Hiking, backpacking, and camping throughout Southern California and beyond

Whale Peak - Peak #60 - Sometimes things don't go as planned

Whale Peak Summit Sign Whale Peak Elevation: 5,350′ Total Mileage: ~10

Trailhead Map (33.05165, -116.36605)

This hike was supposed to be a grand day of hiking involving up to six Southern California bloggers. I was supposed to be the knowledgeable host, guiding my guests around the San Diego backcountry. I had hand-picked two hikes to show two distinct regions of San Diego to my guests from the north.

However, hiking is all about being flexible and taking whatever comes your way with a smile, and sometimes, a sigh.

It all started with a simple tweet. I tweeted a picture from one of my hikes and Casey (@ModernHiker) tweeted back that he should come hiking in San Diego. I tweeted back that it was a great idea and we should calendar it or it would never happen. Then Kolby (@TheHikeGuy),Jeff (@SoCalHiker), Peter (@ADKinLA) and Kam (@CampfireChic) all got into the mix. The SoCal Hiking Blogger Summit, as Kolby called it.

Then Kolby lost his job and decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail all the way through. Understandably, he had some planning to do. Casey and Kam also had other plans get in the way, and we all know that feeling.

So it ended up being Jeff, Peter, and I to meet and hike in San Diego. The plan was to meet and drive out to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park together, hike Whale Peak, a short 4-mile hike with 1,500’ of gain. Then we were to drive back towards Julian for an easy stroll to Volcan Mountain.

And then have apple pie.

The first hitch in our plan came when rocks appeared in the dirt road on the way to the trailhead. If I had more experience driving over this type of terrain and had an experienced spotter, I probably could have made it all the way through. I simply could not gamble on getting stuck way out there, so I pulled over and decided to walk it from that spot. There was a great place to park, so others had definitely had the same idea. I estimated that this would add a few miles of mostly level dirt road onto the hike. No problem.

It had been about 64F at the trailhead, which was a large difference from 26F from last week elsewhere in the park. This day was destined to be warmer than last weekend.

The Dirt Road

Hiking the road to Whale Peak

While doing research for the hike, a trip report I read had stated, “A spur road going south from the saddle ends at the foot of a ravine that will be your starting point for the hike.” Leaving the car just below the saddle, we hiked up until we reached the saddle and started hiking downhill for a bit. Sure enough, a spur road led south. I confidently pointed us in that direction as the day warmed up. We hiked up a wash, seeing a light trail that soon petered out. I scanned the area, looking for the tell-tale cairns that should be marking the way, but saw nothing. The area leveled out, like the trip reports indicated.

I checked my GPS app and checked my TOPO maps, but, not knowing that the spur road we had taken was not on these maps, felt confident that we were in the right spot, as the landmarks seemed to line up. We just needed to hike further south and then make a right. Soon the level area ended and we were simply bushwhacking on the steep side of a mountain in the desert. We passed a skull of an animal that wasn't very lucky. I stopped again and again, checking the map until I realized that we had taken the wrong spur road and therefore the wrong wash. No problem.

What trail? No Problem

The Skull

We had progressed too far to turn back, so we decided to go up and over the top of the hill. As most hikers know, what looks like the top is rarely the top, so what seemed like what would be a 5 minute scramble up the side turned out to be a 20 minute gasping affair. By this time, I knew exactly where we were and how to get back to where we needed to be. We came back down the other side, not without becoming friends with the local cactus, who stung us, leaving a burning sensation long after the encounter.

We scrambled down to a wash that led us back north until we saw some cairns and a clearly defined trail that would lead us roughly southeast to Whale Peak. We had already gone 2.65 grueling, unnecessary miles, but we were overjoyed, tired of bushwhacking at our own peril and quickly trotted up the trail in this sandy valley. The trail, although branching in several spots was littered with cairns and hard to miss.

A Trail! We were elated.

Whale Peak - At least the base of it

We crossed the valley and took a right at a trail crossing. The trail led us directly up the side of the valley wall and down southwest into another sandy flat spot before again starting to ascend over one of several ridges to come. We kept going upward until we came across another flat, meadow-like area before starting to climb the mountain itself. I looked around and imagined camping in this little valley. There were some trees here and there, and with enough carried water, I could spend some time here, just northwest of the summit.

The trail from the little valley led steeply to a shoulder where we turned left and started heading up the western side of Whale Peak. We were watchful of cairns. They were all over the place, but if you keep going upward, you’ll get to the top.

After some steep switchbacks and some light scrambling, we were on the somewhat flat summit area. We kept hiking eastward until we came across a rock windbreak and the summit register. Also, there was an old peak sign that had fallen.

Jeff, at the top of Whale Peak

Whale Peak Benchmark

We spent some time up there, enjoying the view, swapping stories, and eating some food. We signed the register, took a picture, and decided enough was enough. We had agreed that this would be the only hike of the day and had Julian Pie in our heads. We headed back down with a little spring in our step, as the way down would be easier than the way up, right?

At the shoulder, Jeff explored a trail that lead to the west, but it didn’t appear to go north, as we had anticipated, so he came back. Likely this is the trail the leads to Blair Valley near the Ghost Mountain trailhead and the Morteros. We headed back down to the charming little valley and continued on our trek.

The View North, to where I was last week, Ysidro Mountain

We went at a good pace, occasionally looking back to see how Peter was doing. His knee was bothering him, but he was always within sight. The trail was fairly easy to follow, and I remember seeing a cairn off to one side, off the trail, and wondered why that one was there. As I was about to descend another ridge, I turned and looked behind me, I could see him, trucking along. We descended about 100 yards and stopped and turned around to wait for him.

He never came. We called his name with no response. I volunteered to go back and check. I got to the top of the ridge and looked back. Peter was nowhere in sight. I couldn’t believe it. I just saw him. I called and called with no response. I hiked back to the ridge before that and ascended that one. I called again but again was met only with silence.

I went back down to get Jeff, so that we could look together. It was at this time I felt a little unprepared, since we hadn’t agreed on an exit strategy. Meet at the car? Wait for each other? I don’t typically hike in groups, and, if I do, I rarely ever am out of sight of my hiking partners.

I came across that cairn I saw and knew it had to be the culprit. It had led Peter off into bush. Jeff walked a distance in that direction and bellowed Peter’s name again and this time we received a distant answer.

Peter was on the next ridge to the west, about to descend on the other side. If we hadn’t called when we did, he would have been out of earshot for a long time. He navigated back to us, and we were all happy to be reunited. Jeff kicked over the offending cairn.

We continued on the trail, following the cairns vigilantly, and within 5 minutes, were descending a section of the mountain that I did not recognize. It was clearly marked and we were following a trail, but, by the time we got to the bottom of the wash, I was certain we had not come this way.

Frustrated and tired, I consulted my compass, maps, and GPS app and determined that we were southwest of where we needed to be. We had descended too far on another trail and needed to hike up the wash if we were to get back to the large sandy valley where we saw our trail.

We reluctantly started huffing and puffing our way up the wash until we found more cairns. I climbed up a ridge to the northeast to get a look, but the ascent continued on beyond my sight. I was sure that the cairns to our right led to Whale Peak, but we just had to climb the ridge ahead to meet the valley, which while I later determined was technically true, but would have been challenging. While I was up there, Jeff followed the cairns going the other way and determined, using his “real” GPS (not an iPhone App), that this was the way we had come.

Before long, we were on another small sandy valley and up over a ridge that led down to the large valley. I recognized a cairn I had left on a prominent rock on the way up and knew we were on our way. We headed across the valley, this time heading toward the correct wash on the way out, which involved quite a bit of scrambling.

We made it to the correct spur road and hiked the 2.5 miles back to the car, which seemed like forever, but at least it was a wide dirt road with no cactus threat. It was about 4:00PM, 8 hours after we left the car. We had gone about 10 miles with about 3,000’ of elevation gain. So much for the easy 4-mile hike.

We were tired but in good spirits. The other two had two cold ones while I got the AC going in the 80F+ heat. We drove to Wynola and found someplace to eat. Over pizza, we joked about starting the second hike of the day (not very likely) and smiled about the challenge behind us. We did it and we had a good view. No one got hurt and we all had a story to tell.

After all, we are bloggers, you know…

The mistakes on this trip, while not fatal, were all avoidable. We never did get our pie…

Whale Peak Trail Map


Epilogue: Completing my 60th San Diego Peak, you'd think I'd have it dialed in, never making any mistakes, but each situation is a learning experience and each hike and new challenge. Below are some of the things I did wrong.

Mistake #1: Insufficient research. While I read several trip reports and poured over my maps, it still wasn’t enough.

What I should have done: I should have really nailed down exactly where I needed to be at all times. Google Earth showed the two spur roads while the trip reports and the TOPO and AccuTerra maps did not. I should have reconciled the topographical map in AccuTerra with Google Earth and the TOPO map before I left, since the AccuTerra map is going to be telling me where I am by showing me that little blue sphere of my location when I am standing on a hillside surrounded by cactus, not anything else. I also had some GPS files that I could have converted and loaded into Google Earth while I studied the way, which would have solved a lot of problems. Also knowing EXACTLY where the trailhead lay is an important detail to have.

Mistake #2: No Exit Strategy. We never discussed what would happen when separated and I am still not sure what the best strategy is. On other group hikes, there was either a clear trail or a definite line of sight so that any other hiker could never have gotten separated. I will research this for the best solution. I usually hike alone.

What I should have done: I should have researched for the best solution and had an agreed-upon plan for several situations.

Mistake #3: Peter had no maps, had little, if any, desert hiking experience, had some knee problems, and was relying upon me as a guide.

What I should have done: I should have never let him out of my sight.

Mistake #4: While I had a GPS app (AccuTerra Unlimited), it doesn’t have the ability (that I know of) to simultaneously create a new track while displaying my previous track, which would have clearly indicated the way we came. There was a part of me that didn’t want to stop and save my current track so I could view my previous one. I was inanely hoping for a clean track that I could post to my website.

What I should have done: Since the hike, I’ve learned how to edit KMZ files for use with Google Earth, so tracks be damned if I need to find a way back. I will stop and save and then load the old track so that I can see it relative to my current location. I will also research to see if the app can display both saved and current tracks.

I won't make these mistakes again.


Peak #61 - P1755 - Clevenger Canyon South - A Chair with a View

Bonny, White, The Thimble, and Ysidro - Peaks 58 and 59 - What a difference weather makes