|November 14, 2010|
Rosa (SDC #8, 5020') • w/Pyramid
Mile-High (SDC #7, 5340') • w/Pyramid
Villager (SDC #2, 5756') • w/Pyramid
The Santa Rosa mountains mark the northeast corner of both Anza Borrego State Park and San Diego County. They are among the highest mountains in Anza Borrego, and offer a great vantage point over the stark contrast of the Salton Sea. My first trip to Azna Borrego was to the Santa Rosas in 2007, a solo dayhike to Villager and Rabbit Peaks, and I enjoyed it so much that I repeated it the following year. Needless to say, I was looking forward to getting back there.
The San Diego peaks list includes five summits located within the Santa Rosa Mountains. Anna and I had planned to hike Palm separately, leaving us with Pyramid, Rosa, Mile-high, and Villager, all of which we hoped to include in one long 17 mile loop. With over 7000 feet of gain and most of it cross-country, I expected this to be the toughest hike we would do while working on the San Diego peaks list, though well within our abilities. This would also be the most challenging day Anna has had to date, and she was a little nervous about it but I knew she'd do fine and I reassured her so. The plan was to do the hike in a counter-clockwise direction, since I was familiar with Villager Peak and I could get us down in the dark from its summit without too much trouble. Without a trail, starting off before sunrise would have been less than ideal, but we'd start soon after.
Just across the S22 from the start of the hike, we crawled out of our sleeping bags while it was still dark outside. We'd set up "camp" on the side of the highway after yesterday's hikeand dinner in Borrego Springs. Originally we had just thrown our sleeping bags in the back of the truck, but after what must have been several hours of dozing off only to be repeatedly woken up by a huge mosquito buzzing in my ear, I finally set up the tent on the ground behind the truck. I'd never had a mosquito problem in the desert, maybe it was due to our proximity to the Salton Sea. I was slightly annoyed while we were throwing our stuff together, that I didn't get the good nights sleep that I had hoped, but Anna didn't seem to mind, about the lack of sleep, or me being annoyed.
The "side entrance" into Smoketree Canyon
Anna scrambling through the dryfall, the "side entrance" to Smoketree Canyon
Anna and I crossed the highway at 6:45am, bagel and cream cheese sandwiches in hand, and hiked a mile across the desert floor to the mouth of Palo Verde Canyon. Though we weren't going into Palo Verde, we were looking for a side entrance to Smoketree Canyon, headed towards what's labeled on the map as the Natural Rock Tanks. More specifically we were looking for a way to get onto the south ridge of Pyramid. This "side entrance" turned out to be well hidden, and I never would have realized it was there had I not known ahead of time. Anna and I ducked under a bush and climbed through a dryfall to get to an old Native American trail, which we found fifteen feet above us on the right hand side.
On the old Native American trail
We followed the Native American trail across Smoketree Canyon before dropping down to the Natural Rock Tanks. The "tanks" are large natural water tanks worn into a large rocky dryfall, a valuable source of water for the bighorn sheep in the area. The tanks were almost dry, but I imagined that this would be just about the driest they'd ever be, just before the rainy season. We continued up a steep slope behind the sheep tanks, and gained the south ridge of Pyramid Peak.
Anna on the south ridge of Pyramid
We continued north along the ridge, only straying from the very crest when cactus or a large rocks blocked the way. Though we certainly weren't the first ones to walk along this ridge, there was no evidence otherwise, and it was easy to experience a great sense of remoteness and solitude. We arrived to the pyramid shaped summit of Pyramid at 9:31am and signed in to the register, taking just a few minutes to cram down a snack before heading to our next objective, Rosa Point.
Nearing the summit of Pyramid Peak
The summit register on Pyramid, Rosa towering behind
Palm BM from Pyramid
From Pyramid, Anna and I continued along the same ridge towards Rosa Point. We did find bits and pieces of a helpful use trail along this section, though it seemed to disappear about 3/4s of a mile out from Pyramid's summit. After losing the trail, we contoured left around a bump on the ridge (though in retrospect I think the use trail probably went right), and we continued up and northwest until we were at a prominent point (~3800ft), staring down at the start of Rosa's 1800 foot long south ridge. Rosa's south ridge looked long and steep and Anna didn't seem to be too thrilled about it, but I knew it looked worse than it really was. Plus once we were on top of Rosa, we would have completed 2/3rds of the elevation gain for the day.
Anna on the south ridge of Rosa
The ridge leading up to Rosa's summit had a surprisingly worn use trail, allowing us to reach the summit with little else than an hour and twenty minutes of hard work. We found the register at 11:50 am, and thoroughly enjoyed the unobstructed views of the Salton Sea. We took a rather lengthy 20 minute break, each eating a packet of tuna with some crackers and taking some time to rehydrate.
The Rosa survey marker
The enormous Salton Sea from Rosa Point; California's largest lake at 14 miles wide by 35 miles long
An overlay of our route from Pyramid to Rosa
We started off with a bit of a slower pace on the way to Mile-High, perhaps feeling a little relief from having made good time so far. The ridge connecting Rosa Point to Mile-High took us over a few ups and downs inlcuding two prominent false summits, though it was less than 2 miles and 800 hundred feet of gain/loss between the two peaks. Anna and I reached the northernmost of four bumps on Mile-High at 1:56pm, where we found a register and again enjoyed views of the Salton Sea to the east. Mile-High seemed to have more and healthier vegetation than the lower part of the range, similar to what I had remembered from my previous trips to Villager.
Vegetation en route to Mile-High
A dead tree and the Salton Sea from Mile-High
The Salton Sea and Rosa Point (on the right) from Mile-High
From Mile-High, getting to the gentle ridge leading to Villager looked rough, with a 1000 foot drop followed by 900 feet of gain, all within a mile. We started to head down the west side of Mile-High, which turned out to be a very steep class 1-2, mostly consisting of loose gravel and hard packed dirt. I used my hands in a few spots to prevent myself from sliding, and Anna scooched down on her butt on the steepest sections. We took our second and final lengthy break of the day at the saddle between Mile-High and Villager, cramming in some much needed calories and looking for a route up to Villager's south ridge.
Looking back at Mile-High from the saddle between Mile-High and Villager
The climbing to get up to Villager's south ridge was much easier than the descent down the west side of Mile-High. The ground was solid and there was plenty of rock to pull on, and we topped out in just 35 minutes after leaving our break spot. Just by chance there was a couple who had chosen our top-out spot as their turn-around point for their hike to Villager. They were sprawled out on the nearby boulders, and we chatted for a minute before parting ways.
Climbing up to the ridge leading to Villager
With a well worn use trail on the gentle south ridge of Villager, the hiking was some of the easiest of the day, though it seemed to take forever to cover the last mile. We reached the summit at 4:25pm, and it felt good getting our fourth and final piece of the puzzle. I think we both took a sign of relief, with just the long and gentle descent remaining. We took a few minutes to enjoy the views and I was stunned at the overflowing summit register on Villager, which seemed to have a rather large increase in traffic over the last few years.
Looking back at Mile-High on our way down from Villager
It gets dark quickly in the desert, and Anna and I were only able to drop a thousand feet before we had to break out our headlamps. Someone had pinned dime-sized reflectors into some of the dead Yucca trees, something I'd never seen before, and their reflections in our headlamps proved to be quite useful. It seemed to take an eternity to get down to the desert floor though, and Anna had a borrowed headlamp that turned out to be pretty weak, adding a little extra challenge.
The sunset during our descent from Villager
After walking mindlessly downhill for several hours, we dropped down to the desert floor and walked the final flat mile to the truck, arriving at 8:15pm. It had taken us a little longer than we had thought at 13.5 hours, but we were stoked on our big day. You certainly couldn't tell by our sluggish movements around the truck though! Our loop over Pyramid, Rosa, Mile-High, and Villager, was less mileage and gain than hiking Rabbit, but it seemed to be at least comparable in difficulty. As far as big-gain off-trail desert hikes with great views though, the Santa Rosas are just awesome. We arrived back home in San Diego at 10:45pm, with a well deserved stop at a greasy Mexican restaurant in Ramona.
Pyramid/Rosa/Mile-High/Villager loop stats: 17.2 miles, 7200 feet gain/loss
Note: the green line may be a better variation on the ridge between Pyramid and Rosa