Lawson Peak SDC
Gaskill Peak P1K SDC
Japacha Peak ex-HPS / SDC

Mon, Dec 27, 2010
Gaskill Peak
Japacha Peak
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2


The clouds and gloomy weather had cleared out during the night, leaving a fine sunny morning in San Diego. Today's agenda included three SDC peaks in the south-central part of the county. I had been to Lawson some years ago when I had first gotten ahold of Schad's book, but had declined to climb nearby Gaskill Peak at that time. So I would go back there for those two followed by a visit to Cuyamaca State Park for Japacha Peak, a subsidiary summit on the South Ridge of Cuyamaca Peak.

I used the same route for Lawson that I had on my first visit, following Schad's description that starts at a dirt road (called Carveacre Rd on the 7.5' topo, but otherwise unsigned) junction off Lyons Valley Rd. Not a particularly early start, it was 8a by the time I started hiking. The dirt road is open to vehicles, but only suitable for the toughest 4x4 with very high clearance given its rutted, unmaintained nature. It made for easy enough hiking however, with about 1,200ft of gain over two miles. There is a good view to Lawson Peak almost from the start, and a decent view of Corte Madera and Los Pinos in the distance to the east, the two peaks I had hiked the previous day. It took about 40 minutes to reach the upper end of the road where it joins with another rough dirt road that runs along the east side of the ridge crest. From this point there are good views looking north to Gaskill Peak, south to Lyons Peak (a good-looking, but difficult-to-reach summit that no longer has public access), and the rocky Lawson Peak rising up to the west in the foreground. The use trail leading to Lawson was not hard to located. It follows a steep track up the east side, around the north end of the summit, then ascends via a class 3 chimney on the west side to the summit blocks above. Before reaching the chimney (which I had used on my first visit to the summit), I noted some rocks northwest of the summit, also class 3, that I used as an alternate way to reach the top. It was just after 9a when I reached the benchmark at the summit.

As described, it is a very fine summit with large, rocky summit blocks that could hold a very large party, good views, and non-trivial access. There was a rappel station set up below the summit on the east side for a rock climbing route about 30ft in height on the that side. A damp summit register could be found in a cracked and weather-beaten plastic tub at the top. I went back down via the standard route, finding that use and erosion have made the steep chimney harder over time. A few key chockstones are in danger of working themselves out and may make the effort more like class 4 or 5. Still, it is an impressive route that worms its way through the summit rocks on the west side with a low ceiling tunnel perhaps 25ft in length, just above the access chimney.

Back on the ridgeline road, I headed north to Gaskill. There are at least two use trails one can use to reach its summit. The first I found on the south side, the start marked by a cairn along the road where the South Ridge starts. This was the easiest of the two and most straightforward, taking about 20 minutes to reach the summit from the road. Gaskill's summit is similarly rocky, though not with the tricky bit of effort as required on Lawson. I found a large ammo box serving to hold the registers, and consequently in much better shape than the one on Lawson. There were several large books, neither particularly old, filled with entries - a popular peaks, indeed. Sitting at the north end of the ridgeline, Gaskill's summit offers a more sweeping view than that of Lawson's. One can see north to Cuyamaca and even further to the snowy summit of San Jacinto far to the northwest.

I noticed a bit of flagging leading off the east side of the peak, so I took a chance in following it down to see if it presented a faster or more interesting route choice. Someone had spent some time cutting the shoulder-high brush through which it led down the steep east side, making for a good trail, but without any advantage I could see to the more picturesque trail on the South Ridge. It took less than 15 minutes to take this trail down to the dirt road, then about an hour back to the car.

Bell Bluff, another SDC peak is located about five air miles north of Gaskill Peak. I hadn't done my homework on this summit ahead of time, but I decided to spend some time driving around to see what I could come up with a way to reach it. I found a promising paved road off Japatul Valley Rd called Bell Bluff Rd, but this seemed only to lead to some expensive, private ranches without any public access to the summit from the south. I gave up the hunt after this minor disappointment. Instead, I drove north on SR79 to Cuyamaca State Park, once again using Schad's book to find a good starting point for Japacha Peak. I chose the West Mesa Fire Rd, finding the parking spot along the highway easily enough.

Schad's description of the West Mesa Loop begins, "The forest: you're never far from it on this hike." While that was accurate back in 1992 when the second edition was printed, it is far from accurate today. The fire that swept through the area in 2003 decimated the forests, leaving the broad east slopes of Cuyamaca in a state of regeneration that currently means open brush and grass hillsides. Far from seeing this as a tragedy, I find it refreshing to see changes through the area and to be able to watch the forest cycle in all its stages.

[start rant] Well-meaning folks in the employ of the State Park, along with volunteer from a local grocery chain went to no small effort to jumpstart the regrowth process by planting thousands of pine seedlings on the lower slopes of Cuyamaca where brush and grass and dead snags had become dominant. The snags were evidence that the pines had been low down on the slope at one time, but this may not have been the normal limit before fire suppression had become the norm in the early part of the 20th century. Without exception, all the seedlings I saw along the route had died within a year of being planted. Piles upon piles of plastic protection tubes for the seedlings now litter the landscape, looking like so much trash. Why did they die, drought and bad timing? Perhaps. My own theory suggests you need the forest of the upper slopes to provide shade and retained moisture for the seedlings on the lower slopes. There was ample evidence that the forest is naturally regenerating on the higher slopes (where more snow falls to provide better hydration than an equivalent amount of rain). Wanting to have a quick regrowth on the lower slopes I believe was just wishful thinking, and now we have all these plastic tubes lying about as a sad reminder. [end rant]

Despite the lack of forest, it was still a very enjoyable hike along the fire road and later the West Mesa Trail. At the highpoint of the West Mesa Loop is found the junction with the aptly named Burnt Pine Fire Road that winds its way up to Cuyamaca, passing by Japacha Peak on the way. Where the old road makes a sharp turn just north of Japacha there is a ducked route that leads to the summit from that side. In all I spent almost two hours to reach the brushy summit crowned with a small rocky top. Though still an SDC peak, Japacha was delisted from the HPS list presumeably because it is a minor bump along the South Ridge of the higher Cuyamaca Peak. Still, it has much better views than many HPS peaks and a good vantage point from which to view Cuyamaca.

There was a set of nested red tin cans, HPS-style, under a cairn. The register was weathered but not very old. The most interesting thing was a Summit Stone with a small booklet that had been recently placed there. It was the second such stone I had found this year, the first being on Sheep Peak in Yosemite. The booklet was a collection of short musings on the natural world by many authors, a very nice alternative to the Are You Saved? booklets one sometimes finds on summits. Later I looked online for more information (easy, just search "summit stones") and found this. Could be the start of a new religion, one I might actually join. Anyway, I thought it was pretty cool that someone is out adventuring (apparently, quite a bit of it, too) all over the world and leaving these for others to find.

I went back down to the West Mesa Loop and continued in the counter-clockwise direction along it towards Airplane Ridge. Tucked away on the eastern flanks of this ridge is a monument to the crew of a WWI vintage plane that crashed here in 1922. The rusty engine block was cemented into a stone base, inset with a plaque. The location is just off the main loop trail, signed at a trail junction just to the south. Another trail leads back to the main loop from the north, but this one is unsigned. A few crossings of Japacha Creek were easily managed before continuing northeast along the trail and back to the fire road. It was after 4:15p by the time I returned to the van, having taken a leisurely 4hrs+ for the outing. I found both hikes on the day quite enjoyable, in contrast to the day prior. Good weather certainly makes a huge difference in my assessment of almost any outing, it would seem.

Submit online text corrections or comments about the story.

Derek (100 Peaks) comments on 03/17/11:
Hi Bob, just got around to reading this. I was the one who left that Summit Stone. I was sent a package of them from the guy at the blog you cited in your trip report. I've left a couple here and there, but mostly they are too large for summit registers and I often forget to bring them.

Thanks for the trip reports, maps and photos. They are very helpful in my preparation.
Alpenglow comments on 03/03/14:
Summited Lawson last month. There seem to be significantly less rock in the chimney. Only the 3 chockstones with minimal holds were found. I ascended the chimney but descended via the rocks noted on the Northwest side which seemed like an easier alternative at this point.
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