Witch Creek Mountain
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A fast, but very cold front had just moved through the San Diego area overnight, leaving a fresh layer of snow on many of the hills above 3,000ft in the county. I had never been in snow in San Diego and thought this would be a wonderful opportunity. I had been watching the weather reports and had come prepared with snowshoes and snow gear on a short family trip to visit my mother-in-law. What I had forgotten to bring were chains for the van, a source of some regret. As I drove east on SR78 towards Julian, I was confronted with a Chains Required sign just past Santa Ysabel. I decided not to take a chance that the sign was out-of-date and waste some time driving up to Julian only to be turned back. Instead I decided to check out some summits along SR78 that I had noted while perusing the maps and some that I found on my GPS.
A small cairn is found at the summit, but no register. The benchmark is labeled "BALLENA" which is spanish for whale. Whale Peak is found just to the east across Ballena Valley. The snows on the Cuyamacas were clearly visible from the summit though clouds covered the upper reaches of these higher mountains. I returned via nearly the same route, saving some time by not making a few mistakes I made on the way in, the whole outing taking about an hour and a half.
There are a handful of homes on the southwest side of Whale Peak that are easily bypassed to the north by the route I took, going through a grassy ravine and then up a ridge rising above the homes. Animal trails lead nicely through the brush, avoiding bushwhacking. Rising higher, there's a nice view to the west of Santa Teresa Valley, green with the recent rains. In the background is the distinctive Mt. Woodson. The hike to the summit takes all of about fifteen minutes. There is a small solar-powered antenna just below the highpoint, a small pile of rocks marking the top at the broad summit. An old road actually leads right to the summit from the east, likely originating at one of the ranches on that side. Witch Creek Peak and Ballena Valley figure prominently to the east with the three snow-covered peaks of the Cuyamacas to the southeast.
The highlight of the hike is the dam itself, an engineering marvel. It has 17 curved arches supported by 18 buttressses that give it a scalloped look. The top of the dam overhangs the bottom by a good distance with a walkway at the top that follows the scalloped shape from one side to the other. I didn't walk along this walkway, but the view from the top looking down must be exhilarating. The buttresses and subsidiary arches that support the dam on the backside are very impressive. I walked under one of the arches to take a picture looking up to the sky. Because the backside is completely shaded from the sun, there is a rich growth of ferns, lichen and other shade-loving plants on many of the structures, looking like some sort of ancient Mayan ruin. Construction on the dam was begun in 1927 but halted a year later due to lack of funding and conflicting water rights claims. The second phase began 24 years later in 1952 and finished in 1954. The dam was completed with bonds funded by the City of San Diego which remains the primary recipient of the resources (there are only water resources, no hydroelectric capacity). The spillway at the east end of the dam allows overflow when the height of the water reaches 145ft which has happened only twice - once in the 1970s and again in the 1990s. Water flowing over the spillway must have been swift and harsh as it completely washed out the road leading up from the bridge to the east side of the dam. Use trails allow one to bypass this section, walking across the spillway and to the road on the other side.
Once beyond the dam, the terrain grows more uncivilized. The roads around Corral Mountain haven't been used by vehicles for decades and see little human traffic as well. The 2007 fires burned across here, leaving some charred fenceposts as lasting reminders. Brush was growing back briskly and encroaching on the roadbed. This meant I was constantly pushing against the brush which as I came to find was absolutely loaded with ticks. It was not uncommon to have a dozen of them on my legs at one time. I could see the little parasites sitting at the ends of the twigs waiting for something to walk by. There was some amusement provided when I was actually able to watch them in action as I pushed through some waist-high brush along the road I traveled. I could see the ticks launched off their posts like minature parachutists jumping from a plane or perhaps more like a cliff diver. It wasn't easy to tell if the motion through the brush simply knocked them off or they actually jumped on cue, but it looked like a paratroop exercise as viewed from the observation planes above. Most of the soldiers would miss there mark and fall helplessly to the ground. Once launched, they have no control over their trajectory. The chaos of my legs moving through more brush meant that some of those that landed would almost immediately be knocked off. I watched as some would climb my pant legs a short distance and then abort the mission themselves, either jumping off completely or dropping to a lower position in an effort to find something they could bite into. Though they certainly had the advantage of numbers today, none would find their mark. These were not the top recruits in the tick army.
The road I followed led up to a lower, subsidiary peak just south of the highpoint. The cross-country needed to reach the top was not much harder than the road itself. From the starting point, it took about an hour to reach the highpoint. I was surprised to find a register in this out-of-the-way location. Inside was an LPC brochure telling of the wonders to be had by joining this Sierra Club group. Along with it was a 2007 register left by the notable San Diegans, Richard Carey, Terry Flood and John Strauch. There were a few other names like Gail Hanna that I recognized. I wonder if this forgotten peak was at one time being considered for the LPC or San Diego peak lists. The summit provides fine views of Black Mtn to the northwest, the Volcan Mtns to the northeast and of course Sutherland Lake to the south. Jogging most of the way back, I managed to cut the return time in half, taking just over 30 minutes.
The route I chose was fully in sight of the highway, requiring one to cross a fence before starting the steep climb. There was no hiding from anyone who might spot me from the highway. Getting spotted wasn't the problem - whether they would care to do anything about it was my real concern. It seemed nobody would today. I moved as fast as I possibly could to minimize my chances of getting in trouble, making it up the nearly 600ft of grassy terrain in 15 minutes. Higher up I relaxed some as I knew I would be far less noticable by passing motorists. There is a fine vantage point at the summit from which to view the canyon to the east and the valley to the west. A brand new football field was carved from the orchards that were not yet shown on the Google satellite views when I perused them a month later. To the north rise the steep bluffs that frame that side of the canyon and valley. White numbers have been painted on the rocks by adventurous seniors from the local academy to mark their graduation year. All of the numbers I could make out were from the 1980s. The San Pasqual Academy didn't come into existence until after 2000, so it seems likely these may have been from the previous school at the site where the Seventh Day Adventists ran a boarding school. Perhaps by the 1990s the students had been sufficiently schooled in the importance of evironmental stewardship. Or possibly they just ran out large rocks as canvases. The return, as you might expect, went very quickly with a slight variation to use a slightly more concealed gully on the same side, taking all of five minutes.
I drove back west along the road until I was just above the dam, figuring I'd give it a go cross-country from the closest point I could get in a straight line. This almost turned into a disaster. There is a faint use trail leading up to a telephone pole found on the hillside, but there was ample poison oak leading further. While I might judge some peaks to be worth the pain this might entail, this was not one of them. I went back down and drove a short distance east where I had seen an old gate. This turned out to the ticket for the shortest route to the summit. Once over the gate, the road leads up to a saddle well above the telephone pole I had reached earlier. There are grafitti displays on the rocks along this road, the usual collection of teenage drug-related signage. At the saddle a sign indicated I was entering the Bottle Peak Preserve. Later I learned that the Escondido Creek Conservancy spent $3.5M in 2010 to purchase 418 acres on Bottle Peak. There is almost no other information available online concerning this property. Was it meant for public access? It would seem so. A short distance down the other side of the saddle I found a thin trail heading off in the direction of the summit. It seems this trail originates much further down on the west, at the edge of town. This would be the all-legal way to reach the summit though I don't know if it is required to be docent-led or not. I followed the trail as it went over a small, cute but probably unnecessary bridge that leads through some tall brush and mature stands of chaparral that did not burn in the 2007 fire. More poison oak could be found at various points along the trail but thankfully it has been maintained well enough to avoid the noxious plant.
The trail meanders about the west side of the peak, eventually reaching through some gaps between boulders to finish at the summit. Easy class 3 scrambling leads to the top of the large grafitti-enfused summit rock. A fire lookout built in 1911 once stood at the summit, but some concrete is all that remains. A benchmark was placed years later. The summit offers a fine place to relax and enjoy the views in all directions, provided you can keep the grafitti from bothering you. The views west were washed out by the sun low on the horizon at this time of day, but there was a nice view of Lake Wohlford and the surrounding hills to the north. It was after 5p and I was nearly out of daylight by the time I returned to the car so I didn't give nearby French Mountain a try. It looks to have similar difficulties and I thought it best to leave it for some other day...
This page last updated: Wed Apr 27 14:52:09 2016
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