Vallecito Mountains East P750 SDC

Sun, Nov 25, 2012
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I took lots of pictures as usual, but when I got home to San Jose I found I had no pictures in the camera. How they got erased is a bit of a mystery, but it seems my SD card was the culprit. I could no longer use it or store new pictures until I reformatted it. Bummer.

The unnamed eastern highpoint of the Vallecto Mountains was my last peak on the Sierra Club's list of 100 San Diego peaks. The summit is located in the far eastern reaches of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and not a simple matter to climb. The easiest approach requires the use of a 4WD vehicle with high clearance to navigate the long drive through Split Mtn and up the sandy Fish Creek Wash to reach the southwest side of the mountain. Having no such motorized aid, I chose to approach from the Elephant Trees area, about six air miles to the east. It would be a long hike, more than 15 miles of desert cross-country, but I had pretty much all day to do it. To help matters, I got a very early start, rising before 3a and getting to the trailhead before sunrise.

It's a long haul across the county to Ocotillo Wells, some two hours' worth. I had been to the place before, but never over the Thanksgiving weekend which apparently is prime time for the hundreds of OHV enthusiasts that make a second home of the desert landscape during this time. The place is overrun by RVs of all sizes, motorcycles, ATVs, dune buggies and other OHVs in tow, making a temporary city around Ocotillo Wells. The town serves as a suppy depot for food, beer, gas and other necessities, as well as the residence of those living the retired life in their own version of off-road heaven. None of the homesites suggest even remotely that money is in good supply here. Luckily they were all asleep and the usual dust clouds were non-existent when I drove through at that early hour. I would not be so lucky on my way out in the afternoon.

I turned south on the paved Split Mtn Rd and followed this for a number of miles to the Elephant Trees area. The trees are more native to the Sonoran desert and barely eke out an existence here at this remote outpost, their only toehold in California. I had been to the area once before with Evan, but we were disappointed to find only a single tree along the one mile nature trail. There are reported to be more trees further west up the broad wash, so I was looking forward to finding these on my way to the summit since I would pass directly through the area. I had trouble driving my van to the TH, making it only about two thirds of a mile from the pavement before finding it too rocky. I parked the van and walked the remaining third of a mile to the actual trailhead.

It was 5:30a and quite dark when I started out, but the eastern sky was already beginning to come to life and I would only need the headlamp for a short while. The temperature was about 55F, excellent for hiking, but would warm to the high 80s before I was done. I followed the trail - really little more than a worn path through the wash - for about half a mile before striking out cross-country towards the southwest. Though sandy, I found the going easier if I stayed in the main wash rather than venturing across the rocky, undulating terrain found outside it. The cacti were fewer in the wash though there was plenty of catclaw to keep me from complacency. The wash took me in an indirect manner to the canyon opening at the far west end of the Elephant Trees Area. I was highly disappointed to either find no additional specimens of the trees or to be unable to recognize them as such. Mostly tons of ocotillo and other thorny and non-thorny things littering the landscape. The sun rose before I reached the mouth of the canyon, but I did not have to stay in the sun for long. After three miles I entered the canyon and continued to make my way westward through the various twists and turns of the canyon, always happy to be in a portion protected by shade.

There was much sheep poop in the sandy wash that I traveled and I wondered if I might find a small herd or a few individuals. Several miles up the canyon I found a mild stench of dead animal reaching my nose shortly before I came upon the remains of an adult ram. The bones had been nearly picked clean, much coyote scat found about the place. Some good meals there, I suspect. There was no meat left on the bones, but a bit of cartilage and some fur and hooves. The lower jaw with all its teeth were still attached to the skull, weighed down with something like 30lbs of the massive horns that swept in a full curl around it. I took some pictures but left the bones completely undisturbed. They lay on the ground in a fine anatomical order, close to where they belonged and made for a nice exhibition, grim as it might be. I wondered if others might get to share the scene before it dissolves further into the sand grains of time and weather.

I had been following other footprints across the Elephant Trees Area and into the wash, looking to have been fairly recent. I thought perhaps they were headed to the summit, but they stopped after about two miles in the canyon. Evidently the party was only out to explore the canyon and environs. When I had reached the 2,200-foot level about three miles up the canyon and a short distance past the only major fork, I found conditions growing brushier and I was tiring of following the wash. So I hauled myself up the southern side of the canyon and onto an indistinct ridgeline that I followed for the last mile to the summit. It was warmer in the open sun, almost hot, but a small breeze helped to keep things bearable. There was a great deal of rock and boulders, much cacti and even more agave found along the way. The agave in particular made this a tough stretch and I was wishing I had stayed in the canyon longer. It was 9:30a before I finally reached the summit. I was happy that I pulled up on the actual highpoint and didn't miss it by a half mile or so. There are other points vying for the honors, so I was glad to have the GPS help.

There is a grand view from the summit, taking in most of the huge state park and far east to the Salton Sea and the Chocolate Mtns. Though Whale Mtn to the southwest, some 1,500ft higher, is considered the highpoint of the Vallecito Mtns, this eastern summit feels more like a range highpoint since it is separated from the western half by Harper Flat and the Hapaha Valley, more than 1,000ft lower. A scrap of paper had been left in 1981 by MacLeod & Lilley. Later a register was placed by Wes Shelberg in the 1990s, possibly the most prolific peakbagger in Anza-Borrego. There were entries from parties both large (Monday Maniacs had visited at least once) and small, usually about one party per year. Shane Smith had done this one in 2008 shortly before his own list finish, also ascending from the Elephant Trees Area. Seems I wasn't the only one taking the hard way.

For the descent, I chose to drop off the northeast side more directly to the wash I had abandoned, finding a steep, but nearly brush-free boulder field that made for a quick descent. Back in the canyon wash, I found the going much easier than the ridgeline I had traded it for earlier. In fact there was very little brush to be fought through at all until just before I returned to my exit point in the canyon (seems a little bit of perseverance would have paid off handsomely). It was growing warmer during the descent and I savored the shrinking shady segments of the canyon all the more. I came across two lone rams at different places in the last two miles of the canyon. They were initially startled by my presence, quickly gaining some altitude before they took the time to survey me more carefully and sauntered off at a more dignified pace.

Back out of the canyon, I followed slightly different variations of the wash, hoping for both an easier route and sightings of the mysterious Elephant Trees. I found neither. I made my way back to the trail and then shortly to my van. Some vehicle tracks had erased my morning footprints to the TH, but there were no signs of vehicles or people now. It was 1p and 89F - about time I got off the desert floor. I was happy for air-conditioning on the drive back, allowing me to suffer minimally from the heat still building outside and the huge fog of dust kicked up over the Ocotillo area by the OHV enthusiasts. Time to head back to the coast - and with that, another peak list was finished...

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