Oakzanita Peak, Middle Peak, Cuyamaca Peak, Stonewall Peak, San Ysidro Mountain, Combs Peak, Sheephead Mountain, Cuyapaipe Mountain, Monument Peak #1, Garnet Peak, Garnet Mountain
19-22 October 2001
By: Karen Isaacson Leverich
San Diego County Clean Out
Leaders: Mars Bonfire, Sandy Burnside, Byron Prinzmetal, Carleton Shay, George Wysup
Um, it was great! I loved it! Four solid days of hiking, eleven new peaks, fourteen peaks in all, bliss! Can we do this again sometime soon? How about a southern Sierra cleanout?
Not wanting to leave in the pre-dawn of Friday and battle traffic all across Los Angeles, Brian and I had booked a motel room near Julian from Thursday night on, and I drove us down (occasionally over the speed limit, tsk!) that evening. Imagine my dismay when we arrived at the motel and I went to check us in, only to discover that oops!, I had no wallet! No cash, no ID, no credit cards, no nothing. Luckily, Brian was along, and he was better organized (isn't he always?), so he got to take care of all that.
The first hike on Friday was Sandy's provisional lead of Oakzanita. 10AM, we didn't even have to get up early! But bad news straight out of the gate -- Brian wasn't feeling well. He ended up spending the first two days of the trip mildly sick in the motel room. (Don't feel too sorry for him: when all the dust settled, he still got eight new peaks, plus the fact that he missed some of the first peaks gave Mars and I a wonderful excuse to do some of them twice once Brian got to feeling better.)
Sandy of course led us up Oakzanita brilliantly, not getting rattled at all by the mild hazing we subjected her to. ("Can I bring my dog? Are we there yet? Nobody warned me this would be uphill!") This is a pleasant hike, initially up a road, but then switchbacking up an oak-shaded slope to a scenic meadow in a saddle, then more switchbacks to a rocky summit with the usual world-class views one gets on most HPS peaks. We applauded Sandy for not getting us lost, a feat she managed to replicate on the way back down.
We didn't waste too much time on congratulating her, however. So many peaks, so little time! Many of the group headed up the highway and into Rancho Cuyamaca State Park, with the goal of hiking to Middle Peak and Cuyamaca Peak. Given the size of our group, Mars checked to see if hiking cross-country was OK. Uh, no, not recommended. But given the rich network of trails in this park, not really a problem. He bought a park map, then conferred with Byron and George to work out the best strategy for getting our peaks while staying (mostly) on trail.
What a beautiful place this park is! I have never seen such a varied forest: oaks, firs, pines, cedars, alders, ashes, sycamores, cottonwoods, and willows. Not to mention manzanita, chamise, and azaleas. (I saw at least one perfect specimen along the aptly named Azalea Glen Trail.)
In mid-October, the leaves are starting to change, the temperatures are balmy. A perfect time to hike! We meandered up one trail and along another, stopping to confer from time to time (the terrain and the map didn't agree with each other to quite the degree one might have hoped) before eventually arriving at the saddle between Cuyamaca and Middle. Here we briefly bumped into Ron Zappen, descending Middle by a trail on its east flank. Just to be contrary (or perhaps because Byron recalled the east fork to be rocky, while George recalled the west fork to be less so), we headed up a pleasant trail on the western side of the peak, across a meadow and then through an oak wood, eventually leaving the trail to work cross country (don't tell the rangers!) to the peak. No register, but an elaborate rock cairn assured us we had found the place.
Ingeborg was feeling a bit tired (she was recovering from a cold, perhaps the same cold that was confining Brian to the motel), so in order to minimize the amount of tiring cross-country, we headed down to the east, and caught the rocky (not very) eastern flank trail, and returned to the saddle. Byron and Ingeborg checked out and headed back for the parking lot. The rest of us (me, Mars, George, Brent and Sheldon), realizing we were running out of daylight (not necessarily a bad thing, more on that in a moment), stepped up the pace and headed up a rocky steep gully, or was it a trail?, towards Cuyamaca Peak, emerging eventually on an asphalt road that took us the last few hundred feet to the top.
Mars and I still wanted to do Stonewall, even though it looked like we'd have to do the whole hike by headlamp. Brent's first reaction to this proposal was negative -- surely no one besides a crazed peak bagger would want to do a peak totally in darkness. What would be the point? You wouldn't be able to see a thing! Though maybe there's a crazed peak bagger in all of us, just yearning to be free: in the end, Brent decided to join us.
But first, a little fun. The "hike" from Cuyamaca Peak to the parking area is mainly a long downhill on an asphalt road. "How comfortable are you on asphalt?" Mars asked me, before taking off downhill at almost a run. Nothing for it but to try to keep up. Hey, wait a minute, this is fun! (Why do I suspect Mars already knew that?) Although it was supposedly between two and three miles back, we did it in almost no time at all. Then milled around in the parking lot chatting with Joe Whyte, while waiting for the sluggo group (Brent, George, and Sheldon) to catch up. Quite a role reversal, that!
The final hike that first day was pure magic. It was already dusk when Mars, Brent, and I donned our headlamps and headed across the highway to the Stonewall Peak trailhead. The ranger warned us that a cougar had been spotted there recently, which made me a tad nervous (I was last in the column, so presumably the probable cat food if there were to be an encounter). A forest in the dark is a very different place from one in the light, there was both a mystery and beauty as our limited lights briefly revealed rocks, trees, shrubs, fences (the trail is randomly fenced, according to a pattern we failed to discern but speculated about both on this hike and a later one in full daylight).
There are an astonishing number of switchbacks involved for such a modest peak (only 900' gain), perhaps more than one finds ascending San Gorgonio. Towards the top, they get tighter, rockier, and steeper, ending eventually in rock steps and then a rocky ramp protected by a handrail. We shined our lights over the handrail, and were immediately grateful for its presence -- we couldn't be sure, but that looked like a long ways straight down!
I think we might have remained on the summit all night, it was so lovely -- the stars, the views of the lights below and the distant mountains, the quiet of the night -- but eventually we got to feeling guilty about Brian cooped up in the motel room. I'd warned him I'd be late, but this late? And maybe we were a little concerned about finding our respective suppers, since the restaurants would presumably be closing soon. With regret, we slowly hiked out, our first day of hiking at an end.
Friday's hikes had been south of Julian, in the forest. Saturday's hikes would take us north, into a dryer more rugged terrain. Our first peak was San Ysidro Mountain, which from the Climbing Guide sounds like a long difficult hike. In the event, it wasn't easy, but because of a dirt road known to Byron and Mars (a road not for those at all timid about their clearance or suspension!), we were able to drive right up to the base of the peak, and only (only!) had to ascend it.
The way they usually do this, you head up the gully, take the right branch, then when that branch gets too brushy, head up the slope, opportunistically selecting relatively brush-free passages through the brush. But Mars had had a report that taking the left branch led easily up to a saddle on the west side of the peak, and from there one could easily work up the ridge to the summit. Always curious to explore new routes, we opted to do that. And sure enough, the left branch did indeed easily lead us up to the western saddle, which was promisingly higher in altitude than the eastern one.
A small problem, though -- the ridge between us and the peak didn't immediately bring the word "easy" to mind. Free associating, I'd be more likely to come up with "brushy", or "rocky", or "scary", or even "impossible", or... But of course I've already learned on HPS hikes that something that looks impossible from a distance (Owens and Jenkins leap to mind) isn't necessarily so when you're actually working your way up a foot or so at a time. So onwards and upwards we went. This time, however, no miracle occurred. The brush stayed brushy, the rock challenges became, if anything, more challenging, and eventually Byron lobbied for sidehilling around the south face to reach the more traditional route up. We worried that even that would prove brushy and difficult, but instead the mountain almost immediately rewarded us for choosing well -- the transit of the south face to the once-ducked route (the ducks having seemingly migrated elsewhere for the winter?) was quickly and easily done, as was the scramble to the summit. We'd done it, hurrah!
The descent to the gully (the right branch, which we'd not taken, rather than the left) was quickly accomplished. Gee, it's a lot easier to go down a scree slope than up, and more fun! We'd've been back to the cars in no time at all, except our leaders were briefly tempted by some intriguing boulders on the way out, and gave us a short rock climbing demo.
After a brief stop in Warner Springs to refuel and buy a convenience store lunch (trail bars were getting pretty old already), we headed up Chihuahua Valley Road towards Combs Peak. I think this must have been our reward for having survived San Ysidro -- a very pleasant walk along the Pacific Crest Trail first through chaparral and then through forest, eventually heading up a good use trail to the summit.
There had been a vague plan to collect Brian (who at last was feeling human again, hurrah!) upon our return to Julian, to do Oakzanita and Stonewall as dessert of sorts after a fine day of hiking. But he decided he'd prefer to take it easy a bit longer, so instead we dined out with Byron in a nice restaurant. What a tough weekend this was proving to be, huh?
Sunday found us south of Julian again, this time with Brian along. Brian and I already have Lizard Head and Dragon's Head, so of course wanted to finish our cleanout of "-head" peaks by doing Sheephead Mountain. Neither this peak nor the other one scheduled for the day (Cuyapaipe) sound very difficult from their statistics (Sheephead is listed as 3.5 miles, 700' gain plus 100' on the return), but the approaches are through dense chaparral on good but difficult to find use trails. You don't find the use trail, you probably don't get the peak. So we were gratified to have the opportunity to do these peaks with Byron, Carleton, and Mars.
Although there are, um, private property issues on the approaches to both peaks, we luckily weren't confronted by anyone angry (or even concerned or interested) about our presence. Both mountains had excellent use trails, well trimmed, leading through brush that would otherwise have been impenetrable. There were a few rocky challenges that barely slowed the group.
On Cuyapaipe, we had a leisurely lunch, enjoying the views and the company, mildly worried about Brent: we'd seen his truck at the trailhead, where he'd intended to meet us, but he'd apparently become bored waiting for us and attempted the peak on his own. Where was he? Not on the peak, for sure, so presumably out wandering through the brush. We were glad to find his truck gone when we got back, interpreting its absence to mean he'd survived, given up, gone back to town. Hopefully he'd not gotten lost in the brush, and had his truck stolen to boot. (I've seen him since, and yes, discouraged by the brush was indeed the true explanation, not to worry.)
It was still somewhat early in the day, we all still had plenty of energy, what to do, what to do? Well, obviously, another peak or two! After some dithering, we ended up aimed at Monument Peak #1. Rather than heading cross country to hook up with the PCT, Byron and Mars knew a nice trail, Big Laguna Trail, that leads straight to it. It's an easy to follow trail through a pleasant oak wood, as is the PCT itself, and in no time, we were heading up the use trail and then the road to the somewhat less than scenic (though of course view-rich) summit of Monument Peak.
Brian and Mars had a slow ascent, discussing the purposes of the various electronic and communications buildings, antennae, and equipment that decorated Monument and numerous neighboring peaks. Although the sign warning us of the potential dangers of being too close to all stuff on the summit caused us some concern, we still lingered for a bit, identifying neighboring peaks and simply being at one with being atop another peak.
Looking speculatively at the sun and our watches, it seemed just possible that we could fit in a climb of Oakzanita before calling it a day -- both Brian and Sheldon had missed Sandy's provisional lead on Friday, and both Mars and I seem to be sufficiently nutty about this hiking stuff that we were more than happy to do it again, especially (especially!) because it was sufficiently late that we'd probably have to come out by headlamp.
Of all the hikes I did over this weekend, I think this second trip up Oakzanita was the most perfect. I'd suggested to Byron and Mars once upon a time that at least for me, the most appealing way to do a nighttime hike would be to go up to the peak just before sunset, taking in the views in daylight, getting a feel for the route; then to stay on the peak and enjoy the sunset; and finally to come out in the dark savoring the stars. Well, that's exactly how we did Oakzanita. And the sunset, oh, I've never seen such a sunset!
Everyone, lobby for more hikes like this! You don't know what you're missing, hiking only in daylight!
And then ... our final day! Was it all to be over so soon? Well, not quite, we'd have time for more hiking first. Because I'd done Stonewall entirely in the dark, and because Ingeborg, Sheldon, and Brian had missed it entirely, we started out Monday by doing Stonewall by daylight. A nice contrast to doing it by headlamp! Now I could savor the forest, and see the dropoff that railing had protected me from, though by the time we'd been up and down, we were still no closer to an explanation for the mysterious fences. Too much money in the fence building budget? Imponderable.
Next stops were Garnet Peak and Mountain, the first almost a hop skip and jump through the chaparral to a windy summit, apparently popular with hang gliders though we saw none that day.
Garnet Mountain was a slightly longer hike, first through a wood, then across the PCT and up a fun rocky summit.
Ingeborg and Sheldon left us at this point, and Brian, Mars and I scooted north to Warner Springs to rendezvous with Janet. She and Brian had missed the climb of San Ysidro, and Mars and I were wanting to redo it, following the right gully instead of the left.
I'd expected our Return to San Ysidro to be a simple hike, compared to that first exploratory visit via the left gully, but to be honest, it's not that much easier doing it right. It seemed somehow steeper and more scree-y, and we still waded through more brush than I'd prefer, though there was less challenging rock.
All good times must come to an end. Eventually, we were back at the cars, saying our good-byes, wishing the weekend could have gone on for another day or two. Those of you who weren't there, you really missed out! If they do this again next October, my firm recommendation is that you organize your schedule around it, and come! Beautiful peaks, wonderful hikes, good food, San Diego County has a lot to recommend it. Even if (for some of us, anyhow) it's a looooooooong ways away!
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