San Jacinto Peak
Hot Springs Mountain
Blue Angels Peak
|Story||Photos / Slideshow||Maps: 1 2 3||Profiles: 1 2 3|
San Jacinto Peak later climbed Sun, Mar 27, 2005|
Blue Angels Peak later climbed Sat, Dec 23, 2006
San Jacinto Peak is the highpoint of Riverside County, and the centerpiece of the San Jacinto Wilderness. The mountains rise 10,000ft from the desert floor of the Coachella Valley to the east and nearly the same (though not so abruptly) from the LA megalopolis to the west. The aerial tramway can be used to climb from the searing heat of the desert floor to the cooler climes of the forested upper reaches in about 15 minutes. In addition, some of the best-known climbing in Southern California is found nearby at Tahquitz. My plan was to take the quickest route to the summit which would be via the aerial tram - cheating, I know, but expeditious.
I headed east on I10 and it wasn't long to know you're heading towards Palm Springs. Half the billboards along the route are ads for Palm Springs, either for one of the many casinos, or for the "gentlemen's clubs" or escorts. Escort services on a billboard - that was a new one for me. The billboards often feature middle-aged guys with goofy looking expressions that are supposed to convey what it's like to hit the jackpot or score some booty while your wife's back home. I would have expected all this from Las Vegas, but found that Palm Springs is trying to sell itself in a similar fashion. I took SR111 which leaves I10 and heads southeast directly for Palm Springs. No kidding, a sign announces this is the "Sonny Bono Memorial Highway." I want to laugh, it all seems so deserving. There must be a thousand windmills that cover a number of square miles of real estate along the highway. The huge turbines go right up to the edge of the San Jacinto Wilderness, and stretch for miles out to I10. Apparently power generation is another attraction of Palm Springs. As I approached the town, the palm trees and manicured golf fairways begin suddenly from what was dry, brown desert, as though sprung up from some underground spring, or placed down like artificial turf.
The aerial tramway is the first right after reaching town, so mercifully I was spared the need to drive through Palm Springs. As I turned onto the road I was suddenly shocked by a closed gate several hundred yards up the road with a sign across it. Approaching the gate, the sign announced that the tram was closed Aug 5-9 for yearly maintenance. This was a significant monkey wrench in my plans. I turned off the car and sat in the 100F+ heat while I contemplated what to do. Looking at my map, I thought about driving around to the other side and taking the longer route. It was already 2:30p, and it would take me until 4p to drive around to Idyllwild where the trailhead was. That was much too late. I thought about driving down to Hot Springs Mtn in San Diego County to bag that one today, but that seemed a great deal of driving to then come back for San Jacinto, and then back down again for Blue Angels Peak in Imperial County. And of course the Cactus to the Clouds trail to San Jacinto that starts in Palm Springs was out of the question - I hadn't the energy or the inclination to do another 30mi and 10,000ft after climbing San Gorgonio in the morning. In the end, I decided to stop for the day. I would climb San Jacinto first thing in the morning, then drive south to bag the other two as planned. It would make for a long day, but if I started early, I could get back to San Diego and my inlaws in time for dinner the following day.
I drove back to Banning, a small town at the intersection of I10 and SR243 which would take me to Idyllwild in the early morning. I checked into a motel, had a nice shower, then went to get dinner. I brought it back to the motel so I could eat it while I checked email on my laptop. Dispensing with those chores, I got things ready for the morning and went to bed at 7p after requesting a wake up call at 2:30a.
Brrringggg!Off the alarm goes right on schedule. I ate breakfast and loaded the car, on the road by 3a. It's pretty dark out as one might imagine, but not cold. With invitingly cool temperatures, I put the top down as I headed south on SR243. This is a fine road that winds its way from the desert floor up to 6,000ft in 25mi, bringing one to a forested oasis that sees seasonal snows and a provides a mountain getaway amidst the urban sprawl below. I stopped at the ranger station in Idyllwild and picked up a self-issue permit outside. I then headed up South Circle to Fern Valley Road, and from there to the end of the road at the trailhead parking. It was 4:15a by the time I parked and started up the Devils Slide Trail.
I used a headlamp to make my way up the nice trail - few rocks and other things to trip on. Sometime earlier I'd gotten the dumb idea that I might make the summit in time for sunrise, but that would mean climbing 8mi and 4500ft in something like 2hrs - not likely. Shortly before 5:30a I topped out at Junction Saddle where views to the east first open up, so at least I'd get to see a fine sunrise over the desert. Junction Saddle is aptly named, marking the intersection of five trails - more than I've ever seen anywhere. One of these is the Pacific Crest Trail, and it joins my route for the next several miles. I took a short break here to relieve myself before heading north where the trail begins to climb a ridge. The ridge rises gently at first, then more steeply as one steadily gains altitude. I was able to forgo the headlamp once I left Junction Saddle, and all was faint and quiet except for the sound of my feet shuffling along and my steady breathing. The sky grew lighter, and the lights of Palms Springs far below began to dim as the day began to break. The sun broke through the night spectacularly, the trees were ablaze in orange light for the first minute or so before the full spectrum of colors washed the sun to a dazzling white. I soon entered the San Jacinto Wilderness, followed by another sign showing the boundary of the Mt. San Jacinto State Park (even though its official name is San Jacinto Peak). The views begin to open up further, now to the southeast where haze in the early morning obscured the far view. Soon the morning light added more color to the views, and one could see well into San Diego County to the south. The trail wanders across Wellmans Cienaga (marsh, in Spanish), a lush region with acres of ferns, but no running water. The ground around here is saturated allowing the plants to thrive, but it would be difficult to find a way to get drinking water. In fact the entire trail has no water, and signs at the start warn hikers of this. Don't take it lightly - they mean it!
Four miles from Junction Saddle is Wellmans Divide, and a junction with the trail coming from the tram off to the east about four miles. The back side of the sign has a sign indicating which way to the tram - guess they don't want their guests wandering down the wrong way! As I climbed above this, I got a view of the beautifully forested Round Valley which occupies the upper plateau between the tram and the summit. The early morning light reflected off the roof of the tram building, giving away its presence on the east side of the valley. Round Valley looks to be the crater of an ancient volcano - on three sides it is surrounded by low ridges and some rocky pinnacles, on the fourth side lies the taller summit mass. There is one more trail junction another mile further, and shortly thereafter I was at the summit shelter which lies a few hundred feet below the summit on the southeast side. Inside I found four wooden bunks, an unoccupied sleeping bag, some emergency supplies in a cabinet, and a large rock fireplace that has been permanently filled in. Visitors are asked to not make fires in the shelter, and to camp outside if possible. The only maintenance it receives is from its visitors, and by the looks of it they've collectively done a decent job of keeping it tidy. The summit register is inside the cabin instead of at the summit, and from the looks of it San Jacinto gets many visitors, mostly via the tram route. A note from a hiker left a phone number and promise of reward if anyone could return his trekking poles. Seems he set them down on his way to the summit, and couldn't remember where he left them upon his return.
I left the cabin and headed up the 100 yards to the summit over the mass of blocks that forms the uppermost part of the mountain. Not until at the very top does one get views to the north and the higher mass of San Gorgonio Mtn. A fine wooden sign greets you at the summit, just below the modestly sized summit blocks. I've read that the summit block is class 3, but I think that is being far too generous. My hands were used only for balance as I stepped on the block for a few photos. Looking down, I noticed one of the best examples of poor judgement I've seen on a mountaintop - two bolts were attached to the rock. The hangers were missing, just two bolts uselessly sticking up from the rock. They were actually posing a hazard as they were, and someone had wrapped tape around one of them to minimize the damage it might cause an unsuspecting hiker. That someone would bolt this rock seems plainly stupid, but who knows what the circumstances were when they were attached. Perhaps they were used to fix a summit register here at one time. In any event, it would be a fine thing should someone carry to the summit equipment for chopping them off at their base.
I could see smoke from a fire burning far off to the south. It seemed to be of significant size and the cloud of smoke was stretched over many miles to the east by the wind. I planned to head to Hot Springs Mtn in San Diego County next, and it seemed to be in the general vacinity of where I was heading. The odds seemed in my favor that the fire would be well to the side of my destination, but it was worth keeping an eye on all the same.
It was chilly at the summit, still quite early in the morning, only 7:30a. I put my jacket on and moved around to the downwind side of some of the summit blocks to try to minimize the wind. Needless to say I didn't stay long, and after I got my photos I was soon on my way back down. I jogged a few places that seemed most suitable on the trail - few rocks, and long stretches of mostly straight going. I joined the PCT again and enjoyed the wildflowers that were now more colorful in the morning light. Over the last few days I had made the observation that when I trip it almost always involved my right foot. It seems I don't lift it enough to get over all the obstacles - it's not that I don't see them, because I do, I'm just not lifting my foot in reality as far as I think I am in my head. So I tend to catch the top of the roots or rocks in my way, and I stumble but catch myself before hitting the ground. Or at least that's what usually happens. I can't even remember the last time I took a real fall, but somewhere before I reached Junction Saddle I hit a rock (with my right foot, of course) that sent me to the mat like a sack of potatoes. My hands were ineffective at stopping my body weight as it crashed and came to an abrupt halt. Then I started chuckling to myself. Seems I was lucky that I didn't land on any rocks or other hard objects, and I didn't get cast off the steep side of the trail. Even before I brushed myself off I got out my camera and took a photo of myself looking just as I did when I hit the ground. All those times (and it happens maybe a a dozen times each hike) I wondered how I managed to catch myself whenever I stumbled. Now I knew that it wasn't a certainty. Maybe I would be more careful in the future. More than likely however, it will take a more serious fall to make me consider the wisdom of running down trails. I picked up my water bottles that had come out of my fanny pack, brushed the debris off my front side, and continued on - maybe just a tad slower this time.
I finally saws the first persons I'd seen all day as I hiked below Junction Saddle, and soon there was a variety of parties heading up the trail. Most were very kind to step aside as I jogged down the trail, none seemed to be in the same hurry as myself. Most seemed to be vacationers, couples, a few families, some with dogs. The trailhead starts in the town of Idyllwild, a getaway resort town in the local mountains, and from the looks of the many faces it seems a pretty enjoyable place to spend time. There were several rock outcroppings that looked to offer fine rock climbing. On the north side of the trail was Suicide Rock (might be an interesting story behind that one) and on the south side was a more impressive feature called Lily Rock (the names I only discovered days later). I returned to my car at 10a, a very early finish, but I still had two peaks further south that I planned to visit. It wasn't long before I was back on the road and heading south on SR74 out of Idyllwild.
The road winds down out of the higher mountains, and soon I am in chaparral country, mostly small mountains, though still rugged and horribly difficult cross-country travel. Twelve miles past Idyllwild I turned right on SR371 heading west. I stopped where I had a good view of the fire to the south to take some pictures, and checked my map to see that I couldn't discount it being in the vicinity of Hot Springs Mtn. After 21 miles I turned south on SR79 which I followed for almost 30 miles to Warner Springs.
Hot Springs Mtn is on the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation, one of the largest reservations in the state. The peak is not very high, just over 6,000ft, and with a 4WD vehicle one can even drive to the top. Access to the mountain is at the discretion of the tribal government, and it seems I failed to read my guidebook closely until just as I arrived at Warner Springs, the town just outside the reservation. The book states that visitors are welcome on weekends, but should write ahead for permission if planning to visit during the week. Had I read this carefully I would probably have headed for Orange County and Santiago Peak instead. Worse, the fire that I had seen from the summit of San Jacinto Peak was clearly blazing away inside the reservation, less than ten miles from Hot Spring Mtn which I could see high on a ridge to the east. The recommended dirt access roads approach in a counter-clockwise manner to the east side of the peak and seemed almost assuredly to go right through the middle of the burning area. Things were not looking good for the San Diego highpoint today, and the odds of me getting there were now stacked well against me. Seeing as I was in the area now, and it seemed too late to change directions to Santiago Peak, I figured I'd drive until someone or something stopped me.
I headed through town, taking the entrance road that heads towards the reservation entry point some 10 miles in. After a couple miles, the road splits, and I saw a squad car parked on the side, blocking the left road, two CHP officers tossing a football around outside. Fortunately the reservation takes the right fork, and I zoomed by the junction. I wound my way slowly up through the foothills, and reached the entrance. A small kiosk there was unmanned, and a sign in the window indicated the access and camping fees which are apparently only collected on the weekends. There were some small homes nearby, with the look of an old, rural community, but not a soul could be seen outside. Just past the entrance kiosk I passed a sign indicating Lookout Road. I surmised that this was the dirt road that probably leads to the abandoned lookout tower that still stands atop the summit. As it approached the peak from the south and west rather than around from the east, I further guessed it might avoid the line of fire. So I headed up Lookout Road, uncertain how my Mazda Miata with it's 6 inches of ground clearance would fair. I figured I'd drive until it was no longer safe (or I began to damage the vehicle), then hike the rest of the way.
The road gains height quickly, contouring around the rising hills as it climbs above the valley below. Ruts in the road made it a precision driving course as I struggled to guess how best to position the tires on the road to keep from tipping into a rut. To the west the fire grew closer, and I could now see flames leaping into the air from a ridge perhaps two miles distance. The wind blew the smoke in the opposite direction which was quite fortunate, but a change in the wind direction could change things for the worse. After a few miles I came across a couple who had driven up to watch the fire from a close vantage point. Their car wasn't quite in the middle of the road, but it wasn't parked to the side where I could easily have driven around it. They watched as I struggled to make a tight turn with a rut down the middle of the road, about 50 yards downhill from them. Getting by this obstacle, they just watched me, making no effort to move their own car out of the way some. This was one of those times I wished I had a huge pickup truck with the body all smashed up and the paint peeling badly, the type that would have made these folks move their car in a hurry. I managed to drive around their vehicle as it turned out, and they simply continued to stare after me as I drove further up and out of sight.
I caught a glimpse of the tower on the summit, but it was still some distance off. The road topped out on the ridge and continued north, but seemed to be getting worse. Still several miles from the summit, a 4x4 from the Fire Department came up to me from the opposite direction. After exchanging greetings, the first question the fireman at the wheel asked me was how I got past the roadblock. I explained that only the fork to the left had been blocked, and I'd just cruised past the officers just outside town. "They were supposed to blocking both roads," was the reply. I apologized, but he assured me it wasn't my fault. He asked if I was up there concerning the "incident" (guess that's code for "fire"), but I showed him my book of county highpoints and said I was really just here to tag the summit and head back - the fire had been an unplanned coincident. While they cautioned that I really shouldn't be there, they seemed to sense my determination in wanting to reach the summit. "Things could change quickly and you might get trapped up here," they offered. They also were a bit astonished by the vehicle I was driving and said there was little chance I'd get much further. I replied that I planned to drive only as far as I could, then run out and back to the summit before driving back down. "Well, hurry up," was all they said, effectively relenting to let me go on my way.
I soon found why they had looked astonished by my car, as not 50 yards further on the road became horribly rutted and impossible for me to continue. So I backed up out of the mess I was in and found a place off to the side of the road. I grabbed a fanny pack and water bottle and started jogging down the road. It was a little over two miles to the summit, and it took me half an hour to get there, mostly jogging with some walking when I'd had enough. It was quite warm out, not due to the fire, just the regular summer heat in the interior of Southern California. The lookout tower was much larger than I had imagined, towering 30-40 feet in the air. The wood was very old and dry, and a few boards were missing on the airy steps leading up to the platform. There were no windows and a minimum of railing, giving one an exposed feeling atop a rickety platform with tremendous views. The fire raged to the east and southeast, at a distance I guessed to be about five miles. Tankers and helicopters flew in to drop water and chemicals at regular intervals, swooping in then curving north and west down to the lakes I could see far in the distance. I took a series of photos in all directions, then beat a hasty retreat for obvious reasons. I wandered over to the highpoint among the chaparral a short ways to the northeast. A bit of a bushwhack, but it was not too difficult to reach the rocks at the top - not terribly interesting in hindsight. I was fortunate to have reached the summit, but felt I was on borrowed time. An hour after I'd left the car I was back again, and heading down Lookout Road to flee the scene. I saw no more fire personnel on the drive down, though I did find another car of fire watchers who had driven up to view the fire close up. I waved as I drove by and was back to the roadblock in about half an hour (the CHP was now blocking incoming traffic on both forks of the road). Onward!
My last peak for the day was Blue Angels Peak in the southwest corner of Imperial County. It is the lowest of all the Southern California county highpoints at less than 5,000ft, but it has the unique position of being the closest US peak of significance to the Mexican border which is but an eighth of a mile from the summit. The drive from Hot Springs Mtn to Blue Angels Peak is a pleasant one, travelling through the beautiful interior of San Diego County. SR79 continues south through Julian, a boutique-y tourist town with a frontier look and known for (of all things) apple pies. After this, the road travels through Cuyamaca Rancho State Park which has some of the highest terrain in the county. Cuyamaca Peak is 6,514ft which is less than 20ft short of Hot Springs Mtn, is a much better climb and lacks the drive-up option of the latter. I probably would have enjoyed the drive more through the park if I hadn't gotten behind someone who neither wanted to drive the posted speed limit, nor pull over to let others pass him. Argh.
I drove through the small towns of Guatay and Pine Valley before reaching I8, one of the true gems of the Interstate Highway System. Outside of the San Diego area this highway has very little traffic combined with some really scenic territory running across the lower portions of the Southwest US. Though mostly chaparral and desert, it is sparsely populated and provides a sense of adventure and being "out there" in the great west. It lacks the high mountains of some of the northern Interstates, but the views are expansive in all directions due to the lack of forest cover. And it boasts the highest bridge in the entire Interstate system where it crosses the Pine Valley Creek (unfortunately you can't see the bridge as you drive over it, just the canyon far below, and it's easy to miss if you're not looking for it. Worse, you aren't allowed to pull over to get a view of it, so to really see it you have to hike down into Pine Creek Canyon - though maybe that's a plus!). I've driven on I8 back and forth a half dozen times over the years, and I never seem to tire of it. East of Cuyamaca State Park are the Laguna Mountains which mark the Pacific Crest and provide the dividing line between the higher chaparral country of San Diego County with the desert portion to the east that begins with Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. I8 crosses the crest at Laguna summit and then gradually heads downhill as it skirts the southern boundary of both the Laguna Mtns and Anza-Borrego. The Pacific Crest Trail crosses under I8 a few miles to the southeast, in the vicinity of Boulder Oaks, but again you'd never see it if you weren't looking for it. Campo, a small border town (inhabited it would seem by Border Patrol agents and their families) that marks the beginning of the PCT, lies about 12 miles to the south.
As I continued east on I8, I crossed through several more indian reservations (San Diego County has more area devoted to reservations than any other county), some with flashy casinos vying to attract the attention of passerbys. Shortly past Jacumba, I entered Imperial County, and took a turn-off just inside the county border. Fortunately the highpoint is on the very west side of the county, or I might have had several hours more driving to do today. Following the instruction in my guidebook, I had no trouble finding the dirt road and trailhead. As I got out I found the steady winds described in the guidebook, as it seems this place is fairly windy for much of the year. Hot desert terrain to the east heats up the air which rises, pulling in the cooler air from the Pacific, creating a regular westerly wind that sweeps the area most afternoons. I could have driven another quarter mile up the road and parked just under the power lines that cross this area, but instead I had pulled over at the first place indicated by the book. Those with 4WD can drive quite a bit further, to within about half a mile of the summit before tackling the cross-country portion.
The hiking in this area is marginal, to be honest. It's hot, dusty, and if not for the winds coming in from the west, downright unbearable. There is litter to be found throughout the area, both from the beer-drinking, rifle-shooting, 4x4 crowd as well as the illegal immigrants that cross over from the Mexican border nearby. The peak cannot be seen from the trailhead, and the antenna-topped peak nearby (that seems to be the summit) is just a lower point to be circumvented on the east side. Dirt roads that serve as trails go up to the antenna installation and elsewhere via several forks in the road. I found the description in the guidebook confusing, and couldn't really tell which junction is being referred to. The road signs indicated in the book are no longer there, and I found it best just to rely on a topo map I'd brought with me. Eventually the dirt road putters out on a low ridge north of the summit, and one needs to head cross-country. The brush is harsh to go through, but there are use trails abounding in the area. I found plenty of discarded plastic water jugs, rusting tin cans, and other articles discarded by those crossing clandestinelyfrom Mexico. By carefully choosing which trails to follow, I found my way close to the peak where it was then possible to climb up the easy class 2-3 rock to the very top. While the hike/climb wasn't much (only two and half miles one-way), the views were quite far, though mostly of the low, rugged country much like I'd just driven and hiked through. The fire on Los Coyotes Reservation could still be seen well to the north. It was 4:30p, four hours since I'd been to Hot Springs summit, and nine hours since I was on San Jacinto Peak. A lot of that intervening time was driving, so I couldn't really say I was exhausted from the exertion. There are three USGS markers about the summit, one of them referring to the peak's old name of Smuggler Peak. I suppose someone thought a name change might keep people from recognizing it as a nice place to cross over illegally. Looking around at all the discarded water jugs, I don't think it made much difference whatever it's called.
After I descended the summit blocks, I wandered over to the border, where a tall obelisk that could be seen from the summit beckoned me (like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey). A barbed-wire fence runs along the border 60 feet before the obelisk, and marks a buffer zone inside US territory (does this mean Mexicans can squatter in the buffer zone?). I walked through a hole that had been cut in the fence (the border fence here is nothing like that near San Diego) and went to check out obelisk #231. Placed at regular intervals from the Rio Grand to the Pacific Ocean, they mark the actual border between the two countries. English on the US side, Spanish on the Mexican side, the words recall the treaty of 1853 (we kicked your ass so this land is ours, right?) and the re-established treaty of 1882-89 (we'll kick it again if you don't agree on the border, eh?). Of all the land acquisitions made by the US, this one seems to me the most offensive (ok, the Spanish-American war of 1898 was similarly bad, but nearly so much territory was involved). We establish the Monroe Doctrine to protect western hemisphere countries from European bullying (or at least that's the story we're taught in high school), but then go and do just that to a vastly weaker Mexican nation. But I digress. :)
Fortunately I wasn't spotted by authorities on either side of the border and managed to make my small foray onto foreign soil and back without being detected. I took a moment to photograph one of the few trees that grow in this arid region, lonely sentinels standing bravely, but eking out a tough existence. Hiking back through the brush and onto the dirt roads, I made my way back to my car by 5:15p, ending the day's hiking adventure. I climbed eight county highpoints in three days, covering all the peaks I had set my sights on. Another hour and a half of driving and I was in San Diego where I took up residence with my inlaws who lived there, and my family which had flown in a few days before me.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: San Jacinto Peak - Hot Springs Mountain - Blue Angels Peak
This page last updated: Tue Apr 23 12:31:46 2019
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