Mt. Tule P500 SDC
Groan BM SDC
Red Hill SDC
Piedras Grandes SDC

Thu, Apr 8, 2010

With: Derek Palmer

Mt. Tule
Red Hill
Piedras Grandes
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 Profiles: 1 2 3


Day 2 of our tour of southern Anza Borrego had us up at 5:30a, and after the morning rituals we were driving south on McCain Valley Rd. Not long before reaching the pavement we turned east on a less forgiving dirt road that leads to the north side of Mt. Tule, the highpoint of the In-Ko-Pah Mountains. This side road was signed as "Sacatone Lookout, 2mi", but we only drove the first mile and a half to a junction at the crest of the road. Today's outing was a tour of this range west of Carrizo Gorge, a loop involving two of the main ridgelines extending east from the western plateau that is McCain Valley, tagging three of the SDC peaks along the way. Much of this was cross-country over rough terrain, not exactly the sort of thing Derek was looking for. But since the initial hike to Mt. Tule was short, he was game to join me for that part of it.

We started out shortly before 6:30a, sunrise having just arrived on the nearby hills. We followed a dirt road to the base of Mt. Tule on its northwest side, then found a ducked use trail zigzagging up the slopes. The hillsides were not overly brushy making cross-country travel as easy as trying to follow the trail which was not very distinct in most places. At one time a telegraph line ran up to the summit along the indistinct North Ridge, but only one of the poles was still standing. Others were lying on the ground, having rotted at the base or otherwise having been dispatched to begin the slow process of decay in the desert. To the west, Tule's shadow stretched out for miles across the chaparral-covered highlands of McCain Valley, looking much like the shadows cast by more formidable volcanic peaks. But Mt. Tule is only 500ft high from the plateau on the northwest side and shortly after 7a we had crested the rocky summit. Or the north summit, anyways. The higher south summit was another few minutes to the south and easily reached.

We found a 1935 reference mark pointing to a missing benchmark, labeled "TULLE", a variation or misspelling of the name currently in use. The register dated back only to 2004 and had plenty of names, not surprising considering its proximity to the road and lookout. We hung out for ten or fifteen minutes, Derek signing into the register while I snapped a few pictures and surveyed the route off the east side to the next target, Groan Benchmark. The terrain looked better than I had expected and I grew optimistic that it wouldn't be an all-day affair. Still, it was more than Derek was ready to commit to, so he made plans to head back to the cars. He would hang out there relaxing and reading while I was off to the other two summits.

I left Derek at the highpoint, heading back to the north summit before starting down the east side. I made a descending traverse off this side to reach a flatish, flowery section of the ridgeline east of Tule. There were other, less-plentiful varieties in bloom as well, but the small yellow ones dominated the area. I spent the next hour and a half on a leisurely traverse east. Along the way I took pictures of more spring flowers I found in bloom along with the surrounding terrain. Mt. Tule looks fare more impressive from the east than it does from the west and I turned occasionally to admire it and take more photos.

The SDC list, particularly in Anza Borrego, is composed of numerous benchmarks that are not necessarily the highest points around. Groan BM is one of these, a small bump at the end of this long ridge before it drops into the Carrizo Gorge. In fact it is not even the highest point at the end of the ridge, and if it weren't for the GPS I checked periodically, I would likely have walked right over the benchmark on my way to the higher point a quarter mile further east. I found a Wes Shelberg register from 1982 in a well-rusted set of cans tucked inside a cairn. I got my surprise for the day when I pulled the register out of the can to find a small lizard sharing space inside. I jumped, the lizard fell with a thud to the rock below, and I thought it was dead until it scurried off when I touched it. The benchmark and nearby location mark were both inscribed "MOAN" rather than "GROAN" as expected. Moan is the name of another benchmark to the west across the gorge that I planned to visit the following day. I wondered if these somehow got mixed up and the other was labeled with "GROAN"? (They weren't - the other benchmark was also labeled "MOAN", I found the next day.)

The Carrizo Gorge was an impressive sight looking both north and south, with the old railroad cut neatly into the steep hillsides opposite with numerous tunnels and several trestles visible, a most impressive feat of engineering and construction, particularly considering most of it was done some 90 years ago. The famous Goat Canyon Trestle was about a mile to the southeast, described as the longest curved wooden RR trestle in the US at 600ft in length. The higher point to the east would have made an even better vantage point to view both the trestle and the gorge, but the connecting ridgeline looked a bit rough and I didn't bother with the extra credit assignment.

It was almost 10a and my next objective was to reach Gasp BM on the next ridgeline to the north. I turned my attention to the 1,100-foot drop to the narrow canyon between the two. I headed off on the direct route down the NW Ridge. Though steep, it was not treacherously so, and despite my worries about finding cliffs, the route went steadily down without any such impediment. The hardest part of the decent turned out to be the crossing of the brushy creekbed I found at the bottom. Unlike the usual sandy streambeds found in these normally dry canyons, this one had a weak but persistent water source that had allowed for a swampy marsh growth in the channel and tall brush in many places. I had to find a narrowing in the channel where I could jump across the swamp, and to reach it I had to fight my way through a short but dense wall of brush. Once on the other side the difficulties ended, other than the 1,600-foot climb back up out of the canyon.

There is a small bump on the way to Gasp BM that is labeled "Palm Grove" on the topo. I have heard others refer to this small hill by this name, but upon surveying the terrain I'm fairly convinced that the name is misplaced and was intended for an actual palm grove that thrives in a side canyon a short distance to the north. I traversed around the north side of this bump without going to its summit, so I don't know if there is a register there or not - but since it is not on the SDC list which was the game I was currently playing, I had no qualms about skipping it.

It took almost an hour and a half to climb to Gasp from the canyon bottom over steep, but not heavily vegetated terrain. I found the old survey pole still standing with the help of rusty guy wires, but found no register nor benchmark nearby. The highpoint of the ridgeline is actually a short distance further west, but I found no sign of register or benchmark at that location either. The summit has a fine view of the northern part of Carrizo Gorge (more properly called the Carrizo Canyon on the map - not so much a gorge at this point) where it empties out into Carrizo Valley to the northeast.

I had watched marine helicopters flying over the desert regions the last few days and had become accustomed to their droning every few hours of the day. As I stood on the ridge I heard what I assumed was the approach of another such sortie, but saw nothing in the sky to the south where the sound came from. It then occurred to me that what I was hearing was a swarm of bees and they were coming towards me. I had no time to manuever out of the way as I found myself in the middle of several hundred bees migrating across the top of the ridge. I was scared stiff and about all I could do was swear and imagine what it would be like after getting a few dozen stings. I didn't even dare raise my hands to cover my face lest I might inadvertently sweep up one of the flying darts in the effort and invoke their rage. Luckily they weren't interested in me at all, and despite a few of them finding me in their flight path and bouncing off my torso, they were too busy getting to wherever they were going to bother with me. Phew.

With the steep climbing portions finished, the next 45 minutes were spent traversing the easily traveled ridgeline to the west until I met up with the network of dirt roads that permeate the broad McCain Valley plateau. The last hour was spent negotiating these roads/trails with some easy cross-country to shorten the route, eventually finding my way back to our cars. I found Derek reading in a very relaxed manner nearby, spotting him before he was aware of my presence. I took almost ten minutes to approach very slowly and quietly so as to sneak up and touch him without being spotted ("counting coo," an old Indian game in which one shows bravery by touching an enemy without being seen - far more difficult than simply ambushing him and killing him). I was highly successful in my endeavor, but I got no startled reaction from Derek as one might expect - he simply looked around and said something like, "Oh, you're early!" Darn.

It was 1:30p by this time, with much of the afternoon remaining. Derek was up for another hike if it wasn't too long and I naturally had several possibilities to satisfy him from among my collection of maps. I had cleared out the peaks accessible from McCain Valley, but there were scads more to be had on the east side of Carrizo Gorge, so our next effort was to pack up and move our caravan about 40 miles. We drove back out to Interstate 8 via the old US80 road through the tiny community of Jacumba. We then took the Interstate to Ocotillo, a similarly small town where we stopped at the Texico to get additional supplies of drinks that we were running low on. We then drove north and northwest on county road S2 past the Border Patrol checkpoint until we were in the vicinity of Red Hill.

Red Hill is a small bump about a mile from the pavement that probably made the list via the dubious virtue of being one of the few officially named summits in the park (the SDC appears to have started with the list of all the named summits in Anza Borrego and then added others from there). By almost any standard Red Hill is an easy peak, in fact it was used by Shane Smith only a few weeks earlier for his list finish with a large crowd of well-wishing peakbaggers.

We left our cars parked off the road and headed west across the desert floor towards Red Hill in the background. Nearer the peak we crossed an unusually large wash sweeping around from the north side of the peak. Only upon ascending the peak did we realize this wash drains a relatively large area west of Red Hill called the Volcanic Hills. We started up a ridgeline immediately opposite the wash that from our vantage point looked more like front hills than a route to Red Hill, but the topo indicated it led to the NE Ridge. Believing the topo to not mislead us, we were happy that the terrain did what was expected and only presented a few short downhills along the way.

I was happy to find scattered about the hillsides tiny yellow poppies, smaller than my smallest fingernail. With scarce water resources, the plants put out very few leaves and only the smallest flowers possible - yet still effective and all the more impressive over their larger orange cousins who have a much easier job of it in the wetter coastal ranges. There were lupine and cacti in bloom, as well as other flowers on these mostly barren, volcanic slopes. From a distance they look rather bleak, but close up it was more obvious that spring held sway over the land.

At the final steep slope leading up to the summit, Derek paused to catch his breath while I motored ahead. Unlike what was depicted on the topo, I found the summit a vast flatland of perhaps ten acres scattered with a more or less uniform layer of volcanic rocks the size of volleyballs. I wandered over to a duck in the middle of this rocky landscape but found no register. I spied a higher point off to the west with a taller cairn, so I knocked down the one near me and headed over to the western one. Next to the cairn I found another Wes Shelberg register dating to 1982. The next three entries, all from 1995, were also visits by Wes. I photographed the various pages including the last one with more than a dozen names for Shane's list finish two weeks earlier. Derek joined me a few minutes later as we hung about the summit another ten minutes or so taking in the fine view west towards the Jacumba Mtns.

Our descent route was off the SE Ridge and then northwest down a subsidiary ridgeline towards the broad wash and the alluvial basin facing highway S2. We found a backpack with some food in it, undoubtedly dropped or abandoned by immigrants walking the desert to avoid the Border Patrol checkpoint less than a mile south on the highway.

Retrieving our vehicles, we turned south on S2 for a mile to the turnoff for Dos Cabezas (Two Heads). This old railroad siding is located about four miles in, along a dirt road that grows progressively worse. I managed to get the van all the way there, but not without a few rocks bumping the undercarraige. Schad describes an alternate approach from the south in better condition, but it is longer and somewhat sandy. I used it on my previous visit and wanted to check out the shorter road. As described, it was in worse condition. From where we parked, the GPS showed Piedras Grandes just under a mile away. It is a short, rocky summit without much gain, but a boulder hoppers delight. The original plan was to include this peak with the next day's agenda, but since I still had some daylight and energy remaining I thought I'd tackle it today.

The ascent route I took was not very efficient nor easy, but it made for a good scramble. I crossed the railroad tracks, turning right and then left on a dirt road that led to a small clearing on the NE side of the small mountain. From the start I was scrambling up steep boulders, some of these very large as I worked my way southwest up a small gully. This led to small hanging valley of sorts, more boulders, the base of the main summit, and yet more boulders to the top. In all I spent about 50 minutes scaling Piedras Grandes' 800ft of gain. The weather was very pleasant at this time just before sunset and the colors of the surrounding terrain looked livlier and more inviting. A pair of rusty cans held a register dating to 1999. Shane Smith had signed it March 20, the day before his list finish on Red Hill. A week later Brian Browning had paid it a visit as part of the same loop I had planned for tomorrow. That was the second time I had seen his name on a loop I had thought was somewhat original - but came to find otherwise.

Rather than take the same route back, I opted for a very quick descent off the south side of the summit, leading to a sandy wash at the base of the peak. Though saving no time, the return route was far easier, basically a walk in the desert once I was down to the wash. I joined with the road connecting Dos Cabezas to Palm Canyon and followed this back to the van where I arrived just before 7:30p. It had been a full day.

I took an outdoor shower on the concrete loading platform, then repositioned the van nearer to Derek's car (circling the wagons, so to speak) in order to join him for dinner. He had already finished the steak he'd cooked on his BBQ (it was rather astonishing the large variety of items he had packed in this tiny Toyota Yaris). I had hot canned soup as we talked and watched the sky fade from a dark blue to a star-filled black. The southeast horizon was ablaze with the city lights from Mexicali just across the border and the temperature started to drop into the 50s. We kept an eye out for Tom Becht who was possibly going to join us the following day, but he made no appearance before we soon called it a night. Perhaps we'd find him in the morning...


Mark comments on 02/28/12:
Your lizard friend is still living in the Groan register. We saw it in there on Sunday!
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