Friday, February 12, 2016

Hot Springs Mountain (6,533') from Los Coyotes Campground

     Few peaks are positioned so geographically perfect that the hiker is able to view both of Southern California's seas, the Pacific and the Salton, from one vantage point.  Hot Springs Mountain, the zenith of San Diego County, is one of those.  Besides boasting impressive views of both water-bodies, the Henshaw Plateau, the Mojave Desert, the Sonoran Desert, the Inland Empire, and the San Diego Metro Area, Hot Springs Mountain offers some of the finest conifer stands and wilderness trails in Southern California.  

     Located well over an hour away from any major cities, and only a stone's throw away from the desolate Anza Desert, Hot Springs Mountain sees few visitors, save for the dedicated peakbagger eager to claim the summit high point of each California county and the occasional off-roader.  Indian Reservations for the most part are few and far between in California, but in northern San Diego County, and parts of southwestern Riverside County, there are many individual tribal lands, and this peak is on one of them.  For many years, a hefty fine and strict regulations were imposed by the Los Coyotes Band of Indians for entrance into the peak's vicinity; a discouraging setback for would-be climbers.  However a new Tribal Ordinance now allows hiking every day of the week for a nominal fee of $10.  It is well worth the small daily fee for the quiet quest to the peak.


Category: Strenuous
Miles: 10
Elevation Gain: 2400'
Location: Los Coyotes Indian Reservation
DirectionsHERE  (Be sure to pay the guard on duty at the checkpoint.  If he is not there head up the road about another mile to the Tribal Office/Community Center, and purchase the payment for the day pass there.)

The Hike:  From the Los Coyotes Campground, head north onto the obvious dirt road across from a old, round-shaped building.  It is chained, prohibiting vehicular traffic and labeled as "Rough Road", although it appears in USGS Topo Maps as "Sutka Road." Whatever you choose to call it, follow the dirt road as it steeply ascends the abrupt south wall of the Hot Springs Mountains.  This arid section ascends 1000' in about 2 miles, and is completely sun-exposed, so take the going with patience.  To lessen the unpleasant effects of such a grade, the hiker is offered every expanding views down Los Coyotes Canyon and across to the stone sentinel of the Anza Desert, San Ysebel Peak.  Near the top of the wall, around 5,700', the grade lessens, and leaving the arid shrubbery behind, enters into a coniferous forest with seasonal snow.  It is as glorious as any by Southern California standards and stands in stark contrast to the vegetation previously passed by. 
     Passing by Incense Cedars, Black Oaks, and Ponderosas, another road joins yours in about 1 mile, before you skirt by a seasonal meadow.  The dirt road ascends to a pass-like breach in the forest, before descending 200', and passes by a poorly maintained trail before reascending 300'.  As the road turns, you attain your first vistas into the Henshaw Plateau and its namesake lake.  Continue on the now rough dirt road onto the summit.  The actual summit high point is about 100 yards east of the abandoned lookout tower, but offers poor views.  For grand vistas, the secondary summit, topped by an abandoned fire tower and emergency communications, offers vantage points from the gleaming Pacific to the parched desert, from the grand summits of San Gorgonio, San Jacinto, and Mount Baldy to the Mexican border, and from Imperial County's Blue Angel's Peak to Orange County's Santiago Peak.  Indeed it is a unique experience to be atop San Diego County's highpoint peering out onto the highpoints of five other counties.  Return the way you came through the dark forest--with patience on the returning uphill sections.  

Hiked: 2/11/2016. San Diego County.  $10 entrance fee required.                   

Rough Road entrance

Heading up the south wall

Totally sun exposed

San Ysebel Peak

Nearing the end of the south wall climb

Entering the forest


Small, seasonal meadow

The Pass-Like Breach

Descending 200' 
A little more snow was fun!


First view of the peak

Final section up to the summit 

Follow the small use trail through here to the actual highpoint 
Large Rock near actual highpoint
Some brush in the way...




Coming down


Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Thomas Mountain (6,825') via Ramona Trail

     Positioned directly between the pine-dotted Garner and arid Anza Valleys is the great ridge of Thomas Mountain.  Stretching about 10 miles from Lake Hemet to Highway 371, this impressive ridgeline both is the stalwart ballast of the southern San Jacinto Mountains, and an impressive block in keeping the Sonoran Desert out of the Southland.  From its wide summit, one can lookout openly into five counties: Los Angeles County with distant Mount Baldy and Santa Catalina Island, San Bernardino County crowned by the San Gorgonio Massif, Riverside County, the county in which the peak is in, Orange County's Santiago and Modjeska Peaks, and San Diego County, with its respectable forested summits of Hot Springs, Agua Tibia, Palomar and Volcan.  As mentioned, the views are phenomenal; and with all of the Los Angeles-San Diego Metro area's major mountains in sight, the Sonoran Desert, and the distant sea with its islands, it is hard to think of a better viewpoint at this elevation.  

   The Ramona Trail, named for Helen Hunt Jackson's famous 1884 locale novel Ramona, in which the story is told in these very mountains, is seldom used.  The trip can be made even more solitary by attempting on a weekday, and when snow covers most of the trail, both conditions of which were met for my climb.  As such, I saw no one all day, which when considering the silent glistening forest and freezing, blustery temperatures made for quite an extraordinary day.
Category: Strenuous 
Miles: 13
Elevation Gain: 2400'
Location: San Bernardino National Forest
Directions: HERE
The Trail:  From the easy-to-miss trailhead, follow the trail as it leads up onto the lower, chaparral covered slopes of Thomas Mountain.  The vegetation at this elevation is comprised mainly of Red Shank, distinguishable by its namesake peeling red bark and Scrub Oak, a hardy plant able to withstand freezing winters and blistering, dry summers.  As the trail ascends, the view north will become more expansive with the bulwark of San Jacinto Peak, and the Taquitz formation.  Directly across from you is the Desert Divide and the Pacific Crest Trail, charred from the relentless 2013 Mountain Fire; eventually consuming 28,000 acres of prime forest, 23 buildings, and $25 million until its satiation.

     About 2 miles from the trailhead, the vegetation morphs into a quasi-forest, with chaparral still being dominant, but with many Coulter and Ponderosa Pines and Live Oaks also taking their stand.  The trail passes Dripping Springs, which flows seasonally from a spout about 3 miles from the start.  Shortly thereafter, you arrive at a summer campground along the Thomas Mountain Road (6S13), and some restrooms.  From here you are about half-way to the summit, but with only 800' of gain left.  Head west (right) on the dirt road as it meanders through the forest of pine and cedar, taking extra caution if there is snow present.  The USGS Topo Map has the small spur road to the summit marked incorrectly as 6S13D; however that route is nonexistent, so follow the path up marked 6S13C, about 3 miles from the camp, to the blustery summit of Thomas Mountain at 6,825'.   

     On summit there used to be an old fire lookout, but the Forest Service took it down, and instead placed a small radio-communicated near the actual high point.  Enjoy the expansive view south towards Cahuilla Mountain, the Palomars, the Volcans and Santa Anas, and the Panamanian north and east towards San Jacinto, and lonely Toro Peak respectively.  When I went, it was 30 F, with 20 MPH wind on top, so I did not stay long.  Return the way you came.  

Hiked: 2/2/2016. Riverside County   

Beginning: 39 F

Some snow on the sides... 
Snow in the Chaparral

I don't think the little Cactus likes this snow....

Icicles on trail

Large icicle 

The Trail?

Near Dripping Springs...which was dry
Thomas Mountain Rd.

Full on snow!

Christmas Tree?

"In the meadow we can build a snowman..."

"Frost and Snow, Bless the Lord"

Spur Trail to the summit

Nearing Summit

Logs near summit and view east

On summit


Old Fire Lookout Ruins

San Jacinto Peak and friends

Snow on descent

Toro Peak on the way down