|December 26, 2010|
Granite Mountain is one of the most recognizable mountains in Anza Borrego, and with the exception of Villager Peak, there is nothing higher to the east within the county. Anna and I planned to hike up the east ridge of Granite, the same route I'd done on my first trip to Granite with three other firends in March of 2010.
The "trailhead" for Granite
Leftovers from last night's rain
From the parking area just a mile off of Highway S2, we started west, dropping into and following the wide wash that drains the east side of Granite. We stayed in the main wash and followed a worn use trail, climbing over a few easy dryfalls until the wash split three ways about a mile from the truck. We took the right fork for just a few minutes, climbing over another dryfall, and started up towards point 4624.
A few hundred feet out of the wash below
Typical terrain on Granite
The light rain that blanketed Granite Mountain the night before made the desert sand heavy, perhaps making the going a little easier as we crossed over point 4624 and approached the steepest part of the hike. Anna and I didn't stop to look for the ducked route that I had found on my previous trip while descending from 5184, we just shot straight up into the boulder field, climbing a 20 foot chunk of rock about 2/3rds of the way up, and continued on towards the summit.
Just below point 5184
Anna and I continued along the ridge towards Granite's high point, following a bit of a use trail and passing a lone hiker who seemed to be moving very slowly. The last 150 feet to the summit took a bit of routefinding through stubborn plants and stacked boulders, and we did seem to have an easier time contouring to our right than I did coming up the left side on my previous trip. Just as we approached the enormous summit boulder, we crossed paths with another hiker, who was obviously frustrated with his partner when he asked us how far back he was.
Anna on Granite's summit
Signing in on Granite
It was chilly on top and the skies were overcast, but that didn't take away from Granite's commanding view to the north and east. I signed Anna and I into the register and we started down, passing the slower hiker, who was sitting on the ground, not much further than where we'd passed him on our way up forty minutes before. He seemed to be fit and healthy, just not too interested in moving very fast. He did look like sort of like a skinny Jerry Garcia, so maybe that had something to do with it.
I continued down with Anna close behind, finding an easy route down through the middle of the boulder field below point 5184, the fourth time and the fourth different way I'd been through it. Soon after we we noticed the hikers' tent that we had missed on our way up, tucked away around point 4624. We could hear an acoustic guitar coming from it, surely from the faster hiker that we had met near the summit. Seemed like a cool place to camp in the rain for some reason. Anna and I finished the hike back down to the wash and followed it out to the truck, grabbing a bite to eat while we peeled down the road towards the next hike.
After leaving the trailhead for Granite Mountain, we followed the 1 mile long dirt road back to county highway S2, and crossed it onto another dirt road, Pinyon Valley Road. We had driven down Pinyon Valley Road for a night hike of Pinyon Mountain just two months ago, and we had stopped and walked from a particularly rough section of road, not realizing that the road improved and was fine after just that small section. This time though we would drive it and hike Whale Peak from the north.
Whale Peak is another Anza Borrego giant, though more of a giant hump than the chiseled peak that Granite is. Whale Peak is rated as number 68 on the California prominence list, a measure of dominance over its surroundings. Not a bad rating considering that the Sierra Nevada is in California and is home to mountains over two and a half times the size of Whale. Anna and I had previously been up Whale Peak just last February, getting to the summit via a longer route from the southwest, and Whale Peak had actually been Anna's first off-trail and first desert hike. I think it was maybe just her 3rd or 4th peak overall, and I can't help but laugh when I remember that she had sworn the desert off after that.
When we reached the tough section of road that we knew was coming, I picked a good line, driving about halfway over the protruding slab of rock that was our obstacle, and got out to take a look. I was using just about every inch of the 12 inches of clearance I had, though a more skilled driver may get by with less (I did scrape both my frame and exhaust on the way out). We finished the drive to the north side of Whale, and what would be the most efficient starting point for Pinyon Mountain to the north as well.
Pinyon Valley Road below
We started up what we thought was the prominent gully described in Schad's book, Afoot and Afield in San Diego County, but in retrospect I think we started a little further west and did a little more gain than was necessary. The going was fun but slow, with cactus and rocky obstacles preventing us from reaching anywhere near our preferred pace. We did eventually find a use trail at about the 4600 foot level, and we were able to follow it the remaining half mile and 700 vertical feet to the summit. Having gotten a late start on Granite Mountain, we just barely made it to the top of Whale before dark, and had one of our shortest summit stays to date.
About halfway to Whale's summit
We stopped just long enough to put on our headlamps, eat a granola bar, and snap a photo before heading back down. We made it to just about where we had originally found the use trail at 4600 feet before we became completely dependant on our headlamps. It was impossible to retrace our exact route back to the truck in the dark, and though we knew the general direction we should be heading, we couldn't pick out a path more than 30 feet in front of us.
The sunset from Whale Peak
Off-trail hiking in the dark has its frustrations, but its an experience that I don't mind from time to time, this (eventually) being one of those times. We ended up doing what turned out to be some fun climbing through some huge boulders to reach the top of the slope that led down to the truck. While dropping down the final few hundred feet, we'd run into thick areas of brush and have to sidetrack but overall it didn't cost us very much time. Once down onto the desert floor, Anna and I found the truck surprisingly easily and drove off to find Indian Valley, where we'd cook a nice pasta dinner and set up camp in preparation for tomorrow's hike.
Granite stats: 6.5 miles roundtrip, 3200 feet gain/loss
Whale stats: 4.5 miles roundtrip, 1500 feet gain/loss
*-The driving directions for Whale get you to the turnoff for Pinyon Mountain Rd. Continue east on this road for the northern approach to Whale Peak (high clearance required). See the satelite view in Google Maps for help in visualizing the route.