Sunset Mountain P1K SDC / DS
Ghost Mountain P300 SDC / LPC
Pinyon Mountain P500 SDC / DS
Tierra Blanca Mountains HP P300

Tue, Apr 19, 2011

With: Evan Rasmussen

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


Day 2 of our Anza-Borrego trip had us waking up a short distance south of SR78 around 5:30a. First on the agenda was a visit to Sunset Mtn at the north end of the Vallecito Mtns. Though not the highest in the range, this SDC-listed peak is prominent from the highway and one of the few remaining ones I had in the area. From where we were parked just off the road, the conditions of the access road appeared good enough to drive the van on. We left Evan's camper truck where we'd spent the night and drove south on the sandy dirt road in search of our trailhead. We didn't get very far. The road grew rougher with rocks protruding from the roadbed, and with poor clearance under the van, it was not long before we were banging the undercarraige, cringing all the while. We didn't even make it a full mile before I pulled over and we abandoned the van. Evan's good-natured disgust was evident - until then he hadn't realized just how poor the clearance on the van was.

Twenty minutes' hiking along the road brought us around the bend and our first view of Sunset Mtn. The sun was just beginning to rise as we left the road to cross the eastern end of the Mescal Bajada (roughly translated, "agave alluvial apron") in the shadow of the west side of Sunset Mtn that we would be ascending. We were happy to be in the shade as it was due to be warmer today with less wind than we'd had the previous day. Temperatures would reach above 90F which is usually too hot for hiking, but fortunately none of the peaks would take much time or be very strenuous. We chose an indistinct ridgeline on the right skyline, but the route we took was not critical. From the look of things it is pretty much the same class 2 effort no matter which side is ascended. We found the slopes moderately brushy, the prolific agave causing the most trouble, but in general any route to the top would work. By 8a we had found our way to the summit.

The remains of a survey tower were found to one side of the benchmark, the red register cans under a nearby cairn. The view north and northeast stretched to the Santa Rosa Range and to San Jacinto behind it. Whale Peak and the Vallecito Mtns dominate the views to the south, Granite Peak and the Laguna Mtns to the west. We followed the northwest ridge off the summit, initially intending to follow this over Pt. 2,582ft and Pt. 2,376ft on our way back to the van, but the extra elevation gain that became apparent at the first saddle was discouraging. We altered the plan, dropping down into the wash southwest of the saddle and from there heading back through Mescal Bajada. By 10:30a we had made our way back. One down.

Second on our agenda was Ghost Mtn at the southwest corner of the Vallecito Mtns, just west of Whale Peak. It took us an hour to get from one trailhead to the other, west on SR78 west and south on S-2. This time we took Evan's camper to avoid the extra miles that were needed in the morning. Every time we'd go over a shallow dip or a small rock, Evan would point out, "Oh, oh - looks like you'd have been stuck here. And that one would have taken out the catalytic converter." Trying to mount a defense for my poor van would only have made things worse, so I simply smiled and thanked him for saving the day by providing our valiant desert stallion.

Ghost Mtn is not much of a mountain. From where we parked on the north side, it was barely 500ft of gain and not even half a mile distance. Evan, who had hip replacement surgery in the last year, declared it was perfect. I thought it was a little embarrassing. We took less than half an hour to climb the moderate North Slope, making our way through a modest amount of rock and brush and agave. There doesn't appear to be any hard way to climb the mountain. The summit provides decent views of Blair Valley to the north, Whale Peak to the northeast, the Carrizo Valley to the southeast, the Vallecito Valley to the south, the Laguna Mtns to the west and Granite Mtn to the northwest. There was a register under a cairn on the easy summit block which we dutifully signed. It gets a fair number of visitors due to its easy access. In all we were gone just over an hour car-to-car.

Though we had plenty of daylight remaining, Evan was done with hiking for the day. This suited me well enough as there were two other summits in the area that I wanted to visit, both of which Evan had already climbed on a previous trip. Both summits were minor range highpoints. The Pinyon Mtns are geographically indistinct from the North Pinyon Mtns, and very close to Whale Mtn with little to separate them. Probably both of these small ranges should be considered part of the Vallecito Mtns, but who are we to argue with the USGS? Though moderately sandy, the Pinyon Mtn Valley road was well-suited to travel in any vehicle and I had no trouble driving the van to within nearly a mile of the highpoint. There are almost no turnarounds or places to pull over on this long, four mile, single-lane road. Luckily I encountered no other vehicles on my way in or out. Where the road becomes suddenly more serious 4WD-only, not far from a first pass, there is a good turnaround area and room for several vehicles to park.

Now just before 1:30p, I followed the dirt road for about half a mile as it drops into the shallow Pinyon Mtn Valley. When I was at the base of the highpoint on the southwest side, I picked a line up an indistinct, rounded ridge and headed for the summit. There are some steep places on the south side of the mountain where loose slides are evident, but otherwise it doesn't look like there is any special route-finding required to reach the top. Though rife with agave, the range is only modestly brushy and cross-country travel is fairly easy. I reached the summit ridge and walked a good distance east to the highpoint that I reached just after 2p. A small cairn atop a modest boulder marked the highpoint of the flat, unassuming, and not altogether impressive summit. The most unique views it had to offer were those of Pinyon Mtn Valley to the south with the road stretching the length of it towards the southeast and the pass where it descends into the heart of the Vallecito Mtns. There were several notebooks in the register, the earliest one dating to 1989, placed by Mark Adrian. I chose a descent route off the south side, a good choice in getting me back to the road in short order. In little more than half an hour I was back at the van and driving back out.

Evan had waited for me at the RV area at the start of the Pinyon Mtn Valley road, a contingency in case I had car trouble and had to walk out for help. We discussed where to meet up off S-2 near Stage BM where we planned to hike in the morning, and Evan went off to scout for suitable sleeping accomodations based on a recommendation that Chuck had given us the previous day. Meanwhile, I was continuing south and heading to Agua Caliente, the best starting point for Peak 3,089ft, the highpoint of the Tierra Blanca Mtns. Agua Caliente is an unlikely oasis in the middle of the desert, attracting a fairly sizeable crowd three seasons out of the year (it is closed during the summer). The hot springs are channeled into both indoor and outdoor swimming pools, the central attractions for the myriad of RVs that descend on the place in season. There are many other ammenities as well, including the shuffleboard courts I found next to the day use trailhead parking that I used. Evan had told me he was charged $5 on his past visit, but the entry kiosk was unmanned and I failed to note a fee posted for day use, so I just drove in like I owned the place.

It was still fairly warm when I started off shortly after 4p, around 85F, but a breeze that picked up would start to cool things down. Though well-marked and easy to follow, the loop trail that circles around to Moonlight Canyon did not appear very popular. I saw no other hikers out on it the whole afternoon. Seems the pools are far more popular. The trail initially passes by a dense thicket of vegetation that appears to the be source of the springs, but it was impossible to see where it emanates from the earth as this has been carefully concealed and siphoned off before revealing itself naturally. Above the spring the terrain grows dry very quickly. There is only a modest amount of vegetation in these barren hills that are characterized more by the preponderance of rocks and boulders than anything else.

The summit is not visible from below and its location is not obvious even with a map in hand. I hiked the trail to its apex before it starts to drop to Moonlight Canyon. Here I left it, heading cross-country in a roughly southerly direction, aiming for a ridgeline that I thought led to the summit. Despite having and using both map and GPSr, I managed to pick the wrong ridge as I embarked on a more circuitous route to the summit. I only became aware of my little mistake as I climbed higher out of Moonlight Canyon and a more careful perusal of the map. My arcing route took me over several false summits on the way to the highpoint tucked away on the western end of the range. Along the way I came across several tokens of previous visitors - empty water bottles, a serape fragment, an odd rock construction. This range and the Inner Pasture to the south are used by illegal immigrants to bypass the immigration checkpoint along S-2. It seems a difficult journey at best across this lonely landscape.

I reached the summit around 5:45p after about an hour and a half's effort. Though it dated to 1989, there were only six pages used in the register on this obscure summit. Wes Shelberg, Mark Adrian, Barbara Lilley, Gordon MacLeod, Terry Flood, Paul Freiman, and Evan Rasmussen were among the names listed. The most recent entry was from February when a group of ten from the Monday Maniacs (a notable, loose hiking group from the San Diego area) paid a visit. On the descent I picked a line more directly leading back to Agua Caliente. At first I tried to stay atop the ill-defined Northeast Ridge but as the going seemed roundabout, I was enticed to drop left into the canyon just north of the ridgeline. This dry creekbed proved far more interesting a scramble than the hike along the ridge with short drops and large, smooth, water-worn boulders to clamber over. It wasn't until 7p that I returned to Agua Caliente and the van. There was no note left on the windshield as I half expected, so I got out without paying a fee, although I wouldn't have minded much because the outdoor pool looked awfully inviting and I almost wished I had an excuse (and authorization) to use it.

Soon enough I met back up with Evan who had found a nice place off the highway in the cul-de-sac that Chuck had described to us. A hot shower and dinner did wonders to relax my spirits and recharge my body. We still had one more desert peak in the morning before moving up to the higher country of the Laguna Mtns in the afternoon. We were both looking forward to the cooler weather we were sure to find up there after three days on the warm desert floor.


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