To escape the general madness of the civilized world, the particular madness of the civilized world before THE holidays, and to counter the introversion-related overload from too many social commitments during this time of the year, I decided to try and “bag” one peak from the Sierra Club’s 100 Peaks list per week. In the cooler months of the year I’m choosing desert peaks, even though the longer drive out, the short amount of daylight, and sometimes also the weather can be a bit of an obstacle – my hike to Palm Benchmark one week earlier reminded me of that. 🙂
On December 14th, I hiked peaks #29 and #30 from the list – those are Peak 4614 at an elevation of guess what, 4614 feet or 1406 meters (also known as the high point of Pinyon Ridge), and Wilson Benchmark at 4586 feet/1397 meters. Bagging the two of them means I hiked 30 out of the 100 list peaks now.
I got a good view of Pinyon Ridge last year in December already, when I hiked Bonny BM, White BM and The Thimble, with my friend Hans, and from the elevation of these peaks you can gather that this is the high desert of San Diego County.
More accurately, the area is a convergent zone between chaparral, pinyon/juniper woodland, and high desert – a quite unique mixture of vegetation where Sugarbushes, Mountain Mahogany, Junipers and Cholla cacti grow happily together, with Penstemon, Solanum and other wildflowers in between, as well as Yucca, Pinyon Pines, and some Scrub-oaks.
For Pinyon Ridge high point and Wilson benchmark, one leaves Highway S22 at the Jasper Trail, just east of Ranchita (the same spot where we parked the car to hike Bonny, White and The Thimble). The approach to the starting point is actually described in Afoot & Afield San Diego County (trip 240, Pinyon Ridge), and the hike is pretty much the same too – except for the peak-bagging part.
In this approach, a big muddy puddle posed a bit of an initial obstacle. Mud is the worst, even for vehicles with four-wheel drive – which I don’t even have. To stop here and start hiking would’ve meant only adding half a mile, or perhaps a mile to the hike, of course. Instead, in a leap of faith, trust in my car and for some fun, I accelerated to gain good enough momentum, and “little blue pony” and I made it through (sending the dirt flying high into the air).
Most of the area had burned in the 2012 “Vallecito Lighting Complex” of fires, and in this harsh environment, it takes a long time until the vegetation really comes back. It is a real pity that so much of it burned in the “Wilson Fire“, largest of the lightning-induced fire complex.
The first part of the hike is rather uneventful. A hare jumps away with a few quick strides, then a big jump over an obstacle, its body stretched out in flight – such a beautiful rhythm and pattern of motion, power and elegance. A flock of Dark-eyed Juncos flutters from bush to bush. An odd and lonely Solanum is in bloom in mid December – which one? Perhaps Solanum umbelliferum? Some dry Penstemon stalks line the trail, probably clevelandii, but it’s hard to say without the flowers (note to self: don’t hike the high desert too soon after rains).
The trail is an old, partially overgrown jeep road, and it goes up and down through this sparse landscape of burnt trees, resprouting shrub skeletons, blackened yucca trunks and granitic boulders, before it finally gets close to the main Pinyon Ridge, hugging its north-facing shoulder. It’s time to leave the trail here and find a way up to the high point – a granite outcropping that looks just like all the others in an entire line-up here, except that this one’s a little bit higher. 🙂
I leave the backpack and trekking poles at its base and attain the summit with a short scramble from the south side. Protected from the elements in two red tin cans under a rock is the summit register. I add my name to it, make a few photos, then scramble back down to my backpack to eat my lunch and have a sip of hot coffee. It’s overcast and not exactly warm at this elevation, but thankfully, not too windy.
Since the vegetation is rather sparse, I don’t bother to find my way back to the proper trail from Pinyon Ridge high point, but instead loosely aim directly at Wilson Benchmark, to the east – which leads me back to the trail anyway. For many of the Pinyon Pines that were burned in the fire, all hope seems to be lost. It doesn’t look like they’re coming back, but on this spontaneously improvised route, I notice a few healthy ones on the southern side of the ridge. I decide to take a closer look after “bagging” Wilson Benchmark.
Wilson is a flat shoulder with more granite boulders and it’s easy enough to find my way up to its “summit”, marked with a weathered wooden stake (and the benchmark plaque of course). It’s a bit windier here so I don’t stay too long after signing the summit register. I drink my coffee and eat a snack, put on my windbreaker, and head back to check out those Pinyon Pines!
I find a very beautiful specimen growing out of an almost impossible to access spot, between large granitic boulders. I’m trying to get closer to get ahold of some cones on the ground – if you ask me, they’re one of the best smells in nature! (even though Scott Turner omitted it from his otherwise delightful “Fantastic Smells and Where to Find Them” article.)
The cones that I can reach are all full of resin and, sticking the cones into my face to smell them as intensely as possible, I of course get some resin on the tip of my nose – and childhood memories along with it… of hands sticky from the spruce cones that I used to pick up in naive curiosity as a kid, in Germany. 🙂 Satisfied with having obtained both a number of photos and smelled the cones of the Pinyon Pines (I’m hiking Pinyon Ridge, after all!), I make my way back to the old dirt road.
I pass through an unburnt patch of vegetation – mostly yucca, but also some tiny buckwheat and other bushes and shrubs. It’s a dense thicket of high desert vegetation, like a thorny, spiky miniature forest, and really beautiful. There’s hope and joy in seeing this – and sadness in the realization of how much more of it was lost to the fire.
On the way back to my car, at almost the same spots, the hare jumps away again, and the same flock of birds is still going from bush to bush! Funny. Some Mountain Bluebirds have come out a little bit further down the trail, also looking for a snack in the bushes now. I reach the car before the sun sets and make my way back, d(r)iving through the precarious mud puddle once more, now solidifying the need for a car wash… (note to self: don’t clean the wheelhouses on your driveway next time, do it on the street:-P)
All in all, I hiked just shy of 9 miles (because of the excursion to find the Pinyon Pines), and the total ascent was 1280 feet/390 meters. Would I hike this again? Maybe not. I liked finding the living Pinyon Pines but otherwise, the landscape is pretty damn barren, and a bit too depressing.
Here are my impressions. As usual, on devices with smaller screens just scroll down – if you’re on a desktop computer or a laptop with a larger screen, you can also click on any of the photos to open them larger, in the slideshow view. It’s best to switch your browser to fullscreen mode then – on most of them this works by pressing F11 (and F11 again or ESC to switch back).
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