3-2-1 Overnight

For those who have done the 3-2-1 Challenge in Los Padres National Forest, you know that one of the real challenges is just the long drive to the trailhead. Last year when Ted Markus and I did these peaks, we did it as a day hike. During the long drive back to San Diego, we both commented that while the hike itself was great, sitting in LA traffic, not so much. Since we had both acquired backpacks and related overnight gear, we decided to do this trip as an overnight adventure.

Last year I logged that the entire hike was just under 11 miles, including a side trip to Sawmill Mountain West, so we knew this trip would be quite manageable. In fact it is about 4.5 miles to the campsite, and we’d pass the first two peaks on the challenge; Mt. Pinos and Sawmill. I figured once we made camp, we could go to the summit of Grouse, about a mile away.  Another goal of this trip was to test out a few new items before I embark on the Rae Lakes Loop in a few weeks. Primarily the bear canister and the water filter. 

Ted and I left San Diego just after 8 am and began our drive up to the trailhead. Our first stop was the Subway in Castaic. While there is a spring at the campsite, we were cautious about the flow. One site labeled the flow as ‘a trickle’. Rather than risk needing to use our water for food, we planned our hike to avoid needing to do so. Also, instead of hauling out lunch to eat on the trail, we stopped at Mike’s Pizza Co in Frazier Park and split a nice medium-sized veggie pizza. Ted had also packed a couple of beers for later that evening, so I ran next door to the market and grabbed some as well. 

About 30 minutes later, we were pulling the parking lot at the Chula Vista Trailhead (aka Nordic Base), and we quickly gathered our gear. I hung my Adventure Pass from the mirror and we were off. The temperatures were pleasant and the scent of the pines was a welcomed treat. I carried our dinner in the bear canister, along with 2 liters of water and one Gatorade. This fluid load is about what I am planning for Rae Lakes. While the actual pack will be heavier with more food and clothes for the trip, it should give me some insight to what I have in store.

The trail, actually a closed dirt road, led us to the top of Mt. Pinos. In just over 1.5 miles, we gained about 500 feet. Once at the summit, we snapped a few photos of the survey marks and the southern San Joaquin Valley. Neither one of us felt the need for a real break yet, so we continued on. The nice road ended at the Mt. Pinos Condor Observation Site. There are some nice benches here but we still felt fine, so instead of stopping we headed down the Tumamelt Trail. This hike is a bit of a roller coaster, up to one summit, down to a saddle, then up to the next, and once again for good measure. I remember needing to stop last time when I was ascending this section. I was interested to see how I would do on this section the next day. For now, we just worked our way down the switchbacks. 

Once at the saddle, we began to regain those 500 feet we just lost. I took a couple of short breathers under some refreshing shade, but overall everything was still feeling good. The summit of Sawmill sits off to the side of the main trail, about .2 miles away. We soon found ourselves before the massively stacked cairn and the curiously misspelled sign. I have seen incorrect elevations before, but not a misspelling on a simple word like Sawmill.

We dropped our packs and took a short rest. I had some Gatorade and some trail mix. After about 10 minutes, we put our packs back on for the descent down to Sheep Camp. At about 4.6 miles, we came to the junction of Tumamelt and the North Fork Trail. The campsite is about ½ mile down the North Fork Trail. As we neared it, we could hear the voices of other campers. Since this was a first-come, first-served site, I was hoping that we would find a spot. Thankfully, site #2 was open and we would not be looking to find an alternate site for the evening. I dropped my pack and walked the 50 yards or so to inspect the state of the spring. It had a nice steady trickle. I could see if you needed water for a group of Boy Scouts, you could wait a while. But for what we needed, this would be fine. 

Sheep Camp Spring

With our tents set up, we grabbed our slack packs and set off to finish the 3-2-1 Challenge by climbing up Grouse Mountain. Ted brought a simple waist pack, while I was testing yet another new item, the REI Flash 22 pack. We made our way back up to the junction and then continued on about .3 miles until the junction that would take us up to the summit. In keeping with the spirit of the day, we had another roller-coaster profile before we would reach ‘False’ Grouse. The well-defined trail ends at what appears to be the summit. There is even a small rock cairn. But in reality, the true summit is back along the crestline. There is where you will find the wooden structure that you probably have seen before. We snapped our photos and headed back to camp. Ted was hoping we might have a nice view to capture a sunset, but this wasn’t going to happen on this peak.

Back at camp, I went to the spring to filter some water for the evening and to have on hand since we were planning to enjoy a small campfire. As the sun slowly sank behind the hill, we broke out our sandwiches and beers. Soon evening fell and we began to enjoy the night sky. It was a new moon, so the stars were out in force. Ted was able to capture some pretty good shots.

I awoke just before sunrise, having an average night of sleep. Since we were just about 4.5 miles from the trailhead, we decided to wait on a real breakfast until we were back in town. I fired up the Jetboil for my coffee and Ted’s tea. As we sipped our beverages, we each munched on a bar, before packing up. We quietly left the campsite and began hiking out. I had a small blister on my pinky toe, but the KT tape seemed to be doing its job. 

The final test for me was going to be that final climb up to the Condor Viewing area. Unlike last time, where I needed to take a few breaks, this time I was able to motor up with no real issues. It was here we finally started to encounter some hikers starting their day. I was wondering when we would. I had figured once we reached Mt. Pinos is where we would spot our first-day hikers. 

Ted and I just continued on, thinking of some fresh eggs and toast… Soon we were back at the car, covering the 4.25 miles in just over 2 hours. We threw our packs in the car and changed into some clean shirts and drove back down the hill. Unfortunately, the restaurant I picked had some of the slowest service I had ever had. Not a lot of options in the area, so we just sucked it up and waited for our meals. But overall, the trip was great! Doing this trip as an overnight is the best way to do these peaks. Now to devote all my focus on getting ready for my big Rae Lakes trip!

Garnet Peak

After summiting Monument Peak earlier in the morning, our second peak of the day was going to be Garnet Peak. While the trailhead at Penny Pines was filled with cars, there was no one at the Garnet Peak trailhead. I spied a couple of hikers making their way up the peak, and later a few more along the PCT. We passed through the meadow quickly and found ourselves ready to start up the rockier portion of the hike.

We made good time up the trail, and two hikers passed us returning from the summit. Once there, the three hikers I spotted on the PCT were enjoying the peak. The ‘infamous’ wind that usually is found on this peak was nowhere to be felt. We took a short snack break and snapped our photos. I tried to survey the extent of the fire that had burned recently near Oriflamme Canyon. It appeared not to have reached Roost Benchmark. I would later learn that it actually came within just a few feet of the summit.

As we made it our way back down, there were more hikers making their way up. Once back at the car, we looked at the time and decided that we would skip trying to squeeze in Wooded Hill and headed back into town.

Monument Peak

Initially, I had hoped to sneak in one more peak on the Sierra Club list, but some commitments in the early afternoon made it too tight to attempt San Ysidro. Instead, I opted to do some of the shorter peaks in the Lagunas that Ted needed to summit. First up was Monument Peak, a nice 2.8-mile hike. We pulled into the parking area and grabbed our gear and headed off along the trail.

The temperatures were pleasant as we made our way to the summit. Flowers still dotted the sides of the trail, making for an even more visually enjoyable hike. After a short stint on the PCT, we turned on the trail that would take us to the peak. This section of the trail was a bit more overgrown and could use some light pruning.

We reached the summit and were greeted by the fantastic desert views. Unlike previous visits, there was almost no wind to speak of. We snapped our photos and signed the register before heading back down. Once back at the car (and not missing the turn as I did on my first time hiking this peak), we headed off to our second peak of the day, Garnet Peak, just a few minutes down the road.

Oakzanita & Sugg Peaks

Being Memorial Day weekend, I did not want to drive up and tackle any of the Six-Pack of Peaks, so I turned to one of my non-desert peaks on the Sierra Club list that I needed to summit again. Since Ted Markus was back from his Grand Canyon adventure, I roped him into tagging along. Since he needed to summit Oakzanita, we opted to hit it along the way. We followed the Lower Descanso trail up until it reached the East Mesa Fire Road. After a very short stretch, we hopped onto the Upper Descanso trail. As we made our way up, wildflowers dotted the sides of the trail.

Soon we found ourselves at the junction to the peak, and the trail then began the final push to the top. Once there we enjoyed the views, Cuyamaca and Cush-Pi (Stonewall) to our north, Long Valley to our south, & the Lagunas to the east. We did not linger too long, as we heard voices from some other hikers making their way up. We chatted a bit and let them enjoy their time on the peak.

As we neared the junction, we passed two more hikers en route to the summit. These would be the last people we would see until we returned to the trailhead. Our route was to head south on the trail until it looped northward again, near the meadow we would cross to begin our cross-country trek up to Sugg Peak.

I had my track from 2019 when Susie Kara had graciously guided me to the summit. Now it was my turn to guide Ted. I remembered the landmarks that Susie had used when we did this peak, and I planned to use them as checkpoints. First up were the flat rocks just past the meadow’s edge. From here we were next on the lookout for the boundary fence between Cuyamaca State Park and Cleveland National Forest. After passing through the fence, we were now keeping our eyes out for the route that we would follow south for a bit. I spotted the faint path at the end of a small clearing; it had certainly become overgrown since I used it almost 2.5 years ago. The next landmark for us was the old jeep road sign. Ted did not believe there was once a road off to our right. 

Now for the last bit, the real bushwhacking would begin and the final push to the summit. From here we would leave the ‘trail’ and head east up the saddle toward Sugg. I would mostly just use my guts and some general suggestions from the track to weave through the thick brush that covered its slope. We reached the large rock slab that I tore my pants on the last time when descending. This was the only real landmark for this section of the hike, so reaching it was a good sign. I kept working us upward, checking my decisions with Ted from time to time. Soon we crested the false summit and Sugg Peak stood before us. We made our way over to the true summit. I signed the register, having to move the loose survey mark out of the way. We enjoyed the views while munching on our snacks.

We headed back down, hoping to retrace our steps, but I knew that following our exact route was a pipe dream. We hit a couple of dead-ends, but I worked around them and soon we were spot on with our track where we had left the ‘trail’! Maybe I have learned something after 100s of miles and 100+ peaks 😉

Once I got us back to the edge of the meadow, we had a decision to make. We had considered tacking on East Mesa High Point for Ted, but it was a touch warm and pizza and beer sounded really good (vaccinated bonus!). So, we cruised back down the trail toward the car. All told we covered 9.6 miles in 5:11 hours with 2,184 feet of gain.

Cody & Pike + 4!

When I was hiking with Gina Norte on Hot Springs Mountain last weekend, she mentioned that she was taking some fellow peakbaggers out for their attempt at Palm Mesa High Point, and possibly Cody & Pike. Since Gina was one of my hiking buddies when I summited Palm Mesa High Point, I knew she was not planning on doing that peak again. She said she might try for Phil and Norte Benchmarks instead. So, I asked if she would enjoy some company, to which she joyfully said yes. We chatted about what other peaks we might explore and how. In the end, we left it a bit flexible as to our plans and were just going to see how the day unfolded.

I arrived at the guard station for Los Coyotes Indian Reservation around 6:15. It was in the high 30s, but the forecast for the region that Gina and I would be hiking was in the low 70s. Alberto and Dale pulled up around 6:30. Initially, another peakbagger, Phil Y. had planned to come but he just did a long hike up in the San Gabriels and was not up for this adventure. Gina arrived soon after and we headed back to the campground. Dale and Alberto transferred into Gina’s car and I stayed in mine. Since I did not know how long Gina and I were going to spend hiking, having my car allowed me to leave if we finished before Dale and Alberto did (which is what we expected).

We drove to the familiar parking spot near the cemetery and quickly gathered our gear. Gina and I weren’t in a rush, but Dale and Alberto had a long, hard day ahead of them, so we got underway fairly quickly. This was the first time I had a chance to meet Dale in real life. We chatted about various topics as we made our way down to the wash and then up the saddle. The biggest question I had was “what order/route they were going to take?” Alberto had been with the group that was with me when I did Palm Mesa High Point. Per our recommendation, he had climbed Cody and Pike Benchmarks, but he was unable to make it down to Palm Mesa High Point. So for him, this was his first priority.

The hike up the wash went quickly. This time I did not miss the junction to the right, but did leave the wash a bit too early to reach the saddle. Nothing too problematic, but that is what happens when you are too busy talking and not double-checking your route that closely. Gina took a quick break just below the saddle and I escorted Dale and Alberto on up to it. Once there I pointed out Pike off to the left and Cody off to the right. I pointed at the wash below us and said “just follow that to Palm Mesa High Point”. 

I returned back to Gina, and we set off for our primary peaks, Phil and Norte Benchmarks. I had spotted what appeared to be a descent route up earlier, so took it up the slope. In hardly any time at all, we found ourselves next to the summit of Phil. I spotted the register in a glass jar sitting high up on the summit block. Below it was some of the guidewires for the survey post. Gina carefully scrambled up the rocks and signed us in. Meanwhile, I poked around and found a passage under the summit block that gave us a nice route toward our next peak, Norte. We relaxed and chatted for a while, and also surveyed the surrounding terrain for how we might visit the other nearby peaks. We were in no hurry, so we just sauntered toward Norte.

Jim Wick had done Phil and Norte a number of years back, and in his trip report, he mentioned that the approach to Norte was almost a walk up from the south side. So we looped around and his report was spot on. This was a special summit for Gina, as this peak was named in honor of her husband’s family. In fact, the benchmark is different from the regular USGS ones. We proudly signed the register and again took in the views. Since we both were feeling great, we decided to keep on exploring. Almost directly to our south stood Cody Benchmark. Gina had also wanted to climb it, so off we went. I had summited it with Susie Kara back in June of 2020, but we tackled it from the north up a steep and rocky route. This time, Gina and I worked our way along the ridgeline, staying on its northern side. Soon, we found ourselves at the saddle just below the summit and the short climb up.

We relaxed on the summit for a good while, soaking in the view, having a snack, and enjoying a little bit of cell coverage. I showed Gina the route Susie had taken down from Pike and up to Cody. Then looking back west toward Phil and Norte, we could see the difference between the south and north sides of the ridge. While Phil Benchmark was just a mere .7 miles to our north, I had no desire to take the direct route, especially having done the reverse. So, we roughly retraced our route to the saddle.

Along the way, I spied a string running from plant to plant. I suspected it was probably a weather balloon of some kind. We located the beacon, then followed the string to see if any remains of the balloon could be found. We only found the plastic hook, so we gathered up the items and stowed them in our pack. 

Still feeling good, we set off for our fourth peak of the day, Army Benchmark. This provisional peak sits just north of the saddle. We followed the main ridgeline up toward it. There were two possible bumps that it could be. Once we reached the first one, we did not see any signs that this was it, so we moved on to the next bump, a mere 300 feet away. Here, we did find some remnants of the surveying post. We found a nice spot for our lunch. From my spot, I could see Collins and Knob off to our north. We once again had some cell coverage and got a message that Dale and Alberto had reached Palm Mesa High Point. This let us begin to estimate when they might return. We debated if we should head west and summit Dry Benchmark, or push on and try for the Pikes. Still feeling adventurous, we set off for Pike Benchmark Summit and Pike Benchmark. Since we were on the ridge, we opted to stay on it as we worked our way over. Just to the west of Pike Benchmark Summit is a nice saddle. We walked over to its northern edge and had a sweeping view. Cougar Canyon was below us, SquareTop, Collins, Knob, Palm, and Elder were spread out before us. The final push up to Pike Benchmark Summit was a bit bouldery, so I continued my route finding and weaved our way up it without issue. 

Once on the summit, we could see Pike Benchmark just a stone’s throw away to the east. We again took in the views and signed the register. Rather than taking the direct approach to Pike Benchmark, we went north a bit, then across the minor saddle and up to the summit. If memory serves, Susie and I just charged straight across. 

As I stood atop my sixth summit of the day, I had to chuckle to myself. Initially, I thought I might just do two peaks, but here I was on #6 of the day. As an added bonus, I was a little closer to finishing the San Diego Sierra Club 100 Peaks list again. We scanned the wash below us to see if we might spot Dale or Alberto, but no luck. Gina and I discussed our route back, one option was to drop down from Pike all the way to the wash and climb back to the saddle, which was probably about 500 feet of gain once we dropped down. Or, we could follow the contour lines and sidehill it back to the saddle. That was the option we decided on, as it was getting a bit warmer in the mid-afternoon sun. I picked various landmarks to work our way toward, adjusting as the terrain revealed itself to us. After about 45 minutes or so, we found ourselves back at the saddle. When I was at the saddle in the morning, there was a cactus that was in full bloom, so I had to find it again since that is something that Gina loves to find.

Although we had not seen nor heard Dale and Alberto, we felt that we should probably head back, just in case they had slipped past us. We cruised back down the wash and back to our cars. We arrived about 4:30 and neither of them was there. We did some calculations of when they might arrive, and we loosely estimated they had at least another hour or more of hiking, depending on if they tried for eighth Cody or Pike on their return. I followed Gina back to the locked gate, and she let me through. I said my goodbyes and headed home. Gina returned to wait for them. She told me they arrived around 6:15 or so. I will let them tell their own adventures. But for us, it was an absolutely fantastic day; six peaks, 6.87 miles, and 1,780 feet of gain! 


WIth my recent summit of Hot Springs Mountain, I was down to only one more peak to complete the San Diego Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge — Cuyamaca Peak. Initially I had planned to save doing it until a nice fall day, but we still had some nice spring weather so I decided just to go knock it off the list. The past few times I have summited this mountain I had been working on the 100 Peak Challenge, so getting Airplane Ridge and Japacha Peak had been on the agenda. This time I did not need to revisit those summits, so I looked at some of the other possible routes. For many, they simply take the newly re-paved fire road to the summit from the campground. This was the route I did the first time years ago. While it is the shortest route, it is steep and all on a paved road. I had no desire to take this route again. Instead, I opted to use some of the trails on the north side of the mountain.

Cuyamaca in the distance

I pulled into the parking lot near the Trout Pond trail, just a bit north of the Paso Picacho Campground. This the same starting point you would use if you were going to hike up Middle Peak. There were a few cars here as I gathered my gear. It was still a bit nippy, so I pulled on a fleece. The forecasted high on the summit was in the low 50s, so I was probably going to want it later even if I warmed up while I was hiking.

After carefully crossing the highway, I headed down Milk Ranch Road. The grade was nice and gentle and had some lovely views. I passed the turn off that would take you up toward Middle Peak. After about 1.4 miles I came to the junction of the Black Oak Trail to my north and the Azala Springs Fire Road to my south. Walking around the gate, I continued on for about a quarter of a mile until I reached the Conejo Trail. My route now turned from nice wide roads to a more traditional trail. I continued to have a nice view of Cush-Pi (Stonewall) to my east. Over the next 1.5 miles, I would gain almost 900 feet of elevation. I could occasionally hear some voices ahead of me, and since I was making good time, I figured I would probably catch up to them. As I turned the corner of one of the switchbacks, I recognized Amber Haslerud from the San Diego Hiking Society. She and her boyfriend were also climbing Cuyamaca today. I stopped and chatted a bit. I loved following Amber’s hiking journeys, so it was a treat to finally meet her face to face. I wished them a good hike and continued on. The trail still had some nice wildflowers along it, so I seemed to be grabbing my phone to snap a photo quite often.

The Conejo Trail meets up with the Lookout Fire Road about .4 miles from the summit. However, I still had over 300 feet of gain until I summited. As I made my way to the top from the road, I spied two teeny tiny patches of snow tucked in the shade. The summit sign was still there, so I took my summit selfie then wandered over to take a few more photos of some of the interesting landmarks, the NASA benchmark, the Forest Service carving, and of course the view. I had a quick snack and was just about ready to leave when Amber and John arrived. Since this was their first time at the summit, I showed them how to get to the top. Once there, I gave them a quick tour of the summit. We chatted some more, and then I let them enjoy their accomplishment by themselves.

Since I found much of the Conejo Trail a tad rocky, I opted to take a slightly different route back to the car.

So, I stayed on the fire road until it met up with Azala Springs Fire Road. I followed it for about .6 miles until I reached the spring. Now if I had parked at the campground, there is another trail that would take me there, but I continued north back toward Milk Ranch Road, and eventually my car. My entire hike clocked in at 8.73 miles with 1,880 feet of gain in 4:02 (including all the chatting).

Sitton Peak

My fellow admin of the San Diego Hiking Society wanted to climb Sitton Peak, and as I also needed to climb it again for this year’s Six-Pack of Peaks, we arranged to hike it together. We met in the parking lot under overcast skies. After grabbing our gear we carefully crossed Ortega Highway and onto the trail. I signed the back-country register and we continued making our way on the trail. 

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 was still marked with white signs at each of the junctions. 

We passed one person who appeared to have spent the night camping. Soon we found ourselves at the turn-off to the summit. Here is where you earn the summit by gaining about 400 feet in 3/10 of a mile. I lead the way up and it was easier for me this time.

Soon the summit came into view and we had a well-earned break. The clouds had burned off near us, and while the marine layer still socked-in the coast, Santiago Peak stood out clearly to the north of us. After a nice break and snapping our photos, two more hikers joined us at the summit. 

We let them enjoy the summit to themselves and began our descent. As we made our way back I spied a nice 3-foot rattlesnake coiled on the trail. We paused at a safe distance and waited to see if it would decide to move out of our way. The hikers we had met at the summit, along with two more, came up behind us. At this point, the snake was mostly off-trail and we could pass safely. 

A bit later we found ourselves back at our cars and headed back to San Diego. It was a fun 9.4 miles in 4:31. That was my second peak on my 2021 Six-Pack of Peak Challenge

Hot Springs Mountain via Nelson Camp

With the Sierra Club 100 behind me, as well as my backpacking trip on Santa Cruz Island, it was time to turn my attention back to completing the various Six-Pack of Peak Challenges. Since I am hoping to do several of them as overnighters, I had a handful to pick from. Since I knew my friend Gina Norte usually hikes Hot Springs Mountain on Saturdays, I reached out to see what her plans were. She replied that she was taking another San Diego Hiking Society admin, Conni Barth Nardo, and a friend up Hot Springs Mountain, but via the Nelson Camp route. I remember reading about this route in my earlier editions of Afoot and Afield in San Diego. Instead of starting at the campground, this route follows an older jeep road from much further back on the reservation. Access to this part of the reservation has been closed for a number of years, so given the opportunity to explore a new trail, I was so excited to be able to tag along. 

We met as usual at the guard shack and followed Gina to the campground. The tribe had recently changed their hiking hours to allow starting at 6 am, and there were about 8 or so cars already parked. We tossed our gear into Gina’s car and set off, driving along the dirt road for a bit. Instead of heading to the right, like we did when we hiked to Palm Mesa High Point, we veered left. We passed through our second locked gate, then past the shooting range. Finally, we pulled over near what Gina referred to as “Four Corners”. From here we would follow an old jeep road until it intersected with Hot Springs Mountain Road.