Grapevine Mountain P750 SDC / DS
North Pinyon Mountains HP P500 SDC
Sentenac Mountain P300 SDC
Viejas Mountain P1K SDC

Feb 19, 2010

With: Tom Becht
Karl Fieberling
Adam Jantz

Grapevine Mountain
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2 3


For the third day in a row we were up at 5a, prepping for another hike in the Anza-Borrego desert. I had to be back in San Diego by early evening, so didn't want to plan another long outing like we'd done the past few days. I had in mind a series of easy peaks, again picked from the SDC list, some of the lower and more obscure ones in the area. The others were content to follow my lead, at least initially, until they peeled off later in the morning to do Granite Peak, an HPS peak I had already climbed a few years earlier.

First up was Grapevine Mtn, one of several such named peaks in the state. I had climbed two others, one overlooking the southern end of the Central Valley, near the town of Grapevine on Interstate 5, the other in Death Valley NP, just outside the state border, in Nevada. Today's Grapevine is the lowliest of the three, a short hike off of SR78, near Scissors Crossing. We had no beta on climbing it, but it didn't really seem any was needed. Driving from Borrego Springs, we simply looked for and found an appropriate turnout at a call box along the highway. With our four cars lined up like ducks off the side of the road, we started up around 6:15a.

We passed by a State Park Property sign shortly after crossing the road, then starting up the slopes just behind it. Though not over-abundant in cactus, the area had some scatterings of nasty cholla, the type that break off at the touch, loaded with fishhook needles that are tough to extract. There were other varieties too that were better to look at than to touch. We were careful to avoid these on the indistinct ridge we were climbing, but inevitable one or the other of us would catch one on the boot or gloved hand. "Ouch! Ouch! Dammit! ... Can I borrow the pliers?"

The weather had turned a bit overnight, bringing widespread clouds that covered much of the sky and obscured views, but thankfully brought no rain down on us. It was much colder this morning and we would all be sporting an extra layer or two, all the way to the summit. It was preferrable to the unseasonably warm weather we'd had the past few days.

Our mountain lay at the junction of two large, sparsely populated flatlands, Earthquake Valley to the south and San Felipe Valley to the west, though only the former was visible during the ascent via the route we had chosen. We climbed to a ridge visible from the road below that looked to be at or near the summit, but it was only after cresting it that we realized the summit was still 3/4 mile further away to the north. We looked to have two basic options: follow an undulating ridgeline on our left to the summit, or a more direct approach that required dropping down into a gully between our ridge and the summit. I chose the more direct route while the others followed the ridgeline, at least initially. I found a few deer antlers in the sandy bottom of the gully, but no sign of life otherwise, not even a lizard on this chilly morning. I soon ran across the others one by one as they had too decided to drop off the ridge. What we didn't know as that we had not one, but two gullies to cross on this direct line, and in the end it was probably a wash as to which route was faster.

It was just after 7:30a when we topped out on the summit. The sun was trying to light up a small range to our north but was otherwise keeping hidden behind the clouds. The most prominent peak in the area was Granite Peak to the southwest, but there were only a few other peaks we could recognize from this vantage point. There was a 1939 benchmark and a register from 1986 placed by John Vitz and party, along with a rock cairn to hold the latter. We sat about the south side of the summit for a quarter of an hour or so, trying our best to keep out of the wind blowing over the summit from the north. We decided to take the ridgeline route for our descent, which proved to have better views though perhaps with a bit more cactus to avoid in the lower reaches. It was 9a by the time we'd returned to SR78 and our vehicles.

It was clear that by this time the others were not so keen on continuing my quest for the SDC peaks. They had agendas of their own in persuing the HPS and DPS peaks in the area, admittedly more impressive peaks, and I encouraged them in desertion should they feel inclined. They felt inclined. Karl was looking to take it easy for the rest of the day, but Tom and Adam had designs on Granite Peak. I wanted to do a traverse of the North Pinyon Range, starting from the highpoint to the south and ending at Sentenac Peak, just above us to the south off SR78. On the way down from Grapevine I had formulated a plan to do this that worked nicely. Tom followed in his car as the two of us drove east about half a mile to another turnout closer to Sentenac. We then drove back together in his car, collecting the other two vehicles, and on to Scissors Crossing and south on County Rd S2. While the other two waited on S2, Tom drove me to a trailhead near the end of Wells Fargo Trail, a side road into the lightly populated area east of the highway. Not knowing about the trailhead beforehand, I had expected to be dumped at the end of the road, possibly on private property, but serendipity had intervened in providing the convenient trailhead. Tom took off to join the others and continue on to the trailhead for Granite Peak, while I headed off towards North Pinyon.

My trailhead was just the end of a short dirt road, a sign indicating state park property, and a horse trail heading off through the sandy desert. I followed this trail for about 20 minutes as it curved in a clockwise direction around a low hill, Pt. 2,601ft, to the east. There was a trail junction of sorts near a saddle east of the point, but as neither seemed to be heading in the direction of North Pinyon's highpoint, I started off cross-country in the preferred direction. I hiked up a dry gully in the lower half, switching to the ridgeline on my right higher up when I ascertained that the gully was not heading in the correct direction. The GPS proved most useful in this effort since the summit is not visible or its location easy to guess on the approach from the west. Once at the main crest of this small range, I headed east down a short distance to a saddle, then up to the main highpoint. It was 10:15a, having taken about an hour from the trailhead.

MacLeod & Lilley had left a register at the summit in 1980, probably during their quest to climb to the highpoints of all the desert ranges that they pursued at that time. There was a decent, but hazy view of Granite Peak to the west and Whale Peak to the south. The North Pinyon Range stretches out as a modest line of hills north from where I stood, Earthquake Valley to the west and the Mescal Bajada - a flat wash area that drains the Pinyon and North Pinyon Mtns to the north - off to the east.

Along with octillo and other varieties of cactus, there was an unusually large amount of agave plants dotting the range, particularly along the rounded ridgeline I would traverse to Sentenac Peak. At a moderate pace, the 2.5 mile long ridgeline took me just over an hour to navigate. For the most part the terrain was easy to navigate and the intervening saddles I encountered did not drop very low. The general trend going south to north is downhill, so there were only short bits of uphill to contend with. 2/3 of the way along the route I came across a trail crossing over one of the saddles. This might have been the same trail that had forked off from the trail I started on, but it was not possible to ascertain. On the east side of the range it dropped down into Plum Canyon, probably to meet up with a dirt road indicated on the topo map to be found lower down, closer to SR78.

The summit offers a fine view of Grapevine Mtn to the north, and decent views of North Pinyon to the southeast and Earthquake Valley to the south. Probably due to its closeness to the highway, Sentenac appears to be climbed relatively often for a desert peak. The register did not go back very far, but there were plenty of names to be found (Shane Smith had reached the halfway point on the SDC list on the peak in 2005).

My van was only about half a mile away from the summit. The most direct route back to the highway is off the Northwest Face, only a third of a mile, but 1,000ft down. I had started down this way only to realize how very steep it was, then traversed over to the west side where the slope was more easily managed. I found my way down to within a hundred yards of my vehicle, separated by something called Sentenac Cienega on the topo map. It was not hard to determine that cienega must mean "marsh" or "swamp" in Spanish. An old dirt road on my side of the swamp led to the east end where it narrowed and the water collected to form a stream down Sentenac Canyon, but the road gave out before I ran out of swamp between the road and myself. I was happy to find a narrow trail, probably an animal one, leading through the thickets to the edge of the marsh. I gingerly stepped across fallen branches and anything else that appeared solid-looking in order to cross the 30 feet or so of the boggiest part. Another (thankfully) thin wall of brush greeted me on the other side, but the road was immediately on the other side and it was not hard to push through. Success!

It was just past 12:30p and still a bit early to head home. Back in the van I thumbed through Schad's book, Afoot and Afield in San Diego County, for a suitable candidate for a few hours' effort. Viejas Mountain came to my attention, short enough and on the way back to San Diego. I drove west on SR78 to Julian, then south on SR79 through Cuyamaca State Park to Interstate 8. From there I continued west to the town of Alpine, and by following the directions in the book, made my way to the west side of this modest mountain to a turnout on a dirt road where the trail starts.

Schad describes it as a use trail, but the Forest Service saw fit to mark the hard-to-spot opening in the fence with a small hiking sticker. I guess it's officially a trail now. The trail was plenty wide and easily hiked, without the "waist to shoulder high chaparral the whole way" Schad describes. This is probably because the mountain was burned over in the recent past, as evidenced by the manzanita that was vigorously regrowing through the charred remains of the old growth.

It took less than 45 minutes to reach the summit. The views were muted due to the overcast conditions, but at other times I imagine there are probably some fine views to the north of the canyons formed by the San Diego River and Conejos Creek. To the southeast stretched I-8 and the Viejas Indian Casino complex in the small valley nearby.

The Viejas summit was crowned by the most awful collection of rock walls I have ever witnessed. Made more awful by the recollection in Schad's book that these rock wall had been made from an old indian stone monument that once graced the summit. Nice. I would like to have scattered all the rocks to the four winds, but the task would probably take hours and I'd probably crush a toe or finger by accident like I did another time in dismantling a rock wall. I took some pause in recognizing that this is probably the same feeling that some get upon finding summit registers and wanting to get rid of them. Live and Let Live.

With a bit of jogging on the way down I got back to the car in half an hour. This gave me enough time to visit the Starbucks in Alpine (who would have guessed that this small town actually supports two locations?) before driving back to San Diego. I arrived 15 minutes before my expected return time - one of my better efforts at "precision peakbagging". Too bad none of the family were there to appreciate it - they were all out shopping.

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