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. 

Windy Benchmark

Wanted to do something low-key, as I hope to get several Arizona peaks in later this week, and Windy Benchmark came to mind. This benchmark sits atop a small bump above one of the tunnels on the San Diego and Arizona Eastern Railway. The hike out to it is pretty mild, so it was a perfect adventure to invite a non-peakbagger along on. While I had done some peaks with Mark back in 2019, a knee injury meant he needed to stay mostly flat, so this hike would be perfect. We made the long drive out toward Dos Cabezas, but it went quickly as we had not seen each other for some time. After making our way past the windmills, we drove toward our starting point along the east side of the tracks. Just before the old water tower sits Cabez Benchmark. I pulled off and hopped out of the car, scouring the desert floor to see if I could locate it. Sure enough, there it was, affixed to the ground. It is not on any list, but it was still fun to find.

We parked at the usual spot for those hiking out to Indian Hill or taking the northern approach to the Goat Canyon Trestle. In addition to wanting to summit Windy Benchmark, I had hoped to locate the Blue Sun Cave. This is an incredible pictograph site, but its location is carefully guarded to preserve it. I was able to deduce its approximate location, so off we went. I knew it was around Indian Hill, so it was not going to be too far out of our way. We cruised across the open desert until we came to where it should be located. I scanned the rocky hillside, looking for a possible cave entrance. Spotting what appeared to be something, I went ahead to survey it. Another clue to its location is a rock covered in morteros, so I knew I was probably on the right track. I scrambled up and over some boulders, and there it was! Mark followed me up and we stood before some incredible images. I took a moment to reflect on the legacy of these drawings, wondering what they truly meant to the people that drew them. 

Leaving with our photos and memories, we set off back toward Windy Benchmark. I spotted the rocky draw that I had erroneously attempted to climb thinking that was the route to Indian Hill. Once back on the old jeep road, we soon found ourselves at the ruins of one of the work camps. We poked around a bit before starting down the tracks. Now technically, walking on the tracks is trespassing, but I was not worried about it. After about 1/2 mile we came to the base of Windy Benchmark.

Mark decided he would try to climb it with me. We left the tracks and started up a sandy slope. After a short while, Mark turned back, as it was too much on his knee. He was going to explore the tunnel and the views on the other side. So I continued on alone. The sand gave way to more rocky terrain. I spotted what appeared to be the old bypass road, and followed it up to the ridge. I saw four hikers making their way along the track, heading down to the trestle. I continued up the gentle ridge, dodging the various cacti. Once on the summit, I found the benchmark and the register can. I marveled at the original register, before adding my name to the newer one. I took in the views from the peak for a bit before retracing my route. 

Once down, I headed into the tunnel and found Mark walking back through. He had chatted with those hikers, and some mountain bikers as well. He loved the vistas on the other side. We returned to the junction with the old jeep road but first decided to explore the other tunnel for a bit. This tunnel had an actual gate inside, but it was half-open. We met two more hikers who were just out exploring the area. We chatted some before heading our separate ways. We stayed on the old road all the way back to the car. Sitting under the tracks, three more hikers were getting ready to head off. I gave the standard “Technically, it is trespassing” warning, then gave them some guidance on their route.

We drove back to the water tower and had our lunch. We explored the area for a bit afterward. Our next stop was Piedras Grande. While I had summited this peak twice before, I never explored the trail leading up to the turn-off. The closed road has a variety of signage explaining the significance of the area. I was able to locate a Yoni, or female fertility symbol, and showed it to Mark. Our real hope was to locate the “Horse and Rider” pictograph. I knew it had a small sign in front of the cave, so I kept my eyes open for it. Usually, I am focused on the peak and not fully looking for other things. About 3/4 mile from the trailhead, I spotted what I thought might be it and sure enough, there was a small sign. Unfortunately, this pictograph has suffered some damage. This “Horse and Rider” pictograph would have been made after the first European contact with the local Kumeyaay Indians. Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza led an expedition through the area in 1774. 

We returned back down the road and headed home. It was nice to squeeze in a peak, but seeing these pictographs was clearly the highlight of the adventure.

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.

Soon, the summit of Sawtooth also came into view to the south as we drew nearer to the saddle. It was clear to see why these peaks are so difficult – their slopes are nothing but a jumble of boulders and brush. There is no easy ridge line to follow, just a combination of your route-finding skill and a dash of luck. 

Once at the saddle, we took an extended break. It had taken us just slightly over 2 hours to cover the 1.8 miles with about 1,200 feet of gain. We cached some water for later under the shade of a large boulder, as there was no sense in hauling it up and down Red Top.

We could see the summit from the saddle and I put my trust in Matt to find a way through what seemed an impossible climb. About halfway up, we reached a small plateau, which let us have a short breather, as the next section increased in difficulty. We stored our trekking poles, as the climb now required the use of our hands. As we worked our way up, the views to the southeast were spectacular. Finally, after an hour and a half to cover the ¾ of a mile with over 800 feet of gain, we were at the summit of Red Top. 

We mostly hung out in the cave at the summit, enjoying some snacks, signing the register, etc. This was Greg’s fourth time on Red Top, he commented that was the easiest route he had ever had up from the saddle. We still had a long day ahead of us, however. At the summit, I discovered that I had lost one of my trekking poles during the ascent. They had gotten snagged on some brush at one point and it must have pulled the pole out of my pack. Crud! Hopefully, we would be able to retrace our route and find it, otherwise, I would have issues. I had also noticed the possible formation of a blister on the tip of one of my toes. Yup, a blister had formed. I took care of it, hoping it would not impede me. From the summit, we could see our next peak. There is just over a mile between the two summits, but it would take us almost three hours to cover it (including another break back at the saddle). That should give you an idea of the difficulty of these peaks.

Sawtooth HP from Red Top

We set back down toward the saddle, and sure enough, Matt spotted my missing pole. That tree must be related to Charlie Brown’s Kite Eating Tree! I was glad to have it back. My usual hiking pack has straps for my trekking poles so they would have been secured, but alas this pack does not. Something to address the next time I use that pack.

The breeze had started to pick up, which was fine, as we would no longer have any shade for a while. We gathered our cached fluids, had a nice snack, and reviewed the basic route that we were going to take up toward Sawtooth. Unlike Red Top, which is basically a direct approach, Sawtooth requires bypassing a peaklet. On the ascent, we stayed on the south side of it. This certainly took some care to navigate through the boulders. In addition, portions of this climb are sandy, but not like you would know by looking. If you have ever climbed up a steep sandy slope you will know that it is hard and draining. I started to feel my energy dropping as I made my way slowly up. Matt scampered back down to me and offered to carry some of my pack items to lighten the load. It wasn’t much, but enough to help me along.

I would look at the map on my phone, and see that we were closing in on the summit. I could almost taste it. When I arranged this attempt, I let the group know that if I ran into issues or was too slow, I would abandon trying for Sawtooth. Now, though, the summit was just a few hundred feet away. We came up the south side, and just as we did the winds began to roar. Those 40 mph gusts that were predicted came true. Carefully crossing an exposed section, Ted and I sat atop the south side of Sawtooth. I was in a bit of a daze. I had done it! The reality didn’t hit me until the next day, and in part I knew that right now, I still needed to get down from the peak. We had a snack and I proudly signed the register. Since we had cell service, I texted my family the good news. Once we had recovered a bit, we clambered over some more exposed boulders to the northern side of the summit. Susie had kindly signed us in on the register located there, as neither of us wanted to scramble up.