Middle Palomas, San Pedro Martir Plateau
By: Marty Goodman
Dick Cardone, Dave Poulliet, and I drove from the San Francisco Bay Area to San Diego, and thence across the border at Tijuana and south on Baja highway 1 to a point just a little south of the town of Colonet (last available reliable gas was in the town of San Vincente). We then turned east on the 60 mile long dirt "Observatorio Road" that passes the town of San Telmo at about 10 miles, the Meling Ranch (2200 ft) at about 32 miles, and winds up at an international observatory on the San Pedro Martir Plateau ( 8600 ft) after a total of about 60 miles. I've driven this road a half dozen times between 1976 and the present. On all past occasions (including, two April trips 2 and 4 years ago) this road was in good enough condition that I had little trouble getting my 1972 Datsun 510 compact wagon. THIS time, however, the heavy winter snows and rains had taken a heavy toll on the road. It was washed out in several places (a few miles past San Telmo and just beyond the Meling Ranch) and, in its upper portions (which normally are in better condition than the lower ones) DEEPLY rutted and somewhat muddy in spots. Our 1988 Jeep Cherokee, 4.0 liter, had little difficulty fording the rivers and handling the ruts and rocks, but had we not had a high clearance 4WD vehicle there would have been NO WAY we could possible have made it to the San Pedro Martir Plateau. Normally this road is graded yearly, if not more often, for the international observatory at its end depends on it being in decent condition. Aida Meling was expecting the washed out bridge near San Telmo to be repaired "eventually". Many roadside flowers (Ceanothus, Lobelia, Joshua's Candle) were in bloom along the lower reaches of the Road. The meadows of the Meling Ranch were brilliant, lush green in color.
Our objectives for this trip were to, climb Middle Palomas, return to Los Llanitos, hike to Campo Noche in Canyon Diablo via Gorin's Gully, then ascent the "easy" Bud Bernard route up Picacho Del Diablo (I've been up it three times before and Dick had been up it once before) but this time we wanted to seek the direct ascent to the South summit (instead of the higher North Summit).
We parked a few miles from the end of the Observatorio Road. We originally had planned on driving to Los Llanitos on the new road that was put in there. But at Vallecitos Meadow, where the Los Llanitos road leaves the Observatorio Road, the ground was about 50% covered with snow in drifts up to 2 feet deep (8200 feet), and even the shorter and better road to Vallecitos Spring was covered with enough snow that we decided not to take it. We ended up parking about a mile into the meadow and hiking along the remainder of that road (about a mile or two) to Vallecitos Spring, and from there over the route that intersects the Los Llanitos road a few miles from Los Llanitos.
It had snowed the night before we drove to the plateau, but we enjoyed excellent weather all the time we were on the plateau. Days were warm and dry (in the low '70's... perfect hiking and climbing weather) and nights got down to as low as 22 degrees F at our higher camps (8200 ft). There was abundant water all over the plateau. Indeed, streams that had been trickles two Aprils ago now were full enough to present some difficulty in crossing this season. Almost every little gully and wash was passed (that had all been totally dry on previous spring trips we had made) had running streams in them. We found NO evidence of ANY previous backpackers this season, so likely as not we were the first party into the plateau this spring.
We were aL1 had COLD and WET feet by the time we reached Los Llanitos (8200ft). Because of the snow, we decided to abandon our plan to seek a cross country route from Los Llanitos to Horse Flats, and instead the next day hiked along the well-ducked trail that Dick and I knew well from several previous Martir hikes that leads thru a forested valley and down to La Encantada meadow at its north west end. From there we proceeded along the north and north eastern edge / arm of the meadow to a big, ducked boulder that marks the start of the well-ducked La Encantada Horse Flats trail. Most of the snow disappeared as we got below 7800ft elevation, and Encantada Meadow (7200 ft.) was entirely free of snow.
We ascended this trail past a year-round spring to Horse Flats at 8200 ft, then hiked toward the three Palomas peaks. The west face of the peaks was almost entirely free of snow up thru to the summit. We made camp about 20 minutes from the base of the peaks in an idyllic bit of forest next to what normally is a tiny trickle of a spring, but what was at this time a respectably babbling brook.
Dick and I had 4 years ago tried and failed to climb Middle Palomas via a relatively brush-free route that led from the middle of the base of the peak north to the notch between the north and middle peak, then up toward the summit of the middle peak south along its ridge. We had gotten to within about 300 feet of the summit or less when we encountered a tricky move that was sufficiently difficult and exposed that it turned us back. This time, to avoid that area, we decided to climb directly up a heavily thornbrush-filled gully on the south part of the west face of Middle Palomas. This gully passes between two "pillars" just north of a 50 foot vertical and bare area on the southern ridge of middle Palomas, and reaches the ridge about 200 ft, and 15 minutes travel from the summit. It took us THREE and HALF HOURS to laboriously fight our way thru the VICIOUS torn bushes to attain the ridge. There we encountered a slightly exposed class four move to proceed further up the ridge. Dick and I would not have tried it, but Dave Poulliet, an experienced and strong climber, scampered up without the slightest hesitation and sent down the 30 foot goldline "emergency rope" we had carried, belaying us over that and one other slightly sticky portion.
The summit had a Sierra Club, Los Angeles chapter, DPS register (a 17 cent spiral note pad inside a glass Tang jar under a single rock, and we noted that roughly 30 people had climbed the peak since 1973. We recognized about a quarter of the names (John Robinson, Bud Bernard, Andy Smatko, Ron Jones, Jerry Schad) as well known San Pedro Martir Mountaineers and authors of various books and maps about the region. There also was an older register nearby with entries going back to 1963. We had a nice view of the eastern deserts and the Sea of Cortez to the east, and of the Martir plateau and out all the way to the Pacific Ocean to the west. Curiously, there was NOT a good view from the summit of Picacho Del Diablo. Perhaps North Palomas was in the way. We noted CONSIDERABLE snow cover on the north and east faces of south Palomas, which was our first clear warning that we might not be able to complete the Canyon Del Diablo part of our trip. The descent down the thorn bush gully again took about 3 1/2 hours. We were picking thorns out of our hands and legs for the next week or so.
The next day we retraced our earlier hike back "the long hard way" along well ducked trails to Los Llanitos. The day after that, we proceeded up the creek at Los Llanitos, Leaving it about half way to the plateau and heading east toward the escarpment. Near the escarpment we turned north and joined the Los Llanitos creek about 500 ft. below the escarpment, and followed a ducked trail to the notch just north of Blue Bottle. At this point (9200 ft. there was foot deep snow. The ridge up to the summit of Blue Bottle was entirely snow-covered, as was the traverse on the eastern face of Blue Bottle and Gorin's gully too. We decided that, because we lacked both ice axes and good snow-capable footwear that we would not attempt to descend into Canyon Del Diablo. We were concerned both about possible slides down the steep east face of Blue Bottle and about the probable difficulty in ascending Gorin's Gully in its upper, snow-filled reaches on our return should we have successfully made the descent. Before turning back, I took a few pictures of the again elusive summits of Picacho Del Diablo just as some mists were coming in to conceal them. We returned to our camp at Los Llanitos by following the ducked trail that lead down the Los Llanitos creek. This creek was quite swollen with water, and what had in past times been trivial crossings often presented some mild to moderate problems. The waterfalls at about 8600 ft in the creek were quite a sight (we avoided them by climbing around the north east side of the creek)
Next day we hiked out to our car and drove to the Meling Ranch, were we spent the night as Aide's only guests, and enjoyed the luxury of Aida's sumptuous dinner and breakfast, as well as a warm shower and a comfortable bed. Next morning we drove out to Highway 1, north to Ensenada, then east along Baja 3 past Ochos Negros then north onto the dirt Sierra Juarez road and into Parque National de Constitution de 1857, camping by the shores of Laguna Hanson. The road in would have presented severe (and probably impassable) obstacle to any but a high clearance vehicle, and our 4WD helped us considerably in some muddy parts. Laguna Hanson was probably at its maximum size. Its shore extended literally ON to part of the main Juarez road at one point. There were a couple of Mexican park employees at the park to take our $3.00 US per person entrance fee and hand us a pamphlet written in Spanish and English showing where to camp and what the rules were. We camped out under the stars, and in the morning just before sunrise were treated to the spectacularly beautiful sight of morning mists ("white horses") playing over the lake and gradually dissipating as the sun came up. That morning our car would not start (Dick had incautiously used the dome light in the car the night before, unaware that our battery had marginal capacity because it was four years old). Happily, the Mexican park chaps were nearby, and quite happy to give us a jump start.
We proceeded north past the Canyon Tajo turnoff, past Chichi De La India, and finally joining the paved Baja Hwy 2 a mile or two west of La Rumorosa. We then drove to Tecate, paused for a few tacos at my favorite taquiria in the square, then (without incident or pause) across the boarder and back into the USA and on to San Diego. Although we failed to complete two of our three objectives, we had a WONDERFUL Sierra San Pedro Martir trip. Dick and I were especially thankful to Dave for his aid in getting us up to Middle Palomas summit which we had sought for so long. Of course, South Summit Picacho Del Diablo still awaits us, as does Cerro Venado Blanco (a 9200 ft peak north of the Observatorio road) and a "Dual Canyon" trip (up Canyon Agua Caliente, across the Sierra San Pedro Martir Plateau from Santa Eulalia to Santa Rosa meadow, then back down to the desert via Canyon El Cajon). And Ron Jones has initiated a case of ."Matomi canyon and peak "fever", which hopefully I can "cure" at some point in the future with a trip to that region. So many mountains. So little time.
P.S. I would suggest that Middle Palomas would make an excellent DPS peak. I do NOT, however, recommend the route we took. You have to want that summit in a VERY bad way (as we DID) to persist in that ascent through the thorn bushes! Ron, I believe you used the more sensible north ridge approach when you climbed Middle Palomas.
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