Sat, Dec 20, 2008
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I hopped on Interstate 15 heading north for Escondido. At what looked like an appropriate turnoff before I reached town, I got off on Rancho Via Pkwy and headed west. Nothing stuck out as the obvious peak, leaving me somewhat lost. Perhaps I just needed to start hiking, gain some altitude, and all would become clear. I turned south onto Del Dios Hwy near Lake Hodges and stopped at the first TH I came to, a short dirt road on the west side of the road. There were a few cars in the lot and an informational kiosk with a map. I got out to check the map. It showed a small area called the "Del Dios Highlands County Preserve," with contours but no named summits. A trail was shown stretching a mile through the preserve and into an adjacent parcel of public land not shown on the map. Maybe this would do.
I headed up the dirt road, about 3/4 mile to a saddle, taking all of fifteen minutes. To the northwest were a pair of rounded peaks that looked like they might be the ones I was looking for (there is a slightly lower Franks Peak immediately south of Mt. Whitney I recalled). They were two miles off as the crow flies with the San Elijo Canyon and a good deal of residential development separating me from the peaks. It looked like I may have blown it. Only slightly deterred, I continued on the trail through the preserve to the top of the road where I ran across another hiker. Whizzened and lanky, he looked like John Muir out for a stroll - this guy looked like he knew the place well. He clued me in to the whereabouts I was at, Th Olivenhain Dam just below us, and rattled off several trailheads to reach the area, all of which he'd explored on his visits. I was thinking I was lucky to run into a local, but then it occurred to me that almost all the visitors here must be locals. I was surprised when he asked me where I had come from, evidently up a trailhead he hadn't used before. I asked in return if he knew where Mt. Whitney was. He gave me a look, almost like I was a bit crazy. After explaining that I wasn't looking for the Mt. Whitney, but a much lower one, he seemed to recall one on the east side of Escondido somewhere. As we parted I began to think I had really blown it. To the east were indeed higher mountains, but they didn't look right. A local would know, right? Maybe not, and I eventually concluded the other hiker had to be wrong. I continued to the highpoint on the west side of the Olivenhain Reservoir, what I later learned was Mt. Israel. I scored myself half a point.
Returning to the car the same way, I had lost but an hour and a quarter and it was only 12:30p. Lots of time to try again. I drove north on Del Dios, eventually finding my way to Country Club Drive that runs down the middle of San Elijo Canyon. It had looked from Mt. Israel like there might be roads running up the east side of the mountain, so I looked for an obvious access road. Almost immediately one popped out - Mt. Whitney Rd. How lucky could I get? If a road reached to the summit, surely it would be a road named after the summit itself. I drove up the narrow paved road as it shortly began to deteriorate until I reached a locked gate. I was still more than a mile away and 1,000ft short of my goal, but compared to other peaks I've climbed, it seemed a very short distance. I parked my car, walked back up to the gate, hopped over, and promptly began trespassing on an avocado farm. A warning sign made sure that I knew stealing avocados was a crime. There were many trees with ripe fruit on them, not a good time to be caught, I thought. They probably wouldn't believe I wasn't there to steal valuable fruit. I followed the road for about 100 yards until it turned west and I had a view of Mt. Whitney. It didn't look promising. I could not see how the road might reach up to the summit, though I could see homes along the summit ridge. Large, expensive homes, the type that have expensive cars parked in their garages or outside, the type of cars you wouldn't drive on a dirt road unless your life was in danger. There must be another way up there, I reckoned.
I beat a retreat back to the car and started driving again. I headed north and west around the north side of the mountain. Cruising through some neighborhoods on the northwest side of the peak, I found a road leading up to the North Ridge, the same portion of the summit ridge I had seen the homes on from the other side. This was just the ticket. I managed to find my way as high it was legally possible to drive, and parked. All of ten minutes from the summit.
The No Trespassing sign here didn't bother me as much as the one on the avocado farm. This one was guarding a communications tower at the summit, not someone's valuable fruit, and the chances of anyone finding me here was rather low. Ten minutes later I was at the flattened summit of Mt. Whitney, finally successful in my quest. It was a nice summit too, with views stretching out to the Pacific Ocean, north to Palomar Mtn, and east to the Cuyamacas. There was a sadness of course in observing the encroachment of civilization on all sides, a very typical sprawl scene around the San Diego Metropolitan area. I'm afraid the citizens in the county won't realize what they've lost until it looks just like Los Angeles and Orange counties to the north.
On my way back down I looked south to Franks Peak and decided to pay it a visit since it was so close. It took only fifteen minutes to drop down to the saddle between them and hike the road to the summit of Franks. By 2p I had returned to the car, and with a few hours of daylight remaining, decided to look up a few more peaks. I had seen another peak to the west (Double Peak, I came to find later) from the summit of Mt. Whitney that looked to be in the process of being carved up for development. I found the road leading to the new homes, drove past the Road Closed sign, and followed the fresh pavement to the end of the road about 30 yards below the summit. A construction crew working nearby didn't seem to care that I was there as I hiked the remaining short distance to the summit. Much of it had been bulldozed flat, perhaps to make way for an urban park, a scenic overlook, or a water tank. A lone, aged oak tree had been left unscathed, something like the last truffula tree in Dr. Suess's The Lorax. It was all very melancholy, like witnessing the death of a mountain.
I beat it out of there before someone from the development told me I had to buy a house in order to trespass, driving back through Escondido. With some daylight still available, I tried to see if I could get to a prominent peak east of the town and north of Mt. Woodson. I later came to find this peak is called Starvation Mtn, and just because of the name I'm going to have to go back and climb it. But with zero beta and no map I was unable to find a road getting close or providing access to a public right-of-way. I drove around the west and south sides of the mountain, but never found anything promising. Time to give up, I decided. In contrast to finding my way up Starvation Mtn, I had no trouble locating a Starbucks before driving back to San Diego. No map or beta required.
I was happy to learn later that the construction atop the last summit was for the development of Double Peak Park. There are picnic benches at the summit instead of a massive private home.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Double Peak
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