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.

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.

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. 

It was steep and at times the footing a bit troublesome. We would stop for a moment, scan ahead, and continue on. In about .4 miles we would be gaining almost 700 feet of elevation. With one last push, we reached the summit! Again, the views were incredible, with the San Ysidros rising to the south. I found a nice spot to sit and enjoy my orange and some Gatorade. Susie stretched out and had a nice nap in the sun. About .5 miles to the west stood two more benchmarks. I had considered adding them on to the day’s attempt, but since our escort could not join us, I wanted to save them and summit them together. Plus,  Susie did have to be back in town for her niece’s 4th birthday party. We bid farewell to my 90th peak and headed down. 

We slowly and carefully made our way down the steep slope. This time following the gully to the west rather than the route we took on the way up. Unfortunately, I slipped at least twice, and the bruise on my hand is evidence of my grace. Back in the wash, we began following it to the west. As we near the saddle, the wash narrowed, so we popped out of it and continued cross-country. Crossing the saddle and back toward the first wash, it was clear that if we ever get to explore here again, stick to the south side as you approach the saddle, as the route is easier.

We made quick time back along the first wash, which was good as the day was heating up and the bugs were coming out. Soon, the Subaru came into view and the hike at an end. We drove back down the dirt road, taking care to properly close the gates. Once we had cell coverage, I let our escort know that we were back and it was a successful expedition. Susie said a quick good-bye and headed back into town. Yes, I have been vague on the peaks that we summitted, at the request of our escort. But if you do some detective work, I am sure you can figure it out.

Mt. Woodson

Since I am again working on the Six-Pack of Peaks challenge, I figured I would summit Mt. Woodson in the early evening to avoid most of the crowds. There were some cars along the side of the 67, but nothing like I have seen on the weekends. I grabbed my gear and set off up the service road.

As I made my way to the summit, I passed a few hikers heading back down. Since the route uses the service road, there is plenty of room to safely pass. Nearing the summit, I watched two climbers tackle an impressive crack.

Cresting the summit, I headed the short distance to the famous Potato Chip. I had no interest in scrambling out on it again. What I wanted to try was ascending the real summit block.

Looking up at the summit block

Just to the east of the towers is the summit block. Old trip reports spoke of a ladder, but that aid is long gone. Instead, a small rock pile serves as the only help now. I tried several times, but could not quite get myself up. I looked to see if there might be other rocks I could add, but there were none to be found. Instead, I decided to rotate the main rock and it gave me just enough to hoist myself up. With that little extra help, I was scrambling up the summit block! There I snapped the three reference marks and the benchmark itself! I had truly summited Mt. Woodson.

I headed back down, watching the evening glow spread across Ramona and the hills beyond.

Hopefully, I will be climbing Hot Springs Mountain on Friday for #5!

Margarita Peak

Once back at the car, I headed off for the second summit, Margarita Peak. Just past the gate stood two crosses off to the side of the trail. Unlike the groomed road to the other peak, this hike was going to be more ‘natural’.

Initially, I trekked along an old firebreak until I came to a sign denoting the Margarita Peak Preserve. Now, the trail turned to a single track use trail and began its steep climb. The sun was warming up the day, and I was sweating as I pushed through the overgrowth.

Finally, the trail reached the ridgeline and the grade eased. A lone oak tree stood atop a false summit. I took a moment to catch my breath and cool off. Once I was ready, I set off for the final push. A cairn and ribbon helped guide me through the manzanita to the summit. 

The summit has an odd metal pole and two interesting metal squares. I didn’t find a register, even though it is listed on the lower peaks committee list. The views were even better of Pendleton than from Margarita Lookout.

As expected, the descent was tricky but I kept my footing. Once back at the car, I enjoyed some cool water and a dry shirt. Just then a quad-runner came screaming by. The passenger was helmetless. I could only shake my head and hope they didn’t crash. A couple more riders passed by, properly geared and riding at a reasonable speed. I knew I would need to keep my eyes open on the drive down in case I encountered any riders. These were two fun little adventures in a part of San Diego county I have never explored. Personally, I think one of these should have been the replacement for Rock Mountain instead on the 100 Peak Challenge list.

Margarita Lookout

With so many trails overrun with hikers, I have been combing various peak lists for off the beaten track adventures. One of these lists is the San Diego Peak Club List. This list serves as the foundation for the San Diego Sierra Club. Thankfully, there were a couple of peaks that weren’t out in Anza-Borrego that looked interesting; Margarita Lookout and Margarita Peak. 

These two are located north of Fallbrook, right on the border with Camp Pendleton. I pulled into the trailhead for Sylvan Meadows to watch the actual docking of the Crew Dragon “Endeavour” with the ISS. Once they had successfully docked, I headed out to the trailhead. 

Crew Dragon awaiting lift-off

Now, I had already saved the location in Google Maps, as the route can get a bit confusing according to the trip reports on Peakbagger. But something went sideways.  As I drove down the roads, I soon found myself passing Rock Mountain and the Santa Margarita river! What??? For some reason, Google Maps wanted to take me to Fallbrook. I finally convinced it to take me to the proper location. Thankfully, I only lost an hour and the hikes weren’t going to be too long. Finally, the paved road ended and the dirt road began. For the most part, this road is fully drivable by a standard car, like a Mini Cooper. But you might need a car wash afterward. After about 30 minutes on the dirt, I reached the shared trailhead for Margarita Lookout and Margarita Peak. There is a nice wide turnout, so no worries about parking.

From the reports, Margarita Lookout was going to be just under 5 miles round trip, but the elevation profile was easier. The hike to the summit of Margarita Peak was only about 1.6 miles, but a steep climb. Since I had done El Cajon on Friday, I opted for the easier one first. For much of the hike, you continue to follow the same forest road. In fact, I could have kept driving on it almost to the summit, but where is the sport in that?

Some wildflowers dotted the sides of the road. The road eventually reached a turn out for the final push to the summit. Here the trail got a bit rocky. Soon the flag at the summit was fully in view.

There isn’t a real benchmark, but a block of concrete was stamped with “1964” on it. A few remnants of the tower remained. I could spy so many familiar peaks; San Gorgonio, San Jacinto, Palomar, even Cuyamaca off in the distance. I signed the register and headed back down. 

I heard the din of a motorcycle, and when I reached the road again, two riders were just turning around from riding up. I let their dust settle before cruising back to the car.

Mt. Laguna Adventure

Today’s adventure was to an obscure peak, deep in the Laguna Mountains. Finding places to safely and comfortably hike to is tough. We are definitely seeing more people out exploring some of the backcountry of San Diego. Since most of my remaining peaks for the San Diego Sierra Club list aren’t doable at the present time, I have been looking at other lists that are cataloged on Peakbagger. One of these is the San Diego Peak Club list. This list is actually the foundation for the Sierra Club list. There are some peaks listed here that definitely fit the obscure and rarely visited. 

So, I headed up to the Lagunas to summit this one. I drove down Thing Valley Rd. to a nice turnout. I was shocked to see three different camps set up along the way. I am fairly certain dispersed camping is not allowed.

I grabbed my gear and set off down the road. Being under the trees and cool air was certainly welcomed for my mental health. After a short bit, I reached the turn-off. From here, the old road became faint as it crossed the meadow. I knew to expect this from the few trip reports on this peak.

Soon, the old road revealed itself again, as it made a horseshoe toward the peak. Various wildflowers still dotted the landscape. The route began its climb toward the summit. The road was in poor shape, and given the steepness, I would need to take care coming back down.

The summit is split into two parts. On the northern point is a communications tower, some solar panels, and a shed. I scrambled to the top of the rock and surveyed the incredible view. 

I knew the Benchmark and the register marks were located on the southern peak, so I followed the trail over to it. Once atop its rocky summit, I found the main Benchmark and the two reference marks. A register was also located. It was not in the best shape. I might just return to fix that problem.

From this summit, I was rewarded with some fabulous views. After snapping some photos, I headed back down. Sure enough, I almost did slip on that one steep section but managed not to land on my rear.