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I was in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park for two days during the Christmas Holiday. One day was to be devoted to a climb of Lorenzens Peak in the Santa Rosas with Tom Becht, the other day to myself. The solo ventures are a good time to visit some peaks that few others would be interested in, and so I picked out a handful of delisted SDC peaks around the Hellhole Canyon area west of Borrego Springs. There are eleven other listed summits in the same area, though it was unclear to me why some were stricken and others remained. Most are simply USGS benchmarks on small bumps along one ridgeline or another. In any event, it would give me a chance to return to the area and explore Hellhole Canyon for much of its length.
The first three summits are all located on the ridgeline south of Hellhole Canyon. The California Riding and Hiking Trail running west to east across the county passes over this ridge and very near to all of the summits. It would have made a good day in its own right to hike the trail from Culp Valley down to Borrego Springs and back, but that wouldn't have given me enough time to do the longer hike up Hellhole Canyon. So I chose to pick off the various summits from different starting points along S-22, an easier proposition.
Having driven out the night before, I was already at a turnoff near Culp Valley as the sun rose just after 6:30a. I was less than half a mile southeast of Wee BM and simply headed up the rocky slopes above the highway directly towards the summit. I came across the CA Riding & Hiking Trail by accident (I had forgotten its existence until now) about 2/3 of the way to the summit and followed it until it passed just under the summit. A sandy cross-country slope led to the benchmark at just over 4,000ft, making for a climb of some 650ft. A weathered register dated only to 2011, consisting of three pages of entries. The sun was shining brightly on San Ysidro Mtns to the northwest. To the northeast could be seen the sleepy town of Borrego Springs before the day had fully started. In the distance to the east was the Salton Sea just visible. Chilly at the summit, I beat a hasty retreat back down to the trail, following it a bit further than I had on the way up, eventually ending up back at the car.
I drove a short distance east to the Culp Valley Trailhead for a hike to Lookout Point. This summit does not show up on any map that I know of, but it popped up on my GPS's built-in maps, located about halfway between Wee and Rass BMs. There is primitive camping available in Culp Valley for no charge. There were several folks taking advantage of the opportunity. I parked at the TH and started off on the handicap accessible trail. I've seen handicap parking at USFS trailheads that seemed ridiculous because the trails were unuseable by wheelchairs. But this was different. A very low-gradient trail with compact gravel/sand and bridged gullies leads around the desert environment for half a mile. Kudos to the State Park for creating this nice feature, I just hope they'll see fit to maintain it. I followed the trail to its junction with the CA Riding & Hiking Trail and began to follow it towards the northeast. Some old signs point to a scenic overlook or vista point, but I never did figure out where that was. The Lookout Point I was heading to was another mile down the trail and then about 10 minutes of cross-country to the north. The point indicated on the GPS was a low, rounded mound of no great significance. I wondered if the GPS had simply misplaced the location of the vista point alluded to by the trail signs I had seen. The summit did feature an easy class 3 summit block at the west end of the broad summit. Walking east to the edge of the summit area one can get a good view of Borrego Springs, but really no better than can be obtained from a dozen locations along the trail. Unsatisfied with that one, I returned back along the trail to the start at Culp Valley.
I next drove further east on S-22 to within half a mile of Rass BM, another ex-SDC summit. I hiked up a rocky wash from the pavement, found the Riding & Hiking Trail for a third time, and made it to the benchmark in just over 15 minutes. This point provided a better view of Borrego Springs than did Lookout Point. The oldest of two register books found here was completely filled, dating from 1996 to 2009, with quite a few entries from the Monday Maniacs hiking group. A newer book picked up in 2010 and already had 11 pages filled. The Jack-in-the-Box pencil added a touch of novelty. I hiked back down the trail, then cross-country to the starting point, careful to avoid the barrel cactus, agave and other spiny things growing nicely in the drainage.
With the preliminaries out of the way, I drove S-22 down to the desert floor and the Hellhole Canyon Trailhead found just off the highway. By now it was 10a and I had to wonder if I'd given myself enough time to get back from the long excursion up the canyon before dark. In perusing the map posted at the kiosk here, I noted that there was almost three miles of trail leading up the canyon to Maidenhair Falls. This would make things easier, as I merely needed to get back to the falls by sundown afterwhich it should be easy to make my way by headlamp.
My goal was an obscure benchmark high up the canyon, on the SE Slopes of San Ysidro Mountain. Had I reviewed Schad's guidebook for this area I would have found that there is a much easier approach to the upper canyon starting from Culp Valley, but alas I was a bit cavalier in my approach. I ended with no regrets however, as an exploration of Hellhole Canyon was worth it for its own merits. The hike starts off easy enough, a sandy trail over mostly flat ground west through the lower part of the broad wash. Some rock piles suggesting graves are marked by an unusual sign offering macabre humor combined with a friendly warning to carry enough water. I imagine that there are no real graves under the rocks, otherwise some offended group would have protested the state park's lack of sensitivity to the deceased.
After several miles the first group of palms are encountered in the canyon. More surprising are the sycamores that manage to survive the brutal summer temperatures here, nurtured by seasonal waterflow in the creek, now dry. The maintained trail ends and becomes a threaded use trail found on one side of the creek or the other, but mostly on the north side. More palms and sycamores are encountered over the next half mile. The trail grows less distinct, and there is some clambering over low or broken sycamore branches, along sandy beaches and over fractured rock as one continues up the canyon. I stumbled upon Maidenhair Falls almost by accident. Some ferns, barely green, and just the lowest trickle of water were the only clues that I had found the landmark. I heard voices above me and soon found a couple resting on the rocks above the falls. They were foreign visitors from some germanic European country. They asked if the trail continues upstream, disappointed to find I was as new to this canyon as themselves. It turns out the trail does continue, but mostly on the south side of the creek. Unfortunately we were on the north side and as I continued past the resting couple, I found going increasing in difficultly. There was thrashing through the sycamores which continue for more than a mile up the canyon and some steep hillsides to negotiate if one tries to avoid the creekbed. I found some fresh flowing water above the falls that was quite refreshing. It most flow underground during the driest parts of the year to feed the sycamores and keep them from dying. After about 30 minutes of work above the falls, following on the more difficult north side, I decided I needed a new plan that no longer involved the canyon.
The new plan was to simply climb up out of the canyon on the north side, climbing to Hellhole Flat rather than continue up the canyon as I had originally intended. The going is steep, no longer shaded (and thus considerably warmer), but at least I was able to make steady, less-frustrating progress. An hour's effort got me up 1,600ft and onto Hellhole Flat with San Ysidro Mountain framing the background. Somewhere on the slopes ahead was Hob benchmark, but without having the point marked on the GPS, I would have had a hell of a time picking it out. Hellhole Flat is an interesting bit of high ground lodged in what are generally steep canyons and rocky slopes. There are junipers growing in abundance here at just under 4,000ft and plenty of other plants to give it the feel of an oasis - minus the water. Underground springs must run through the area, allowing roots to gather nourishment in an otherwise parched desert landscape. The area is not as flat as the name suggests and there were a number of gullies and shallow canyons to negotiate as I made my way northwest towards higher ground. I was unsure which of three points ahead of me was the correct one, but as I got closer things sorted themselves out as the GPS indicated the lower point was where I should find the benchmark.
It was 2p before I had made my way to the rocky outcrop where some telltale rusty wire gave away the location of an old survey tower. I found two reference marks on either side of where the benchmark should be under an obstinate bush, but I was unable to locate the benchmark itself. One reference mark was stamped with HUB rather than the expected HOB as shown on the topo map. Tucked in the shade of the summit blocks under a small mound of rocks was a glass jar holding a register dating to 1991. Most of the 8 loose pages of entries were from that decade with only three entries, mine included, over the past 15 years. There isn't a whole lot to the view, though it was a pleasant day with good air quality and cool temps. The "summit" overlooks Hellhole Flat and Canyon towards the southeast, but west and north the long ridgeline of San Ysidro Mtn rises up another 1,000ft before opening up to views in all directions.
Not far below the benchmark on my way back I came across a heavy steel canteen of the sort that might have been carried around before WWII more than 70 years ago. I wondered if it wasn't from the original US Army survey party that had left the benchmark in 1941. I took a picture and left it where I found it in the sand, a small treasure for the next adventurer to stumble across. I spent the next hour and a half returning to the bottom of Hellhole Canyon, a duck leading me to the use trail on the south side of the creekbed that I wish I'd found earlier. A surprise among the sycamores and palms in the canyon were a few wilting yellow flowers with seed pods for the next generation. Just a small splash of color to add to the normally drab colors of the desert. The sun would set around 4:30p while I was still descending the canyon past the first palms, and another half hour would pass before I returned to the trailhead, sans headlamp. There were still a few other cars besides mine still here. The water I had left out on the dash for a shower had cooled considerably, with the outside temperature already dropping below 40F. This made for a brisk shower behind the van, but even a cold one was preferrable to no shower at all.
As I drove through Borrego Springs and out towards Clark Valley to the northeast, I passed by dozens of RVs and trucks camped out in the desert on either side of the highway. A number were strung with Christmas lights and several had Christmas trees parked in front to provide a festive air to the desert. With carpet mats and piles of dirt bikes and other gear, they looked like they were there for the long haul, though probably just for the holiday week or two. I turned north on Clark Valley Rd and found a place just past the end of the pavement to park myself for the night. I was to meet Tom in the morning and had given him the general location of where to find me. I sent him text with more exact information after I had reached it but that went off into the digital ether, unread by Tom. Seems I used an old phone number that he no longer uses. He still managed to find me, however. In fact, he and Glen drove up around 10p, an hour after I'd gone to sleep, rousing me in the process. I think they wanted me to wake up and have a beer with them, but I was too far into dreamland to care for the interruption. So they had their beers without me and probably had a better time of it than if I'd joined them...
This page last updated: Tue Jan 14 17:19:48 2014
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