Palms & Elder Benchmarks

Sometimes just getting to the trailhead can be the first part of the challenge. Palms and Elder Benchmark sit to the west of Collins Valley, near Sheep Canyon. To get to the trailhead you need a true 4×4 vehicle and my Subaru Outback was not going to cut it. Two weeks ago during the hike out to Gasp Benchmark, I got to chatting with Greg Gerlach. He indicated that he would be up for climbing those peaks again. For those not immersed in peakbagging, Greg can be considered as truly one of the experts. In fact, he has almost finished the San Diego Sierra Club 3 times!

We set off to rendezvous with Greg in Borrego Springs at 7 am. Just as we began our descent toward the desert, the sun began to spread its glow across the sky. We pulled off a few times to let Ted capture it. After a quick bio-break at Hellhole Canyon trailhead, we pulled into the parking lot behind the taco shop. Greg arrived soon thereafter, and we quickly tossed our gear into his car as set off. We had almost another hour of off-road driving before we could start our hike. The road was fine, with the first two crossings bone-dry, as expected. The third crossing did have some water. As we bounced our way up “boulder alley”, it was clear that my trusty Outback would have met her match.

Palms (right) and Elder (left)

Parking near where we had before when the three of us climbed Squaretop back in late 2019, our gaze turned toward the steep rocky slope that we needed to ascend. These peaks are not really hikes, but more sustained climbing and bouldering. We scouted a basic line we wanted to follow and began our ascent.

For this section, the rocks were manageable and we did not encounter too many issues as we slowly worked our way up. We kept a steady but measured pace. As Greg put it, these two peaks are the 3rd and 4th hardest on the list. Soon we reached the first saddle and took a short break. From here we would work our way along the northern slope for a bit before picking our way through a more boulder-filled gully. Our effort was not so much measured in miles but in time.

Soon, we were ready to make the ascent up toward Palms Benchmark. Thankfully, we had encountered very little cacti along the way. One less hazard to worry about! The rocky slope soon started to become more sandy, letting us know that we had almost reached the summit. Once on the summit, the three of us set out to find the register and the benchmark. We did locate the register, and happily signed our names into it. But other than the remains of the survey post, we did not locate an actual mark. No matter, the views were sweeping. Off to the southwest, Squaretop. Directly to the west, Collins rose impressively. I am glad we did that peak from the other side, as coming up from the desert floor would have been a tough climb. Off to our north was our next peak, Elder Benchmark. After a bit of a rest, and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, we set off back down toward a small plateau that sits between Palms and Elder.

Looking back at Palms Benchmark

Once at the base of Elder, we again scouted our route. Elder’s slope is strewn with large boulders, making the ascent a tougher challenge. Add to that it is also higher than Palms Benchmark. We checked our elapsed time and felt that we should be ok. Our main goal was to be on the desert floor before we lost the light, so up we climbed. There were some tougher sections along this ascent, as the terrain was certainly tougher. Greg would have to scout ahead a few times to make sure we were not going to encounter elements beyond our comfort levels. We did have one section that took some care to cross. I took a narrow ledge for my route, while Ted opted to push up a steep sandy portion. Finally, we crested the ridge and climbed over a small false summit before reaching the actual summit.

We found the register and the mark with no trouble. We snapped a few photos, and took a short break, being mindful of the tough descent that still lay ahead of us. We made our way back down to the plateau without the drama we had upon the ascent. We made our way to the top of the gully and scouted our general path. This gully is filled with some car-sized rocks, so we knew we had our work cut out for us. I stored my pole in my pack, and we began our scramble down. The shadows were starting to creep across the valley floor as we stuck to the left side of the gully to avoid what we could.

About halfway down, the boulders became smaller in size and I broke out my poles. As we neared the desert floor, we passed by a rock that had a piece knocked off it. The colors were amazing. Once on the desert floor, we quickly cruised back to the car under the fading sunlight and the slight glow from the sliver of a moon. Once back in the car, we carefully headed back toward Borrego Springs. All told we spent just over 9 hours “hiking”, and according to my tracker covering 5.09 miles with 2,800 feet of gain. Ted’s GPS watch logged us at 6.39 miles. Go figure. In the end, my 94th and 95th peaks were now completed.

Gasp Benchmark

Today’s summit was going to be a special one. Gasp Benchmark was Susie Kara’s 100th peak on the San Diego Sierra Club 100 list. To honor this accomplishment, she invited a group of fellow peak-baggers to join her on the 6 or so mile hike to the summit. This peak sits to the east of McCain Valley and is one of those ‘fun’ inverted hikes. Since the distance and terrain were not too difficult, we agreed to meet at the trailhead at 9:15. As Ted and I pulled off the 8 toward Boulevard, we realized that we were quite early. So, I decided to drive all the way to the trailhead and not wait at our initial rally point. That way we would know the condition of the dirt roads. We knew the first section, the one you would use to head to Mt. Tule took some care to drive on, but the ½ mile road to our starting point was an unknown. As we reached the junction with the other road, a familiar friend was just locking up his bike and about to set off to Mt. Tule and peaks beyond. Ted needed Mt. Tule, so I said since there was plenty of time before we needed to sync up, he should grab Mt. Tule. If he wanted to continue on with our other friend, he could feel free, or he could hustle back and catch us. Ted grabbed his pack and set off, and I drove on down to the trailhead. The road was actually in slightly better shape than expected. I found a parking spot and hung out, enjoying the views.

Soon the rest of the group arrived: Greg Gerlach, Kelly Laxamana, Larry Edmonds and his wife Leslie, Matt Hanan, Gail Welch, Susie’s dad Larry, and of course the guest of honor, Susie. We quickly started to gear up. Since we had cell coverage, I pinged Ted as to his plan, and he said he was going for the loop: Mt. Tule – Rozzie – Groan – Gasp. I wished him luck, and the rest of us set off down the jeep road toward Gasp.

We spread out to hike in a properly socially distant manner. As we worked our way toward Redondo Spring, we chatted about various peakbagging adventures. The conversation soon turned to my remaining peaks. Greg, Matt, and Larry each offered insights on summiting them. We passed through a protected area that was created to offset the impact of the wind turbines that now dot McCain Valley. Soon the road came to an end along the ridge that we would follow down to Gasp Benchmark. On the way, we spotted a fox running through the bushes. I don’t think I have ever seen one in the wild.

A use trail would take us most of the way along the rocky ridgeline. Atop one of the minor bumps, we looked to the east, hoping the higher and closer bump in the distance was Gasp Benchmark. Checking our map, we were confident that it was. Across the canyon, the Impossible Railroad’s track and the famous Goat Canyon Trestle were easily visible. 

The terrain spread us out a bit more and we picked our way along the ridge, but soon we found ourselves atop Gasp Benchmark. We scoured around to see if we could find the actual mark, but just some wooden stakes and barbed wire were all that remained. We found the register and let Susie have it first. She had done it! It took a bit longer than she wanted due to Covid-19, but she had reached another major hiking milestone. Her dad had made a beautiful sign that she had tied to the back of her pack. Her smile beamed as she held it high, with the vastness of Anza-Borrego behind her. Since Greg and Larry are also 100ers, we had them also pose for photos. We kept scanning to the east, just in case we spotted our two friends on their loop, but had no success. It was time to head back, as there were pies waiting for us back at the trailhead. When Susie completed the 100 Peak Challenge, she brought a cherry pie in a Pyrex dish to the summit to celebrate. This time we had mini-pies from Betty’s Pie Saloon for each of us.

Back along the ridge we went. Just to the north, we would see Peak 3339 and Al Holden, and off in the distance, Sombrero Peak. Susie’s dad was having a bit of trouble making his way back up the ridge, so I stayed with him as we made the climb. I had to wait for Ted to complete the loop, so I was in no rush at all. I knew exactly how he felt after last weekend when I had trouble ascending from Knob Benchmark, and I was glad to be able to return the favor. We chatted off and on, depending on the terrain, but mostly just kept slowly making our way back up. Just after I let him know we were just about .2 miles away, we spotted the cars up along the road. Mission accomplished!

I dropped my gear at the car and grabbed my chair, my lunch, and a nice IPA from Second Chance Brewery. I ate my sandwich, then dove into a wonderful apple pie. Greg and Kelly had already left, as they had a bit of a drive home. We chatted a bit, wondering how our two other friends were doing on their hike. Not some twenty minutes later, they turned the corner. We were shocked and amazed. I was expecting another hour or so before I would see them. Ted looked beat. He said it was a monster of a hike. But that is his tale to tell. After some more relaxing, it was time to pack up and head home. For me, that was my 93rd peak toward the Sierra Club 100. 

Collins & Knob Benchmarks

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.

Fall on Cuyamaca Peak

Since I could not tackle any of my remaining Sierra Club peaks this week, I opted to finish the Six-Pack of Peaks- San Diego collection. I had been saving Cuaymaca peak for the fall, in part to enjoy some fall colors along the hike (I had also saved Mt. Wilson for the same reason, but the Bobcat Fire changed those plans). But also, to see if the SDGE construction closure order would finally be lifted. Ted Markus and I arrived at the Harvey Moore Trailhead just before 7 am. On the drive out we did catch a lovely sunrise. It was a brisk 44° as we set off. I was also testing out a new daypack, an Osprey Stratus 34. After last weekend, I realized I need a slightly bigger pack for longer hikes.

After carefully hiking across the bridge that spans the Sweetwater creek, we hopped onto the West Trail for a bit until it connected with the Monument Trail. The fleece I had on at the start was too warm, so it was time to test out the storage of the new pack. The pack has a small sleeping bag compartment, so I stuffed the fleece in there without an issue. We worked our way up the trail toward our first goal, Airplane Ridge. When I did this hike last year, I missed it and had to scramble back. This time I was a bit more attentive to the short cross-country scramble. Upon the small summit, we took a quick break. I opted to shed another layer before continuing on. There is no benchmark nor register, just a mystery can with a San Diego Adventure Club sticker. That will have to do.

Ted and I continued to make good time, and soon we came to the junction with the West Mesa Trail. This is one of my favorite sections, as there is something about a meadow that I like. Once across the meadow, we turned on the Burnt Pine trail. After a quick snack, we would travel through some of the only remaining pine trees that survived the fire. Intermixed with the pines were some oaks, so we got some lovely fall color. As we drew higher, small stretches of snow still remained, tucked in the shady northern sides of the trail. 

I had originally planned not to be hiking this weekend, as SpaceX was conducting a launch and land landing from Vandenberg AFB. But between the road closures forcing a fairly distant viewing spot and Covid, I opted to skip the 5-hour drive up to Lompoc. I was tracking the progress of the launch on my phone. As we reached the turnoff to Japacha, I pulled up YouTube to watch it. I missed the actual launch but followed the first stage’s return to the landing site. With that event done, we set off to summit Japacha peak. We weaved our way through the brush, following just a hint of the route. I had to double-check my previous track a couple of times to get us to the summit, where we took another short break. I signed the register seeing that the last person to sign in was almost a month ago, and the one before that about the same amount of time. Cuyamaca stood towering over us just to the north, so we once again headed off. 

We then reached the fire road that would lead us to the summit, about .4 miles away. Technically, this is still closed, but all reports stated the SDGE closure was not being actively enforced as they are no longer working on that project. There is a reforestation effort closer to the campground, and when that is occurring the closure is in effect. The road was steep, but the new tarmac was nice, no more crumbling asphalt to worry about. As we drew close to the summit, a new fence now surrounded the towers, so we hiked to the end of the road and followed the trail to the summit.

Ted and I took our photos, then found some nice spots, socially distanced, and had our lunch. We found the NASA mark, two reference marks, a metal plug atop one of the high rocks, and some rock graffiti from long ago. We set off down the fire road, and we finally started to encounter some other hikers, whereas up to that point we had only seen one trail runner.

We debated on what route to take; retrace our ascent or head down the fire road and take one of the connecting trails? We opted for the latter option. While the new pavement is nice, it is still a steep road. As we made our way down, some heavy equipment was parked along the side of the road in support of the reforestation. 

Once we reached the Fern Flat Fire Road, we left the pavement behind. The road also looked like some recent work had been done, and sure enough, we passed the parked grader that was smoothing out the ruts. This stretch was a pleasant stroll this time. Last time, I was hustling to make it back to the car to attend a birthday party for a friend. The only issue this time was I seemed to be developing some blisters on my pinky toes. At this point, I figured I was close enough to the car to not deal with them. 

Soon we spotted the parking lot and our three-peak adventure was over. Ted got to cross off three more peaks on the 100 Peak Challenge, and I completed the Six-Pack of Peaks – San Diego collection! The entire hike was about 14.2 miles, 2,780 feet of gain in 6:53 of hiking time.

San Ysidro East Peak

Today was to be an attempt at summiting San Ysidro East Peak. While it had been part of the plan when we did the crossing back in February, I had a blister that was bothering me, so I passed making the summit and continued onto The Sirens. Since I needed this peak to complete the Sierra Club San Diego 100, I knew I would have to make my way back.

Ted and I set off just past 6:30 from what is now a very familiar turn off on Lease Road in Ranchita. It was a brisk 40 degrees as we made our way up the old jeep trail. Once we reached our first saddle, the sun greeted us. We stowed our jackets and began heading toward a saddle just south of The Thimble. We were following the same basic route I had used for the first attempt back in February.

Once we reached this saddle, I outlined our basic route for Ted, pointing out various landmarks. The plan was to head directly to San Ysidro East Peak, then on the return maybe hit Goat Benchmark. I plotted a route that would bypass the dip down to Goat Benchmark and continue along the gully that we had been following. Along the way, we saw patches of snow and one animal skull.

Unfortunately, the route I had plotted increased in difficulty. Nothing too extreme, but certainly not as easy as we had been traveling before. Once my track rejoined our February track, we both agreed the other route was clearly the right path.

Note: Don’t return up that gully!

We began working our way down into Hellhole Flats. The day was warming up. We also were keeping an eye out for Matt Bennett, as he was out working on some of the other nearby peaks. We never did see him, but it was a long shot anyway.

We reached the base of the route to the summit of San Ysidro East and took a break. The temperature did give us concern, as we knew we still had a 5-mile hike back and up. I knew the ascent was going to be steep and hard. We opted to ascend on the left side of the gully. Soon, we found that this was a poor choice. It was more bouldering than we thought. After about 400 feet of elevation gain, with about another 900 or so to go, we stopped and took stock of our situation. Between the effort to summit, plus our return and our remaining water, we decided to abort our summit attempt. We crossed the gully to try descending along that side. It was certainly easier terrain. We did stop and look up and did consider it once more. We ultimately decided to play it safe and descend. Next time, I will follow Greg’s route without question.

We were bummed, but comfortable with the choice. Our return route was a bit south of our initial route. I was also scanning alternative exit options for the next attempt. Part of the reason I wanted to do this hike as an out and back is I did not enjoy the descent from The Sirens to past Kay Benchmark. I was scanning the route down to Webo benchmark and using it as an exit route for the next attempt.

We found a nice bit of shade and had our “summit” lunch. Now we would begin our second climb, back out of Hellhole Flats. We decided to go for Goat Benchmark as we were feeling the miles and heat some, but we also knew that most of this route was what we’re going to use to bypass the tough section we had used at the start of this adventure.

Goat Benchmark

We climbed up to the small plateau, then headed south. Scrambling up, we took a nice break on the higher bump. While Peakbagger has this spot as the peak, but the benchmark and register are on a bump just to the south. Knowing we still had over 1,000 feet to climb over the next 1.5 miles, this was good enough.

Our climb was slow and steady, as we were conserving our water. The Thimble served as our lighthouse as we followed some nice animal trails up the gully. We did stumble across another skull along the way. We reached the saddle just as I drank the last of my 2.5 liters of water.

Now it was just a short descent and the mile or so back to the car. Along the way, we met some locals out for a mountain bike ride. We chatted a bit and they were impressed with our adventure. Soon we were back at the car, where we quickly guzzled down the drinks we had stored. A stop at the Ranchita General Store was also in order for some cold refreshments before the drive home.

Although we did not reach our goal, it was still a good hike and one to learn from. All told it was 12.24 miles in 9:50 minutes, with over 3,800 feet of gain (although Ted’s watch had recorded 4,000 feet). When I try again there will be a few changes: wait for cooler weather, more fluids, follow Greg’s route toward Goat, and the Summit. I think I also will not do it as an out and back, but as a point to point via Webo and Ted benchmarks.

Santa Ysabel Loop

As America awaited the results of the election, I needed to take a break and get in a hike. With our first bit of winter weather due for the weekend, I opted to do one early Friday morning. I decided to hike one of my two remaining Coast to Crest Challenge hikes. I opted to hike the Santa Ysabel Loop on the Santa Ysabel East Preserve. This was going to be a 4.2-mile lollipop hike. As a bonus, I could pick up breakfast afterward at Farmhouse 78.

When I pulled up to the trailhead, two cars were already parked. While the skies had some clouds scattered about, the temperatures were perfect. I had hiked some of this preserve during the last Coast to Crest Challenge, and this section had some trails I would pass en route to other adventures.

The trail starts gently before making its way up the hill to the junction. Some beautiful signs pointed the trail route. As I worked my way up, one of the other hikers passed me, headed back down.