Ascent of Hot Springs Mountain on 2001-07-07

Climber: Scott Surgent

Date:Saturday, July 7, 2001
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Hot Springs Mountain
    Elevation:6533 ft / 1991 m

Ascent Trip Report

Hot Springs Mountain is the highest point of San Diego County, located in the north part of the county in the transition from the hilly highlands and the low deserts near Borrego Springs. The peak is located on the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation, a tiny reservation not far from the town of Warner Springs. Access has been restricted at times down to nothing, when the reservation decides no one can go visit. Apparently I was lucky when I visited, because not long after, they closed access to the peak for the better part of ten years.

My original plan this weekend was to fly to New Mexico, but when I got to the airport in Phoenix, all flights were delayed due to storms in the region. I stuck around a couple hours but when they announced that the plane we were supposed to take to Albuquerque was still sitting at the airport in L.A., I bailed, took the ticket credit, and went home, now with no plans. Thus, spur of the moment, I decided to drive west and visit Hot Springs Mountain, and work that around a trip to the beach and a short visit with my brother's family (and year-old niece) in Cucamonga.

I left home during the night to avoid the heat, arriving in the Salton Sea area around dawn, and driving up the steep grade above Borrego Springs in the early morning. I followed a series of back roads in the San Diego County hinterlands, getting myself to the entrance gate at the Los Coyotes Reservation around 9 a.m. I paid the $10 entrance fee and proceeded in.

All I had with me was the description of the hikes in Gary Suttle's California County Summits book. I tried to access a trailhead eight miles past the entrance gate, but nothing seemed to match, so I drove back to the gate, and tried plan B, which was to drive the access road that leads all the way to the top. The road was rough and I had hoped for a hike, but it seemed now I had no other choice.

The road is steep at first, and not in the best of condition. My stock 4-wheel drive Nissan did fine, but in sections the road was littered in rocks or very rutted. This went on like this for a couple miles, then once high on the ridge, the road leveled and generally followed the contours of the hillsides for another three miles. I parked where I found a pullout, still about two miles short of the summit. Although the road continues nearly to the top, I still wanted to hike some of it. Plus, the pull-out was wide and too good to pass up.

The hike up the road was easy, and in less than an hour I was at its end in a big turn-around, slightly below a derelict lookout tower. I walked to the tower and inspected it, but dared not climb it. But this is not the highpoint. The true highest point is atop a bare rock, surrounded by a thick blanket of chapparal and woody trees, all growing close together to create a formidable mesh.

Past visitors have beaten in a scant path through this woody mesh, but still, I found myself needing to hunker my shoulders in and squat down to avoid the scratchiest stuff. Momentarily, I was at the summit boulder. Looking for a way up to the top, I walked around, where I found a slit and a well-placed tree that provided enough holds to allow me to shimmy up 15 feet to the top. A concrete slab is placed here to mark the summit. I spent just a moment here, immediately clambering down and back out through the woody crud back into open land, where I then took a short break. Certainly not one of my more memorable climbs, but just the same, I was happy to get this peak. My one-way hike took me an hour exactly with 500 feet of gain.

The Los Coyotes band closed access to their lands (and the peak) for the better part of a decade, only re-opening it around 2010. As such, access may not always be guaranteed. Hot Springs Mountain isn't the most amazing peak, but it is a nice short hike and worth the trouble to come here.
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:500 ft / 152 m
    Round-Trip Distance:4 mi / 6.4 km
    Trailhead:6033 ft / 1838 m
    Route Conditions:
Road Hike, Bushwhack, Scramble

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