Thu, Feb 21, 2013
It had been more than a day since the cold storm had rolled through the San Diego area, leaving much of the snow that fell as low as 3,000ft still intact. I decided to pay a visit to the Laguna Mtns area to get my first taste of San Diego snow. The primary target would be a visit to Chariot Mtn, a delisted SDC peak which overlooks the eastern escarpment of the Anza-Borrego desert. The peak lies about 3.5 miles east of the Sunset Highway which runs along to the county crest and the PCT, across the shallow upper end of Chariot Canyon. This makes for a summit that is nearly the same height as the starting point with a drop of almost 1,500ft in the middle. Most of the route was covered in snow, making the snowshoes quite helpful. The sunnier slopes leading up to Chariot were largely snow-free thanks to the sun and the rain shadow effect east of the crest.
Snow was piled up on the sides and middle of the highway as I drove through Julian before 8a. As I drove south and higher to the Lake Cuyamaca plateau, the snow coverage was more consistent, 4-6" in depth. Stonewall Peak at the south end of the lake looked more like a Sierra peak than the modest San Diegan summit it is. I parked off the Sunrise Hwy near the Pedro Fages historical marker within the Anza-Borrego State Park boundary. The CA Riding and Hiking Trail heads northeast from here and makes for a good starting point for Chariot Mtn. Portions of the Chariot Canyon I crossed are open to OHV's along designated roads, one of them the Mason Valley Truck Trail. There is no OHV access from where I started (I'm not actually sure where one accesses this road network), but I would cross these roads and use them for the middle portion of the journey.
I did not stay on the trail long, soon leaving it to head more directly to Chariot Mtn where the trail turns north. Though not in sight, I had it dialed into the GPS I was following. I could probably have done a better job of researching the route and noting there are old fireroads and some perfectly good roads (like the aforementioned truck trail) that I could have utilized. Instead I dropped over the shallow rise marking the crest between the Cuyamaca Lake drainage and that of Chariot Canyon and followed a narrowing ravine down. It was probably good that it had snow to cover the rocks and other obstacles. It was also good that I didn't find pools or running water just under the snow. Not the best choice for the descent, but it worked thanks to the truck trail I intersected halfway down the canyon.
Once on the road the going was very pleasant. The sun was out and warming things some. I followed the road generally northeast for about a mile. The snow grew thinner and eventually I could find no continuous strip of snow to follow along so I stopped to abandon the snowshoes, gaiters and poles. Leaving them on the side of the road I continued to the junction with the Mason Truck Trail, turned right and followed it for about a quarter mile to the start of an old firebreak running up to Chariot Mtn. I had spied this old swath of dead brush from across Chariot Canyon and judged it would make for the least brushy route to the peak. The junction with the firebreak was also the low saddle between Chariot Canyon to the north and Oriflamme Canyon to the south. Across the impressive Oriflamme Canyon rose Roost BM, another delisted SDC peak that I had climbed in 2011.
The weather continued to be pleasant while climbing the firebreak to the Chariot Mtn ridgeline. Behind me a wall of clouds resembling coastal fog could be seen on the higher western crest. They would push over the edge and begin to evaporate before getting very far across Chariot Canyon, new ones taking their place behind - a fine display of the rain shadow effect in action. I reached the ridge around 9:45a. There is a fantastic view of the Anza-Borrego desert with the eastern escarpment dropping several thousand feet down to a very dry-looking Mason Valley. Across Rodriguez Canyon to the northeast rises the HPS Granite Mtn, some 1,000ft higher than Chariot Mtn. The highpoint of Chariot Mtn is not obvious, nor is it clearly marked on the map. The whole ridgeline is given the nebulous title to add to the uncertainty.
The first of several possible highpoints that I reached turned out to the highest. There is a set of nested red cans here, but it was not the only register found on the ridge. To the northeast is a more rounded summit of nearly the same height, but the GPS matched what the 7.5' topo depicts - the rounded summit being about 20ft lower. The register dated to 1995, placed by Mark Adrian. He reported lots of bushwhacking, but there was none to be had today. The firebreak was created in 1998 and backburned at that time. This wasn't the last fire, as there was ample evidence of more recent fire, with new growth springing from the base of the burned brush. The ridgeline itself is too windswept to allow much vegetation growth. A smaller, second notepad was left by Richard Carey in 2009. There are fine views from the summit in all directions except to the northeast towards Granite Mtn where the rounded summit intervenes. I decided to continue out along that way in case that point might be higher, noting the elevation differences with the GPS.
I went out to the rounded point immediately to the northeast then another quarter mile to the point marked 4,644ft on the topo map. It appears a new trail has been created running out to this point. I picked up a bunch of orange flagging that looks to have been used to mark the path of the trail. Where it originates or where it goes to (down to Mason Valley?) I couldn't tell. It was not easy to follow as the tread was not well-defined and appeared to be hastily made. I found a register from 2008 left at this location. The most recent entry from 2012 made mention of fighting a fire in the area, so it appears the latest burn was less than a year old.
It took little more than half an hour to return to the road and pick up my snowshoes. I spotted another old firebreak running up the western side of Chariot Canyon which proved far better than my descent route. It was 11:30a before I had gone over the crest to the plateau (crossing the PCT somewhere enroute, but I didn't notice it under the snow). The weather was decidedly different, the wind picking up and the temperature 20 degrees lower. I put on more clothes as I found fresh snow blowing against my face in a headwind. Where had the sun gone? I was back in the mini-squall that was camped over the crest.
This change in the weather was kinda fun since it wasn't a real storm, just the leftover remnants from the earlier one. Back at the car I grabbed another water bottle and crossed the road to the west side for a short climb of unnamed Peak 5,300ft which sports about 400ft of prominence. Part of this was again along the CA Riding and Hiking Trail, but only a small portion and with the snow cover it made little difference whether one was on the trail or not. I enjoyed the frosty and blustery conditions, exploring the little side canyons (one held an abandoned tanker from some bygone day), watching rabbits dart from under the brush and disappear, clouds blowing over the top and swirling about, making visibility a highly variable thing. There was some modest brush encountered, but in general I found the ridges I traveled criss-crossed with old roads (from mining days?) that were still servicable. The summit of Peak 5,300ft was nothing of note, just a small boundary marker tacked to a stake in the ground nearby. I went down off a different side of the summit into another side canyon and eventually picked up a trail following the Sunrise Hwy back to where I had parked the car. It took about an hour and a half to cover about two and a half miles for this side excursion.
At this point, the interesting/fun part of the day was largely over. I did a few other peaks but they weren't terribly memorable. The last one of the day with my daughter was nice just because she was along. And no complaining this time!
It was the end of three short days in the San Diego area, but ones well spent, and I was happy to have the opportunity to experience snow in this normally mild weather county. I've made dozens of trips to the San Diego area over the years and I never seem to run out of new places to visit there. It's definitely one of my favorite areas in the state...
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