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.

Mount Woodson

Jeff Hester, creator of the Six Pack of Peaks, was in town summiting most of the Six Pack’s San Diego peaks. He, along with his wife Joan, plus their two dogs, invited Derek Loranger and myself to join them climbing Mt. Woodson. Lately when I do Mt. Woodson, the hike has been a full moon hike, so I take the service road up from the Ramona side. It has been years since I used the trail from the Lake Poway side. Jeff was running late, so Derek and I chatted about how he was progressing on finishing his challenge and the fact there were now two more finishers to add to the list.

We spotted their newly wrapped SUV as it drove into the parking lot. Once we were all settled and geared up, we set off. Derek, Jeff and the dogs lead the way, while I stayed with Joan, chatting as we circled around the lake.

We stopped every so often to make sure the dogs got some water and take in the views. I would point out the various landmarks (aka: other peaks)  along the way. We continued working our way up toward the summit, and after a while both Derek and I picked up the pace, with Jeff and Joan’s blessing. I was still feeling all the hiking I did in Sedona, as well as the drive back, so Derek pulled away from me. 

There was a crowd milling around the Potato Chip, so I just kept going for about .2 miles to the towers. Derek was sitting on log, enjoying the views to the west. We chatted some more, this time about our profession (my current, which is also his former) of being in the user experience field. After a bit, Jeff, Joan and the dogs rejoined us. They had done the ‘Chip’ but their phone ran out of battery, so no photo. We offered to wait and get it on the way down, but they were ok. 

I wanted to try to climb back up the summit block and retake the benchmark photo again. Jeff and Derek followed me around to the block on the east side of the towers. Both declined to try to make the scramble up the rock. I carefully pulled myself up the ledge and finally onto the summit block. Carefully taking multiple photos of the reference marks and the actual benchmark, I scrambled back down.

With that task done, we set off back down the trail. Not before giving directions to the ‘Chip’ to several people who had made their way up via the service road. Derek needed to get back down and get to work at his restaurant, Burger Bench. I cruised down with Jeff for most of the way, chatting about hiking challenges, what running 6POP was like, and so on. We would stop for breaks for the dogs and to regroup with Joan.

Soon we found ourselves back at the parking lot. Since we took the climb at a more mellow pace, and Jeff being a tad late, we had to skip lunch at Burger Bench due to early afternoon commitments. We took a socially distanced photo and said our goodbyes.

Peak 3339 & Al Holden

With the desert starting to cool off a bit, Ted, Susie, & I decided to return to peak 3339 just east of McCain Valley. In addition to this peak, we wanted to summit Al Holden as well. That peak was named in honor of the OG San Diego Peakbagger, so it seemed like something we had do. We timed the drive to arrive just before sunrise, figuring we would have some amazing views to capture. As the sun slowly rose, the three of us snapped away. To our south another gentleman was atop a boulder doing the same thing. 

After grabbing our gear we began our descent. Yes, this is a canyon, or inverted hike, meaning we get to climb back up at the end. Some folks had cowboy camped right at the trailhead, but the sunrise had already awakened them before we passed.

The trail was steep for a bit, then became more gentle. Peak 3339 was a mound of boulders off to the east. Eventually we left the trail and began our cross-country portion. We worked our way up close to the summit. Opting to approach from the south, we drew close and found a small tunnel, which guarded the register and through which we were atop 3339. 

Both Susie and I agreed this was much easier than our previous summits. The day was warming up, but we felt that we could get Al Holden in. We passed back through the tunnel and retraced our route for a bit. Finally we headed north, referring to one of the few tracks to this peak. Scrambling over boulders and past the occasional juniper, we realized the mound of rocks we thought was Al Holden wasn’t. It stood one pile to the east. 

With the proper peak located, we began our careful climb up. This is a “leave the poles behind and put on gloves” kind of peak. We picked our way up, with a few careful Class 3 moves, & found ourselves atop Al Holden. We had a nice break, and I found some shade as I was starting to feel the heat. There is no register, but a metal sign is cemented atop a boulder.

Looking to the north
Looking to the west

We worked our way back down from the summit, then over the saddle. From there we continued cross country until we rejoined the trail. The heat was taking a toll on me. I may have grown up in Bakersfield, but I don’t have the same tolerance anymore. The temps were in the mid 80s, but without the breeze it felt worse. Now we had the ascent back to the car. My pace dropped considerably and I had to rest in the shade a few times. Ted shared some ice water, which helped. I cracked out my emergency Coke for some sugar and caffeine. That bottle of Gatorade I left in the fridge would have been helpful. 

Slowly but steadily I plodded my fat ass up the trail, with Ted and Susie watching over me. I tried to keep moving while not going too fast and overheat further. Finally, the end came into view and this effort was done. The cold water back at the car felt wonderful, as did the AC. Once I cooled off again I felt fine. I’m going to have to be more cautious next week when I am out at Joshua Tree NP. Again, thanks to Ted and Susie for their support in this one!

The Thimble

With the forests closed, we opted to try for a pair of peaks—The Thimble and San Ysidro out near Ranchita. We knew it was going to be a warm one, so hit the trail just before sunrise.

We worked our way up the old road to the saddle. From there, Ted got his first look at The Thimble. Having summited this peak before, I outlined the basics of our ascent for Ted. There is no trail to the summit, so this climb would be a true adventure for us. We left the old road and began crossing toward the base. Carefully crossing the boundary fence into Anza Borrego State Park, we began weaving past the brush and boulders as we made our way up the 30-50% grade. 

Soon we found ourselves at that wall of brush. The right edge still provided a narrow passage past the thicket. From there it was a quick scramble to the summit.

Greg Gerlach had left a new register earlier this year, which we happily signed. The views were tremendous. I took the opportunity to scan my upcoming route into Hellhole Flats and San Ysidro East Peak. 

After a pleasant break, we began our careful descent. Since Ted had spotted a baby rattlesnake on our ascent, we were mindful of that as we retraced our route.

We kept looking for a route that would allow us vector toward the route up to San Ysidro. Nothing revealed itself to me, so we went to the base. We then evaluated if we should go for our second peak. The day was certainly warming up. I looked over the distance and gain, along with needing to be back in town for my annual flu shot scheduled for early afternoon. With that, we would leave San Ysidro for another day.

Once back in the car, the thermometer read a toasty 88. Turning back was the right call.

Almost There Adventure Podcast

I had an awesome time talking with Jeff Hester, Jason Fitzpatrick, and Saveria Tilden on the “Almost There Adventure Podcast” about the 100 Peak Challenge! I, along with Derek Loranger, (creator of the 100 Peak Challenge as well as a good friend) and Susie Kara, my often hiking companion (in addition to being the first finisher), talked about completing it and what that adventure has meant to us (plus other ramblings).

Hope you enjoy listening as much as we enjoyed recording it. 

Listen here

The Secret Hike

The alarm for 4 AM went off way too early, but we needed to meet our escort to the start of our hike at 6 AM. As I drove past the Iron Mountain parking lot, I remembered a time when that was where I would meet Susie Kara and then carpool off to conquer another peak on our list. Instead, we will have to rendevous at the escort point. Today’s adventure was a special gift. We were allowed to hike out to some peaks that are normally only accessible from Anza-Borrego. I parked under a large oak tree while I waited for our escort and Susie to arrive. Unfortunately, the person who had arranged this adventure tweaked their neck and was under orders not to hike, but they still allowed us the opportunity to venture into the wildness. 

Once Susie arrived, she tossed her gear into the Outback and off we went, past the locked gate and down the dirt roads. Just past the old cemetery, we found a nice spot to pull off and begin our journey. We bid farewell to our escort, thanking them for probably the 100th time… 

Our journey first took us down an old road until it reached a broad collection of oak trees. From here, we would enter a nice sandy wash and begin the climb up to the saddle near the peaks we were aiming for. The air was still a bit cool and we had some shade for a while. The temperatures were predicted in the high 70s to low 80s, hence the early start for this hike. A few small dry falls were quickly climbed as we kept heading east. Susie had summitted these peaks back in March but from the much harder route from the west.  As we neared the saddle, the brush did become thicker and took some effort to pick our way through it. If the satellite imagery was to be trusted, we should only have to deal with it for a short time.

Thankfully, the imagery was correct and the brush did become less dense. Once we reached the saddle, our route would now form the head of a lollipop. The first of the listed peaks we were aiming for was off toward the north-east. I took the lead in the route finding. Very quickly, I spotted a faint animal trail through the grass. Unfortunately, neither one of us thought to bring our gaiters, and we would be plucking thistle out of shoes and socks several times during this hike.

Looking north

Our route took us to a nice ridge before turning east and over the first of three peaks for the day. But on this ridge, we had some sweeping views of the mountains to the north of us. Squaretop stood very clearly amongst its neighbors. San Jacinto was far off in the distance. Now, back to why we were out here, we climbed the slopes of the peak. While this peak is higher than its named cousin to the east, it is NOT on the Sierra Club 100 list. We took a small break here, signed the register, and took our photos before heading on to the next peak.

Now from here, the views of Anza-Borrego became even more impressive: Palm Mesa and Indianhead was clearly visible to the east. That was my 89th peak on the Sierra Club 100. After signing the register, letting Susie go first as she was also the most recent one to have signed it, we took our photos and surveyed our descent and ascent route for the third peak we were hoping to climb.

We carefully worked our way down the steep and sandy slope. Susie noted that they had descended from the other peak, and this was an easier route. As we neared the end of the descent, we discussed possible paths we could take up the steep slope that stood before us. We had a couple of tracks loaded, and we compared our options. One thing about open country peak bagging is you have to synthesize all your data: the paper topo map, routes from previous hikers, and what your eyes and gut tell you. Settling on a general path, we began climbing.