Back in March of this year, just before the Covid-19 lockdown started, Susie, Matt, Ted and I set out to summit Collins and Knob Benchmarks. Unfortunately, we encountered a closed gate and opted not to continue to our planned starting spot. Instead, we decided to hike up Palomar. By the time we all felt safe enough to hike together again, desert hiking season had ended. So, we waited for the start of the next desert hiking season. In doing our research on these peaks, there are two general routes to them; one that passes through the Schoepe Scout Reservation from Lost Valley and one that approaches from the desert floor via Salvador Canyon. Since Susie only needed 3 more peaks to complete her San Diego Sierra Club 100, she was very motivated to climb these. Matt had actually climbed both of them back in May by himself. One thing we did learn was that we would need permission from the Boy Scouts to access the route we were planning to use. With luck, Matt had developed a relationship with the Lead Ranger for the camp and was able to secure access for us. This route does cross their private property, so if you are considering attempting it from this direction, please seek permission first.
In addition to the four of us, Alberto was able to join in. He had recently finished the 100 Peak Challenge and was also starting on the Sierra Club list. Since he has a 4×4 Jeep, if we had opted to try from Salvador Canyon, we would have needed it to reach the trailhead. I am afraid the trusty Outback would not be capable of the journey. We met at the boundary of the BSA property shortly before 6. Matt was already there, as he had camped overnight. We quickly got ready in the predawn light, and while it was a brisk 40°F, we knew once we got moving we would be fine. We slipped through the gate and headed down the road for about 1.25 miles to what other trips reports referred to as the “Big Rock”. As we made our way down the road, the eastern sky began to glow as the sun started to rise. I wish we could have driven in further and saved some time.
We quickly reached the “Big Rock”, and now our adventure would truly begin. The first part of the hike would take us through a mixture of light brush, down various washes, and over gulleys. Since this is an inverted hike, we all knew that we would have to work our way back up upon our return. Our route did encounter one dry fall that required us to go around but beyond that, there were no real obstacles in this section of the hike. Our next waypoint was an old firebreak that would provide an easier path for us. Matt guided us there with no issues. It was nice not having navigation duty for a change. As we continued to work our way eastward, familiar peaks stood out to our south; Hot Springs Mountain, Pike, San Ysidro East, and eventually SquareTop. Rather than following Greg Gerlach’s track to the north of an unnamed bump, Matt followed his previous route to the south. This hike was going to be a lollipop hike, with this saddle serving as our reconnection point. After a short break for some fuel, Matt, Ted, and I each stashed some water for our return. We would now start to get our first views of Collins and Knob sitting below it.
Our next waypoint was Peak 4695, but first, we had to go past a minor unnamed bump. We had some side-hilling that was not fun for a bit as we made our way toward it. Looking back at both routes on Google Earth, I am curious if we reconnected with Greg’s route near this point and gone over that bump, would it have been easier?
Once atop 4695, we took another break while grabbing a snack, signing the register, and soaking in the views. Collins stood about a mile to the east along a nice ridgeline. There were two steep sections that needed to be climbed before we reached its summit. Along the way, I slipped and cut my hand slightly. Dr. Ted was able to patch me up. I had just taken my rock gloves off at 4695. Oh well, lesson learned.
I huffed and puffed my way up toward the summit. Matt sat atop the actual summit block, while the four of us rested below. I ate some food and took a well-earned break. I showed Alberto what would have been our route had we come up from the desert floor. We signed the register, but the benchmark was not immediately found. Matt scampered around a bit and found it on the east side of the summit block. I really did not feel like scaling up and over it, but there was an easy path along the north side, so I was able to get to it and snap my photos. I knew that the real challenge of this hike was about to begin.
When I said Knob was below Collins, that was a bit of an understatement. To reach it, we would have to descend 1,400 feet in less than a mile down a rocky and sandy gully. Pictures do not do justice to its steepness. We retraced our route to the saddle just below Collins, then headed down. The descent was hard, but not as crazy as we feared. Once at the bottom, we discovered some discarded clothing and a Home Depot bucket. We have no idea why or even how they were out there.
The ascent of Knob was not going to be a picnic either. The direct ascent from the north appeared to be a bit difficult. Keith Winston took that route and said it was tough. He had mentioned that the west side was more approachable. We found a nice animal trail that took us to the west side of the peak. From there it was a straight-up slog to the summit. The average slope was about 35%. The summit was small, with enough room for the five of us to spread out.
Palm and Elder, two of my remaining peaks stood directly to the east. This peak was our halfway point of the hike. I tried eating my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but it was just not happening. We signed the register and took our photos. I was nervous about our return, as we had about 6.5 miles back to our cars, and a lot of elevation to regain. We scouted out the basic route that we would follow back to the saddle where we had cached our water. Thankfully, the terrain did not look as challenging as that descent from Collins but was still imposing.
We headed down from the summit, being mindful of our remaining daylight. One of the disadvantages of doing it in late November versus mid-March was the amount of daylight we had. Our goal was to reach that saddle and then the firebreak before dusk. As we began working our way up, I really started to fade. About every quarter of a mile or so I would have to stop and rest for a bit, and I was getting worried. The rest of the group kept pushing me forward. Matt graciously took some of my pack weight off me to help. I have to admit, I seriously gave consideration to using my rescue beacon, as I did not want to put the rest of them in danger. Somehow, I found the strength to push on. Reflecting upon this a few days later, I think if we had done this with another hour of daylight, we might have eased our pace, and I might have had more gas in my tank for this section. Once we had reached the saddle, and the 1,600 feet of gain in only 1.75 miles were behind me, my energy and spirits did pick up.
While we still had almost 4 miles to go, and 1,300 feet of elevation still to cover, I was mentally feeling better. We had all mentioned at one point being a bit nervous about this hike, I guess some of that fear did get to me. I stayed focused on continuing, calling out to Ted to grab a photo once in and while. I was now feeling guilty about forcing the rest to spend more time hiking in the dark than planned. Soon, the sun cast its final glow across the desert behind us, offering a beautiful sight. We still had about two hours of hiking left. The moon was up, so we had some slight assistance as we continued on.
Our headlamps bounced along through the brush, and Matt and Alberto led the way, with Susie close behind. I stayed locked on Susie, and Ted was my rear support. The firebreak was not too bad in the dark, but we knew we still had that section from the firebreak to the road to traverse. Once we left the firebreak, we actually did quite well through that section. We would regroup every 10-15 minutes or so, in order to not spread too far apart. I was doing better, so it was now just a matter of finding our way back to the road and the final 1.25 miles along it to the car.
Once we got to that dry waterfall again, I knew we were getting close. Soon, Ted spotted the road in the distance and we knew we were almost out of the cross-country section of this adventure. At the road, we all breathed a sigh of relief, and I thanked the group again for helping me through that. It certainly was one of the most challenging things I have done so far. I took back my fleece from Matt, as it was getting chilly, and set off back up the road. Although we were back on a road, we still had 400 feet of elevation to cover. Ultimately, our cars came into view and our epic journey had ended. With the summitting of Collins and Knob, I now have just 8 more peaks to climb to complete the list. For Susie, those were her 98th and 99th peaks. Next weekend, we should be climbing Gasp Benchmark for her 100th! The stats for this hike according to Ted’s GPS watch were: 14.2 miles in 13:10 hours, with 5,260 feet of elevation gain/loss. Again, I am very thankful for my hiking partners who helped me conquer these peaks.