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.

Two Pack of Peaks!

Hiked: October 31, 2020
Distance: 16.9 miles
Summit Elevations: Cucamonga (8,959 feet), Ontario (8,693 feet)
Elevation Gain: 5,501 feet
Round Trip Time: 11:02 hours

I decided to try to summit two of my remaining Six-Pack of Peaks this weekend. Given that wildfires have closed three of the peaks for at least a year and we were starting to enter into that time of year when the weather can play a factor, I want to try to climb both Cucamonga and Ontario Peaks, since they share the same trailhead. Somehow I convinced Ted Markus to wake up at some ungodly hour and make the two-hour drive to the Icehouse Canyon trailhead. Part of the very early start was to secure parking. Because of the closures, the remaining open peaks are a bit more crowded. A bright full moon shone above as we headed off up the canyon. We had already secured permits for Cucamonga but needed to stop at the self-service kiosk and fill out forms for the initial portion of the hike.

We could hear the creek flowing nearby as we worked our way up the canyon. While the trail is usually pretty well defined, I did get us slightly off course. It turns out I took a path past one of the cabins, which dropped us down below the actual trail. We scrambled up a sandy steep section and were back on track. The rest of the route up to Icehouse Saddle was uneventful. That bright full moon certainly helped. Upon reaching the saddle, we took a short break. After grabbing a quick bite, we set off. Icehouse Saddle is a nexus of several trails, but each is well signed. 

We knew that we were not going to be at the summit for sunrise, but we were greeted with a lovely pre-dawn glow over Apple Valley. After passing the old mine, we reached the saddle between Cucamonga and the ridge up to Bighorn Peak. That ridge was an option as an alternate route to Ontario, but that was a decision for later.

To reach the summit of Cucamonga, the trail follows the northern side of the peak. From the saddle, we still had over 1,000 feet of elevation to gain. We got some beautiful glow upon the Ontario ridge to our west as we worked our way up the switchbacks. Suddenly, a Bighorn sheep stood foraging for its breakfast, and I froze. It looked at us for a bit and returned to looking for food. 

We kept pushing upward, crossing over some rocky avalanche fields. I was glad to be crossing these in the light. Finally, we reached the wooden post that makes the turn off to the summit, and had just .2 miles to go!

Once at the summit, we soaked in the views. The skies were pretty clear, so a lot of LA spread out below us. We found some rocks to shelter us from the breeze while we took a well-earned break. With some energy in our bellies, we took our photos. Ted was able to work his way out onto the overhang for the standard Cucamonga photo. Since it was a bit brisk with the breeze, we did not linger too long, plus we still had a lot of miles to cover.

Looking across at Ontario Peak

Making our way back down, we started to encounter more hikers working their way up. Back at the saddle, we looked over the map and decided that we did not want to attempt the ridge. Ted did need to be back in San Diego by 6-ish, so the trail route seemed more sensible. 

Heading back down from Cucamonga Peak

Once back at Icehouse Saddle, there were a few more people there than when we first passed through. We took another break and looked over the remaining miles, difficulty, and pace to see if it made sense to attempt Ontario. In the end, we felt we had enough time and energy to make the attempt, so off we went.

We reached Kelly’s Camp at a decent pace, so we trekked on. I knew from the trip reports that we would have a number of downed trees to navigate. Our first one was quite significant. I clambered over it, while Ted bushwhacked instead. Once we were over it, we discovered the trail turned back and we had to climb back the other way. Arrgh!

With that misadventure behind us, we continued climbing. All told there were 10 downed trees that required us to climb. The trail hugs the side of the ridge, keeping a decent steady grade. Every once in awhile it intersects with a small saddle, and you are rewarded with a great view of the LA basin. Soon, the actual summit came into view, with the top of its famous tree poking out behind the rocks.

At the summit, four hikers were taking turns posing for pictures on the tree. We shed our packs and waited for our turn. I grabbed some food and some Gatorade. We knew that we did not have time to linger, as we had over 6 miles back to the car. 

We headed back down the trail, which did not have much traffic on it. Not that I am complaining. My hips were starting to feel all the miles and climbing, so I had some extra “Vitamin I” to help. Once back at Icehouse Saddle, we took another break before we set off down Icehouse Canyon. Just a mere 3.6 miles back to the car…

Icehouse Canyon

We cruised down the trail, seeing all the sights that we missed in the darkness upon our ascent. I can see just the hike up to Icehouse Saddle would be a fun excursion. As we got within a mile of the car, the sound of the creek returned. We also noted the trail was a bit rocky, slowing us slightly. I commented to Ted, “We came up this in the dark? What were we thinking?”

Soon, the cabins began to appear. We also kept an eye out for the slope we scrambled up, as well as trying to figure out where I veered off. 

Soon the trailhead came into view and our epic adventure was complete. All told we hiked 16.9 miles in 11 hours and climbed some 5,505 feet of elevation! That was my 12th peak on the Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge! We quickly changed and headed back to San Diego. I am happy to say we got back in time for Ted to make his dinner with the In-Laws.

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.

Strawberry Peak

The alarm went off way too early, but we wanted to be at the trailhead around sunrise to once again beat the heat and the crowds. My partner in crime this time was Susie Kara. We met at a Park And Ride in Escondido and headed up the 15. We caught up on things–my kids starting their college classes remotely and Susie filling me in on her recent camping trip.

Today’s summit was going to be Strawberry Peak, in the front range of the San Gabriels. This was going to be my 10th peak in my Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge. We followed the Angeles Crest Highway as it wound its way up. The sun was just beginning to rise as we pulled into the Red Box Picnic Area, and a couple of cars were already parked. We grabbed our gear and carefully crossed the highway to the trailhead.

The trail would follow the road for a bit before heading off to the north. The grade was gentle and we cruised right along. We knew this hike would be in two parts–this gentle section and the steep push up to the summit.

The morning sun was shining its glow across the peaks around us. After about 2,5 miles, the trail dropped steeply down toward the Lawlor Saddle. Thankfully, this section was relatively short. We reached the junction with the trail to Strawberry Meadow and took a short break. Staying on the trail up to Strawberry Peak, we began the real climb. 

While some might find this section technical, our countless hours exploring the peaks of Anza-Borrego made this section almost second nature. Reaching Strawberry Peak requires crossing several false summits, so remember that as not to be disappointed when cresting one, to only see another climb ahead of you. But, finally, the true summit was a short climb before us. Susie, of course, reached it first and was resting as I made my way up. 

Next to the summit post, four different wooden signs were available for our summit photo. I had unfortunately forgotten the strawberries in my fridge that we were going to enjoy. We were soon joined by three trail runners. We shared the summit respectfully and chatted a bit. After snapping our photos we began our descent.

The trail runners soon passed us as we carefully descended. Susie had forgotten her trekking poles, so she was a bit more cautious, and I paid attention to my knee as we traversed down the steep section. We would now start to encounter more hikers making their way to the summit. Everyone would don their mask as we passed.

The effects of the 2009 Station Fire

After climbing back up from Lawlor Saddle, we cruised the two or so miles back to the car. It was starting to warm up, and I was glad we were heading back down. We could hear folks enjoying the twists and turns of the highway as we got closer. 

After quickly crossing the road again, the parking lot was now almost completely full. We tossed our gear in the car and headed back home. I logged 7 miles with 1860 feet of elevation gain in 3:30 of active hiking time.

Mount Baden-Powell

The planned summit for today was Mount Baden-Powell, just west of Wrightwood. Given the heatwave that much of the state had been under and the threat of an afternoon thunderstorm, we knew that we needed to have an early start for this peak, and being a San Diego resident, this meant an even earlier start with the two-hour drive to the trailhead. Ted arrived just before 4 am and loaded his gear into the back of the car. We slipped on our masks and drove northward. As we climbed up toward the Cajon Pass, a small rain shower came down. This hike might have turned out to be a long drive for nothing if we felt the weather conditions weren’t favorable.

Trailhead

We pulled into the parking lot off the Angeles Crest Highway. About ten or so other cars were already there. We gathered our gear, used the (thankfully open) restroom, and headed onto the trail. 

The route was going to be a fairly constant climb along the Pacific Crest Trail. While we were going to be under the shade of the various evergreens for much of it, we still had some 40 switchbacks to count off as we worked our way ever upward toward the summit.

As we made our way up, a few light sprinkles began to fall. Since the temperature was pleasant, it did not bother us as we plodded upward. After about a mile in, we passed the bench, and since we were feeling good we did not stop. The sun was making itself visible from over the mountains, so we grabbed a few photos and continued on up the trail. We kept a fairly steady pace, as the gradient of the trail stayed mostly constant, although we slowly would feel the elevation in our lungs. We passed a few hikers along the way. The trail did make it hard to step out of the way, but everyone was wearing a mask as they passed. 

The trees began thinning out as we drew near the summit. Around 3 miles in, we started to get some nice views of Antelope Valley to the north. Finally, we reached the Mount Baden-Powell Saddle. It was there that we would leave the PCT for the final push to the summit.

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

We then climbed the final tenth of a mile to the summit. A couple of other hikers were milling about. The flag was there, along with two wooden signs. Since no was over by them, we opted to get our photos out of the way before taking a well-earned break.

We found some shade to the south of the summit and enjoyed a nice snack and took a brief rest. Mount Wilson’s domes could be seen off to the west. Since we knew it was only going to get hotter and there was a chance of some afternoon thunderstorms, we decided it was time to head back down. We stopped at the monument to Lord Baden,took some photos, and signed the nearby register. I found two survey markers for the summit just off to either side of the peak.

Now for the 4 miles back down to the car. The traffic on the trail was picking up, and we would stop repeatedly to let hikers pass. Almost all were wearing masks but we did pass a couple of hikers who were not. As we approached the parking lot, we could see that it had completely filled up. This was not a surprise given the number of hikers we passed during our descent. We got back to the car just after 11 am. We did the 8 miles with over 2,790 feet of elevation gain in just under 4 hours and 30 minutes (sans the break at the summit). That was my 9th peak on the Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge. Now on to planning the next one!

3-2-1 Challenge

A large golden moon hung low before me, setting slowly in the predawn. Ted loaded his gear in the rear and settled into the back seat, With our masks in place, we set off for the day’s adventure, completing the 3-2-1 Mountain Challenge. This hike would take us up to the top of Mt. Pinos, the highest point in Ventura Country, then onto Sawmill Mountain, the highest point in Kern County, and Grouse Mountain since we are already there. The primary peak was to be Sawmill Mountain, as it is on the 6 Pack of Peaks list.

Ted dozed while we passed through Orange then LA county. One advantage of leaving so early was not having to worry about traffic. We pulled off the 5 at Frazier Park and began heading up to the Mt. Pinos Nordic Base. The parking lot was moderately full. I hung my America the Beautiful pass in the window, grabbed our gear, and set off right about 7 am, some 3 hours after leaving San Diego.

For me, this hike was going to be seeing how my knee responded. I recently had gotten a cortisone injection to help with the inflammation and this was my first significant hike. The trail began working its way up from the parking lot along the nice wide dirt service road. The temperature was perfect and we passed under the shade of the pines. We certainly could tell that we were over 8.000 feet as we continued the pleasant climb toward our first summit.

We passed through some wide dry meadows, with a few flowers still remaining. Soon, the radio tower for Mt. Pinos came into view. The peak itself is round and indistinct, and much of the view is dominated by radar antennae. We found the benchmark and a reference mark while surveying the San Joaquin valley in all its hazy glory to the north. This was to be the highest of the three primary peaks of the day at 8,818 feet.

The wide dirt road continued eastward until the Condor Observation Site. Two nice benches afford a lovely spot to sit and gaze south and onto the Sespe Condor Sanctuary.

We now set off on the Vincent Tunamait Trail, named in honor of a Chumash elder statesman, and on to Sawmill Mountain. The single track descends following a series of switchbacks, entering into the Chumash Wilderness. While initially mild, the later portion did become a bit steep. We were not looking forward to the return and the ascending of this section.

After crossing a small saddle, the hike began to climb once again toward the summit of Sawmill Mountain. At about 3.5 miles in, a spur trail headed to the north to the actual summit. About .2 miles later, a massive cairn stood before us.

We paused for a bit under some nearby shade for a bit of food and some electrolytes. My knee was still feeling good, so we continued on toward Grouse Mountain. As we made our way east, we hopped off-trail to summit Sawmill Mountain-West. A much smaller rock cairn marked the peak.

Sawmill Mountain-West.

Once back on the trail, we descended down until we intersected with the trail for Sheep Camp. Keeping to the right, we began our third climb of the day. Nothing too hard, just at 8,000+ feet, we can feel it. The trail took us to the false summit of Grouse. In referencing the loaded track and my paper map, we knew the true summit was a couple of hundred yards to the north of us. Our boots crunched under the pine needles. The summit of Grouse is denoted by a large wooden teepee, as well as a nice sign. Unfortunately, the sign maker placed the wrong elevation on it.

Under the shade of the pines, I enjoyed a nice PB&J, some orange slices, and a bit of Gatorade. Now for the return…

As we started back onto the trail, a young couple was just reaching the area. We chatted for a bit, with proper distancing, and pointed them toward the true summit.

As we retraced our steps, we would encounter more hikers. Either they or us would step off-trail, and masks were in use as we approached. Some backpackers were head down to Sheep Camp, others just out enjoying the area.

Looking at the final ascent up the switchbacks…

At the base of the switchbacks, I could feel the effects of being off trail for about a month as I made my way up. I stopped a few times for some short breathers, then pushed on. Soon, the Condor Observation Site came into view. I had hoped to sit on those benches for a bit, but some amateur radio enthusiasts were using it for their equipment. Oh well, it was warming up some, and we had a long drive home.

From near the Condor Observation Site

Nearing Mt. Pinos, we started to encounter more and more folks on the trail, so the occasional need for a mask soon became almost permanent. We also started to notice a drop in the usage of masks by other hikers. Thankfully, the trail was wide and we were able to move past them quickly. The day was also warming up, while still nice in the shade, we could feel the heat building whenever we crossed a meadow.

Before we knew it, the parking lot came back into view and our adventure was over. We had completed the 3-2-1 Challenge, and I had completed my 8th peak on the 6 Pack of Peaks Challenge. But, more importantly, the knee felt mostly ok! The hike was 10.3 miles, with 2100+ feet if elevation gain in 4:59 of active hiking time.

Santiago Peak (aka “Saddleback Mountain”)

There is one kind of hiking that I am not fond of, hiking on active roads. Unfortunately, Santiago Peak is one of these. To offset this, I decided to hit the peak early and drive partway up, The Subaru Outback had no trouble making it to a nice wide flat area just before the trail to Modjeska Peak. I will say there is a section of road after Maple Springs Trail Road meets the Main Divide Road that is a bit rocky. If you are unsure about your car’s tires, then I would recommend parking at that junction.

Once there, I set off down the road, the summit and it’s myriad of towers off to the south-east. Unfortunately, my knee was really out of whack. After about a quarter-mile, I decided that I was not going to attempt it on foot. I hopped back in the car and continued driving up. The road was not an issue again until the final summit. There, another rocky section had to be navigated, but you could find a parking spot and walk the last bit.

Once on the summit, I parked and walked to the southern end of the peak, and took in the views. The June Gloom spread out before me. I walked back up to the summit to snap a photo of the summit sign and one reference mark. As was getting ready to leave, two more cars made their way to the summit. While driving back down, I encountered five more cars working their up. While, my hike was not as planned, the summit was obtained. Now to see what is up with this knee, got more peaks to climb! 

Sitton Peak

I started just after 7:30 under the typical “June Gloom”, with my good friends Susie Kara and Gail Welch joined me on what was to be my 6th summit toward the Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge (however, I am continuing on toward summiting the rest of them). The trail gently worked its way from the busy highway into the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness. Wildflowers still dotted the sides of the trail. The grey skies provided some nice relief, as there was not a lot of shade to be found while we worked our way to the peak. The entire route is now nicely marked with white signs at each of the junctions.