Wooded Hill

Since I was the hiking consultant for my synagogue’s Stepping Into Israel hiking challenge, I figured I should hike some of my recommendations. One of the hikes I recommended was the Wooded Hill Nature Trail. I have hiked this 1.5-mile loop twice before but decided to do it once again. As I drove out to the trailhead, the marine layer was so thick that it was actually raining during my drive out. Just past Alpine, I broke through the clouds into a wonderfully sunny day. I pulled into the trailhead, grabbed my gear, and set off. Some remaining wildflowers still lined the edges of the trail. It was nice to hike this trail on fresh legs. The previous times I had done this hike was after a full day of hiking. As I made my way up the hill, I heard the sounds of a woodpecker. I was able to video of it pecking. After cresting the summit, I once again encountered mountain bikers on this trail. Wish they would enforce the rules sometimes. Once back at my car I headed back into town for my second hike of the day.

Roost Benchmark

It is hard to comprehend that this summit would mark my completion of the San Diego Sierra Club 100 Peak List. For this milestone hike, I invited several of my hiking companions to accompany me. We met at the Pacific Crest Trail – Sunrise Trailhead at 8am to condense down to fewer cars, as the actual parking area at the Lucky S Ranch is limited. After driving the couple of miles down the road, a group of mountain bikers had taken most of the available spots, but we were able to squeeze our cars into the area and still allow access to the ranch. We gathered in front of the gate to the old road that we would follow for a while. We discussed if we were going to add Oriflamme Mountain to the hike, and the consensus was to skip it. With that, Ted Markus, Greg Gerlach, Gina Norte, Matt Hanan, Larry Edmonds, Leslie Williams, Susie Kara, and Susie’s friend Jackie set off down the road.

This was an inverted (aka canyon) hike, so we dropped down from our start just off Sunrise Highway. Some lovely wildflowers dotted the sides of the trail as we cruised along. We chatted about recent hikes, and I reflected on what was next on my hiking agenda. Soon we found ourselves at the end of the road and began the cross-country portion of the hike. 

Roost Benchmark was the further of the two bumps. Since some of our group had hiked them before we followed their lead to loop around the first bump then approach the summit from the north/northwest. We could see Larry and Leslie on the summit already. They had taken a different route that we had avoided in part to reports of it being overgrown and tick infested. As we crossed over the saddle, the winds picked up. Just as I was thinking I needed to tighten the strap on my hat, Greg’s hat went sailing. Thankfully it did not go far and he was able to retrieve it.

Soon we found ourselves atop the summit. I had done it! I plan to write a proper reflection on this journey, but a tremendous sense of accomplishment filled my heart. We sat around the summit enjoying some snacks, soaking in the views, and proudly signing the register. After a nice break we began our descent. Along the way, we spotted a nice horn head lizard hanging out under some brush, and Ted got a great shot of it.

Since Larry said the overgrowth wasn’t too bad, we took the more direct route back up to the trailhead. Again, more wildflowers brightened our climb. While this road was a bit more overgrown, it was not too bad. We would stop to do a periodic tick check. Some of the group found some “hitchhikers” that were dealt with accordingly. As we waited next to where the PCT crosses the old jeep road, a thru-hiker passed by. Once we had regrouped, we climbed the last bit and back to the cars. Once back at the Sunrise Trailhead, my wife and daughter arrived with pies from Betty’s Pies in Encinitas to share. Susie had started this tradition with her completion of several summits, and I was happy to continue it. Since the summit did not lend itself to a group shot (plus the wind), we took a group shot there. After consuming our pies and enjoying a can of Peakbagger IPA from Kern River Brewery that I had been saving, we bid our farewells. Now on to the next adventure…

Gina, Ted, Me, Susie, Matt, Greg

The stats for the hike were 8.82 miles in 4:45 with a elevation gain of 1,764 feet.

Palm Mesa High Point

It is hard to imagine that this journey to complete all 100 peaks on the San Diego Sierra Club list is almost done. I have two more peaks to summit; Palm Mesa High Point and Roost Benchmark. I knew my window to climb them was coming to an end, as the desert was warming up, so I needed to try to get them in as soon as possible. The more challenging of the two was going to be Palm Mesa High Point. This peak can be summited in a number of ways; you can climb up from Sheep Canyon, approach it from Henderson Canyon, or use the Borrego Palm Canyon North Fork route. The first two options are difficult routes, while the last one is easier but has access issues. Thankfully, Gina Norte was able to grant a small group of us permission to start from within the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation. 

Our group met at 6 am at the guard shack at Los Coyotes, and waited for Gina to arrive and then escort us in. Once we were all there, we followed Gina up the road to the campground. Once there, we parked and got into two cars before continuing further back into the reservation. We parked near the cemetery and began our adventure. The hike is not extreme, but it is a canyon hike, so we have most of our elevation gain on our return from the summit. The seven of us (Susie Kara, Matt Bennett, Matt Hanan, Alberto Martinez, Laura Neuman, Gina and myself) continued down the road toward the wash that would take us up over the ridge. 

Passing under the tall oaks, we dropped down into a wide sandy wash and began working our way up toward a small saddle. Susie and I had hiked this portion last summer when we climbed Cody & Pike, so we knew the route (Gina also was very familiar with the region as well). The small fork that Susie and I missed last time got us again, but this time it was for just a brief moment. Once at the saddle our group split up. There are three Sierra Club peaks that can be accessed via this route; Cody, Pike and Palm Mesa High Point. Since I had climbed Cody & Pike already, I was only focused on Palm Mesa High Point. But Matt H. and Alberto were more interested in Cody & Pike, since it was much easier to get them via this route. Depending on their speed, they might try to catch us and also summit Palm Mesa High Point. Matt B. offered to go with them, so we said our goodbyes and down the North Fork we went. We knew from Greg Gerlach’s trip report that we should not have any major issues, sans a few dry waterfalls that we would need to bypass.

I realized that when we transferred cars, I forgot to grab my Gatorade and oranges from my cooler. Crud. I even told myself “Don’t forget to grab the stuff from the cooler”. I would just need to be a little cautious. I had 3 liters, plus my other food, so I should be ok. 

We passed Pike to our north and Cody to the south. There were some wildflowers scattered along the side of the wash, giving us some nice visuals. Finally, we started to encounter the first of our dry waterfalls. Susie had done some of this section when she, Matt B and Greg Gerlach had done this hike back in 2019 as a backpack trip. Some we were able to scale down, and a couple we bypassed. We took a short break and discovered we had several hitchhikers who had decided to attach themselves to our clothes. We picked off the ticks and checked each other, and would do so several more times during the hike.

Finally after about 4 miles, we reached the base of Palm Mesa High Point. Thankfully, the route up to the summit did not have any terrain challenges, other than gaining about 900 feet of elevation in about 0.6 miles. I took the climb at a steady and measured pace, taking a couple of mini-breaks along the way. Soon I had reached the summit! The four of us sat around soaking in the views. Familiar peaks surrounded us. To our north, we could see Collin, Palms, and Elder. To our south was the San Ysidro ridge. Off to the east, Anza-Borrego was spread out before us. We tried not looking to the west and our climb back up. I happily signed the register and took my photos. I enjoyed my PB&J and the Mandarin that Susie gave me. After a nice break, we set off back down. As we almost reached the base of the ridge, Matt B. was making his way up. He filled us in on the status of the rest of the group before heading up toward this summit. The four of us then began our climb back up toward the saddle. 

Over the next 2.5 miles we would gain about 1,400 feet before reaching that small saddle. I continued my steady and measured pace, being careful with my water intake. We would stop for a short break here and there (also for some quick tick checks). Matt B. did catch us, as expected and we continued on up to the saddle where Matt H. and Alberto should be waiting.

As the saddle came into view, we could spot Matt H. in his traditional Celtic Football jersey, waving down to us. Once we reached the saddle, we took a short break while we waited for Alberto to return from his quick jaunt up Phil Benchmark. Upon his return, we cruised the 1.75 miles back to our cars and then drove back to the campground. With that, my 99th peak was in the books. All told, this hike covered 9.7 miles in 7:53 with 3,020 feet of total gain. Next up, Roost Benchmark!

Palomar High Point

Having checked the Palomar Divide Road was listed as open, we decided to once again drive up toward Palomar High Point. Both Ted and I hiked this peak via Oak Grove last year and honestly did not feel the desire to do it again. So, as we had also done in the past, we drove to a much closer starting point.

The road was in ok shape, with a few potholes to watch out for, but nothing more. As we passed the Barker Valley Trailhead, there were four cars parked off to the side. We reached our usual stopping point, but neither of us felt like hiking from here, so we decided to drive on. We passed a few hikers making their way up, and one returning from the summit. Parking at the locked gate, we grabbed a bottle of water and walked up to the tower. A volunteer was working on replacing the toilet used by the tower staff. We chatted a bit, then set off to snap a few photos before heading back to the car and the hour drive back to the main road. 

Volcan Mountain

Having just finished the Six-Pack of Peaks Arizona Winter Challenge figured I should pick up working on my hometown set of peaks. Since Ted Markus had never done Volcan Mountain, it seemed like the perfect choice. When we got to the trailhead, there was only one car and a CalFire engine. 

Just after the entrance, the three CalFire firefighters were finishing their morning workout. After about a 1/2 mile, we hopped onto the 5 Oaks trail. While this adds a little extra distance to the hike, it was a nicer option.

Once back on the main road, we cruised up toward the summit, stopping to look at the ruins of where an early exploration of placing an observatory here (Spoiler, it went to Palomar). Upon reaching the summit we spent a little time exploring, learning about the directional beacon, finding a couple of reference marks, and heading out to one of the benches. A few poppies were scattered along the ground, but they had not open for the day yet.

We took a nice view to the east, naming off so many peaks we have climbed. Up to this point, we have had the mountain to ourselves. But we were soon joined by other hikers out enjoying the trail. We headed back down along the main road, passing more folks, many with their dogs. This peak was a nice change of pace for both of us. Since it was still early we decided to drive up Palomar Divide Road and cross another peak off this year’s San Diego Challenge, Palomar High Point.

Woodson on a weekday

Since I have a hiking trip coming up in Arizona, I wanted to get a few harder miles in and see how my right knee felt. When descending San Ysidro East Peak, it had become painful. I figured Woodson Mountain would be a good candidate for this. I debated between taking the Fry-Kogel route or the Lake Poway Route. I opted to take the Lake Poway route, just so I could compare my time from my last summit. The parking lot was fuller than I expected, but I could see some families scattered about, and several folks trying their luck fishing.

I cruised up the trail, a few hikers passed me returning from their summits. The knees were doing fine on the ascent. I took a short break just past where the Fry-Kogel trail joins the main trail. That is still one thing I need to be mindful of when hiking solo, I tend to not take proper breaks.

As I neared the Potato Chip, there were just a few people milling around. I thought about climbing out, but did not feel the need, so I continued to the summit. I also decided to skip scrambling up the actual summit block. After a short rest for a quick snack, I headed back down. 

Making my way down, I passed a few groups heading up. The parking lot closes at 7pm, so I hope they pay attention to the time. My left knee did grumble a bit on descent, but nothing unusual and thankfully the right knee seemed fine. After a round trip time of 3:30 over 7.3 miles, I was back at the car. Got a light hike planned out in Anza-Borrego on Sunday, then off to Arizona to try to summit some of their Six Pack of Peaks,

San Ysidro East Peak

The day started way too early, as we had planned to meet up at the Hellhole Canyon Parking Lot at 6:15 am. Normally, we might have split a room at one of the nearby motels, but Covid nixed that option. Since we also had a Zoom birthday party for a good friend’s 50th, camping was also out of the question. We arrived a bit early, so Ted wandered around snapping some sunrise photos. Two of our planned hiking buddies had to bail after an extremely long previous day’s hike of Mile High. Greg had arranged with Laura Newman to shuttle us up to Ranchita and the start of the hike. Initially, she was going to join us, as she needed to summit Webo Benchmark, but could not afford the time. She opted to hike some smaller peaks, but still graciously offered to drive us. Greg showed up a bit behind schedule, as he ran into some friends who were also out in Anza Borrego hiking. This was fine with me as it gave me a chance to get to know Laura, whom I had only heard about from various folks.

We drove back up toward Ranchita to the start of the hike. Initially, Alberto was supposed to meet us here to join us, as he had begun working on Sierra Club 100 list as well. Since he was not there, and I knew he had done Mile High the day before with Susie and Matt, we figured he bailed as well. It was a little chilly as we set up the usual route. Once at the turn-off from the road, we warmed up and shed a layer before heading toward the ridge to the south of the Thimble. We found a good spot to cross the barbed wire fence and began our short climb. Once on the ridge, we could see San Ysidro East Peak in the distance. We all had done this portion of the hike before, so we happily set off. 

Since none of us needed to summit Goat Benchmark, we bypassed the side trip to it. We did stick to the south side of the gully to avoid the tough terrain Ted and I encountered during our trip in November. As we entered Hellhole Flat, we spotted 5 or 6 deer in the distance, Soon we found ourselves at the other edge of Hellhole Flat, and the start of the ascent to the peak. We took a nice break here before the 1,200 feet of climbing that stood before us. We worked our way up, taking a couple of small breaks to allow me to catch my breath. But soon, the summit came into view and a sense of happiness washed over me.

We had a nice break at the summit, signing the register, snapping our photos, and marveling at the views. We still had a lot of miles to cover and some serious elevation to descend to return to our waiting cars, though. While coming down from the peak, my right knee started to hurt, so I decided to not attempt The Sirens and rendezvous atop Webo. So I bid Greg and Ted good luck and scrambled back down onto Hellhole flat and headed south. My route was going to take me past Tuck Benchmark. This benchmark apparently is hard to locate, so I took up the challenge to see if I might have some luck. I knew from some reports that its location was slightly incorrect on Peakbagger, and that it was located a bit to the east. Keeping my eye on my position, I knew I was close, so headed over to the nearby rocks, and climbed up a bit to see if I could spot it. Just 15 feet east of me, there it was! I snapped my photos, before continuing southward to Webo. 

I could see Webo in the distance, but first I had a small ridge to cross. From the north, the slope was nice and grassy, but once at the top, I stared down at a steep rocky descent. Crud.  I had to decide which way to deal with this ridge. I think either going all the way around it or the other gap to the west would be a better choice for future hikers. 

Once over this obstacle, I debated my route up toward Webo. Initially, we discussed taking the ridge that came from the west, as it looked fairly gentle. As I drew nearer, just going up the side then turning east once at the ridge seemed ok. Since Greg and Ted were somewhere behind me, I could climb this at my own pace, and I found it not too bad of a climb. As I got closer to the summit, it became more bouldery, but I found a route up without issue. I knew the benchmark was on a boulder on the north side of the peak, so I aimed for that. I climbed up the boulder and found the register and the mark. I kept scanning to the north to see if I might spot Greg and Ted, but no luck. I found a nice spot to wait for them. After about 40 minutes, I heard my name and greeted Ted and Greg. Greg climbed up the boulder and added their names. Ted respectfully declined. We still had about 3.5 miles to go and about 3,200 feet to descend. 

My knee was starting to become more painful as we worked our way down the ridge. It was steep but manageable. Ted kept an eye on our altitude, as Susie and I missed Ted Benchmark during our descent (we did find it on our ascent). As we neared the elevation for the benchmark, Greg began scouring ahead to locate it. He found it without issue. I took a quick photo, and let them sign me in. I knew my knee was only going to slow my descent, and evening was drawing close. I kept pushing down the ridge, hoping that once we reached the desert floor, the pain would not be an issue, as we would still have over a mile back to the car. We literally stepped off the ridge just as the last light of day faded away. We weren’t worried about the dark as we had a very well defined and traveled trail to guide us back. Once back at the car, we tossed in our gear and said our goodbyes. Greg was camping out to hike Blue Angel Peak the next day and Ted and I began the long drive home.

The final stats for my hike were 11.6 miles, with a mere 2,595 feet of gain and about 6,275 feet of loss. Here is a profile of my traverse.

This was my 98th peak. Since it looks like we might have some weather this week, I have a nice excuse to let my knee recover. 

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.