Pico Risco is a rugged looking peak in Northern Baja California and is routinely climbed more by Americans than the local inhabitants. The peak is one of four mountains in Mexico on the Sierra Club’s
Desert Peak Section’s peakbagger list
and probably made the list due to it’s appearance from the hot springs of Guadalupe Canyon. The peak is located in the Sierra de Juarez Range, which is actually an extension of the Laguna Mountains in Southern California. The peak lies along the rugged east escarpment of the range and isn’t anywhere close to being the high point. From the summit, it’s obvious that the broad plateau that makes up the higher elevations of the Sierra de Juarez is roughly at the same elevation. Much of the range is located within the Parque Nacional de Constitucion 1857. The peak is also known by the name Pico Rasco.
Pico Risco from the campground (photo by Bob Burd)
Pico Risco can be approached from two directions: East Side and West Side.
The simplest approach starts from Mexicali. Follow signs to San Felipe (Lopez Mateo Blvd to Hwy 5) and take Highway 2 west for about 20 miles until you get to kilometer post 27. Take the west road for Laguna Salada south about 27 miles over a moderate washboard road. Turn right at the sign for Canyon de Guadalupe and drive west into the mountains for about 7 miles. The road severely deteriorates over the last couple of miles but is easily accessible to high clearance 2WD vehicles (note: my Honda Element with 7” clearance suffered some minor underbody damage). Follow directions into the campground(s), the starting point for the two eastern routes
These directions are provided courtesy of the Climb. Mountians.com
From Ensenada, go 25 miles southeast on Mexico Highway 3 to a signed, paved turnoff for the small town of Ojos Negros. Turn east (right) in Ojos Negros, and carefully follow signs for the Parque Nacional de Constitucion 1857 as the road goes east, then north. Enter the park, pass some buildings, and reach Laguna Hanson, which will be to the east (right). From Laguna Hanson, go north to a signed turn for Rancho San Luis, turn east (right) and go 4 miles to the Rancho. The Rancho gate is locked, and it is best to park your vehicle outside the gate. Walk into the Rancho, and introduce yourself to the friendly couple and their dogs. Tell them that you are there to climb Pico Risco, and it is a good idea to present them with a gift of food or clothes. There is no refrigeration at the Rancho, and in the winter months, fresh food makes a nice gift. Your gift will help those that follow you.
Looking back towards the hot springs
There are three typical routes used to climb Pico Risco, all meeting up at the sandy saddle immediately southwest of the summit area. From the saddle, hike up the remainder of the mountain to the summit block area. There are a couple of ways to proceed (starting from the southern end) including two keyholes or working your way around the east side. The final portion involves an easy “knife edge” finishing with an intimidating step across. Technical climbs of the vertical east face are also possible but lead to the slightly lower summit block north of the true summit.
This is a straight forward Class 1/2 boulder climb that ascends directly from the campground with unobstructed views of the mountain during the entire hike. Hike up the canyon along the nature trail until you hit the second waterfall. Climb the face to the south (left) to enter the gully that forms to the north (right) of the peak. Follow the steep, boulder filled gully up to the saddle and the final route described above.
Rancho San Luis Trail-head:
These somewhat confusing directions are copied from the Climb. Mountains.com
website and are a near duplicate of the directions provided in the DPS Guide:
Since Pico Risco is not visible from Rancho San Luis, and the desert terrain between the two points is confusing because of its homogenous nature, it’s helpful to have an intermediate landmark to navigate by on the approach to and return from the peak, so identify the large rock peak a mile away from the Rancho at a bearing of 94 degrees. This important landmark, visible from nearly all points along the route, will help guide you. With this in mind, hike east from the Rancho toward the landmark peak, following a ranch road that goes downhill to the north of a small wooden house. From the end of the road, take the northern of two trails, and continue downhill to the north. This trail soon turns east, crosses a wash 250 yards after leaving the Rancho and becomes more distinct. Look for ducks as you progress to the east.
When you get under the base of the landmark peak, turn north (left), follow a fair trail 0.3 mile down a wash, then gently up some open terrain to a small saddle where Pico Risco comes into view for the first time. You can recognize it by its sheer, rocky summit block, which is graced by light colored banding, and culminates a rocky summit ridge to the right. Hike north-northeast from the saddle, continuing on a good trail down to a sand wash. Hike 0.5 mile northeast down this wash to a place where the trail leaves the wash and heads east (right). This turn is marked with several ducks, but is still easy to miss, so look sharp for it. Leave the wash, hike 0.25 mile east on the ducked trail, turn north (left) into another wash and hike 0.3 mile north down that wash to the intersection with yet another wash arriving from the west. This point is northwest of the peak, and right under it. Your Class 1 approach is over.
The longer “Indian Route” also starts in Guadalupe Canyon but immediately climbs the canyon walls to enter the next wash to the south. If one can find the cairns that indicate the route, this is a more gentle approach to the saddle from the eastside. The trail eventually joins the end of the westside route and the summit is reached shortly afterwards. Doug Bear provides more detail in his report:
Basically, from the campground entrance, head east and cross the creek. Ascend a steep, loose (class2) bluff or slope and continue east to the sand and boulders wash. I would estimate this distance to be one kilometer. Follow the wash south, and pick up a well-ducked trail. It is well ducked and easy to follow (once you have found it!). We followed this trail for four plus miles to the plateau and saddle at approx. 4,500’. The summit rocks are visible (approx. one km to the north) from this saddle. From the saddle, we spotted a boulder on the slope to the north with a large white painted square (and cross on the other side). We dropped down 100 or 200 feet into a lovely sandy wash with pinon trees and walked beyond the painted rock above us on the slope, intersected the route from San Luis, then cut upslope 400 feet of gain to the summit ridge.
The “knife edge” below the summit (photo by Bob Burd)
Red Tape, Camping, & Conditions
No permits are required to climb Pico Risco. However, there is a $5/car fee to enter the National Park on the West Side. As this is Mexico, please abide by their rules. The simple ones include 1) bring your passport for reentry to the US, 2) do not take guns or any illegal substances with you, 3) purchase Mexican automobile liability insurance (either at the border before crossing or online), and 4) maintain a low-key posture while in country.
Camping is available on both the east side and the west side. On the west, the National Park maintains a small campground with minimal amenities. On the other hand, there are two private campgrounds in the Canon de Guadalupe that offer very nice camping accommodations. Although very pricey for camping, the campsites include covered concrete pads, firepits, barbecues, and private hot springs baths (for each site). The two campground are the Guadalupe Canyon Oasis
and the Guadalupe Canyon Hot Springs
. You should bring your own water for all camping options.
As this is the Southwestern desert, the best time to visit is from the late fall through the early spring. While you can visit in summer months, expect hot temperatures and bring lots of drinking water. Likewise in the rainy season, don’t be caught in the washes during a down pour.
Yours truly wimping out on the step across (photo by Bob Burd)
External LinksBob Burd's trip report
DPS trip reports
. Note that several reports are listed under the alternate name: Pico Rasco
Climb Mountains.com trip report