Southern California County Highpoints Tour
Day 1: Caliente Mtn
I left San Jose on Sunday night around 7p, heading south on US101. A left turn at SR58 and many miles further, I found myself at the TH parkinglot around 11p. Up at 3:30a, I hiked the 8mi to the summit of Caliente Mtn before sunrise. Located in the southeast corner of San Luis Obispo County, the Caliente Range is very unlike the coastal region that people normally associate with this county. It is a hot, dry region, with little rain and few trees. A register placed by the HPS (Hundred Peaks Section) of the Sierra Club can be found in a dilapidated lookout tower that barely stays standing on the summit. I hustled back to the car at 8:30a and headed for Ventura County.
Sawmill Mtn and Mt. Pinos
Sawmill Mtn and Mt. Pinos are the highest points in Kern and Ventura Counties, respectively, located in the Los Padres National Forest, in the center of the Transverse Range that stretches from the Coast Range to the Tehachapi Mtns in the east. Nearly the same height, they are separated by only a few miles and conveniently have a nice trail running between them through the Chumash Wilderness. The drive up took the most amount of time, the hike to both summits itself only covered two hours between 10:30a and 12:30p. Mt. Pinos, the closer of the two, is visited quite often (there were half a dozen folks the short time I was there), but Sawmill Mtn is practically unknown and gets far fewer visitors. An eerie reminder of man's impact on the environment can be found near the summit of Mt. Pinos in the way of the Condor viewing area. The views are impressive as ever, but the condors fly no more.
Mt. San Antonio
I drove back through Frazier Park, then hit the famous LA freeways, first I5, then I205, then I10. Mt. Baldy, as it is more commonly called, is the highpoint of Los Angeles County. It is located in the far east side of the county, northeast of the city, in the San Gabriel Mtns. Rising just over 10,000ft, on a clear day it can be seen by six million residents. After getting a USFS Adventure Pass, I reached the TH at 3:45p. The first half is rather boring going through the local ski area, but above this the second half of the trail follows a narrow ridge dubbed the Devils Backbone which offers impressive views on the way to the rounded talus pile that forms the summit. I summited at 5:45p, then proceeded to take an unplanned route down the much longer Village Trail. A friendly local helped drive me the two miles back up the road to my car around 8p. A towel bath at a Mobil station, dinner at Rubio's, then I drove further east past Redlands to sleep at the Vivian Creek TH.
Day 2: San Gorgonio Mtn
San Gorgonio Mtn, the highpoint of San Bernardino County at 11,500ft, is the highest of the Southern California highpoints. With 5,500ft of climbing and 16mi, I had my work cut out for me since I also planned to climb San Jacinto Peak in the afternoon. There was little water along the way, but enough to suffice, and I reached the summit at 10:15a, a little more than four hours after starting out. The views I found were the best in the whole region, covering in excess of 50mi in all directions. As is usual for summer days, LA and the surrounding communities were buried in a smoggy haze far below. I returned to the car at 1:15p, more than an hour behind schedule, but still plenty of time to catch the tram for San Jacinto. I wasted no time in heading for Palm Springs, and the easy route to the summit of San Jacinto. Unfortunately I picked the one week during the year when the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is closed for maintainance, and I was rudely stopped by a sign to such effect as I turned onto the access road. Drats. The much longer alternative route is located on the other side of the mountain involving another hour and a half of driving. Yes, there is the Cactus to the Clouds Trail that starts in Palm Springs, but it climbs 10,000ft which I wasn't going to cover in an afternoon! I considered other alternatives, seeing if it made sense to head to other peaks, but since it was already 2:30p, I called it quits for the day and took a motel room in the desert community of Banning.
Day 3: San Jacinto Peak
San Jacinto Peak is the highpoint of Riverside County, and lies about 20mi south of San Gorgonio Mtn, with I10 running east-west down the valley between them. In order to make up for missing this peak the day before I was up at 2:30a, on the road at 3a, and at the trailhead near Idyllwild at 4:15a. By headlamp I started up the Devils Slide Trail, with eight miles and 4,500ft of climbing to reach the summit. An hour into the hike I reached Junction Saddle where I could peer down on the lights of Palm Springs to the east. The sun came up in spectacular fashion over the desert shortly thereafter, and the views were splendid the whole way to the summit. It was 7:30a when I reached the top, and found it breezy and chilly, but excellent views. I jogged on the easier sections on the way down, and took a tumble that sent me sprawling for the first time in several years. No damage, I dusted myself off and continued down, reaching my car at 10a.
Hot Springs Mtn
From the summit of San Jacinto, I had seen a fire burning to the south in the vicinity of Hot Springs Mtn, the highpoint of San Diego County. I assumed that the fire was probably well to the side of the summit, after all, "What were the odds?" I thought. After several hours of driving to Warner Springs, I was confronted with the now obvious reality that the fire was burning within five miles of the summit. While I was off to the side of the road contemplating my next move, I read the guidebook more clearly indicating visitors aren't welcome unannounced on weekdays (the peak is located on the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation). Noting I had two strikes against me, I went for it anyway since I'd already driven this far. I passed two CHP officers on the road in (later I found they were supposed to be blocking non-local traffic into the reservation), and once inside the reservation I found the entrance kiosk unmanned. The guidebook-recommended road looked to drive right into the fire which was blazing close enough that I could see the orange and yellow flames leaping high into the air on a ridge to the east. Still no one stopped me, but then there wasn't a soul anywhere to be found, either. Driving into a fire because there was no one to stop me would not only be unresponsible, but very stupid as well. Instead, I drove up Lookout Road, a rutted dirt road that challenged both my low-clearance vehicle and my driving skills (which aren't much to begin with). I ran into a firetruck going the other way while still several miles from the summit. The firemen questioned me for several minutes before letting me go, though they cautioned I shouldn't really be there. Getting by one obstacle, the road soon got the better of me and I could drive no further. Two miles from the summit, but little elevation gain to make, I jogged most of the way to the summit. A huge, abandonned lookout tower crowns the summit area, offering fine views in all directions including the ridgelines burning to the east and southeast. I beat a hasty retreat, returning to my car an hour after I'd left it, and headed out.
Blue Angels Peak
Two and half more hours of driving through some beautiful San Diego countryside and I was in Imperial County, only a few miles from Mexico. Blue Angels Peak used to be called Smugglers Peak, and it's not hard to determine why. The land around the summit is littered with plastic water jugs discarded by illegal immigrants as they make their way through this dry, parched land under cover of darkness. The trailhead is an unassuming dirt lot off I8, on the border of the recently designated Jacumba Wilderness. The trail to the summit is but two and half miles, and by a combination of 4x4 roads and some cross-country travel I found myself at the summit at 4:30p. A hot wind was blowing in from the west, and I commanded views of many miles on both sides of the US-Mexican border. I headed over to the border to investigate one of the commemorative obelisks that dot the official boundary every few miles from the Rio Grande to the Pacific Ocean. No imposing fence like the 6-foot steel one near San Diego, a simple barbed-wire one is all that is found here. Easily broached, I wandered over to the Mexican side. Undetected by border agents, I then made my way back to US soil and eventually my car. I headed west on I8 all the way to San Diego where I spent the next two days relaxing with my family and in-laws.
Day 4: Santiago Peak
On the drive back to San Jose I decided to bag one more peak, the Orange County highpoint. Santiago Peak lies along the Santa Ana Mountains which covers about half of the county, resting along a ridgeline 20 miles from the ocean. I was up at 3a and at the Holy Jim Trailhead two hours later. Hiking by headlamp, I wandered up the trail which follows a creekbed for a mile or so before climbing north out of the canyon. Dawn came spectacularly, lighting up the high cirrus clouds that drifted above. The temperatures warmed quickly as I made my way eight miles to the summit, arriving at 8a. A monument to the frenzy of modern day life, the summit is crowned with a half dozen major telecommunication installations, each one sporting dozens of antennae, dishes, and miles of cabling. I spent 40 minutes wandering about the summit, taking in the views on all sides (which you can only get by wandering around outside the installations). On my way back down I came across numerous mountain bikers out for a Saturday morning workout. The winding, narrow trail slowed the bikes some, and I was almost able to keep pace as I jogged my way back down. After I got back to the car, it was a long seven hours back to San Jose and the end of the So. Cal. adventure. I missed climbing Santa Barbara's Big Pine Mtn, as that would take a whole day (31 miles RT) by the recommended route, and I was a day short on my allotment. But I'll go back down sometime in the near future to complete that one as well.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the tour was the greater sense of "the lay of the land" that I got from standing on nine of these highpoints. Though I lived in Los Angeles for 23 years, I never got the sense of the geography as I did on those four days, taking in the views of literally thousands of square miles. Despite my choice to visit in the heat of summer, the weather cooperated nicely for a remarkably enjoyable tour.