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  • Writer's pictureDale Hill


Updated: May 29, 2021

Date: May 22, 2021

Distance: 6.91 miles

Total Elapsed Time: 6h 49m

Total Moving Time: 5h 15m

Summit Elevation: 4,144 feet

Elevation Gain: 3,245 feet

Trailhead: Hellhole Canyon Trail

Previous Ascent(s): November 7, 2020

Notes: Peakbagger Peaks - 2, Survey Marks - 4 (2 previously recovered)

Back to the Desert

Today's adventure was a change of pace for me in a lot of ways. I have spent the last several weekends hiking the "big hikes" in and around Los Angeles County to finish the SoCal Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge for 2021. They are absolutely beautiful peaks and just as I had last year, I pretty much ticked them off my list in order of ascending elevation, saving San Gorgonio, the highest Peak in Southern California, for last.

The trails, landscapes, views, and people I met along the way were all fantastic and I recharged my New England soul with lots of pine trees! 🤣 While out on those trails, I felt a strong sense of "the grass is always greener..." syndrome, feeling a little bit envious of my hiking friends that live in the shadow of those awesome peaks and can pop out to hike them with little to no logistical planning.

For me, each one of those hikes meant a ridiculously early wake-up call and at least a 2-3 hour drive just to reach the trailhead. Since returning to training clients in person at the end of March, my hiking activities have been limited to weekend hikes, not necessarily a bad thing, but the trails are significantly more busy on the weekends. As much as I love those hikes, I was ready for a break, both in the long commute to trailheads and the higher hiker volume on the trails.

It was time to get back to the desert.

Indianhead Mountain as seen from the Hellhole Canyon Trail this morning

The Hunt is On

Last year I was laser-focused on completing several different hiking challenges of various lengths, ranging from 3-Peak mini adventures to the epic San Diego 100-Peak Challenge. Of all the challenges that I took on, only one eluded me, the San Diego Sierra Club 100 Peak Challenge, I finished 91 of the 100 listed peaks before a pandemic-related dispersed camping ban (and the lack of a 4WD vehicle!) stopped me in my tracks.

Since the Sierra Club list was not an annual challenge there was no specific time frame for completion, but I thought it would have been pretty darn cool to complete both 100 Peak Challenges in the same calendar year. 🤷🏻‍♂ So while wrapping up the remaining nine peaks on that challenge is on my agenda this year, my primary focus is going to be looking for survey marks and the hikes that I need to do in order to find them.

In many cases, I will be re-visiting the hikes and peaks that I did last year as part of the many challenges I completed. If you've followed me for a while, you'll know that the early survey marks I found were just cool artifacts that provided the social proof that I needed to document my summit. I didn't know much about them, and other than the obvious ones located in plain sight at the summit, I didn't really seek them out.

However, the more I found, the more interested I became. I started researching the marks, the agencies that set them, and their purpose. My interest was morphing into a new hobby and the hunt was on! Looking for new and different survey marks was a lot like a scavenger hunt, using a combination of clues and intuition built on past recoveries, 'the hunt' added a whole new dimension to my hikes. While a new hobby for me, searching for survey marks has been around for a while, specifically, Geocaching and Waymarking have included locating "benchmarks" for some time.

LNT, Educational Rabbit Holes, and the Database

Unlike common 'collecting' hobbies (stamps, coins, etc.) collecting survey marks is more about documenting the find with pictures rather than retrieving and removing the actual mark. It is the perfect LNT (Leave No Trace) activity in that the only thing I take away are photographs, memories, and the joy of a successful recovery. Sadly, many survey marks (usually the customary brass disc) are vandalized and forcibly removed. FYI, removing or defacing survey marks is a federal offense punishable by a $250 dollar fine.

Survey marks have multiple uses, not the least of which is determining legal property boundaries. When marks are removed, new surveys are required which are expensive and time-consuming to complete. Additionally, many of these brass discs are considered "passive" stations in the GPS (Global Positioning System) which is just one part of the GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System). As used in this instance, passive means they are reference points of known (documented) latitude, longitude, and elevation that satellites can bounce signals off of. Active GPS stations are more complex and transmit regular signals that satellites can fix onto.

The part that I find most interesting about these marks is the history surrounding them (for example, see my post about the Michelson Station at the summit of Mount Wilson). I have learned so much about land surveying, land navigation skills, and regional history while researching the survey marks I've found.👨🏻‍🎓

The Database. Once I started really looking for these marks, I realized I needed a way to organize my collection, simply recording them on my social media accounts wasn't cutting it, so I created a database to catalog all my recoveries. With over 300 marks in my database, I can now find the details of a specific mark in seconds. Ultimately, I plan to learn the programming skills necessary to turn my collection into an easily accessible and shareable library for others to view.

The Hellhole Flats Loop

November 2020. I completed a 9.7-mile loop through Hellhole Flats with 4,264 feet of vertical gain, and 5 Peaks on my San Diego Sierra Club 100 Peak Challenge. I completed the loop clockwise and bagged: TED, WEBO, SIRENS PEAK, KAY, and ODE, in that order. The weather was pretty sketchy with high winds and rain forecasted throughout the day. My hiking partners opted out while others advised me to wait for better weather conditions. Not to be deterred, I geared up for the conditions and set out solo, pushing through the weather, snapping a picture of the survey mark or register cans at each peak to prove that I was there. Due to the weather conditions (and simply not knowing what to look for), I missed several reference marks on this trip.

May 2021. My original plan for today was to repeat essentially the same loop, search for the TED Station disc (last year I found RM 1), and recover the two reference marks on WEBO that I missed in November. Next, I was going to spend a little more time in the Flats looking for the TUCK Station and its Reference Marks. Moving on, I planned to bypass Sirens Peak because I knew there weren't any survey marks there, and beginning my descent, I'd grab the two reference marks for KAY, and RM 1 for ODE.

I didn't plan on pushing too hard today since I have a pretty good hike planned for tomorrow, but I felt that I could easily complete the loop and recover the marks on my list. Well, you know what they say about the 'best-laid plans..."

Headed down Montezuma Grade (S 22) I was totally like: "SQUIRREL!" 🤣🤷🏻‍♂️and was constantly stopping for Drive-By Survey Mark Recoveries (they'll be detailed in my May summary post) Needless to say I got a much later start on the trail than I had originally planned and I shifted gears to Plan B which reduced my trek to an out-and-back to WEBO.

Hellhole Canyon/Maidenhair Falls Trailhead

Reminder: Bring Lots of Water!

Parking for the trailhead is right at the bottom of the grade and is a Fee Area, you have the option of paying the Iron Ranger (self-pay) the $10 day-use fee, or using your California State Park Annual Pass.

With all the hiking I do in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, I purchased a Golden Poppy Day Use Pass ($125) for this year and it paid for itself in no time!

There are a few different trail options that originate from this parking area. Regardless of the route you take, you'll want to make sure you have plenty of water and sunscreen as all of these trails are exposed.

Trail option 1 - California Riding and Hiking Trail. Just after you leave the parking area, the trail breaks off to the South and follows the CRHT up out of the valley (turning North follows the CRHT to the Visitors Center). This Southern trail is on my list as it passes by the RASS Station at the 1.38-mile point. If you keep going, at the 4.58-mile mark and 2,686 feet of vertical gain, you'll reach the Culp Valley Primitive Camp. If you've planned ahead and left a shuttle vehicle at the top of the grade, you can continue on to intersect Montezuma Grade at the top with one-way mileage of 7.35 and a total gain of 3,703 vertical feet.

Trail option 2 - Maidenhair Falls. This is a 2.5-mile trip (one-way) that picks up 1,045 feet of vertical gain and follows the official trail from the parking lot to its terminus at the falls.

Trail option 3 - Hellhole Canyon Trail. This was my route for the day, the first 1.4 miles follows a well-worn trail across the desert floor before heading up the ridge towards the first milestone, TED. You don't have to look too closely at my GPS track to see that I missed my initial turn at 1.3 miles and inadvertently continued along the trail headed towards Maidenhair Falls 🙄

TED RM 1 is located right on the trail at about the 2.6-mile point, there's a register can and the marker is pretty obvious. I updated my photo from last year and added a "perspective" view from eye level.

My main mission for this first stop was to locate the TED station disc which was supposed to be 45 feet due west of the RM (follow the arrow!). I paced off 45-feet and poked around all the rock outcrops in the immediate area with no luck. I continued working my way outward 10-15 feet in all directions even though I knew it should have been located on the line made by the arrow on RM 1. I couldn't locate the station disc or solid evidence of where it was mounted, so it goes into the category of "not found" (and likely destroyed).

Up, up, and away!

Continuing on to WEBO was nuthin' but up, that unrelenting, ever-present UP. It's exactly 2 miles from the base of the ridge to the summit boulder at WEBO and I recorded 2,881 feet of vertical gain in my steady climb to the summit. It was a perfect day with moderate temperatures and a steady breeze, so I just soaked in the views all around me as I worked my way up.

Given the slope angle of the approach and the straight-line nature of the trail up the ridge, there were a few false summits as I made this ascent, however, reaching the final boulder field at the top is definitely worth the views, especially looking out over Hellhole Flats.

Since I already knew where the WEBO station disc was located, I made a quick look around the summit area and picked out a few likely targets where the reference marks could be located. Unlike with standard USGS Stations that provide exact distance and the geodetic azimuth to each reference mark, stations placed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rarely give direction and distance to the reference marks. However, I've developed a pretty good sense of where these discs are likely to be set. It didn't take long to locate both RM 1 and 2, prep the discs for pictures, and take my photos.

With my primary WEBO Mission Accomplished, it was time to have lunch and relax on the summit boulder. I'll admit for about a hot minute I pondered dropping down into the Flats and pressing on with my loop, the total mileage wasn't going to be that much more than a return back the way I came, but I knew if I went down into the Flats, I'd spend a fair amount of time looking for the TUCK marks, plus the descent from KAY down to ODE is gnarly steep. My mind was already made up, I would be heading back the way I came. Still, I was reluctant to climb down from my boulder and begin the trip back, seriously with these views, can you blame me?

Looking down at the Trail on the Desert Floor from the WEBO Summit Boulder

Relive® 3D Video of Today's Trek

All in all, it was a great day. I had recovered a lot of survey marks along the way to the trailhead and I found two of the reference marks on my list. Fortunately, I have friends that still have to bag these peaks for their challenge, so I'll have lots more opportunities to pick up the remaining reference marks I need.

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