Stage Benchmark

After car camping in Agua Caliente County Park, I met Greg Gerlach for another ascent up Stage Benchmark. We met at 8 and after grabbing our gear we headed out. We had over 4 miles of easy hiking to the base of the peak, so we saved our catching up for then. We both had been busy hiking all sorts of places. In fact, Greg had just returned from hiking Guadalupe Mountain in Texas. The wash was a familiar section to both of us. This would be Greg’s fourth ascent of Stage. In addition, this is also a common route for those wanting to conquer Red Top or Sawtooth.

Just at the boundary fence, a cache of water, food, and some clothes had been left for migrants. We continued along the road southward toward the base of the peak. Surveying a route up toward the ridge that would take us to the summit, we left the desert floor and started up. Cactus dotted the rocky slopes as we worked our way up. We took a short break partway up, and Red Top stood before us to the west. After the brief rest, we continued upward. Our route seemed easier than what I remembered from last time, but we still had to reach the summit and navigate back down.

We reached the summit and took a well-earned break. I snapped some photos of the views. I must admit there are some nicer views of Anza Borrego. We signed the register and I found the benchmark and two reference marks. Then, it was time to head back down. We retraced most of our route, but this time we opted to head down an alternate path. Again, the route seemed fairly easy for us. Although I had a couple of chollas to pick off at times.

Once back on the Inner Pasture floor, we cruised back along the dirt road and into the canyon. Again, the miles passed quickly. We chatted about our next hikes, but we needed the weather to sort itself out before picking out our next peak. All told we covered 9.9 miles in 5:48 with an elevation gain of 1,716 feet.

Climb for Heroes

After spending the night in Ontario and seeing my daughter who attends the University of Redlands, I made my way up toward the start of the Climb For Heroes. It was just before 7 am and cars were already parked along the sides of the road as I passed Icehouse Canyon. Yikes! I continued on past Manker Flats and into the parking lot for the ski area. This time I was doing this hike as a member of Team SoCal Hiker, and in fact as one of the group leaders for them. I helped out at the registration table, checking in others and chatting with other Team SoCal’ers. In fact, I finally met Phil Yolo in real life. Finally, the start time was drawing near, so I grabbed my gear from the car. After a few team photos, it was time to start the climb!

I let some of the initial rush head up the trail before heading out myself. The first bit of this climb is a steep section, so I reminded myself not to let the excitement of the event push me to hike faster than I should. Along the route, there are various “camps” we check in at to have our bibs marked and receive our swag tokens.

At the Notch, I took a quick bio-break at the restaurant before continuing up the service road. At the Devil’s Backbone, a small crowd was milling around, so I skipped the photo op with the sign and continued across the ridge. Safety personnel controlled the exposed section to reduce the risk, as well as they fix ropes for those who need a little extra confidence.

I continued pushing onto the summit, enjoying it more this time, but missing my usual hiking buddies. Once I reached High Camp, I took a nice break before the final push to the summit. As I made my way up, we were treated to a flyover from the Condor Squadron.

I continued making my way up, pausing to let my heart rate settle back down. It was here I finally met the “Super Hiking Twins”, Arabella and Matthew. I chatted with their equally impressive parents and the twins some before parting ways.

Finally, the summit came into view! I took my photos at the “Summit Camp” and at the Mt. Baldy plaque. Then I found a nice spot for some lunch and rest. The views were awesome. But soon it was time to head back down.

The descent went smoothly. After grabbing a beer at Camp 3, I continued on down to the Notch. This time I decided to use the chair lift back to the parking lot. With that, my Climb For Heroes was done! Team SoCal hiker raised over $7000 toward The Heroes Project.

THE HEROES PROJECT makes the impossible a reality by empowering our injured community through physical and emotional training, allowing them to explore the farthest reaches of themselves and the world they live in. These expeditions challenge the severely wounded to redefine their personal limits post-injury. The Heroes Project inspires our injured men and women to find purpose, both physically and mentally and ignites others to do the same.

San Ysidro

With my peak-bagging friends busy, I set off to climb San Ysidro solo. I had planned to grab breakfast from the Jack In The Box in Ramona, but they were closed. Crud. Thankfully, Don’s Market in Santa Ysabel was open and I was able to grab some food. Just past where the Montezuma Valley Market is, I turned on to the dirt road that would take me to the start of the hike. I parked, grabbed my gear, and set off down the old jeep road. A tree had fallen since the last time had been here, so I had to drop into the stream bed to bypass it.

At the saddle, I opted to stay high and work my way toward the gully that I would follow to the base of the mountain. While it was not terrible, it was not great either. Once at the gully, the going became easy for a bit. At the base, I checked my previous track and started the climb. Some cairns were erected along the way, but the route mostly showed itself to me.

Once at the summit I took in the views. The previous time I was here they were obscured by clouds. I scrambled to the summit block and signed the register. I peered up to locate the two reference marks. I did not feel comfortable scrambling up their respective boulders solo.

My return route went smoothly, letting the mountain guide me back down. I did stay in the gully longer and it seemed to be slightly easier going back to the road. All told the hike was 4.01 miles in 3:38 and an elevation gain of 1,593 feet.

Big Black Mountain

After summiting The Thimble and bailing on San Ysidro, we decided to drive up Big Black Mountain just north of Ramona in Pauma Valley. Susie had hiked this long exposed road hike back in 2017 and I drove it twice before. So we hung a right once we got back into town and set off up the dirt road. 

The road is rough and rocky, but the Subaru handled it with ease. Passed a couple of cars working their way back down from the summit. Finally, we reached the end of the road and parked. A nice grove of pines stood just to the south. We grabbed our gear, even though the summit was a short 1/4 mile walk. 

Once at the summit, we again took in the views. The day was getting long, so we did not stay too long. Plus we had the long drive back down. Another car had joined us at the summit and was having a picnic in the shade. Three cars passed us as we drove down the road. With that, Susie was two steps closer to completing the list and we all had a great day.

San Jacinto via Devil’s Slide

I wanted to try to cross off another peak on the SoCal Six-Pack of Peaks challenge before my upcoming vacation to see my sister in Arkansas. Of my remaining peaks on the list, several have already been earmarked for other attempts later in the year, so that really only left San Jacinto available right now. Setting my alarm for 3 am, I hit the sack early. The drive up to Idyllwild was uneventful, sans passing what I later learned was a fatal roll-over crash on the southbound I-15. I picked up my permit from the ranger station and drove a bit further to Humber Park. This was going to be my third summit of San Jacinto. My first summit had been done via the Marion Mountain route, and the other time Ted and I had done the traditional route from the tram station. This time I opted to take the Devil’s Slide Trail until it connected with the PCT, then continue on to the summit.

I arrived a bit before dawn at the parking lot. Thankfully, the trailhead has some bathrooms, so I took advantage of that before setting off. I had hiked some of the Devil’s Slide trail years ago when my wife and I spent a weekend in Idyllwild. Unfortunately, I don’t remember a lot about that hike. Grabbing my gear, I headed for the southeast end of the parking lot to the start of the trail. While it was still dark, my eyes had adapted enough to clearly see the well-maintained trail, and I set off.

Knowing I had about 15 miles of hiking ahead of me, I kept my pace measured. As I made my way up toward Saddle Junction, I could see Suicide Rock to the west starting to emerge from the darkness. Once at Saddle Junction, I turned north onto the PCT. I would have a couple of sections of switchbacks to use. Just a friendly reminder that I was climbing to a peak that stands at 10,843 feet.

After crossing from the San Jacinto Wilderness into the Mount San Jacinto State Wilderness, I soon passed the Wellman Cienaga. Two springs still had some flowing water. I had packed my small water filter just in case I needed to refill upon my descent. It was just past here I finally met another person on the trail. He had camped at Little Round Valley the night before, and after summiting this morning was heading back down. We chatted a bit before parting ways.

I found a nice spot past the Wellman Divide for a short break for some fuel and fluids. Since I had dinner plans with some friends back in San Diego, I needed to be mindful of my time. I set a hard turnback time of 11, figuring I would be able to have a quicker pace on the descent. 

The trail had now become familiar to me, as this was the same as the route Ted and I followed last time. Around 10,000 feet I started developing a bit of a headache from the altitude, so I needed to be mindful of it as I continued pushing to the summit. As I kept working my way up, I also kept an eye on my time. It was going to be tight, but I should be ok. Finally, the hut came into view and I knew the peak was a short scramble away. I worked my way to the summit. Unlike last weekend, where I had the peak to myself for a bit, this was not the case today. Several Boy Scout troops were scattered about, along with other hikers. I snapped just a few photos and headed back down to the hut for a short break and a snack. It was almost 11 and I needed to begin my descent. I had really hoped to relax on the summit for a while, but I knew that was not going to happen. 

Making my way down, I passed more and more hikers heading up. I suspect many of these had started at the tram station. Continuing back the same way, I would check my current pace to see if I was still on track. Thankfully, I was. Reaching the spring, I stopped for a bit. My water bladder still had enough water, so I did not need to filter any, but I did take the opportunity to wet a towel to toss around my neck. I certainly could feel the day becoming warmer. But between the shade of the trees and the slight breeze, it was still a mostly pleasant descent. Judging by the faces of those ascending, they might have a different opinion.

I knew there was a chance of some thunderstorms in the later afternoon, and to the south, I could see the start of some clouds forming. Once I reached Saddle Junction again, I knew I had a mere 2.5 miles to go. Since I had forgone any long rest breaks, I was starting to feel the miles at this point. Finally, the parking lot came into view. I happily took off my hiking shoes and slipped on my sandals. The thermometer in the car read 91°F! Thankfully, I really did not feel it during the descent, although on some of the exposed sections, it was a bit warm. I grabbed a couple of cold drinks from the market and another snack and began the long drive home. All told the hike was 14.9 miles with 4,378 feet of gain in 9:45. And yes, I made the dinner party without any issue. 🙂


Decided to get back to working on the Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge by summiting Mount Baden-Powell. Since we were under a heat advisory, I knew a very early start was in order. I set the alarm for 3 am, and begged forgiveness from my wife. As I finished getting my gear ready in the morning, I discovered that my water bladder was leaking. Crud! I pivoted to using side bottles instead and tossed in an extra bottle in the pack as well. With that problem solved, I began the two-hour drive to the trailhead. When I pulled into the lot at Vincent Gap, there were just a handful of cars there. Another hiker was also getting ready across the lot. We chatted briefly. It turns out he drove up from Oceanside. He planned to do Big Horn Mine first with a friend, then attempt Baden-Powell. I wished him well and I left him waiting for his friend to arrive.

The trail began its steady climb to the summit. I was mindful of my pace, as I knew I had almost 2,800 feet of gain ahead of me. I kept an eye on the east, as the sun had not cleared the mountains yet, and I was hoping to capture some nice photos. 

I would stop every so often and grab some water from my side bottles. While the short break was nice, I am more of a sipping style of hiker. I continued to make my way up the 40 switchbacks. It was not until the last mile or so that I finally encountered some hikers coming down. 

I stopped at the Wally Waldon Tree for a short break. This limber pine is believed to be the oldest living thing in the entire San Gabriel Mountains and was named after Michael H. “Wally” Waldron, an L.A. area Boy Scout leader who helped organize a nine-week project to repair the trails and erect the concrete monument and plaque to Lord Baden-Powell.

From there I continued on the last tenth of a mile to the summit. The hikers that passed me were resting on the concrete platform where the monument to Lord Baden-Powell is erected. I headed over to the flag and the sign and took my summit photos. As I stood on the summit once again, I knew I had a better ascent. While I felt the last bit of the climb, I pushed on since the summit was close and I could refuel then. The other two hikers headed back down the trail, so I grabbed their spot and enjoyed my snacks. A couple more hikers joined me on the summit. One was another Six-Pack Challenger, and in fact, this was his final peak! Then I heard my name being called out. The two women I had met on Oakzanita had just summited. I went over and chatted with them for a bit. Meanwhile, the summit I once had to myself was now swarming with people. I figured now would be a good time to head back down, plus it was starting to get warmer.

I set off back down the trail at a quick pace. The trail was certainly more busy than during my ascent. One group of four ladies stopped me to inquire about my Garmin InReach and its use. We chatted a bit about it and how I use it when I am out. One of them has a Whitney permit and wants to have something with her. We parted ways, and I continued motoring down the trail. As I drew closer to the trailhead, I could feel the day becoming very warm. Whenever the trail passed through an exposed section, I could really feel it. My greetings to passing hikers changed from simple encouragement to more cautionary about staying safe. I could not believe hikers were still starting out under the heat for this hard of a hike. When I reached the car, its thermometer was at 88°F! I’m glad I started when I did. With that, my 4th peak on the Six-Pack of Peaks was in the books. I covered the 7.58 miles in 3:51, about 15 minutes faster than last time!

3-2-1 Overnight

For those who have done the 3-2-1 Challenge in Los Padres National Forest, you know that one of the real challenges is just the long drive to the trailhead. Last year when Ted Markus and I did these peaks, we did it as a day hike. During the long drive back to San Diego, we both commented that while the hike itself was great, sitting in LA traffic, not so much. Since we had both acquired backpacks and related overnight gear, we decided to do this trip as an overnight adventure.

Last year I logged that the entire hike was just under 11 miles, including a side trip to Sawmill Mountain West, so we knew this trip would be quite manageable. In fact it is about 4.5 miles to the campsite, and we’d pass the first two peaks on the challenge; Mt. Pinos and Sawmill. I figured once we made camp, we could go to the summit of Grouse, about a mile away.  Another goal of this trip was to test out a few new items before I embark on the Rae Lakes Loop in a few weeks. Primarily the bear canister and the water filter. 

Ted and I left San Diego just after 8 am and began our drive up to the trailhead. Our first stop was the Subway in Castaic. While there is a spring at the campsite, we were cautious about the flow. One site labeled the flow as ‘a trickle’. Rather than risk needing to use our water for food, we planned our hike to avoid needing to do so. Also, instead of hauling out lunch to eat on the trail, we stopped at Mike’s Pizza Co in Frazier Park and split a nice medium-sized veggie pizza. Ted had also packed a couple of beers for later that evening, so I ran next door to the market and grabbed some as well. 

About 30 minutes later, we were pulling the parking lot at the Chula Vista Trailhead (aka Nordic Base), and we quickly gathered our gear. I hung my Adventure Pass from the mirror and we were off. The temperatures were pleasant and the scent of the pines was a welcomed treat. I carried our dinner in the bear canister, along with 2 liters of water and one Gatorade. This fluid load is about what I am planning for Rae Lakes. While the actual pack will be heavier with more food and clothes for the trip, it should give me some insight to what I have in store.

The trail, actually a closed dirt road, led us to the top of Mt. Pinos. In just over 1.5 miles, we gained about 500 feet. Once at the summit, we snapped a few photos of the survey marks and the southern San Joaquin Valley. Neither one of us felt the need for a real break yet, so we continued on. The nice road ended at the Mt. Pinos Condor Observation Site. There are some nice benches here but we still felt fine, so instead of stopping we headed down the Tumamelt Trail. This hike is a bit of a roller coaster, up to one summit, down to a saddle, then up to the next, and once again for good measure. I remember needing to stop last time when I was ascending this section. I was interested to see how I would do on this section the next day. For now, we just worked our way down the switchbacks. 

Once at the saddle, we began to regain those 500 feet we just lost. I took a couple of short breathers under some refreshing shade, but overall everything was still feeling good. The summit of Sawmill sits off to the side of the main trail, about .2 miles away. We soon found ourselves before the massively stacked cairn and the curiously misspelled sign. I have seen incorrect elevations before, but not a misspelling on a simple word like Sawmill.

We dropped our packs and took a short rest. I had some Gatorade and some trail mix. After about 10 minutes, we put our packs back on for the descent down to Sheep Camp. At about 4.6 miles, we came to the junction of Tumamelt and the North Fork Trail. The campsite is about ½ mile down the North Fork Trail. As we neared it, we could hear the voices of other campers. Since this was a first-come, first-served site, I was hoping that we would find a spot. Thankfully, site #2 was open and we would not be looking to find an alternate site for the evening. I dropped my pack and walked the 50 yards or so to inspect the state of the spring. It had a nice steady trickle. I could see if you needed water for a group of Boy Scouts, you could wait a while. But for what we needed, this would be fine. 

Sheep Camp Spring

With our tents set up, we grabbed our slack packs and set off to finish the 3-2-1 Challenge by climbing up Grouse Mountain. Ted brought a simple waist pack, while I was testing yet another new item, the REI Flash 22 pack. We made our way back up to the junction and then continued on about .3 miles until the junction that would take us up to the summit. In keeping with the spirit of the day, we had another roller-coaster profile before we would reach ‘False’ Grouse. The well-defined trail ends at what appears to be the summit. There is even a small rock cairn. But in reality, the true summit is back along the crestline. There is where you will find the wooden structure that you probably have seen before. We snapped our photos and headed back to camp. Ted was hoping we might have a nice view to capture a sunset, but this wasn’t going to happen on this peak.

Back at camp, I went to the spring to filter some water for the evening and to have on hand since we were planning to enjoy a small campfire. As the sun slowly sank behind the hill, we broke out our sandwiches and beers. Soon evening fell and we began to enjoy the night sky. It was a new moon, so the stars were out in force. Ted was able to capture some pretty good shots.