Hot Springs Mountain: January 5, 2018


Looking down on the old fire lookout tower from the summit.


At 6,535 feet Hot Springs Mountain is the highest peak in San Diego County.  Cuyamaca Peak, which most people incorrectly assume is the highest, is actually 23 feet shorter.  Over a decade ago, Amelia, R, and myself were in the area and on a lark thought we would summit the highest peak!  We were so ill-prepared and uninformed that we didn’t even realize it was on an Indian Reservation.  But we pushed forward anyway until we finally got scared of all the signs telling us to get out, so we turned around.  Since then the three of us have been itching to do it.  For a while they were not allowing any access and at one point the tribe leased out 5,000 acres to an off shoot of the infamous Blackwater Security called Eagle Rock Training Center.  The Tribe eventually evicted them.

This time Amelia did all the research, played phone tag with the Ranger that grants access, and eventually connected with him.  The short story is once you enter the Los Coyotes Reservation there is a little ranger station.  You check in there, every person must present their ID, your vehicle must be a 4×4, pay $10 per vehicle, the driver leaves her license in exchange for the key to unlock the gate.  When you come back down, exchange the key for your license.  It all sounded simple enough so we planned a day trip and invited R and our friend Laurie.

We left our house at 7am and arrived at the ranger station around 8:20.  The open sign was hanging and we were all excited, soon we’ll be at the summit of Hot Springs Mountain!  No one was in the ranger station, next door there was a portable bungalow that housed the police station, no one was there.  So we tried the phone number we had, and could hear it ringing in the ranger station.  All we could do was laugh and then begin to feel defeated.  We decided to wait until 9 to see if a ranger would arrive, but I really had to urinate, and wasn’t about to do it on the Rez for fear of being arrested, so we drove down the hill off the Rez to a sunny warm spot so I could take a leak.  Right when I zipped up my pants an Indian dude and a chick pulled up in a truck.  She rolled down the passenger window and he said, “Hey, is everything alright?”

I walked the few feet to his truck, leaned in and surely had the look of amazement in my eyes when I saw how inked up they were and all the awesome piercings she had.

“Actually, we were hoping to drive up to Hot Springs Mountain, but there was no one at the ranger station.”

He laughed, “Just drive up to the community center, we just came from there, there are people there that can help you.”

“How do I get there?”

“You can’t miss it, just drive up the hill, you’ll see tractors on the left and the community center on the right”

“Cool, thanks!”

I went back to our truck.  The three of them had caught most of the conversation.  So back to the Rez!  Once we went past the tractors there was a big sign for the community center.  We drove down a steep little hill and in between the two buildings was a Tribal Police SUV with two cops in it.  We cautiously approached and told our story.  The two rangers/cops couldn’t have been more helpful, friendly, and nice, perhaps the best interaction I’ve ever had with a couple of guys that were armed.  They said to follow them back down to the ranger station.  We paid the $10 cash.  They asked for our licenses.  Ranger Rivers said they take down our names in case we don’t come down off the mountain, he said it’s been know to happen.  They couldn’t find the spare key to the gate, so we got a police escort to the gate.  They unlocked it, let us pass through, and then put the chain back up without locking the lock.  They told us to lock it on our way back.

The Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla and Cupeno Indians have the largest Reservation in San Diego County with 25,000 acres.  It’s an incredible piece of land and a beautiful drive to the top.  Two-thirds of the way up we entered a mixed conifer forest with Jeffery Pine, White Fir, and Incense Cedar.  There was one dicey stretch of road, but the Tundra handled it in 4hi.

The summit was amazing.  The views spectacular.  You could see Woodson, Iron, Black Mountain, Cowles, Fortuna, San Miguel, Cuyamca, Middle Peak, North Peak, Toro, San Jacinto, San Gorgonio, Santa Rosas, Salton Sea, Santiago, and Baldy.  With the binoculars you could see downtown San Diego skyline, Mount Soledad, and Point Loma. We had the entire mountain to ourselves, not a soul in sight anywhere, then two hours later, as we were all taking in the view to the north one last time, two fighter jets buzzed us, a mere 100 feet way.  It was like they were silently suspended in mid air within our reach.  It was dead silence until they passed and the sound caught up to us.  WOW!



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The red marker is Hot Springs Mountain


The sign says open, but it wasn’t.


Amelia with Ranger Rivers after he unlocked the gate for us.




The fire lookout tower is not the summit.  It was built in 1942.  It was the third and last tower on Hot Springs Mountain.  R and Amelia in the picture.


The Tank below the lookout


The girls relaxing at a vantage point


Lake Henshaw and way, way in the distance Black Mountain



In the near distance is Palomar.  The far peak is Santiago in Orange County.


My wife


The tall lump in the distance is Cuyamaca, Middle Peak, and North Peak.


A magnificent old growth Eastwood Manzanita. You follow the little orange flags to get to the summit.


Amelia and Laurie on the summit. There’s a concrete foundation on top which may or may not be part of the original fire outlook in the photo below.


I found this on  An early photo, date unknown, of the original lookout built in 1912. Thanks to John Robinson for providing this photo.  You can tell it’s the same boulder the girls are standing on.


A Reference Mark points to the Benchmark. Usually they are within 50 feet of the Benchmark.


The Benchmark was placed here in 1939.


These straps were definitely needed to get up and down the summit.


Santa Rosa Mountains


Lichen Fungi


R on the trail leaving the summit


Group selfie by R


The end of the adventure, Amelia locking the gate

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument: 12/30/2017-1/2/2018



Yes, that’s an Organ Pipe Cactus next to Amelia.


When we left MMRP, we intentionally took the long way to Organ Pipe Cactus through Tohono O’odham Nation Reservation on Indian Route 15.  It was a beautiful sad drive.  We’ve never seen so many roadside shrines (descansos) on one stretch of road.  There were dozens and dozens of descansos set up, many with altars, and at least three makeshift graveyards.  All told, easily over a hundred sites.  They were all colorful and beautifully decorated.  We really wanted to stop and respectfully check some of them out, but there was no shoulder or pull outs big enough for the truck and Airstream.  So we don’t have any photos to share.  It just seemed like way too many deaths to be all car accidents, so we started wondering if it was perhaps migrants that died crossing the border.  I couldn’t find any information on the internet, so I guess it’ll remain a sad mystery.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was established in 1937 by FDR.  It’s 516 square miles.  In 1976, the United Nations recognized it as a Biosphere Reserve and it still is.  In 2017, United States withdrew 17 sites from the UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserves program, so now we are down to 30 sites.  This is the only place in the United States where you can see large stands of the Organ Pipe Cacti growing naturally.  A pretty cool place worth checking out!



Twin Peaks Campground site 161 in the no generator section.  Five miles from the border.


New Year’s Eve sunrise, silhouettes of Organ Pipe Cacti, Ocotillo, and Saguaros


Arch Canyon in the Ajo Mountains


Bare wooden ribs of a dead Saguaro


Amelia standing between a couple of mature Chain Fruit Chollas


Bull Pasture hike


Bull Pasture, the mountains in the background are in Mexico


Are they trying to warn or scare you?  I guess it depends on you.


These water stations are set up by Humane Borders.


Over 3,000 migrants have died in the Arizona desert since 1999.


The fence that separates USA and Mexico.  The Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument southern boundary is the border.


Not car problems, Packrat, aka white-throated wood rat problems.  The park recommends leaving your hood open so they don’t nest in your engine compartment.  It was pretty funny walking the campground loop and seeing everyone’s hood open.


Forget the ball drop at Times Square, we said goodbye to 2017 with an incredible sunset.  Late afternoon I began predicting to anyone that would listen to me that the sunset was going to be one for the ages.  It was a spectacular hour long show that was better than anything we’ve seen on Netflix all year.



4:42pm…this is when I knew my prediction was going to come true


5:19pm…progressing nicely









5:51pm…this is my favorite.  The blue just pops.




The iPhone takes amazing pictures, but it still struggles with moon pictures.  There’s just not enough light.



New Year’s Day 6:08am…Super Moon setting between two Saguaros


New Year’s Day 5:47pm…Super Moon rising over the Ajo Mountains


MMRP: December 25-30, 2017


Crazy late afternoon sky

Have you heard this one?  There are people that are afraid to take the I-8 between Phoenix and San Diego because of the Mexican drug cartel.  The interstate runs too close to the border.  The rumor is the cartel is on the mountaintops and has spotlights sending signals to each other regarding when to move the drugs across the border.   You don’t want to be on the road when it happens because they’ll kill you.  So the safe bet is to always take the I-10.   At least until the wall is built!

We rolled the dice and took the I-8 on Christmas morning.  At one point between Yuma and Dome Valley I thought I saw someone signaling with a mirror towards the border.  It must’ve been my imagination getting the best of me.  In less than seven hours we made it out to McDowell Mountain Regional Park (MMRP).

MMRP is one of the best campgrounds in which we’ve stayed.  It’s a well maintained, beautiful park with wide open vistas of the desert and surrounding mountains.  If you are in the south loop there’s so much space between sites it feels like you are boondocking.  Hell, we’ve been in closer quarters boondocking in Borrego.  It’s $30 a night and all sites come with water and power, no sewer.  The bathrooms and showers are very clean.  The shower is included in the price so no need to hoard quarters.  And I’m talking about hot showers (what’s with this cold shower craze all the health and wellness nuts are swearing by?)  The catch is the campground is always full, so you need to plan in advance.  And they are only open for six months.  It’s just too hot the other six months.

And now for the biking, because why else would we be there for five nights?  There are miles and miles of beautiful singletrack in MMRP and it connects to Scottsdale McDowell Sonoran Preserve, which also has miles and miles of beautiful singletrack.  It is fast, flowy, and fun, not the least bit challenging, but still very enjoyable.  My favorite was the Long Loop at McDowell Competitive Track.  Both areas were really easy to navigate because of the terrific signs at every intersection.

The weather in the greater Phoenix area, aka Valley of the Sun, is very pleasant this time of the year, just like San Diego, but a little drier.  Call me soft if you want, but I think Valley of the Sun is uninhabitable in the summer.  It’s just way too hot and I couldn’t imagine being a prisoner to air conditioning 24/7.

Every morning and evening the campsite was full of birds that we don’t see in San Diego. Coveys of Gambel’s Quail walking through our site.  Gila Woodpeckers and Gilded Flickers perched on Saguaros and Cardinals flying around.  We enjoyed our stay so much we tried to extend it, but all 76 sites were completely booked.  When Amelia turns 70 she’s going to do a 6 month camp host gig out there, she said I can come too if I want.


Merry Christmas from McDowell Mountain Regional Park site #43.


I never thought I’d be saying this but, kudos to Maricopa County.


One of the few sustained climbs


Amelia works in Escondido and my mom used to, so I had to take a picture.


Sunrise over the mountains.  That’s Four Peaks on the left.


The Queen of MMRP


McDowell Competitive Track has three loops: Sport, Techincal, and Long.  We did all three, Long was the favorite and Technical was not technical, but fun.


This is the entrance to Long Loop.  As the sign states, if you want to doinky doink around go over to MMRP.  This is a one directional, put the hammer down, and go fast trail.


Jackass Junction: you gotta love the skeleton wearing a Santa hat and flipping the bird.  The couple that doesn’t look like mountain bikers aren’t mountain bikers.  They are E bikers.


I love this kind of stuff.


Bike part art


Bring water, when it’s half way gone turn around…solid advice.


Amelia already put this on The Instagrams and Facebooks, kind of taking the wind out of my sails.  People on the trail with headphones, ear buds, or speakers are a big pet peeve of ours.


McDowell Sonora Preserve has the first no E bikes sign I’ve seen.  They allow them at MMRP.


Typical singletrack


A fun section on Rock Knob trail


MMRP is a fantastic campground!