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  • Writer's pictureDale Hill

#95 - Sawtooth Mountain High Point

Date: March 19, 2022

Distance: 16.7 miles

Total Elapsed Time: 14h 59m

Total Moving Time: 10h 21m

Highest Elevation: 4,636 feet

Elevation Gain: 3,831 feet

Trailhead: North Indian Canyon Road

Previous Ascent(s): N/A

Simple, Not Easy

It is really amazing how often these words perfectly describe a particular situation or endeavor! Today's planned hike was to summit two peaks on the San Diego Sierra Club 100 Peak Challenge list, Sawtooth Mountain High Point and Red Top. Tip-to-tip, or as the crow flies, the two peaks are just under a mile apart, and once you climb the 1,200 feet from the desert floor to the saddle that separates them, it only makes sense to finish the job and summit each one.

The task was simple, hike 6.6 miles to the base of the mountain on mostly flat terrain, climb 1.3 miles up the boulder-strewn mountainside to the saddle, summit each peak, descend back to the desert floor and retrace our steps back to the vehicles. Simple. NOT easy.

A Walk Down Memory Lane: How It Started

I returned to hiking with a passion in 2020, starting off the year with the goal of completing my first SoCal Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge, any six peaks from a list of eighteen. I thought this would be easy enough as it was the inaugural year for the "San Diego Six", I could do the six hikes that were close to home. I completed the required six and had been bitten by the bug, I decided to keep going and finish all eighteen!

By the middle of March 2020, I had completed 10 of 18, however, my remaining 8 all had significant snow - I needed the appropriate winter hiking gear: sturdy/warm boots, microspikes, crampons, snowshoes, etc. I headed to REI to go gear shopping only to find the store was closed until further notice due to the pandemic. Bummed, I put my remaining 8 SoCal 6POP hikes on the back burner and started looking for nearby hikes I could do in the meantime.

Spoiler Alert: The National Forests would ultimately "reopen" in June 2020, and in the first two and a half weeks of June, I finished my remaining 8 peaks on the SoCal 6POP Challenge.

I finished all 18 Peaks on the SoCal List by Summiting San Gorgonio on June 18, 2020

March 2020 was a time most people want to forget as it marked the beginning of a long haul with a pandemic that disrupted our concept of normal. At the time I was a full-time Personal Trainer and Nutrition Coach working out of a local gym, my primary client base was mostly in the "at-risk" group as defined by the Centers for Disease Control (people over 65 with underlying medical conditions), so I went from a full training schedule to no clients - overnight.

Thinking that this would likely be a temporary thing 😷🙄, I embraced the forced time off as an opportunity to get outside more. I doubled down on looking for nearby hikes that would keep me busy, that's when I stumbled upon the San Diego 100 Peak Challenge, a list of 100 hikes in San Diego County compiled by Derek Loranger, a local hiker and business owner (unsolicited plug: if you're local, check out the Burger Bench on Grand Avenue in Escondido, the burgers are the freaking bomb!🍔😋)

Back to the challenge, it sounded perfect! The rules were simple, complete all 100 peaks within one calendar year, share your progress on social media tagging the challenge, be safe, follow the principles of Leave No Trace and have fun. As if that wasn't enough to interest me, I noted that only two people had completed the challenge within the calendar year timeframe, Susie Kara and Chris Griffith, and Chris had actually completed the challenge twice!

Energized with a full list of hikes to work on I set out on the challenge, choosing to begin with many of the remote desert hikes. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, in the early days, I tagged my social media posts with #antisocialdistancing (not because I was against the newly published social distancing rules, but because I could literally spend the day hiking and never see a single person!) Despite the naysayers that harassed me for violating the "stay at home" order, for me, it was the best solution to the pandemic, I was immersed in the sunshine and fresh air, I rarely, if ever, encountered anyone else on the trail, and the extent of my "town" interactions was limited to fueling up at self-service gas stations.

Alas, as time wore on and I worked through my list, I ran into more and more pandemic-related closures and restrictions that impacted my progression. I spent A LOT of time in contact with Park Rangers, local authorities, property owners, etc. to suss out the details of closures and sort out legitimate ways to access the trails. I wasn't always successful, but I was able to gain access to many more trails during that time than if I had not reached out for clarification 🤷🏻‍♂️ (moral of that story, it always pays to do your homework and ask the right questions, to the right people). In the final analysis, during the height of the uncertainty in the spring and summer of 2020, I only had one full week where I was unable to hike.

As I was entering the home stretch on the original San Diego 100 Peaks List, I made two new hiking friends, Jill Sells and Alberto Martinez, both needed roughly the same peaks that I did to finish their Challenge. On October 24, 2020, Jill and I hiked to Mile High Mountain (in the Santa Rosa Mountain Range) to bag our 100th Peak! It was a long day but incredibly exhilarating.

When I first found the SD 100 Peak Challenge List, it had made reference to a San Diego County Sierra Club 100 Peak Challenge List. Curious, I visited the local Sierra Club's website to view their list of peaks. I was pleasantly surprised to see that there were 68 peaks common to both lists, so it was a no-brainer to work on the two lists concurrently. The Sierra Club list tended to have more hikes in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and some of those were more challenging trails to access, several requiring a 4WD vehicle.

As you can see in the graphic above, when I completed Mile High, I still had 26 peaks on the Sierra Club List (it's called "San Diego 100 Peaks List" on the Peakbagger website). I continued to work on my list and by the beginning of December, I was finally down to single digits, I had 9 peaks remaining, I was SO. CLOSE. However, the remaining peaks on my list had logistical challenges, they either required a 4WD vehicle to reach the trailhead, or they required backpacking and an overnight stay. The list of nine was:

  1. Palm Mesa High Point

  2. Cody Benchmark

  3. Pike Benchmark

  4. Collins Benchmark

  5. Elder Benchmark

  6. Knob Benchmark

  7. Palm Benchmark

  8. Sawtooth Mountain

  9. Red Top

At the time, the routes that I had planned for the first 7 on the list all originated in Sheep Canyon, which in 2020 was only accessible with a 4WD vehicle. As an alternative, I considered backpacking into Sheep Canyon, staying at the primitive camp, and using it as my base camp to day-hike the various peaks. Sawtooth Mountain and Red Top had been completed as a day hike by other hikers, but the general consensus was that it was the hardest hike on the Sierra Club list. I began to see more hikers tackling as a backpacking trip, camping in the Inner Pasture at the base of the mountain, then day-hiking to the peaks.

When I had reconciled that I would be doing all of these as overnight trips, the pandemic reared its ugly head again and the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park shut down ALL campsites throughout the Park for the month of December, including the primitive sites (limited services) and dispersed camping (no services, just pitch your tent where you want). I was literally stopped dead in my tracks. There was no way I could possibly finish the Sierra Club list in 2020, at that point, I relegated the remaining hikes on the list to an "I'll finish them when I finish them" status.

On May 23, 2021, my hiking friend Gina Norte graciously invited me to hike through the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation (LCIR) to Palm Mesa HP, Pike, and Cody Benchmarks. Gina is the Trail Manager for the LCIR and an amazing Steward of the land. I was super excited because this would enable me to reach three peaks on my list without 4WD or a backpacking trip! As it turned out, that was a long day and I only completed Palm Mesa HP and Pike (👈🏻 click on the link for that trip report), but I was two peaks closer. Unfortunately the next week, I was doing a simple desert training hike on Memorial Day when I had a slip and fall, completely tearing my ACL and putting a damper on much of my 2021 hiking season. I would return to LCIR with Gina in November to bag Cody Benchmark and end 2021 with 6 peaks on my Sierra Club List.

But enough of the history, back to today.

Decision: Backpack and Camp or Day Hike?

For a few different reasons, I chose to attempt Sawtooth and Red Top as a day hike and was joined by my friend and hiking partner, Phil Yoho, for a 5:00 a.m. start. (Necessitating a 3:00 a.m. wake-up call and an hour and a half drive to the trailhead!) I'll grumble about the 0'Dark 30 starts, but the reward is always catching the sunrise from the trail. As a side benefit to night-hiking, time and miles seem to pass differently when I am hiking under headlamps.

As I mentioned above, many people have opted to approach the Sawtooth Mountain High Point and Red Top peaks as a multi-day adventure, backpacking to the base of the mountain and camping, then hiking the peaks on the next day. Access to the base of the mountain is a good 6+ mile hike regardless of the approach, either via a wash from the northeast and through the Inner Pasture, or as we chose, from the south-southeast from Indian Valley (Indian Gorge Road to North Fork Indian Valley Road). Depending on the exact routes taken, the full hike could range between 16-17 miles.

The hike is totally exposed, so during the summer months, extreme caution must be used to avoid heat illness. At the very minimum, this hike requires a large water carry, but I would recommend caching water ahead of time. I had 5 liters and ran out of water about 1.5-miles from the end of the hike, I clearly could have made it that remaining distance, as we were hiking after dark and the temperatures were mild, but I did accept an additional 500ml bottle from Phil just the same.

Segment 1: Indian Valley to Canebrake Wash - 6.8 miles, 828 Feet Elev. Gain

Panoramic Views of Canebrake Wash

For many, this could be an ideal day hike by itself, starting out on the North Fork of Indian Valley Road (GPS coordinates 32.856484, -116.274642) the trailhead is marked by a small cairn of 3 rocks. Take the S2 to Indian Gorge Road and continue for 4.3 miles on a dirt road that is in pretty good condition. The road is easily passable with a high clearance 2WD vehicle and there are only a few rocks in the road that might pose a problem to regular passenger vehicles without good clearance. Today, I didn't encounter any loose sand to speak of, but those conditions can always change, my Dodge Dakota did fine as it did in 2020 when I followed that road to hike the two Sombrero peaks.

The Hike

In the first mile, you cross over a low pass in the Tierra Blanca Mountains (elevation 2,349) following a narrow trail that is pretty well marked by small cairns, picking up 980 feet of vertical gain. From there, it's a similar descent into Canebrake Wash, then a pretty mellow hike through the wash to the base of the mountain. About 5 miles in, I did pause to look for a Section Corner mark, but only found an old wooden stake that was likely the witness post. The stats for Segment 1 (TH to the base of the mountain) was 6.8 miles and a net elevation gain of 828 feet. Continuing on, we took a snack break before beginning our ascent to the saddle between Sawtooth Mountain High Point and Red Top.

The Journey Up

I had downloaded a reference track to my GAIA GPS but looking back and forth between the track and the mountain, it really didn't seem to matter which way we went up, it was going to be boulders virtually the entire way up. From the bottom, it looked ominous, yet in an odd way, simple. With so many boulders, there was no single Use Trail to follow, you just had to pick your way up, around, and through the rocks. There is always the choice of following a ridgeline or dropping down into a draw, (I will usually opt for the ridgeline) but other than that, it was all about keeping our eyes on the saddle and making continuous progress toward it.

It's weird, the rocks will play tricks on your eyes. This didn't look like 1.3 miles from the bottom to the saddle, sure we knew we had some climbing to do, but I was surprised when I checked the stats for this segment. It took us 2 hours and 21 minutes to cover the distance, picking up 1,175 feet of vertical gain in the process. The kicker was that we knew, (strictly speaking), Sawtooth HP was another 600+ feet up and Red Top was about 400+ feet up once we reached the saddle!

Playing around with my GAIA GPS desktop App, I created these two views of our route, this is using the Satellite with Labels Layer in 3D mode to illustrate some perspective. I've added arrows to show our direction up to the saddle and the descent basically straight down from the summit.

View 1 provides an overview of the full range and our route

View 2 is full 3D mode and provides a better sense of the position of the saddle relative to the peaks

Decisions At The Saddle

We left a cairn for you 🤣

We reached the saddle at just about 1215 and took a minute to consider our options. The plan for the day was to bag both peaks, Red Top was closer and had less elevation gain, so relatively speaking, it was the low-hanging fruit.

It was tempting to bag the easy one first, but my philosophy when hiking multiple peaks is generally to get the furthest, highest, or most difficult one first, that way, whatever comes next will be easier work. 🙄 The bouldering route up to Red Top would be a challenge on par with climbing to Sawtooth, the only real difference being that it was a few hundred feet less in elevation gain.

Looking up towards the Sawtooth high point, it was clear that it was the more challenging option. The reference track I had downloaded showed a route that worked its way across the south face, just eye-balling it, that looked pretty sketchy. The topo map on Phil's mapping app actually showed a dotted line to the summit, the legend on the map calling it out as a hiking trail. We opted to loosely follow that trail from the saddle to the summit. The route wound around to the north side of the peak and went straight up from a small plateau.

As we worked our way up through boulders, I remember Phil asking me if I still wanted to hit Red Top after we did Sawtooth, "Absolutely, we're already here" was my automatic response. The thought of coming back and doing this climb again when we were already so close wasn't really an option in my mind.

Working my way up a steep rock outcrop on the north side

Attention Getter

Phil reaches for a handhold and the rock gives way

This route wasn't without its surprises, there were some tight squeezes, steep sections, and an unexpected slide that caught Phil off guard. We were pushing up the final 100 feet to the top, Phil was 20 or so feet ahead of me when I heard him shout out. I looked up and he was sliding backward down the hill, both hands on a small boulder that had dislodged! 😳 I wish now that I had framed my picture better because he (with the rock above him on the hill) came to rest about two feet before he would have been pitched backward into a Cholla cactus, likely with the rock on top of him. In the image above I circled where the rock was, and you can tell from the fresh dirt on the rock where it pulled out and rolled over, fortunately only flipping once, then sliding until it was stopped, presumably by hitting another rock.


It took us an hour and a half to work our way around from the saddle and climb up to the summit, covering just under ¾-mile with 794 feet of vertical gain in that time. We both agreed in retrospect that we likely would have been better off crossing the south face for a more direct route as indicated by the reference route, but hindsight is always 20/20.

We spent about 45 minutes at the summit, resting, eating, and deciding on our next move. It was almost 3:00 pm and we estimated that it would take us 2 hours to descend back to the saddle and summit Red Top, then we'd still need to return to the saddle and descend back to the wash below, likely another couple hours. We knew we'd be finishing in the dark regardless but wanted to cover as much ground in daylight as we could.

I snapped a few more pictures looking in all directions and mentally ticking off some of the peaks that I'd climbed; Monument Peak to the west, Villager Peak, and the Santa Rosa Range to the north, Carrizo Mountain to the east, and finally looking back the way we came, noting both Sombrero and False Sombrero to the southeast. The views were spectacular and we'd had a good weather day; cool temperatures, and a consistent breeze.

The Descent

In the interest of time, we decided to take the most direct route down, I had started the hike with my big knee brace strapped to the outside of my pack, up to this point my knee was feeling pretty good so I chose not to put it on before we started our descent. Phil led the way and we began picking between the boulders and working our way down. This was very much like the way up, mostly Class 3 scrambling over and through the big rocks with occasional patches of loose sand and small granite rocks.


About 500 feet down, I hit a sandy spot and my legs went out from under me as I felt my knee give way. 😬

I pushed myself back up, put some weight on my leg, then decided it was time to put the brace on. It's a process that involved taking off my gaiter and boot on my left leg, sliding my left leg out of my pants swapping the compression brace for the full-length cotton sleeve, then stepping into the brace.

The entire process took about 25 minutes to get the brace set properly and put everything back on. Standing up everything felt normal and I was back in business, I had no issues with stability or pain, and was happy that this little slip and fall wasn't going to slow me down any more than the time it took me to brace-up

I don't think we'd gone but a few minutes more when I heard Phil shout back to me from the other side of a large boulder "Is that you?"

Pausing, I heard the distinctive warning sounds of an agitated rattlesnake. I called back to Phil, that no it wasn't me, it was a rattler, but I couldn't see it from where I was. He must've backtracked a few steps and said he had it in sight. Seeing where I was, he let me know that I could continue the way he'd come and I could pass by the snake well outside of striking range.

Once past it, I could see it coiled in some dead branches next to a boulder, zooming in with my phone, I got a great shot of him (that looks like I was a lot closer than I actually was!🤪).

Back in the Wash

We hit the wash just before 5:30 p.m., not quite 12-hours after starting the day's hike and we still had 6.8 miles to go back to the vehicles. However this was an easy walk, we opted to take a straight-line, cross-country route trying to stay out of the soft sand in the wash as much as possible. It was nice to be out of the boulders and able to stretch my legs at a normal pace. We took a quick look back up the mountain and snapped a few pictures of what we just descended then set out through the wash.

The sun was going down as we turned left to head back up and through the Tierra Blanca pass so we pulled out our headlamps and continued on by taking the shortest path between us and the bottom of the pass. Phil let me take the lead and set the pace as we left the wash.

Fortunately, the trail up and over this pass was well marked with cairns, so staying on the route was pretty easy. Just before reaching the top of the pass I had finished the last of my water, I wasn't too worried as I knew we were only about a mile from the vehicles, still, when we paused at the top, Phil gave me a small bottle of water. On the final descent, I was tracking the cairns and as I moved between two, I slipped on the side hill, turning so both hands hit the dirt, I slide partially down the hill on my hands and toes (like a push-up position), right into a Cholla! I yelped out a few obscenities and scrambled back to my feet. Brushing the Cholla balls from the back of my right thigh and I carefully tried to pull out the more stubborn spines.

I could feel several that had gone through my pant leg and broken off. Damn. Breaking out a pair of tweezers and the first aid kit, Phil tried to pull out the offending spines, but they had worked their way in pretty good. I cleaned the area with antiseptic, and we put a gauze bandage over it, mainly so the spines wouldn't rub against my pant leg. It would be an uncomfortable ride home.

The remaining mile was uneventful and as we came over a small rise, the taillights of our vehicles reflected back the light of our headlamps. We reached the trucks at 8:37 p.m., just about 15 hours after starting the trip. This had clearly been a memorable hike! Sure we only bagged one peak of the two we set out for, but we have a lot of great information for our return trip to summit Red Top. 😉

And what's a hike without a good story or two, RIGHT?!? The bouldering was probably more amazing once we had it done and behind us 😂 I guess that's the true definition of Type 2 Fun - kind of sucks when you're doing it, but it's pretty cool when you look back at it. Phil had to deal with a dislodged boulder, and I took a couple of spills, one into a cactus, and of course, we saw the first rattlesnake of the season. For me, this was peak number 95 on my Sierra Club list and I believe it was number 73 on Phil's list. As always, it was great to hike with Phil again and catch up as I hadn't hiked with him since our January 1st ascent to the High Point Lookout on Palomar Mountain.

Relive® 3D Video of Today's Hike

The Relive® 3D video does a great job of giving an overview of our route. I do believe this was my longest single hike since I tore my ACL last year, so, despite the changes in plan and mishaps, today was a total win! Happy Trails!

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