Witch Creek Mountain P300
Whale Mountain P300
Corral Mountain P500
Cranes Peak
Bottle Peak P300

Wed, Feb 20, 2013
Witch Creek Mountain
Corral Mountain
Cranes Peak
Bottle Peak
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 4 GPXs: 1 2 3 4 5 Profiles: 1 2 3 4 5


A fast, but very cold front had just moved through the San Diego area overnight, leaving a fresh layer of snow on many of the hills above 3,000ft in the county. I had never been in snow in San Diego and thought this would be a wonderful opportunity. I had been watching the weather reports and had come prepared with snowshoes and snow gear on a short family trip to visit my mother-in-law. What I had forgotten to bring were chains for the van, a source of some regret. As I drove east on SR78 towards Julian, I was confronted with a Chains Required sign just past Santa Ysabel. I decided not to take a chance that the sign was out-of-date and waste some time driving up to Julian only to be turned back. Instead I decided to check out some summits along SR78 that I had noted while perusing the maps and some that I found on my GPS.

Witch Creek Mountain

This one sounds like a bad Disney movie. The summit is only half a mile from the highway, but it's not easy getting to it as all the lands around it on both sides of the road are private property. There is some modest cross-country to contend with (and poison oak if you're not careful) and a few homes to be avoided. There is a junk-strewn home on the south side of the peak with a dirt road leading to it. Hiking up the road to reach this in broad daylight might not be too smart as the home is occupied. Turning uphill before reaching it to climb the southwest side of Witch Creek Peak might work but not without some risk of discovery. There are also other homes southwest of the peak right off the highway that should be avoided. My approach was via the south, up a small drainage mostly shielded from the road that got me east of the homes close to the road. A thin equestrian trail can be found atop a subsidiary ridge that can be used to follow this ridge until above the junky home. Luckily the home is tucked down on the west side of the saddle connecting the subsidiary ridge to Witch Creek Peak. I dropped down north to the saddle through trees (here's where to watch out for poison oak) and up the southeast side to the summit. Fires swept across most of this land in the 2007 fires and one can still see the burned remains of the more mature chaparral that once grew here, but the land is rejuvenating nicely.

A small cairn is found at the summit, but no register. The benchmark is labeled "BALLENA" which is spanish for whale. Whale Peak is found just to the east across Ballena Valley. The snows on the Cuyamacas were clearly visible from the summit though clouds covered the upper reaches of these higher mountains. I returned via nearly the same route, saving some time by not making a few mistakes I made on the way in, the whole outing taking about an hour and a half.

Whale Peak

Two miles almost due west of Witch Creek Peak is the smaller Whale Peak. The resemblance to a leviathan was lost on me. I first tried to approach the peak from the east via Ballena Valley, but this proved futile as I could not get very close to the peak from this direction, the valley mostly occupied by horse ranches. My second effort was much better, coming at it from the southwest. There is a fire station along the highway to the west, with an open field just south of this that I found convenient to park at. The field is marked as private property but appears to be little enforced. There were no fences to climb off the road or going up the peak. From my car I spotted a coyote in the grass to one side, and watched him for a while as he poked his head into rabbit holes looking for dinner. He ran off when he heard my car door open and saw me get out. Cars he wasn't afraid of, but people were another story.

There are a handful of homes on the southwest side of Whale Peak that are easily bypassed to the north by the route I took, going through a grassy ravine and then up a ridge rising above the homes. Animal trails lead nicely through the brush, avoiding bushwhacking. Rising higher, there's a nice view to the west of Santa Teresa Valley, green with the recent rains. In the background is the distinctive Mt. Woodson. The hike to the summit takes all of about fifteen minutes. There is a small solar-powered antenna just below the highpoint, a small pile of rocks marking the top at the broad summit. An old road actually leads right to the summit from the east, likely originating at one of the ranches on that side. Witch Creek Peak and Ballena Valley figure prominently to the east with the three snow-covered peaks of the Cuyamacas to the southeast.

Corral Mountain

This was the only one of the peaks with a decent amount of hiking, about four miles roundtrip. Corral Mountain is located to the north above Sutherland Dam, overlooking the lake. With water levels low, recreational use of the lake was currently closed, but there's no gate across Sutherland Dam Road which can be used to access the dirt Black Canyon Road to the west. I had used the latter a year earlier in an attempt on Black Mtn that ended poorly, but it was from Black Mtn (on a second effort) that I first noted Corral Mountain and Sutherland Lake. I parked at a clearing on the northwest side of the dam. A gated road leads down to the bottom of the dam, across Santa Ysabel Creek on an old bridge and back up to the east side of the dam. From there, old roads lead near to the summit of Corral Mountain. The entire area is public lands within the Cleveland National Forest, but has restricted access and is signed as such in no uncertain terms.

The highlight of the hike is the dam itself, an engineering marvel. It has 17 curved arches supported by 18 buttressses that give it a scalloped look. The top of the dam overhangs the bottom by a good distance with a walkway at the top that follows the scalloped shape from one side to the other. I didn't walk along this walkway, but the view from the top looking down must be exhilarating. The buttresses and subsidiary arches that support the dam on the backside are very impressive. I walked under one of the arches to take a picture looking up to the sky. Because the backside is completely shaded from the sun, there is a rich growth of ferns, lichen and other shade-loving plants on many of the structures, looking like some sort of ancient Mayan ruin. Construction on the dam was begun in 1927 but halted a year later due to lack of funding and conflicting water rights claims. The second phase began 24 years later in 1952 and finished in 1954. The dam was completed with bonds funded by the City of San Diego which remains the primary recipient of the resources (there are only water resources, no hydroelectric capacity). The spillway at the east end of the dam allows overflow when the height of the water reaches 145ft which has happened only twice - once in the 1970s and again in the 1990s. Water flowing over the spillway must have been swift and harsh as it completely washed out the road leading up from the bridge to the east side of the dam. Use trails allow one to bypass this section, walking across the spillway and to the road on the other side.

Once beyond the dam, the terrain grows more uncivilized. The roads around Corral Mountain haven't been used by vehicles for decades and see little human traffic as well. The 2007 fires burned across here, leaving some charred fenceposts as lasting reminders. Brush was growing back briskly and encroaching on the roadbed. This meant I was constantly pushing against the brush which as I came to find was absolutely loaded with ticks. It was not uncommon to have a dozen of them on my legs at one time. I could see the little parasites sitting at the ends of the twigs waiting for something to walk by. There was some amusement provided when I was actually able to watch them in action as I pushed through some waist-high brush along the road I traveled. I could see the ticks launched off their posts like minature parachutists jumping from a plane or perhaps more like a cliff diver. It wasn't easy to tell if the motion through the brush simply knocked them off or they actually jumped on cue, but it looked like a paratroop exercise as viewed from the observation planes above. Most of the soldiers would miss there mark and fall helplessly to the ground. Once launched, they have no control over their trajectory. The chaos of my legs moving through more brush meant that some of those that landed would almost immediately be knocked off. I watched as some would climb my pant legs a short distance and then abort the mission themselves, either jumping off completely or dropping to a lower position in an effort to find something they could bite into. Though they certainly had the advantage of numbers today, none would find their mark. These were not the top recruits in the tick army.

The road I followed led up to a lower, subsidiary peak just south of the highpoint. The cross-country needed to reach the top was not much harder than the road itself. From the starting point, it took about an hour to reach the highpoint. I was surprised to find a register in this out-of-the-way location. Inside was an LPC brochure telling of the wonders to be had by joining this Sierra Club group. Along with it was a 2007 register left by the notable San Diegans, Richard Carey, Terry Flood and John Strauch. There were a few other names like Gail Hanna that I recognized. I wonder if this forgotten peak was at one time being considered for the LPC or San Diego peak lists. The summit provides fine views of Black Mtn to the northwest, the Volcan Mtns to the northeast and of course Sutherland Lake to the south. Jogging most of the way back, I managed to cut the return time in half, taking just over 30 minutes.

Cranes Peak

Santa Ysabel Creek flows out of Sutherland Lake towards the west into San Pasqual Canyon and Valley where it joins with Escondido Creek to become the San Dieguito River, flowing into Lake Hodges and eventually to the ocean at Solano Beach. SR78 bypasses the narrow upper reaches of San Pasqual Canyon by diverting south through Santa Teresa, Goose, and Santa Maria Valleys, the latter where Ramona is situated. The highway then returns to the lower part of San Pasqual Valley via Clevenger Canyon, with steep bluffs framing the highway and valley on the north and south sides. Cranes Peak rises steeply as an abuttment to the southern bluff, nicely dividing San Pasqual Canyon to the east from the Valley to the west. Cows graze much of the peak though it seems hard to believe due to the gradient. I suspect that at least one cow has probably tumbled down the slope after stumbling or losing its footing. The easiest route appears to be from the west where a private academy is located among some orchards. A trail leads up to a saddle south of the summit and from there to the top. I didn't check this route out because I had no knowledge of it beforehand. I simply stopped at the east side of the peak as I was driving west down the highway and went straight up from there.

The route I chose was fully in sight of the highway, requiring one to cross a fence before starting the steep climb. There was no hiding from anyone who might spot me from the highway. Getting spotted wasn't the problem - whether they would care to do anything about it was my real concern. It seemed nobody would today. I moved as fast as I possibly could to minimize my chances of getting in trouble, making it up the nearly 600ft of grassy terrain in 15 minutes. Higher up I relaxed some as I knew I would be far less noticable by passing motorists. There is a fine vantage point at the summit from which to view the canyon to the east and the valley to the west. A brand new football field was carved from the orchards that were not yet shown on the Google satellite views when I perused them a month later. To the north rise the steep bluffs that frame that side of the canyon and valley. White numbers have been painted on the rocks by adventurous seniors from the local academy to mark their graduation year. All of the numbers I could make out were from the 1980s. The San Pasqual Academy didn't come into existence until after 2000, so it seems likely these may have been from the previous school at the site where the Seventh Day Adventists ran a boarding school. Perhaps by the 1990s the students had been sufficiently schooled in the importance of evironmental stewardship. Or possibly they just ran out large rocks as canvases. The return, as you might expect, went very quickly with a slight variation to use a slightly more concealed gully on the same side, taking all of five minutes.

Bottle Peak

With a few more hours of daylight, I scanned my GPS to find a couple of peaks on the south side of Lake Wohlford, a reservoir above Escondido Creek, northeast of the city. Once again I had nothing but a coordinate and some questionable roads shown on the GPS to go by. Bottle Peak lies above the dam found on the west side of the lake. The nearest roads to the summit are shown to approach from the east, so I drove up to the lake and then into a decrepid mobile home park found in a tree-lined canyon northeast of Bottle Peak. The place looked to have been built in the 1950s or 1960s, at one time sporting a nice community room, a store and other ammenities. But it looks as though maintenance on the place stopped as soon as the last person moved in and all they've done in that time is simply exist in some sort of time warp - and collect obscene amounts of junk. This would be fertile ground indeed for one of those hoarder shows on TV. I could hardly figure out how to navigate through the place, let alone find a way to reach the peak, so I exited almost as quickly as I had entered.

I drove back west along the road until I was just above the dam, figuring I'd give it a go cross-country from the closest point I could get in a straight line. This almost turned into a disaster. There is a faint use trail leading up to a telephone pole found on the hillside, but there was ample poison oak leading further. While I might judge some peaks to be worth the pain this might entail, this was not one of them. I went back down and drove a short distance east where I had seen an old gate. This turned out to the ticket for the shortest route to the summit. Once over the gate, the road leads up to a saddle well above the telephone pole I had reached earlier. There are grafitti displays on the rocks along this road, the usual collection of teenage drug-related signage. At the saddle a sign indicated I was entering the Bottle Peak Preserve. Later I learned that the Escondido Creek Conservancy spent $3.5M in 2010 to purchase 418 acres on Bottle Peak. There is almost no other information available online concerning this property. Was it meant for public access? It would seem so. A short distance down the other side of the saddle I found a thin trail heading off in the direction of the summit. It seems this trail originates much further down on the west, at the edge of town. This would be the all-legal way to reach the summit though I don't know if it is required to be docent-led or not. I followed the trail as it went over a small, cute but probably unnecessary bridge that leads through some tall brush and mature stands of chaparral that did not burn in the 2007 fire. More poison oak could be found at various points along the trail but thankfully it has been maintained well enough to avoid the noxious plant.

The trail meanders about the west side of the peak, eventually reaching through some gaps between boulders to finish at the summit. Easy class 3 scrambling leads to the top of the large grafitti-enfused summit rock. A fire lookout built in 1911 once stood at the summit, but some concrete is all that remains. A benchmark was placed years later. The summit offers a fine place to relax and enjoy the views in all directions, provided you can keep the grafitti from bothering you. The views west were washed out by the sun low on the horizon at this time of day, but there was a nice view of Lake Wohlford and the surrounding hills to the north. It was after 5p and I was nearly out of daylight by the time I returned to the car so I didn't give nearby French Mountain a try. It looks to have similar difficulties and I thought it best to leave it for some other day...


Dan Saxton comments on 03/20/13:
Great to see you've finally done Bottle Peak! It's one of the neatest peaks around Escondido, in my opinion. I've been up several times, before that ugly graffiti marred the top (I saw it the last time I was up a couple months ago)

You might be interested to know that when I first climbed the peak in 2009 there was a more direct route, the path you took is only a year old at most. The old route was really neat, going through a gap between boulders, scrambling up a pretty steep 20-foot class 3 slab, and then there used to be a rope that went up the vertical north side of the summit block (but it was eventually removed; it's easy to go around and go up the side you climbed).

I surely hope they find a way to keep the graffiti away, this peak is a gem and should be kept that way. Best wishes!
Submit online comments or corrections about the story.

More of Bob's Trip Reports

This page last updated: Wed Apr 27 14:52:09 2016
For corrections or comments, please send feedback to: snwbord@hotmail.com