|November 11, 2010|
The San Diego peaks list has a handful of peaks that are best accessed by driving to the summit. While this sounds odd for a hiking peak list, keep in mind that part of the intention of the list is to “instill within climbers a sense of stewardship of the land .” Peaks like Palomar, Otay, and Tecate, ranking high in prominence (dominance over their surroundings) are rightfully included.
Anna and I took a day off of work to do what I called our SDC Peak truck tour. Since I knew we’d be driving a lot in one day, and that a lot of that driving would be over harsh terrain, and I get a swinging deal on rental cars, we rented an SUV to take the beating and let my truck sit this one out. The only hitch was that we couldn't pick up the rental until after 9am, so we'd be getting a late start.
We started off with Otay Mountain, a peak that towers over Chula Vista and is visible from much of San Diego. I’d been up the peak once before on a dual-sport (DS) motorcycle, and to be honest I wasn't looking forward to doing it again. The area is crawling with border patrol agents who I’m sure were unappreciative of my need to drive to the summit. On top of that, the one lane dirt road has some blind turns, and a close friend of mine witnessed a head on collision near the summit of Otay between a border patrol agent and another DS rider.
Anna and I stopped at the RV park on Otay Lakes Road, where the entrance to the road running to Otay's summit (labeled as the Minnewawa Truck Trail on my map) begins. A group of about fifteen DS riders were preparing to head up, so I asked them if they’d like to go first to which they graciously accepted. We took our time on the 5+ mile long road to the summit, which seemed to improve as we went higher, and was in good enough shape to be driven by most passenger vehicles. We reached the summit at 10:14am and stepped out of the truck to enjoy the views and take a few pictures. We only stayed for a few minutes, and passed a few border patrol agents on ATVs on the way back down.
Downtown San Diego from Otay Mountain
The view from Otay
Our next objective was Tecate, another cone-shaped peak, just half a mile from the border with Mexico. I wasn't quite sure how far we'd be able to drive up the mountain, but I expected to finish the last few miles on foot. From the turnoff for Otay, we drove 15 miles east. We followed the 94 and turned right onto onto Tecate Rd, following the signs to the border crossing into the brewery town of Tecate. Per the route descriptions, I had expected to find a dirt road to the right (west) just a quarter mile before the border crossing, but I was not able to locate it. Any of the few dirt roads that we tried either dead ended or quickly became un-drivable. I could see the dirt road running along the border fence that we needed to get to, so I drove closer to the border on Tecate Rd and turned right onto a paved road that passed a school (visible from Tecate Rd) and found our way. We literally drove alongside the border fence, cris-crossing a few times between parallel dirt roads to maintain the path of least resistance. The road was rough in a few spots and ground clearance was a big help, though 4WD wasn’t needed. Border patrol agents were spread throughout, and the area made Anna nervous but I didn't think it was anything to worry about. A friend of mine who had thoroughly explored this area on his dual-sport motorcycle had warned me that a gate would most likely block progress, but we passed through a few open gates and I saw our hike getting easier and easier.
Just as we started to gain elevation, we came head to head with a few large construction trucks, and I pulled over to let them pass. The first one stopped however, and the driver got out and walked up to my window. He warned us that his crew was doing major repairs on the road just ahead and that we’d never get through. I told him we’d head up on foot, to which he tried to dissuade me further, advising that we come back another day. In the end though our determination prevailed and he let us on our way.
Anna and I drove up and up the switchbacks, waiting to run into this disaster of a road we were warned about. Eventually we caught a glimpse of some fresh road work around the next bend, so we stopped the truck on the nearest pullout and left the vehicle on foot. We crossed through a 50 foot section of road that looked like it had just been groomed with fresh dirt, and around the next bend there was a large grader parked on the side. Three construction workers taking a break in the shade waved to us, and that was the extent of the “crew” and the roadwork that we were warned about. We followed the dirt road all the to the summit, and easily could have driven the entire thing.
The view into Tecate, Mexico, from Tecate Peak
The Tecate Brewery
The views from the summit of Tecate were awesome, and we could peer right down into Mexico. We were even able to pick out the Tecate brewery, very cool. We snapped a few shots and started back down at 12:10pm, passing one border patrol agent, and settled back in to the comfort of our vehicle. We drove back out to the highway, passing another 3 or 4 border patrol agents, and were on our merry way. Having been stopped by border patrol agents a few times on other near-border excursions, I was surprised that we hadn’t been questioned at all on this trip. I suspected though, that once one agent realized we were hikers, the rest of the team was notified via radio and left us alone.
Cuyamaca and Stonewall from Tecate
Combs would be the only peak of the day that did not offer the possibility of driving to the summit, and we were looking forward to getting some more foot miles in after the long drive from Tecate. Including a stop for lunch, it took over 3 hours hours to drive from Tecate to the turnoff onto Chihuahua Rd, though I never get tired of the drive up the 79 and through Warner Springs. We followed the excellent directions found here, and we were able to drive faster than I expected on the well groomed dirt road (navigable by passenger cars). The trailhead was easy to find, a signed junction with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), and it was interesting to see a large water cache left for the PCT’ers, helping to get them through one of the driest sections of the 2600 mile long trail.
Halfway into the hike, the PCT can be seen cutting from left to right across Combs Mountain
Starting off at 4:15pm, we were worried that it was going to be dark soon and that we would have a hard time finding the use trail that leaves the PCT and heads up to the summit of Combs. We booked it as fast as we could, heading north on the PCT and taking less than 30 minutes to reach the east slope of the mountain. I expected to see a cairn marking the turnoff for Combs but I began to worry that we had missed it once we seemed to be heading north of the summit. I had a hard time not leaving the PCT early and finding our own way, but patience paid off and we eventually found the use trail. The path was pretty easy to follow, and we watched the sun set as we scrambled the final 500 feet to the summit.
The view east into Anza Borrego from the PCT
Sunset from Combs
Once the sun had set the wind really started whipping, and we didn’t stay more than a minute or two on the top of Combs Mountain. We started back down towards the PCT, the path down being much more difficult to follow in the dark. We finished the rest of the hike with our hands in our pockets to keep warm, and made the roundtrip back to the truck in 2 hours flat.
It wasn’t easy to find the turnoff for forest route 9S07 (aka Palomar Divide Road) in the dark, but I had pre-programmed a waypoint into my GPS just in case. The road began at a dirt turnout on highway 79, and winds its way 13 miles up the mountain. We couldn’t see farther than what our headlights would allow, but the sharp turns and rough terrain prevented us from going very fast anyway, keeping our average speed at a miserable 15-20 miles per hour. Somewhere about 2/3rds to 3/4s of the way to the summit, there was one steep and deeply rutted section, and I bottomed the car out pretty hard trying to get through it. The oil light didn't come on so I didn't worry too much about it, plus getting stuck in the car for a night would make a good story.
The HPS directions were spot on, and we made it to just below the summit in a tick under an hour. We couldn’t believe how cold and windy it was when we got out of the car, and we had to bundle up for the ¼ mile hike to the summit, to which we arrived at 8:10pm. The summit of Palomar is one of a handful of summits in Southern California that has a fire lookout, this one being the tallest in the state. I’d really wanted to climb the up and inside of it, but the thing was shaking violently in the wind, plus a sign stating that entry was prohibited blocked the stairway. Okay really the wind was just crazy. Anna and I each took a picture of each other near the sign on Palomar’s summit, and I noticed that there was a barbeque chained down, minus only a bottle of propane. How cool it would have been to throw a barbeque on the summit of Palomar for our list finish?
Anna bundled up on Palomar's summit
Anna and I returned to the truck and made the long drive down, shaving a good 10 minutes off the time that it took us to drive up. We arrived back home around 11pm, a long and fulfilling day.
The next morning I did a sweep of the inside of the rental truck to make sure we hadn’t left anything inside, and I found a souvenir from the road on Palomar. This particular vehicle had storage compartments built into the floor where the rear passengers’ feet would rest, and one of the storage compartments had popped out. When I pulled out the plastic liner, I could see where the floor board had been smashed up into the car. I knew the floor was malleable, so I grabbed my sledge hammer and beat it back into place. The only remaining evidence was cosmetic and visible only from underneath the car, nothing anybody would care too much about. I returned the car 300 miles wiser (60 of which were on dirt), with 2.5 summits under its tires.
My driving route on Otay Mountain
Tecate stats: 4.2 miles roundtrip, 850 feet gain/loss
Tecate driving route
Combs stats: 4.5 miles roundtrip, 1200 feet gain/loss
Palomar stats: 0.5 miles roundtrip, 300 feet gain/loss
*-The Otay driving directions will get you to the start of the Minnewawa Truck Trail. The Tecate driving directions will get you to Tecate Mission Rd. Use my provided trail maps for the remainder of the driving route. The Palomar driving directions will get you to the beginning of the Palomar Divide Truck Trail, use the HPS directions (route 1), found here to complete the route.