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  • Writer's pictureDale Hill

Third Annual SD6POP Done!

Updated: Feb 5, 2022

Date: January 29, 2022

Distance: 9.99 miles

Total Elapsed Time: 4h 54m

Total Moving Time: 3h 57m

Summit Elevation: 6,496 feet

Elevation Gain: 2,025 feet

Trailhead: Los Coyotes Campground

Previous Ascents:

  1. February 23, 2020

  2. August 21, 2020

  3. January 9, 2021

  4. August 21, 2021

Notes: Peak number 6 on the San Diego Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge 2022

Hot Springs Mountain for the Win!

Today I wrapped up my third San Diego Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge and it's the first time I've finished the challenge with Hot Springs Mountain 👏🏻😊 Today was my fifth ascent and one of my best days on this trail. Over the last three years, I have settled into a comfortable pattern with this mountain, tackling it in early January to check off the peak on the annual challenge, then returning on (or near) my birthday in August for a summertime hike. I really need to hike it in the spring and fall to experience it in all four seasons.

The trail is very straightforward, beginning near the campground at Los Coyotes Indian Reservation. The first couple miles follow Sukat Road as it works its way up the mountain to meet Hot Springs Mountain Road, from there, the dirt road winds through a wide variety of majestic conifers on its way to a clearing and what's left of an old fire lookout tower. Many people think the tower is the summit, but the true high point is a few hundred yards further to a couple of massive boulders.

The register is maintained at the base of the boulders, so if you have a fear of heights or don't like climbing up to the top, you can still sign in and bag the peak. Getting up on the primary boulder is really not that difficult, there is a section from an aluminum extension ladder lying against the boulder, and two climbing straps secured to anchor points in the rock to help with climbing up. You can check out my article Hot Springs Mountain from my January 2021 ascent to see more pictures of the summit boulder, ladder, and views from the top

The reward for scrambling up to the top? Amazing 360º views! There is a concrete pad set on top of the boulder, in the center of that is a rectangular hole with a U.S. Geological Survey Benchmark disc set in the bottom. Officially the benchmark is named VA6533 (for Vertical Altitude 6,533 ft) but it's commonly referred to simply as "Hot Springs" (PID: DX4968) There are also two U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Reference Marks set nearby. If you climb up using the ladder and straps, you'll pass right by RM 2 on your way up, RM 1 is located on a boulder slightly below and to the east of the primary station. Here are pictures of the three survey marks at the summit that I'd previously recorded in my database:

Going back to pull these images, I realized I need to update my photos of the reference marks 🤔, these pictures were taken on my early ascents before I standardized how I photographed each mark. When I document a survey mark now, I use liquid chalk to highlight the information stamped on the disc (as in the first image) and I take photos from two perspectives, the close up (as shown here) and one from eye-level to give a sense of where the disc is located. In all my trips to HSM, I don't think I have any "eye-level" photos of these marks! That will go on my "to-do" list for the next time I'm up there.

The Los Coyotes Indian Reservation has been doing a great job improving the Hot Spring Mountain trail, adding new signage, and creating two new trails. Túkwet (big cat in Cahuilla) and Pál (water in Cahuilla) trails are now open to the public. Both trails start and end at the trailhead board adjacent to the trailhead parking area of the campground. Túkwet trail loop is 2.5 miles, 507' elevation gain, and Pál trail loop is 2.5 miles, 483' elevation gain. You can hike them separately but they are contiguous for a longer trail option. You can visit the LCIR Facebook Page or their Hiking Page for more information. I'd also like to give a big "Shout Out" to my hiking friend Gina, the LCIR Trail Manager, and her team of volunteers for all the awesome things they are doing!

Perennial Favorites

When I look back through the photos from my various excursions up this mountain, they all tend to be very similar. There are just certain views that catch my eye, so it's not really a surprise that I tend to photograph the same areas year after year. For instance, just about 2.25 miles into the hike, there is this lone pine tree just off the edge of the trail, next to is a weathered and gnarled tree trunk. There is just something about the overall setting of the single pine that strikes me. As to the old tree trunk, I see a different face in it each time I pass by, today I was seeing a horse's head.

Sure, the lighting or weather conditions may be different, or I'm shooting from a slightly different angle, but it's like I'm seeing the view for the first time again. 🤷🏻‍♂️

My Trail Buddy George

Today, I consciously made a few decisions about the pictures I would take...and the ones I wouldn't. Most of today's pictures are staged photos of my little trail buddy Curious George 🙊🙉🙈.

Hi, my name is Dale, I'm 60 years old, and I carry a crocheted stuffed animal with me on all of my hikes (hmm 🤔 this sounds like an introduction in a 12-step program) 😂

Laugh as you may though, he's better company than many people I know. 😜 Usually he's tucked away in my pack (so I don't lose him) and only comes out for summit photos or perhaps to document a survey mark recovery, but today he rode in my Recon Kit Bag with his head out and eye on the trail while I scouted out photo ops for him, here's what we ended up with...

Thanks to Alma at Trail Threads for making George for me 🥰, you can visit her shop Trail Threads on Etsy to see more of her creations!

Delight in the Details

The other focus area today was to pay more attention to the details. It's easy to get caught up in the sweeping landscapes, the distant peaks, the big 360º views, but today I wanted to zoom in and look at the details. Close-ups and changes in perspective provide an interesting view of things we usually walk by and take for granted.

Now, I'm not a professional photographer, have never taken on class on composition, and usually struggle to hold my iPhone still (without my finger in the way) while I snap my pictures. But every now and again, I'll get lucky and capture the shot exactly as I felt it (if that makes sense) as was the case with these shots of Wolf Lichen.

As I completed the San Diego 100 Peak Challenge in 2020, one of my ancillary goals was to use my Seek App (by iNaturalist) and add five new observations on each and every hike. Most of my observations are plants, but additional categories include Fungi, Reptiles, Birds, Arachnids, Insects, Mammals, Amphibians, Fish, Mollusks, and the catch-all "other species". It's really a cool App and when I spotted this chartreuse moss growing on the pine trees, I used the App to identify it. Lo and behold, it was a new observation for me! This particular fungus is Letharia vulpina, commonly known as Wolf Lichen.

According to what I found on Wikipedia: "It is bright yellow-green, shrubby and highly branched, and grows on the bark of living and dead conifers in parts of western and continental Europe, the Pacific Northwest and northern Rocky Mountains of Western North America. This species is somewhat toxic to mammals due to the yellow pigment vulpinic acid and has been used historically as a poison for wolves and foxes. (emphasis added, who'd a thunk?) It has also been used traditionally by many native North American ethnic groups as a pigment source for dyes and paints."

Finding (Following) Your Heart

I do have certain things I look for on hikes, I love pine trees, interesting rock formations, and gnarled and twisted dead trees just to name a few. But to be honest, I never really used to look for hearts along the trail. At least not until I noticed many of my friends and fellow hikers constantly posting pictures of hearts ❤️ found on the trail. Basically, anything occurring naturally that is heart-shaped is fair game. Today's find was in the form of a felled tree along the trail (there were actually a couple of them that fit the bill) So for all my heart-loving friends, this one's for you 🥰

Almost there...

The entrance to the Summit Trail

It wasn't until I reached the clearing just below the remains of the Hot Springs Mountian Lookout Tower that I met other hikers, there were a few people going up to the tower to take pictures, and there were a couple of hikers hunkered down near the picnic table and the nearby information board trying to stay out of the wind.

I usually stop first at the tower for all those pictures, before heading up to the summit, however today I didn't even pause, turning the corner and heading across the open space to the entrance of the summit trail on the east side of the lot.

Given the popularity and traffic on this trail nowadays, the pink ribbon markers are probably not as necessary as they once were. When I hiked this for the first time in 2020, there were a few old ribbons in the trees and the trail was significantly less obvious. The image below is a screenshot from Google Earth Web that shows the last section of the road that leads to the lot just below the old tower, you can even see the initial section of the trail to the right of the lot.

From the lot to the summit is only about 250 yards on a narrow trail that immediately immerses you in a whole different experience. As you head east, you are presented with quite a few "Kodak moments" (am I dating myself here? 🤣) with spectacular views to the north. Naturally, the sights from the top of the summit boulders are amazing because you have unobstructed 360º views, but when I'm hiking this one solo, I like to step off the trail, pause, and just enjoy the views to the north from within the trees. This had an even greater appeal today as it was super windy and very cold on top of the summit boulders.

Quick Topo Tutorial

As you can see from the snippet of my GAIA GPS USGS Topographical map above, you're traveling across a small saddle between the lookout tower and summit boulders (blue arrow), when you are traveling within the confines of one contour, the overall vertical gain on that stretch is less than 40 feet, so pretty level. If you're not familiar with reading a topo map, the closer the brown contour lines are, the steeper the slope. The thin brown lines on this map are in 40 feet increments, so the distance between the bold, darker brown lines is 200 feet of vertical gain.

Looking to the west and north of the lookout, you can see that you're at the top of the mountain and those sides of the mountain are very steep, whereas to the east of the summit, you see more space between the contours indicating a more gentle grade. The green shading indicates denser foliage (trees, bushes, etc.), and lighter area with faint green dots mean sparser vegetation.

Summit Reunion

I heard voices as I moved closer to the summit, judging from the cars in the parking area and the few people I saw at the tower, I figured there had to be a good-sized group of folks at the summit. When the boulder came into view I was excited to see my friend and fellow challenger Riri on top of the summit boulder posing for pictures. As I climbed up on the boulder and greeted her with a big hug, I saw Yani and Eric there as well. I had originally met Riri and Yani on my first ascent of HSM in 2020 so it was especially cool to reunite with them today. It was great to meet Eric in person since I'd only seen him on social media. Their photo shoot was like a Hollywood production with Eric directing different poses and angles 📸🤣🎥🎬 and I was happy to join in and get these great photos with friends ❤️ As you can see, the ladies are a fabulous explosion of color 🌈while us guys are a little more muted and dialed back 😂

What you CAN'T tell from these pictures, is how stinking COLD it was up there! 🥶 I am not sure how long they were up there before I arrived, but I was only up top for about 10 minutes and my fingers were numb! I hadn't paused to put on my summit jacket, so the biting wind hitting my sweat-soaked base layer chilled me very quickly. I pulled out my Kestrel Weather Station, did a quick check of the conditions: wind speed 19 mph and a wind chill temperature of 31.5º F, then took a knee with the summit sign for a final summit picture before scrambling back down to get out of the wind.

I chatted with a few other hikers that were hanging out eating lunch before heading back towards the tower where I planned to have my food. Riri, Yani, and Eric had finished with their summit pictures and had already headed back to the tower for more photos.

I was originally going to eat my snack at the picnic table in the clearing below the tower, but the winds had picked up significantly and it was too cold to sit out in the open, so I headed over to an old concrete block hut not too far from the base of the tower to find shelter from the wind. Other groups were taking refuge on the leeward side of the trail board, but this old block building provided much better protection. I dropped my pack, pulled out my puffy jacket, gloves, and got ready for lunch.

It didn't take long to begin warming up and my small lunch hit the spot. I kicked myself for not bringing my JetBoil stove and coffee, a hot drink would have been just the ticket, but hindsight is always 20-20 and to be fair, I didn't think it would be that cold at the top.

I considered going over to the tower to get a few different photos, but as you can see from the image above, there was a line to get pictures 🙄. I decided I already have enough pics of the tower, so I geared up and started back down the road.

Descending PR

Just as I paid a little more attention to my trip statistics last weekend when I hiked El Cajon Mountian, today I was very surprised when I analyzed my numbers after getting home. Given my history of knee injuries (two torn ACLs with no corrective surgery), I am very cautious (and consequently, very slow) descending on steep slopes and anything that involves loose rock or sand. Today, I cruised down the mountain at what ended up being a record pace for me, without incident or discomfort with my knees.

Somewhat surprised at my total elapsed time today (4h 54m) I reviewed all of my previous tracks using GPX Editor. This program allows me to import a GPX file and analyze the GPS points recorded on the hike, today's hike had 1,280 individual GPS readings. I grabbed a screenshot from the program to show how I use the data. By identifying the GPS point closest to the intersection of Sukat and Hot Springs Mountain Road, I can select all the data points from that spot to the end, in this case, a total of 313 track points. Once selected, I can see the total mileage covered and the time it took me to hike it. I also use this program for getting precise distances for individual sections of a trail (that's how I know the summit trail is 256 yards long from lot to boulders)

From the parking lot to the end of Sukat Road is 2.6 miles, I went back through the GPX tracks from each of my 5 ascents of HSM and extracted my ascending and descending time for this 2.6-mile stretch. My ascending time was very consistent and averaged right around an hour and 23 minutes with a variance of +/- 5 mins.

The shocker for me was that I completed the descent today in about 50 minutes, my fastest time ever, and besting my previous PR by 7 minutes. Last year on my birthday hike in August, it took me an hour and 17 minutes to descend this same stretch, and I felt every bit of it, taking a couple of days to fully rest my knee and deal with residual inflammation. That attempt was my first REAL hike with any distance or vertical gain after completely tearing the ACL in my left knee the previous Memorial Day (you can read about that debacle in my article Coach Dale: 0 Desert: 1). Needless to say, I was ecstatic with today's results!

Relive® 3D Video of Today's Hike

BONUS Survey Mark Recoveries

With the holidays, work, a new year of the Six-Pack of Peaks hiking challenges, I've put my Survey Mark Scavenger Hunting (SMASHing) on hold. I had ended the year with 865 survey marks recorded in my personal database, not a bad finish to 2021. As I was driving home from HSM today I reached the end of Camino San Ignacio ready to turn onto SR 79 when I saw this bright yellow concrete circle near the stop sign. It was easy to spot the survey mark in the middle of it, so I threw the truck in park, grabbed my recovery kit, and added a new Agency to my growing list. This was the first survey mark I've found for the Los Tules Mutual Water Company, and these folks did this one right, it's highly visible and secure!

As is often the case, one recovery just makes me hungry for more 🤣 I did have a few potential recoveries flagged on my topo map that, for whatever reason, I hadn't completed before. Since I had time to spare, I decided to stop and recover those few remaining marks on my list.

Of course, when I recovered HPGN-CA 11-08 and its Reference Mark No. 2, I was sure I'd be able to find RM 1, however, I limited my search to what I felt was a usual and practical range from the station disc and came up empty-handed. When I was entering it into my database, I double-checked the location of RM 1 and it was about 50 feet from the station disc, outside of my search area. Oh well, I now have another pin dropped on my map and will recover that one the next time I'm out that way again.

A Fitting End

As I was scrolling through GPX editor looking for the track point at the end of Sukat Road, I had spied this, a heart-shaped trail that you'd only see from an ariel view ❤️ So here's a bonus Trail Heart for those who have hung with me and read this whole article. 😉 Perhaps this is the mountain throwing back a little love my way!

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