16 March 1996
By: Penelope May
Leaders: Penelope May, Jeff Deffilk
This beautiful area of piñon pines and juniper in an otherwise typical desert setting in Anza Borrego was at its springtime best when we spent the weekend hiking in it. The temperatures were ideal: up to 75° in the day and down to about 45° at night. Due to a lack of winter rains in November of last year, and, perhaps the higher elevation of 4,000 - 5,400 feet in which we found ourselves, wildflowers were sparse, but the area was nonetheless lovely.
We met at Blair Valley "campsite" (a dirt road with occasional poorly vegetated spots suitable for setting down a tent) at 8:30 am on Saturday morning and loaded into two 4-wheel drive vehicles for the bumpy 5.7 mile ride along Pinyon Mountain Road to the parking/start point. We then backpacked 2 hours to our campsite (just over a mile). "Hiking" (boulder groping) south UP the canyon to where it levels off was an invigorating start to this day. At the top, we turned leftish and traveled in a southeasterly direction across a flat but cactus-ridden area toward the ridge on the south side ahead, passing an easy landmark on the left, a small "saddleback."
We found the ideal start point to climb up the next ridge by following the ducks and also by looking just beyond the more obvious gully which turns backwards (westerly), to find the next one, opposite the 2nd bump of the "saddleback" peaks. At the top is a large grassy valley; we turned westwards, crossing it and climbing over and around the low ridge finger on the left, to 4640', the head of Smugglers' Canyon which drops off precipitously on the right. This is the "intersection" between the route to Whale Peak and the return to Blair Valley via Smugglers' Canyon. It is a pretty camping area at a cool 4,600 feet, with some attractive bald spots for tents, with shade trees as well as cactus, pinyons and junipers. We set up camp there and whiled away our lunch break.
After lunch, with just our small packs, we set off for the peak. We followed the ducks directly south up the side of the ridge ahead to about 4,800', then changed direction to southeast (still following rather sparse ducks). This is the really pivotal navigating point: the place is choc-a-bloc with boulder piles, ridges and trees and the trick is to find Nifty Valley #1, which is a little grassy valley running parallel (west - east, at the at the bottom of) the Whale Peak ridge. In it, there is a sandy path ("trail") leading across it directly eastwards to a point just below (WNW of) the peak, where the "entrance" to the peak is well ducked.
However, if you are like us, you discovered Nifty Valley #2 (slight whoops)! I think we turned leftish to avoid a boulder pile, when we should have turned rightish. As a result, we found ourselves on the wrong (north) side of a small ridge which also runs parallel to Whale Peak, but separates Nifty Valley #1 from Nifty Valley #2. Eventually, we reached a little "pass" where we turned right, and voila!, we were at the end of Nifty Valley #1, and found the access to the peak, which we promptly scaled. After many photo opportunities, signing in, laughs, snacks and taking in the 200 mile clear day views, we returned to the campsite unscathed.
On Sunday morning we picked up our stuff in a leisurely fashion, enjoying the ambiance, and prepared for our descent. Ron and Dan were kind enough to go back to the 4-wheelers the way we came in and drive over to the parking lot for the Pictograph Trail where, 3 hours later, we met them. This allowed the rest of us to experience a change of pace, by heading down Smugglers's Canyon. Despite the rocky terrain, the descent proved to be easier than expected, and certainly very beautiful. After hitting the desert floor (just over 1,000 feet of loss) we set a compass and headed off for the Pictograph site (which is about where the dot is on the topo map showing Petroglyphs) and, by an apparent miracle, arrived directly at this north-facing boulder with its Indian paintings.
After appropriate oohing and aahing we sauntered less than a mile on trail to the parking lot, into which our trusty steeds were just arriving to collect us, complete with a tub of iced cold water! It was a marvelous weekend filled with good company, beautiful scenery and many, many laughs, mostly at my expense!
Participants: Ron May, Lena Hayashi, Dan Pacholski, Isabel Labrada, Harry Luettchau, Scott Kim, Tom Hill.
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