy. There were good views in a few directions and brush blocking the view in other directions. There was a sense of satisfaction getting to the top, even if we didn't find the benchmark. On the way back, we went down the ridge of the peak 2213 all the way to where it nearly met the trail. Then, we crashed through another thick section of brush and small trees. With enough searching, we might have found a better way out. On the way back, we ran into the same two groups of deer in about the same areas, but didn't spot the stag a second time. We were both pleasantly surprised that we encountered no ticks or snakes the entire trip. If you make this trip and sign the register, please let me know by email or comment. I'd be interested in the route you took and if you located the benchmark.

Noel off trail

Path to Stag

Looking up at Stag from the saddle

Plastic stag in the register

Noel signing the register, and a woodrat nest (we saw several along the way)

Filthy animal signing the register

Register final resting spot

View back toward the OC

Santiago Peak from Stag BM

Noel busting out of nasty chaparral on the way back to the trail

This is how I end up breaking a lot of cameras


  1. "Before we got to Cold Springs Trail junction, we saw a lone stag cross the road, but it bounded away before I got a photo."

    You didn't find Stag but you saw a stag anyway. So the day was a success.

  2. Madison,

    I agree. Lots of wildlife, we hit the summit and left a register. A fine day in the local mountains.