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I had three days to devote to more serious peakbagging in the San Diego area during the family's spring break. Having posted a notice online a few weeks before, I had garnered one response to join me for the visit to Anza Borrego. Derek hailed from the Santa Cruz area, not far from where I lived, and it seemed surprising that someone so far away would have an interest in making the long drive. But Derek had lived in San Diego years before and was well acquainted with the charms of the Anza Borrego desert region. And as we came to find out later, he had a closer connection to me than I might have guessed - he went to the same high school as my wife, ran track with her older brother there, and recalled their first names when I mentioned her maiden name - small world.
The goal for the three days was to hit up as many of the SDC peaks in the southern part of the State Park as we could manage. I had maps for more than a dozen peaks in the Sawtooth, Tierra Blanca, In-Ko-Pah, and Jacumba Mtns, a group of four small ranges between the Laguna Mtns to the west and County Hwy S2 to the east. First up were two summits in the Sawtooth Mtns that we planned to reach from the south via McCain Valley and the Pepperwood Trail. The route starts high in McCain Valley, above 4,500ft, follows the trail north into Canebrake Wash dropping 2,000ft, then cross-country up to the peaks regaining the 2,000ft up to the summits about a mile apart. It would make for more than 4,000ft of gain for the day and more than 12 miles, but much of it would be on trail. Most of this route is described in Schad's book with the exception of the cross-country climbs to the summit. An alternative route used by Evan Rasmussen starts from the north at Agua Caliente Springs. The RT distance is about the same and the elevation gain is considerably less, but most of that route is cross-country and brushier as well.
I was to meet Derek at the Cottonwood CG located almost 13 miles north of Interstate 8 in McCain Valley. 10 of these miles are on dirt road of suitable quality for all vehicles, but washboarded and slow as I drove it the previous night. I found the campground deserted when I arrived around 10p, choosing to park near the entrance where Derek was sure to spot me. When I awoke around 6a I found his red Toyoto parked behind me, Derek sacked out on the ground behind his car. I woke him, introduced myself, we shook hands - and so the day began.
Breakfast was quick and we left Derek's car where it was, driving in the van a mile north in search of the trailhead for the Pepperwood Trail. Schad describes this as 0.1 mile north of the campground entrance, but we found it almost exactly a full mile to the north (perhaps a typo?). There are no trail signs found here, just a vehicle barrier across the old road on the right. We parked and started up the road. Sunrise came along about the same time as we got started. The road/trail was in decent condition, not great, but servicable. Occasional traffic and desert conditions keep it from becoming overgrown. There were several junctions, unsigned (or effectively so) in the first two miles, but we simply took the left fork at each that seemed to head us north towards Pepperwood Canyon. One of the other forks headed off towards Sombrero Peak, but that was not on the day's agenda.
As one continues north on the trail you get the feeling you're about to start a sudden change, as you come to something like the edge of the high plateau that is the northern end of McCain Valley. We glimpsed our first view of our peaks several more miles north, through an opening in the plateau that you soon realize is the beginning of Pepperwood Canyon. In a short time the trail begins the descent into the canyon, 2,000ft-worth as it drops down to Canebrake Wash. We found collections of makeshift moccasins on and off the trail, several dozen thoughout the day. They were made from a thick cloth that looked to come from Mexico, and indeed we found abandoned serapes of the same material over the next few days. We debated whether they were part of some Indian ritual or an immigrant's improvision. Why would you abandon footwear? Later I figured they may have been extra coverings for shoes or boots to quiet them or help protect them, and were almost assuredly related to illegal border crossings.
Halfway down the canyon we managed to lose the trail near a makeshift campsite. We should have crossed to the east side of the stream but instead followed a deteriorating use trail traversing across the west side. Eventually realizing our error after consulation with our map, we were determined to find the correct trail on the opposite side. Getting there was not a simple task as there was a good deal of brush and trees choking much of the canyon in the vicnity of the stream. I had some disbelief in Derek's suggested route, so rather than make an argument of it I simply offered to let him lead across. It was a fine choice, it turned out, and we got back on the trail with only a modest amount of bushwhacking in a couple places. Schad had described a thinning trail the further one descends, but that was not the case as we found it, and the trail was easy to follow all the way down to Canebrake Wash. Our two peaks were easily discernable and moderately impressive from our vantage point to the south.
Two hours into the day we had descended to the wash. Derek was starting to slow more, but it mattered little - it was a beautiful day, there were plenty of flowers to photograph and our schedule was not pressing. I took a waypoint with the GPs of our location on the trail where we decided to leave it and head due north towards our peaks. Derek had pointed out what looked like the most reasonable ascent route up the steep south-facing slopes to the high saddle between the two peaks. In crossing the wash we passed by the old Canebrake Rd that hasn't seen a vehicle in a number of years. The entrance to Canebrake Wash and the adjacent Inner Pasture is blocked at the mouth by private property, making a visit to this desert feature a significant effort.
As we started up the rocky slopes out of the wash, Derek informed me that he planned to go at a slower pace. Up to this point he had been pushing himself a little harder than he would have done if he were solo. We made a quick plan to meet at the saddle above, or on the summit of Red Top. Derek wasn't sure he was going to make it to the top, so the saddle seemed like the more obvious meeting place after I came back from Red Top.
The slope was steep and rocky with plenty of cacti, particularly cholla and agave. The cholla required determined concentration to keep from getting the small balls of needles embedded in a shoe or pant leg. Small segments of the cacti break off in winds and litter the grounds about the parents, evidently one way this species reproduces. The needles are sharp and contain tiny invisible hooks that latch on to both clothing and skin quite readily. Luckily the coverage of the cacti was not severe, and good progress could be made up the boulder slopes if strict attention was paid.
It took almost an hour to climb some 1,500ft up to the saddle between the two peaks. I found a conspicuous rock upon which to leave my extra Gatorade where it would be easily visible by Derek, long out of sight below me. I got out the GPS to verify my position and was surprised to find Red Top indicated as a quarter mile to the west rather than to the east as I expected. How could this be? Having been burned by ignoring compass and GPS in the past, I quickly resolved that the GPS *must* be correct, and that I must have traversed across the south face of Red Top to the SE side of it. I had indeed been doing an ascending traverse to the right, but I'd thought it was leading me to the saddle between the two. I packed the Gatorade back in my pack, figuring Derek wouldn't be coming this way as I'd be continuing west down from Red Top to the correct saddle.
I was halfway up the slope towards what I now thought was Red Top when it occurred to me that I could make a sanity check with the GPS. It was currently showing me only a tenth of a mile from Red Top. I pulled up the coordinate for the Sawtooth Mtns HP and found it to be only a quarter mile away in the same western direction. It was then that I realized I must have entered a wrong longitude digit for Red Top and "misplaced" the peak to somewhere on the HP's eastern slope. Rats. But only minorly so. This was a mistake easily corrected as I could simply now climb them in the opposite order from what I'd planned. I didn't think Derek cared which of the two, if any, he climbed, so it was no big deal.
It was nearly 10:30a when I pulled myself onto the the large summit blocks of the Sawtooth Mtns highpoint. I was actually atop the slightly lower southern blocks with the higher ones only a minute further north. The northern blocks were somewhat tricky and definitely class 3 with an exposed, 10-foot ascent up a broad crack on the southeast side. Looking tough from below, it would probably have been class 4 if the holds weren't as good as I found them. It was a fairly clear day, enabling one to see as far north as the snows on San Jacinto. To the northeast could be seen The Salton Sea and the Chocolate Mtns behind it, east to Red Top, and south was the Jacumba Mtns stretching into Mexico. The high ridgeline of the Laguna Mtns looking down on Anza Borrego commanded the view to the west, the large white communications golf ball atop Stephensen Peak clearly visible.
It took some time to locate the summit register as it was nowhere around the northern blocks. I eventually found it amidst a small cairn on the south side of the lower southern blocks. The register had been placed in 1981 by Wes Shelberg, a name that was to become quite familiar over the next few days. It appears he was the pioneering Sierra Club member that had placed many of the registers around the area. He had come up from Agua Caliente to the northeast, the same route used by Evan Rasmussen in 2008. There were plenty of other names in the register as well, some like Richard Cary and Terry Flood I'd become very familiar with over the past six months. Erik Siering, whose name adorns hundreds upon hundreds of SPS, DPS, and HPS registers, had signed it in 2006, just before Evan.
I spent the next hour making my way back down to the saddle and then up to Red Top. I looked for Derek about the saddle (non-obvious jumble of rocks in this area, so hard to pick out the true saddle over several acres of ground) and whistled and shouted out on the lower descent to catch his attention, but got no reply. He was not at the summit of Red Top when I got there at a quarter to noon. There was a fairly recent register in a fruit can going back only a few years. A party had just been to the summit about ten days earlier, but it looked to receive only a visit a year on average, much like the other summit. There's a good view of Canebrake Wash to the east from Red Top, otherwise it has nothing on the slightly higher Sawtooth Mtns HP.
Once again I made my way back down towards the saddle, but I no longer believed Derek had made it this far, figuring he'd probably turned back some time ago. Indeed, by the time I returned back down to Canebrake Wash I was able to note his returning footprints in the sandy bottom. I crossed the 1/2 mile-wide wash, aiming for the GPS waypoint that I had saved earlier. When I was only a few tens of yards from it, wandering through the cacti and sagebrush with my eye on the ground looking for the trail, I spotted Derek about 50 yards to the west doing likewise. He related that he had indeed forgone the climb to the saddle feeling a bit knackered, and had chosen to take a nap instead and then a leisurely return across the wash. We hiked together for about fifteen minutes are so until the steepness of the climb back up Pepperwood Canyon began to slow him down.
Continuing up at a robust pace, I figured I might get back about an hour before Derek at the different rates we were going. About halfway up the canyon it occurred to me that I was not that far from False Sombrero, another SDC peak that I had planned originally to approach from the east through Indian Gorge. I checked my GPS to find I was little more than three miles from the summit. Hmmm... Near the top of the canyon this distance was cut to just under three miles, almost due east as the crow flies. I was pretty sure I couldn't get there and back before Derek returned to the van. His own car was only a mile further down the road so I didn't feel too bad about not being there upon his return, but I didn't want to make him worry unnecessarily. I took a pen from my pack and wrote Derek a note on the map I was carrying, leaving it anchored with small stones in the middle of the trail. The map did not include the route to False Sombrero, so it would do me little good to continue carrying it. I would have to wing my way over there, relying on dead reckoning and the waypoint for the peak I had in my GPS.
Leaving the trail, I went happily on my way, up and over several ridges for something like half a mile. It was brushier in places than I had encountered elsewhere during the day and I wasn't making very good progress. I then gained a view of what surely was False Sombrero more than two miles to the east with a 1,000ft+ drop into a canyon between myself and the peak. Ouch. I had wandered over the wrong terrain, some distance further north than I should have, and missed the connecting ridgeline from McCain Valley to False Sombrero. My resolve to reach the peak took only seconds to dissipate and I found myself almost happy to turn around - it was going to be more work than I had a mind for in the late afternoon.
Derek spied me just before I returned to the trail and gave me a puzzled look - what was I doing wandering off the trail? I gathered from his look that he had not found my note, and indeed it was discovered about 50yds further up the trail than where he stood. I explained my plan and its failed result as we continued up the trail. Derek was poking along at a slow clip by this time so it took only a minute to lose him behind me again. Deciding on more fun with my GPS, I consulted the waypoint for the car and headed off the meandering trail in order to take a more beeline return. I was waylaid when I reached a seasonal stream that had a modest flow running across my path. There was a small pool of water that I could just sit in, and I was soon stripping off my clothes and washing the salt and sweat off me in the chilly waters. It was very refreshing. I dried myself in the sunny breeze and soon, restored and dressed, I was on my way again. I found the trail not 100yds on the other side of the stream and was back at the van before 4:30p.
It was about half an hour later by the time Derek came moseying back. By then I'd had time to get out of my boots and relax in the shade of the back of the van with the door open. I'd also had time to think about possibly getting to another peak, something that starts up almost as soon as I finish the last one. Peak 3,339ft was somewhere off McCain Valley Rd to the south, but the starting point was not obvious from the various maps and sources I consulted while I was waiting there for Derek. The best I could determine was that it was somewhere around a scenic overlook I recalled seeing on the drive in. So after we returned to Derek's car at the Cottonwood CG, we drove both vehicles a few miles south to the overlook - perhaps it would provide a view of the peak.
The overlook was a nice sidetrip off the main road. In addition to a swell view overlooking the desert to the east, it had several picnic benches, a BBQ pit and a descriptive sign for the Carrizo Overlook. Using the waypoint for the summit in the GPS, I was able to make out the summit as one of several closely-spaced pinnacles less than two air miles distance. Better yet, an old road now serving as a trail headed off from the overlook towards Peak 3,339ft. Derek probably thought I was obsessed or crazy or both as I went about making hurried preparations to start off. For his part, Derek set out his ground cloth, pad and sleeping bag, deciding to take a nap while I was off running around.
I headed down the trail at a slow jog, armed with map and GPS and a few other items such as more Gatorade and warmer clothes and headlamp for a possible return in the dark. The overlook was about 700ft higher than the summit I was after, but there was not much gain to be had between the low point and the summit, almost trivial compared to the earlier drop we did into Canebrake Wash. There were several junctions with other roads along the way, both unsigned, but it was not hard to determine the best choice. When I was still a mile from my target I left the road when it made a sharp left turn away from my peak and continued over easy cross-country towards the goal. Had I known that the trail would soon turn back towards the peak again I would have followed it longer, but I did not discover this until on my way back.
It took about 40 minutes to cover the distance from the overlook to the summit. There was a series of ducks I found on the west side of the pinnacle that seemed to indicate I was heading in the right direction, but these were lost before I reached the top and I could not figure out where they were heading. I knew in advance that there is some confusion surrounding Peak 3,339ft, having been warned by Shane Smith who was never sure if he reached the peak and never found a register. There are three main pinnacles in the area vying for the highpoint and without a GPS it would be virtually impossible to be sure which was the correct point. As it was, I had the GPS with a waypoint that I used to zero in on the correct one. Standing atop the class 3 summit block, the GPS showed I was within 17ft of the assigned point (marked 3,339ft on the topo map), so I was fairly confident. There were four small rocks atop the block that I rearranged into a better, more visible cairn. Like Shane, I found no register around the summit block. What I did discover was an eastern pinnacle about 1/10th of a mile further east that looked both higher and harder, probably class 5. A third pinnacle to the northwest looked lower than the other two. The eastern one intrigued me enough to hike down to the flatish area between the three pinnacles and walk around to get a better view of it from the north, but not enough to get me to climb up to it. I was almost certain that I would not be able to surmount the final summit block now that I had viewed it from two sides, and did not want to climb up there otherwise given the lateness of the day and my growing tiredness. To add further confusion, there were additional ducks down in this area, but upon following them a short ways they seemed to stop as mysteriously as the previous set. Time to head back.
From the summit I had spied the road continuing off to the northwest and I went off in that direction for almost half a mile in a misplaced effort to save some time and use the road. The traverse across brushy gullies ended up costing more time than I saved, and as I soon discovered, I could have found the road much more easily and sooner if I'd just headed back west, slightly north of my original route to the summit.
Sunset was nearing and I was finding this the most pleasant time of the day. Though it had never been very hot during the day, it had been warm, but now that it was cooling down it was more ideal for hiking. I stopped for a potty break, dropped my GPS, went off, and came back to retrieve it again when I discovered it missing. After the sun went down I put on a fleece as the temperature continued to drop. It was probably around 50F and just light enough to go without the headlamp along the road by the time I returned to the overlook around 8p.
Derek had just gotten up from his nap and was thinking about what to do for dinner when I showed up. He decided on a couple bowls of cereal while I went for hot soup. It was getting colder outside so I cooked my meal in the van with the engine running and the heater on, watching Blazing Saddles on the overhead video. I had invited Derek to join me, but I don't think this was his idea of camping in the Great Outdoors and I could hardly blame him. But it sure was comfy...
"Badges?! We don't need no stinkin' badges!!"
This page last updated: Sat Jan 2 11:38:11 2016
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