Mount Inspiration

After grabbing lunch, it was time to enter the park proper to summit my third peak of the day, Mount Inspiration. As I sat in the slow-moving line of cars to enter, I enjoyed my burrito. Once in the park, I drove on toward Keys View. Along the way, I passed full parking lots and tons of people enjoying the park. I hoped I would be able to find a spot in the parking lot once I got there. One advantage of this destination is most do not stay that long, so I should not have to wait long for a spot to open. Thankfully, just as I pulled up, a spot opened and I grabbed it. I had tried to do the peak a couple of times before but was never able to work out the logistics. 

The trail begins at the northwest corner of the parking lot. I could see a few folks atop the first section of the trail enjoying the views. I worked my way up the trail with no trouble. Once I was at the top I could see the use trail continuing off to the northwest. It dropped down to a small saddle before working its way up toward South Mount Inspiration. Here I met two hikers returning from the summit. They were also working on the Sierra Club Hundred Peaks Section (HPS) list. One of them had about 70 done! We chatted a bit before parting ways, and I noted a section they mentioned gave them trouble.

The use trail continued to be really good until it reached a small bump en route. I scanned the terrain and spotted it working its way around it to the east. This is where I think those two hikers had the trouble they mentioned. Also along the way, I passed a metal shed. I have no clue as to what it is — some more research is going to be needed.

Once on the summit, I found the primary mark, and reference mark #2. Try as I might, reference mark #1 could not be located. I also found the register tucked under a small rock pile. The label box made for a nice photo. The skies had become hazy, so those snow-capped mountains from earlier in the day were not nearly as visible.

On my way back, I made the small detour to the top of South Mount Inspiration just because. Soon, the parking lot came back into view, and shortly thereafter I was back at my car. With that, three more HPS peaks were now complete. Next week, I will attempt my 98th peak on the San Diego Sierra Club 100 Peak list.

Eureka Peak

Had I not wanted to have a low-key day, I might have connected my trip up Warren Peak to Eureka Peak, but I was not interested in that kind of mileage. Instead, I drove down Covington Flat road toward Warren Peak. This was a nicely groomed dirt road, better than some roads I have driven in San Diego. I had the window down and enjoyed the 25-minute drive.

I parked at the end of the road, with one other car parked nearby. Since the peak was only about 1/10th of the mile from the parking area, I just grabbed my wind shell and trekking poles.

The actual peak is almost barren, sans one lone plant. I could not find any marks nor a register but was not surprised. The views were lovely, but the wind made it chilly, so once again I did not linger. As I drove back toward town to grab lunch, several cars passed me. While some were off-road friendly, I hoped the Honda Civic and Tesla did not encounter any issues.

Warren Peak

After the intense effort of last weekend’s peaks, I wanted to spend some time taking it a bit easier. While I did have some friends planning to hike Mile High via Rattlesnake Canyon, a route that looks very interesting, that was going to be a bit more than I wanted. So, instead, I opted to head out to Joshua Tree and try to knock off some of the peaks on the Sierra Club Hundred Peaks Section (HPS) list. Since it is high desert season, I knew I needed to get to the trailhead early for my first peak, Warren Point. The trail begins from the Black Rock Campground, & I got one of the last spots at the trailhead parking area when I arrived at 7:30. I grabbed my gear and set off through the campground. 

The trail was very well marked and clearly well-traveled by the number of footprints in the dirt. After a short bit, the West Side Loop Trail connected with the Black Rock Canyon Trail and continued south. This trail eventually reached the Panorama Loop. As tempting as it was to add this onto the adventure, I was hoping to cross three peaks off the list today, so I took the fork leading up to Warren Peak.

The trail would start to turn westward as it made its way up toward the peak. The peak finally revealed itself near the junction to the spur out to Warren View. The path now became a bit steeper, and I met two hikers returning from the summit. As I approached the summit, the winds had picked up a bit, so I tossed on my wind shell before reaching the top. The trail had curved behind the peak, so the scrambling I thought I might have to do never materialized.

I found the primary mark and the register. This is a fairly popular peak, given its closeness to the campground, so the register was at best a year old. The views of San Jacinto and San Gorgonio were spectacular from the summit. I did not linger too long, as the wind was a touch chilly and I had two more peaks to visit.

On my return, I passed quite a few groups of hikers making their way up the trail. For the most part, the trail is nice and wide, so I had no concerns. I opted to stay on the Black Rock Canyon trail the entire way back to the car. When I got to the car, every parkable area was taken. I was able to carefully back out and head to my next destination, Eureka Peak.

Red Top & Sawtooth HP

Whenever you talk to someone about the San Diego Sierra Club 100 Peak list, two peaks are always referenced as the hardest on the list – Red Top and Sawtooth Mountains High Point. In fact, my hiking buddy Matt Hannan referred to them as “Fun and Funner”. As I scoured over trip reports, reading of failed attempts to summit the pair, I knew that I truly had a mountain to climb. One of the challenges for these peaks is their remoteness compared to the rest of the peaks. While some might require some serious 4×4 driving to reach the trailhead, these peaks sit tucked within an area of Anza-Borrego known as the Inner Pasture. There are no accessible roads that can take you to the base of the mountain, so you are first going to have to hike in. There are three routes others have used in the past. One route begins in McCain Valley and descends down Pepperwood Canyon before reaching the Inner Pasture and the south face of the mountain. While the length of this route is not too bad, it does mean you have to climb back up the canyon after the summits. Another route climbers have used is to drive down Indian Gorge road, hike over a rocky pass, then onto the Inner Pasture. While this route does not have the big climb like the Pepperwood route, the crossing of the rocky pass twice (usually in the dark) is not fun either. The ascent up the peaks is usually the same south face as Pepperwood’s. The third option is to approach it from the north. This is an even longer route, but the hike to the base of the mountain is an easy one, through a nice canyon for about 3 miles, then across the flat Inner Pasture for another 3+ miles. Susie Kara and Matt Bennett had used this route last year with success. Now, a lot of climbers attempt these peaks as a long day hike, but some have started to treat them as an overnight trip. This was what Matt and Susie did, and I decided to follow their example for my attempt. 

Sawtooth and Red Top
Sawtooth HP and Red Top from near False Sombrero

In addition to choosing a route, there is a very limited window in which you can try to summit these peaks. You need enough daylight to safely climb them, and also since they are relatively low, the desert heat becomes a factor as well. Mid to late February is usually the best choice. So, we began targeting the weekend of the 19th through the 21st for our attempt. My usual hiking companion Ted Markus was up for the challenge, as well as Susie and Matt. In addition, Greg Gerlach was up for trying this route as well. He had done these peaks three times before, once via Pepperwood and twice via Indian Gorge. He was curious to see if it was ‘easier’ with the third route. He also agreed to spend a second night and camp with us. We had a rock star team assembled, and I could not have asked for a better group of climbers to go with.

Since Ted and I were camping two nights, we needed a bit more water than the 7 liters Susie and Matt used for the first trip. Rather than carry all that weight out at once, the previous weekend Ted and I made the 14-mile round trip hike to our planned campsite and cached about 10 liters between us. This also gave us an opportunity to see the start of the climb up close, as well as the crossing of the Inner Pasture. I was familiar with the canyon section, as it is the same route one uses to climb Stage Benchmark. 

Red Top in the distance

We met Greg at the small turnout that we would use near the entrance to the unnamed canyon. We hoisted our packs onto our backs and set off. Ted certainly won the award for the biggest pack load. Although I had 4 liters cached, I still carried out almost 5 more liters. Matt and Susie were planning to join us later in the day. We wanted to take the hike out nice and slow – no need to race to the campsite. Since I am not an experienced backpacker, I did want to give myself enough time to set up camp in daylight. 

The miles ticked off fairly quickly, with Ted & I stopping twice for a quick break. We wound up heading basically straight for the entrance to the drainage where we would camp. Not really a problem, but we had hoped to use the wash that we followed out the previous weekend. Oh well. Regardless, we still made the nearly 7 miles in 3:15 with fully loaded packs. 

Once at the campsite, we dropped our packs and went off to recover our caches. There was a little bit of me hoping they were gone and I would not have to climb these monsters. But the bottles of water were safely recovered. No excuses now…

We set up our tents, keeping ourselves safely apart. Plus, no one needs to hear me snore. Matt and Susie came just as the sun was dipping below the ridgeline. We all chatted for a while, made our dinners, and agreed on waking up around 5:30 to set off by 6:30. As I lay in my tent, I went over the route in my head, recalling the satellite imagery to help as landmarks. While I knew Matt would be our guide for this hike, I still needed to take responsibility for my own safety if I needed to navigate for whatever reason.

A quarter moon lit up the night sky as I lay in my tent trying to fall asleep. My mind kept going over the challenge of tomorrow’s hike. Sleep did come, although fitfully. I woke to the predawn glow and quickly boiled some water for a hot cup of coffee. I had packed my slackpack the night before, so I was basically ready to go. We all were soon up and getting ready for a long day. We could see the sunlight begin to illuminate the summit of Red Top. To the north, the sun’s rays cast a golden glow across the Inner Pasture as I ate my breakfast.

The plan was to ascend up the drainage to the saddle between Red Top and Sawtooth, climb Red Top, which is usually considered the harder of the two, return back to the saddle and climb up Sawtooth, then return back down to the saddle and follow the drainage back to camp. I put all my remaining gear in the tent for safety and to give it some extra weight as the forecast had some winds predicted. The temperature was forecast to be in the low 60s, so I dressed fairly light. I had on one extra top layer, as we would be in the shade of the drainage for a while and it was in the mid-40s when we set off. That is another reason this route has some appeal – the fact you will be in the shade for some time while hiking. 

With Matt in the lead, we set off up the drainage toward the saddle. Our route was a mixture of sand, rocks, brush, and cactus, and it took some effort and looking ahead at the route to find the easiest path. After about an hour, we took a short break and shed a layer.

Soon, the summit of Sawtooth also came into view to the south as we drew nearer to the saddle. It was clear to see why these peaks are so difficult – their slopes are nothing but a jumble of boulders and brush. There is no easy ridge line to follow, just a combination of your route-finding skill and a dash of luck. 

Once at the saddle, we took an extended break. It had taken us just slightly over 2 hours to cover the 1.8 miles with about 1,200 feet of gain. We cached some water for later under the shade of a large boulder, as there was no sense in hauling it up and down Red Top.

We could see the summit from the saddle and I put my trust in Matt to find a way through what seemed an impossible climb. About halfway up, we reached a small plateau, which let us have a short breather, as the next section increased in difficulty. We stored our trekking poles, as the climb now required the use of our hands. As we worked our way up, the views to the southeast were spectacular. Finally, after an hour and a half to cover the ¾ of a mile with over 800 feet of gain, we were at the summit of Red Top. 

We mostly hung out in the cave at the summit, enjoying some snacks, signing the register, etc. This was Greg’s fourth time on Red Top, he commented that was the easiest route he had ever had up from the saddle. We still had a long day ahead of us, however. At the summit, I discovered that I had lost one of my trekking poles during the ascent. They had gotten snagged on some brush at one point and it must have pulled the pole out of my pack. Crud! Hopefully, we would be able to retrace our route and find it, otherwise, I would have issues. I had also noticed the possible formation of a blister on the tip of one of my toes. Yup, a blister had formed. I took care of it, hoping it would not impede me. From the summit, we could see our next peak. There is just over a mile between the two summits, but it would take us almost three hours to cover it (including another break back at the saddle). That should give you an idea of the difficulty of these peaks.

Sawtooth HP from Red Top

We set back down toward the saddle, and sure enough, Matt spotted my missing pole. That tree must be related to Charlie Brown’s Kite Eating Tree! I was glad to have it back. My usual hiking pack has straps for my trekking poles so they would have been secured, but alas this pack does not. Something to address the next time I use that pack.

The breeze had started to pick up, which was fine, as we would no longer have any shade for a while. We gathered our cached fluids, had a nice snack, and reviewed the basic route that we were going to take up toward Sawtooth. Unlike Red Top, which is basically a direct approach, Sawtooth requires bypassing a peaklet. On the ascent, we stayed on the south side of it. This certainly took some care to navigate through the boulders. In addition, portions of this climb are sandy, but not like you would know by looking. If you have ever climbed up a steep sandy slope you will know that it is hard and draining. I started to feel my energy dropping as I made my way slowly up. Matt scampered back down to me and offered to carry some of my pack items to lighten the load. It wasn’t much, but enough to help me along.

I would look at the map on my phone, and see that we were closing in on the summit. I could almost taste it. When I arranged this attempt, I let the group know that if I ran into issues or was too slow, I would abandon trying for Sawtooth. Now, though, the summit was just a few hundred feet away. We came up the south side, and just as we did the winds began to roar. Those 40 mph gusts that were predicted came true. Carefully crossing an exposed section, Ted and I sat atop the south side of Sawtooth. I was in a bit of a daze. I had done it! The reality didn’t hit me until the next day, and in part I knew that right now, I still needed to get down from the peak. We had a snack and I proudly signed the register. Since we had cell service, I texted my family the good news. Once we had recovered a bit, we clambered over some more exposed boulders to the northern side of the summit. Susie had kindly signed us in on the register located there, as neither of us wanted to scramble up. 

Matt took us down a slightly different route from the summit, in part to see if we could avoid the troubles we had on the south side of the peaklet. So, we worked our way around the northside, and overall it was a better choice. Again, a HUGE thank you to Matt and his talents. Once back at the saddle, we took another break under the shade of a large boulder. Since Susie and Matt had hoped to hike out that evening, they bid adieu and they set off down the drainage. Greg, Ted, and I began our descent. Our route finding was pretty good, we would stop and readjust our track from what we recorded on our ascent, but nothing critical. Our only real issue was Ted hit his head on a boulder and had a small scrape that he had to attend to.

The sun dipped below the ridgeline as we drew nearer to camp, but we knew that we were almost done so we had no worries. When we arrived, we discovered that the wind had blown over my tent and moved Ted’s as well. There was no damage to either (except Ted did lose a tent stake). Once we had restored our tents, I quickly ate my dinner and called it a night, as did Greg and Ted. I was spent from the day. That was the hardest hike I have ever done to date. Palm and Elder were a close second, but these two peaks beat them. The stats for the day were 6.6 miles in 10:50 hours with 2738 feet of gain. If I ever revisit these peaks, I will do them as single peaks. In part, I would like to enjoy the summits more and not worry about the other summit. 

We woke around 6 the next morning and started to break camp. While enjoying my morning coffee, I started to feel prouder about my summits. I knew it was still going to take a few days to fully process it. We enjoyed how much lighter our packs were without all the water and food we carried in. We set off just after 7 back toward the cars, and this time we did find the wash we used last week, making some great time crossing the Inner Pasture. We reflected on yesterday’s hike, and Greg commented that he felt the south approach is still slightly better. The primary reason being the easier exit off of Sawtooth. 

On the way out, we encountered two hikers headed out to attempt Red Top. They were going to use the south approach, so they had quite a hike across the Inner Pasture. We asked about what their water load was, and they replied 4 gallons. Yikes! That is a lot of weight. They also planned to camp and attempt it the next day. We wished them luck and parted ways.

Once back at the car, we changed out of our hiking clothes into some clean clothes. Greg said goodbye and to keep him in the loop for my final hikes. Ted and I then drove a few minutes to the Agua Caliente Store and bought some well-earned ice cream sandwiches for a second breakfast. Over the three days, we hiked nearly 20 miles.

Now onto the final three!

Caching…

Today’s adventure was not directly about summiting a peak, but rather the preparations for the attempt. Red Top and Sawtooth (aka Fun and Funner) are the two hardest peaks on the San Diego Sierra Club 100 peak list. Instead of attempting them as a very long day hike, we are going to tackle them as an overnight trip. Susie and Matt used this approach last year with good success. So, following their lead, that is the method we are going to use for my attempt.

Sawtooth and Red Top
Sawtooth (left) and Red Top (right) from near False Sombrero

To try to maximize my probability to summit these monsters, Ted and I decided to hike to the base of the mountain and leave a water cache. That way, my backpack can be a touch lighter. So, Ted and I switched over to our full backpacks, swapped in our standard kit and the water for the cache and set off.

The first part of the hike took us through an unnamed canyon. I had hiked it before when I summited Stage Benchmark and knew that it was an easy 3 miles. Once the canyon opened up onto the Inner Pasture, to our west Red Top rose above the desert floor. We continued to follow the wash to the west. The miles ticked off fairly quickly with us only stopping briefly to double check our track.

Soon, we drew near the base of the mountain, and then continued up the drainage to next week’s camping site. We dropped our packs and enjoyed our lunch, feeling good with the pace we kept. I placed my water out of sight nearby. Ted did the same with the water he carried. When he went to pull out his bottles, he realized that he had carried 6 liters, in addition to the fluids he budgeted for the hike itself. We had quite the laugh. We certainly had enough water for next weekend. We looked up the rocky draw that would be our route to the summits. This is going to be a challenge. I am hoping that Matt and Susie have a good memory of their route to help us along.

The topo map shows a spring nearby, so on our way out, we made a small detour to see if it existed. Upon reaching the spot, it was clear that if it did exist, it was not going to be accessed. So much for that idea.

We made good time cruising back, now that our packs were much lighter. We were observing the route with a bit more care. We might be traversing this in the early evening after our summit attempt. Susie and Matt had hiked out partially in the dark.

Once back at the car, we were feeling good about this portion for next week. We decided to treat ourselves to a nice ice cream from the store at Agua Caliente. Now to prepare for the real test.

El Cajon

I needed a good hard hike to keep training for upcoming my Red Top/Sawtooth attempt. I considered some of the harder desert hikes as an option, but Ted needs most of those peaks and he was going to be unavailable on Sunday. I was able to convince my friend Dave to tag along for some company. Initially, I wanted to hike Agua Tibia again, but Dave’s time constraints were tighter than mine, so that was not an option. Since I signed up for the San Diego Edition of the Six-Pack of Peaks and am doing the Tour Our Trails challenge as well, I figured why not just do “The Hardest Hike in San Diego™”, aka El Cajon mountain.

We wanted an early start as we both wanted to be home to watch the game. As we drove out to the trailhead, I snapped a photo of the morning sky for Ted, one of his favorite parts of our adventures. The parking lot was not open yet, and a modest amount of cars lined the road. We quickly geared up and set off. The fruit stand was open and looked tempting.

We shed our jackets after about a mile. I was all set to stuff into the sleeping bag compartment in my pack, only to discover I never took out the windbreaker from last weekend. So into the main part of the pack it went. The miles ticked off fairly well as we made our way up and down the trail. A few folks passed us returning to the car from probably being at the summit for sunrise.

Stopping for a quick snack just before the old jeep, we hear the sounds of someone sharing their music. This behavior annoys me to no end. I came out here to enjoy nature, not your favorite jam. We let them pass, along with their unleashed dog, then waited a bit before resuming. Finally the summit came into view and we began the last bit.

Once at the summit, there were a few people scattered about. I found a spot off the side and enjoyed my PB&J and a few orange slices, while Dave had to take care of some work-related issues. The summit sign was no longer in the ground, but it was still attached to the pole. I snapped a few photos and was ready to head out. Since folks were hanging out where the marks are located, I skipped them this time.

As we headed back down, we encountered more folks making their way up. Also the day was warming up a touch. I had to think some of the folks are not going to like their hike back to the car. El Cajon is known as a hike that is “uphill, both ways”. I did regret not wearing a lighter shirt and pants, as I was starting to feel a tad warm. We plodded our way back to the car without any real issue. All told our active hiking time was 6:15, not too bad. I think if we had stayed longer at the summit, and I had some more recovery time before setting off our time could have been under 6 hours.

Dos Sombreros

With the local trails needing to dry out from the recent storm, and no way was I going anywhere near the snow, I headed back out to the desert. Some of this year’s 100 Peak Challengers were attempting to summit both Sombrero and False Sombrero peaks via what I think should be called the “Bennett Traverse”. The ladies kindly let me tag along for what was going to be a hard but fun day in Anza-Borrego. 

Sombrero under the full moon

As I neared our rendezvous at Mountain Palms Campground, the sun was still casting its glow on the mountains, the snow stood stark across the Lagunas, and the moon shone above it. This planned route was going to require a car shuttle. We parked two cars at the base of False Sombrero, then piled into the third car to drive over to the trailhead for Sombrero. Both Susie and I had done these peaks before as single ascents, but our friend Matt Bennett had explored a route that linked them together. Given the difficulty of both of these peaks, we were all up for this alternative route. 

The five of us headed along the faint trail and began our climb. Much of the elevation and effort was going to be the ascent of Sombrero. In just 1.4 miles, we would gain some 1,880 feet. This was one of the few hikes in the challenge I had not done a second time. I always find it interesting to compare my ascents and see where I have grown as a hiker.

The use trail did a pretty nice job getting us up to the plateau and I was feeling good. One of the reasons I wanted to do this hike was to see how my knee responded to some effort. With the use trail gone, we began working our way up the middle section of the peak. When I did this before I tackled it fairly straight on, while this time we took a more north east angle. I think we made a good choice. Finally, Sombrero came into view. As an added bonus, we found the metal pole and chain! Still have no idea why it is here.

We stayed more on the right side of the peak as we made our final push up. We started to find tiny patches of snow tucked in the shade. Just before we reached the summit, we ran into a small obstacle, so we split up and scouted alternative routes. In a short time, we each bypassed it and were atop the peak.

After a nice break and photos, we began to survey the route we would take over to False Sombrero, which lay to the northeast of us. We could see the basic path we would take, for the most part, so down we went.

We followed a ducked route that is used if you do this peak from the McCain Valley route. That is another route I hope to try one day. Once at the base, we passed a faded sign denoting this was indeed Sombrero Peak. We heard the din of some motorcycles riding the trails, but that was only for a short time. 

Our route took us across the ridge, for the most part with little issue. We tried to stay along the same contour line as we worked our way ever closer to False Sombrero. Staying beyond the actual ridge, we finally came to a spot where we could now see the Inner Pasture, Red Top, and Sawtooth rising up. I stared at them, wondering if I will be able to conquer them…

The final scramble up False Sombrero stood before us. We quickly made our way up and took a well-earned break. The views were incredible. The Salton Sea to our east, the snowy Lagunas to our west, and Sombrero off to the south. 

After a snack, some photos, and of course adding our names to the register, we headed down. The descent is in two parts–the very steep and loose sandy section, followed by a bouldery portion. Our descent would have us lose about 1,300 feet in just 8/10th of a mile. 

We cruised down the sandy section without incident, sans one cholla that tried to hitch a ride on me. While descending, I had flashbacks to when Derek and I did this peak. Later that day, Facebook reminded me that it was two years ago that we did it. After picking our way through the boulders we found ourselves back at our cars. The ladies piled into the Jeep and headed back to the Sombrero trailhead to get the other car, while I headed back solo. This route is the best way to do these peaks. Skipping the tough ascent for False Sombrero and not having to descend Sombrero is worth the couple extra miles via traverse.

Indian Hill

Since it was just past noon, we decided to add in one more peak. When we were out 4x4ing a few weeks back, Ted had done Piedras Grande, but we skipped Indian Hill. I drove out to the trailhead via Mortero Canyon.

As we grabbed our gear, the wind was starting to pick up. Once at the base of Indian Hill, we debated on our route. This time I decided to try it from the east side rather than from the north. The ascent was pretty straight forward and a bit easier.

We snapped a few photos, signed the register and returned via the same general route, as the wind continued to pick up.