Agua Tibia Mountain P750 LPC / SDC
Agua Tibia Wilderness HP
Eagle Crag HPS / SDC
Wild Horse Peak LPC

Tue, Dec 23, 2003
Eagle Crag
Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile

Another holiday spent in San Diego enjoying Christmastime with family also allowed me a free day to go off hiking. Having done some research ahead of time, I picked out a 25mi hike in the Agua Tibia Wilderness located in the northern part of the county, about 8 miles northwest of Mount Palomar. The region is mostly dry chaparral, but in the higher regions near 5,000ft there grows a variety of pines and some oaks as well. There is very little water in the entire area, and visitors are encouraged to take all their water needs with them if not visiting in the spring, the only time where water can be reliably found. My primary destination would be Eagle Crag, an HPS peak, but there were two other lower peaks found on the LPC list that I hoped to visit as well.

I woke up at 4a, ate breakfast, and drove north on I15 to Temecula and SR79. The Dripping Springs Ranger Station, Campground, and TH are located about 10 miles east of Temecula. The first things I noticed when I pulled in were the multiple signs indicating the need for a FS Adventure Pass. Rats, I was fresh out. With the trailhead parking located across from the ranger station I figured my chances of getting ticketed were close to 100%. Hopefully it would just be a request to pay the $5 and not a $100 fine. Under the faint light of my headlamp I headed out just before 6a.

I needed the headlamp for only about 20 minutes before it was sufficiently light out, though the sun wouldn't officially rise for another 45 minutes or so. The sky was completely overcast and would remain so for the entire day. This muted most views, but the weather was pleasantly cool and I wasn't unhappy to keep the sun off me. Light rain was forcast for the day, mostly confined to the coastal areas. If I got any heavy downpours it would be a problem since I didn't have a real raincoat. I had a $0.99 poncho with me, but it wouldn't have lasted more than a few minutes hiking down the trail before it got shredded.

My route today included a 20-mile loop with a 5-mile out/back at the halfway point to reach Eagle Crag. I took the Dripping Springs Trail on the way out, climbing 7 miles in about 2 1/2 hours to the main ridge. Most of those first hours were spenting heading uphill through the sagebrush, watching the views open up to the north. The lights of Temecula twinkled to the northwest, the three big peaks in So Cal (Mt. San Antonio, San Bernardino Mtn, and San Jacinto Peak) were easily discernable to the north and northwest. Once at the ridge I could see to the southwest out the Pacific ocean - a very pleasant locale indeed. The Dripping Springs Trail was nicely groomed and well-cleared. Not so the Palomar-Magee Trail that follows the ridge. This trail was heavily overgrown and I found myself plowing through several varieties of dried and seeded annuals that were looking for fauna like me to help distribute the seeds as I tore through them. Many of them ended up in my eyes, nose, and mouth in addition to coating my socks and shoe laces. My brother-in-law had warned me to carry a face mask to protect against ash from the recent fires in Southern California. There was no evidence of such fire anywhere I travelled, but I was finding myself thinking a nice litle fire would have helped clear the weeds out nicely. There was old evidence of the '89 fire, many larger trees from the matured forest were left lying about on the ground.

After a mile I came to the first of today's peaks, Agua Tibia Mtn on the northwest end of a 7-8 mile long ridge. The trail doesn't go over the top, but around the west and south sides of it, about a quarter of a mile shy of the summit. I'd hoped I could find a use trail to the summit, but no such luck. Fortunately the brush wasn't too thick and I was able to navigate my way through and around the stuff without much trouble. The summit area is is rounded, almost flat, with two areas of higher summit rocks. The obviously higher one was perhaps 15 feet high, challenging to the point of almost being class 3, but not quite. There was no summit register to be found, no cairn, just an assortment of random footprints in the sandy earth around the area to indicate other human visitors.

I found my way back to the trail, then plowed through more overgrowth for the next two miles to Crosley Saddle, the lowpoint along the ridge. I could see Eagle Crag about 500ft above me two miles to the west, but it hardly stands out as a peak, mostly just a rocky outcropping along a rising ridgeline. The crag lies about a mile off the trail, and I worried that the bushwhacking there would be harder than the last one. I hiked up the trail, walking right past the foot-high duck that marked the use trail. This would cost me about an hour's time. Instead I continued on the trail until I was due east of the peak, then struck off cross-country through the bush. No use trail, no footprints, just lots of chaparral to mow through. Good thing I had long pants and shirt on. It took nearly an hour to go about a mile through the stuff. A few hundred yards from the summit I found some pink and blue ribbons that helped lead the way through the thickets. These I followed religiously, noting the trimmed manzanita and other shrubs, and made my way to the summit. I found the red HPS register amongst the rocks, and took some time to peruse it. Placed in 1989, the summit sees less than a dozen parties a year, almost all of them Sierra Club outtings. Many entries talk about being glad to "tick this one off," "Hope I never come back again," "no one shot at me," and the like. Mine evidently wasn't the shortest approach, probably one of the longest. Another approach comes from Mt. Palomar St. Park, and shorter ones may come via private land. Other entries talked about ticks and hot weather. Nobody seemed to enjoy it very much. The peak seems to have been chosen for the HPS list merely to make sure the Agua Tibia Wilderness has some inclusion. I would venture that almost all of the entries were made by Sierra Club members or others who are ticking off peaks on the HPS list. As a measure of its unpopularity, I noted that Doug Mantle has only climbed the peak once (although there was another guy who'd climbed it at least six times - a masochist no doubt).

After taking some pictures I had some water, the first I had that day. Sort of as a training measure I like to see how long I can go without water. Usually I start drinking after a couple hours, but today under overcast conditions I held out for five. I then rummaged around my pack for some food but found none. I thought I had some granola bars in there, but apparently I'd left them out. I looked a second and third time, but still came up empty. I don't think I really needed anything to eat, but not having it with me made we want something that much more.

I headed back down following the ribbons all the way back to the trail. It followed a steep, dry drainage on the northeast side of the ridge that was mostly devoid of underbrush under the oak-forested slope. When I got back to the trail I noticed a foot-high cairn marking the start, and a pink ribbon around a tree trunk 10 yards off the trail. Sure wish I'd seen them on the way up. I continued down, back to Mosley Saddle and took the Wild Horse Trail for the return part of the loop. It had started to drizzle on and off when I had reached the summit, and this continued on for the rest of the hike. I would get a bit wet, but my shirt always dried out before getting too damp. For some reason I had thought the hike was going to be 34 miles long, but after consulting my maps at this time I found it was 9 miles less. That was good, because I wasn't sure my water would hold out well for those extra miles, and I wasn't finding anything in the way of water along the way. I was also worried that I'd be getting back later after dark, but now it seemed I had plenty of time. I would need it too for the last peak. I jogged most of the downhill sections, at least those that were most easily navigable. The upper part of the trail was also overgrown, but the trail conditions improved the lower I got. Once I reached the fence and crossed the private access road the trail conditions were great, well graded and decently cleared of overgrowth. I crossed another dry streambed, many that I'd seen that day, but not a drop in any of them.

The trail winds down and around Wild Horse Peak, another indistinct blob on the map. Lower down than the previous peak I found the chaparral was far more vicious. I walked a short ways past the closest approach from the trail, but didn't find anything in the way of a use trail, no ribbons, no footprints. So once I again I forged off through the brush, this the most brutal of the three. In anticipation of a tougher struggle I put on my Martha Stewart leather gardening gloves and plowed through the thicket, parting them like Moses and the Red Sea. These gloves were great. There were places where the bush was so thick I was stopped dead in my tracks and had to backtrack several times before getting through. Upwards I climbed for about 45 minutes, finally making my way to the highest blocky summit bump in the area. I found a small cairn but no other sign of visitors, no ribbons, no easy way to get back. No register. This peak can't see more than a few yearly visitors, if that. The views were nice though hazy, Vail Lake and Temecula Valley to the north, Aguanga Valley and SR 79 to the east. Behind me I could see both Eagle Crag and Agua Tibia, but the clouds were looking more threatening back in that direction. It continued to drizzle on and off and the hour was growing later, so I didn't stay long. Getting back to the trail was easier mostly with the help of gravity on the way down.

Once at the trail it was another four miles back to the trailhead, most of which I did jogging. The trail follows the Arroyo Seco Creek high on the south side of the canyon. Though this was larger than the other creeks I'd passed, this one was just as dry. Where the creek turned north I could see the Dripping Springs Campground though still several miles off. It was just after 3:30p when I returned to my car, and as expected there was an envelope from the Forest Service waiting for me under my windshield wiper. Fortunately it wasn't a ticket, just a "request" for the $5 use fee for which I have 14 days to comply with. Not the best place to go hiking in San Diego County, but certainly interesting and well worth the $5. It had been a fun day, so I think I'll be sending my check in...

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