Diablo Benchmark

Early in January, my friend Hans and I got together to “bag” yet another peak from the Sierra Club’s 100 peaks list for San Diego County: Diablo Benchmark in southern Anza Borrego Desert State Park. On the list, this is peak number 53. For Hans, it was a repeat ascent of course, since he has hiked all 100 peaks already.

At 750 meters / 2460 feet, Diablo Benchmark isn’t exactly an impressive peak – but it lies in a very neat area and for the hike, we combined the approach from June Wash with a hike into the upper reaches of Sandstone Canyon, making for a nice 7 mile loop with a lot of different impressions.

After parking the car near the end of the dirt road that leads into one of the side-arms of June Wash, we proceeded over a few ridges to get to the main wash, and eventually reached the saddle that marks the divide between the June Wash and Sandstone Canyon/Fish Creek watersheds, and made our way down into Sandstone Canyon. It is described as “one of the most spectacular small washes in Anza Borrego” and due to its relative remoteness, most people approach it from the north with 4WD vehicles or dirt bikes.

In fact, I had been to the lower parts of Sandstone Canyon before (blog post: Fish Creek Wash & Sandstone Canyon) but didn’t explore too much of it back then, in favor of sunset at Elephant Knees. The upper parts of Sandstone Canyon were all new to me.

Fascinating erosion in upper Sandstone Canyon, Anza Borrego Desert State Park, California. January 2019.
Fascinating erosion in upper Sandstone Canyon, Anza Borrego Desert State Park, California. January 2019.

It was a clear and sunny day with blue skies all around but down in the canyon, it was surprisingly cool. We found a nice spot in the sun and ate our lunch before we proceeded briefly into one or the other side arm of the canyon. Considering our goal to ultimately summit Diablo Benchmark though, we didn’t spend too much time doing that. I think I’d like to return, to explore more of these side arms, and perhaps cross over to the Mud Palisades – the approach from June Wash isn’t that far, and I’m tempted to think that after the further rains we had by now, it could probably have more vegetation and flowers in a few weeks.

Continuing in main Sandstone Canyon we soon came upon a very fresh rock fall that seemed to block passage even for the sturdiest off road vehicles (which would be a benefit for the upper parts of the canyon if you ask me…). We climbed across the debris and took another side arm, one that led us northwest, more or less towards Diablo Benchmark, which we had circled in our approach through June Wash and into Sandstone Canyon. In yet another side arm of this side arm that somehow lured me, I found one of the absolutely biggest White-stemmed Milkweeds (Asclepias albicans) that I have ever seen. Amazing!

An enormous Asclepias albicans (White-stemmed Milkweed) in a side-arm of Sandstone Canyon, Anza Borrego Desert State Park, California. January 2019.
An enormous Asclepias albicans (White-stemmed Milkweed) in a side-arm of Sandstone Canyon, Anza Borrego Desert State Park, California. January 2019.

We gained a little more elevation walking upwards in the canyon’s side arm and found ourselves a good spot to climb out for our ascent of Diablo Benchmark. The sparsely vegetated open terrain is easy to navigate, but the loose rocks and steepness of Diablo’s south side was a bit of a challenge. I just trudged uphill behind Hans as best as I could – trekking poles and knee bandages were quite essential once more. We successfully attained the summit and added our names to the register.

The summit of Diablo Benchmark, with the register in a red tin can, Anza Borrego Desert State Park, California. January 2019.
The summit of Diablo Benchmark, with the register in a red tin can, Anza Borrego Desert State Park, California. January 2019.

While the summit itself is probably not that impressive, the views are actually quite nice:

For the way back, we took a more or less direct route back to the car, first following a use trail that was probably worn in by Bighorn sheep, then down into a wash, where we made good time hopping over the boulders. Some Indigo bushes were in bloom here (they smell really, really good!) and it seems that ants collect the petals – what a curious detail:

Ants collected petals of Indigo Bush, June Wash, Anza Borrego Desert State Park, California. January 2019.
Ants collected petals of Indigo Bush, June Wash, Anza Borrego Desert State Park, California. January 2019.

Speaking of details: I had my macro lens with me and made a number of flower photos on this hike, which I shared over on my photography website, with a gallery of more flowers & plants from the past few weeks & months of the 2018/2019 water year (I already shared some on social media).

Coming out of the narrow wash where it met a side arm of June Wash around sunset, we found ourselves just one ridge over from where we had parked the car, easily made our way across, and oh joy, found the car exactly where we left it! 🙂 That was a great day.

I have to be honest though – it’s always difficult for me to combine the different approaches to photography on such hikes: on the one hand, I want to make more “documentary” photos, on the other hand, I’d like to focus more on the artistic part of the work. As a result, I’m often not entirely satisfied with either of the two! So somehow I need to learn to turn off my brain, be in the moment, and do what feels right at that very moment, without restricting myself. It’s digital photography after all – the only thing it costs is time… sitting in front of the computer, trying to make sense of the photos afterwards… 😉

Last not least, here’s yours truly, at the summit of Diablo Benchmark (bonus photo courtesy of Hans).

At the summit of Diablo Benchmark. Photo (c) 2019 Hans Wenzl
At the summit of Diablo Benchmark. Photo (c) 2019 Hans Wenzl

I guess I should have made my summit photo facing this direction! 🙂


This is my personal blog, and I am a professional photographer. Please respect my copyright. If you would like to use any of these photos, for whatever purpose (commercial or personal), you MUST obtain a license and/or written permission from me. More information on my page about image usage. Thanks.

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