Villager Peak, Rabbit Peak, Toro Peak, Santa Rosa Mountain
By: Doug Bear
The Santa Rosa Mountain Range, a peninsular range, lies southeast of the San Jacinto Mountains and west of the Salton Sea. Devoid of roads except for the Santa Rosa Mountain/Toro Peak area, most of it is as rugged and wild as it was 1,000 years ago. Trails are faint, few in number, and not maintained. The range is essentially a desert range, and except for a few isolated springs in the Toro Peak area, there is no water. This ruggedness and isolation are perhaps what makes these mountains appealing to some, and many of the peaks in the range are notoriously difficult to reach. Rabbit Peak, less than 7,000 feet in elevation, is considered by some to be the most challenging summit in California south of the Sierra Nevada. Until the late nineteenth century, the Cahuilla Indian Tribes lived here, but today, humans are only temporary visitors, for now the range is lr6me to bighorn sheep and mountain lions.
It was on a hike to 6,193' Combs Peak in San Diego County that I first conceived the idea of walking along the crest of the Santa Rosa Mountains. I remember taking a break and gazing across Collins Valley to the Santa Rosa crest. It was a beautiful line, and I wanted to experience it. So much was unknown to me. I had walked the first third to Rabbit Peak, and briefly visited Santa Rosa Mountain once. I knew it would be tough; little did I know how tough.
The first attempt occurred in mid-January of 1998. 1 backpacked over Villager peak to a point halfway to Rabbit. My pack was too heavy. The plan was to rest on Rabbit and melt snow with my stove so I'd have water for the long journey to Toro Peak. A winter storm hadjust passed over southern California so I expected plenty of snow on the north slopes of Rabbit. When I reached the summit I searched everywhere, not one flake of snow- it all fell as rain! The Santa Rosas had surprised me. From the summit of Rabbit Peak I gazed across those 15 miles of wild ridge to Toro Peak. I had just one gallon of water, and a heavy pack. It was getting warm, and I was beat. I shook my head; it was too risky. I turned back. I concluded that I had not thought this one through carefully enough. It reminded me of the first time I attempted to climb Rabbit Peak and was deterred. I had once again underestimated the Santa Rosas.
A year went by before I seriously entertained the idea again. Also, I wanted to put my own "spin" so to speak on the traverse. A few hardy parties had braved the ridgeline from Toro to S-22, but I hadn't heard of the reverse being done. Also, I wanted to walk out (not drive out) from Toro. My idea had finally taken shape: I'd walk from S-22 to Hwy. 74, following the crest most of the way. But what would I drink, how would I survive?
I knew from previous experience that I could not carry enough water to walk the Santa Rosa crest, and the snow was too scant and unpredictable. I would have to cache water. In early March 2000, 1 did the standard Villager & Rabbit trip (which involved only 20 miles and 8,000+ feet of gain) and carefully hid nearly three gallons of water en route. A week later, using the route outlined in Jerry Schad's book Afoot and Afield in San Diego County, I climbed Peak 6582' (called "Dawns Peak" or "Lorenzens Peak"). This peak was nearly as difficult as Rabbit Peak. When I got to the summit, there was snow everywhere! Those Santa Rosas! I carefully hid a gallon of water, some ftiel, and a 24oz. Silver Bullet. I staggered out of there (setting up the traverse was backbreaking work) and across the hot desert floor to my vehicle. I now had about four gallons of water cached. There was plenty of snow on Toro Peak above the 7,000 foot level, so I could melt snow when I got there. I now felt it was safe enough to try again.
On March 21, 2000, I parked on the shoulder of S-22 (elevation 950') and made some last minute pack preparations. I walked out into the middle of the road (my plan was pavement to pavement) and contemplated my fate. I could not believe what I was doing. I could barely see Toro Peak; it was so far away. I tried not to look at it. This hike would test my mettle as much or more than any other I had ever done. At 3:35 PM the sun dipped behind a cloud and I took off across the desert faster than a cheetah chasing a frightened antelope across the African plains. Actually, I felt more like the antelope. My plan was to get up high enough so I wouldn't have to deal with the hot desert in the morning. I followed the ducked route/use trail through the cactus gardens, and up to a nice flat spot at 4,320'+, arriving a little before 6PM. There I enjoyed a lovely sunset while eating dinner ' and laid out my sleeping bag (no tent) on a small flat open spot surrounded by agave (cacti). The temperature dipped into the upper 30's that night.
The next morning I was on my way at 7AM. I followed the ridge to 5,756' Villager Peak, arriving at about 8-30 AM. It was nice to be up, out of the desert and in the pinon-juniper belt. After an energy snack, water cache retrieval, photo, register sign-in, etc., I set off for Rabbit Peak just before 9 AM. A cool breeze felt good as I made my way across the 3 1/2 miles of undulating ridgeline. I reached Rabbit Peak, elevation 6,640'+, shortly before noon. There I retrieved my big two plus gallon water cache. I took a photo posing with it (not unlike a fisherman posing with a lovely trout). I was proud to be on Rabbit with so much water! I had lunch, and tried not to think about what was next. Up to that point I was on familiar territory. The next 15 miles were undulating, brushy, rocky, rough and forbidding. After lunch I put those 16+ lbs. of water in my pack (ugh) and exclaimed "this is freakin'nuts"! I put my sights not on Toro, but on Pk.6582'. This was less overwhelming. Fifteen miles may not seem like much to many people, but when you have a full pack and have just topped out on Rabbit Peak, they seem like 100! Around IPM I started down a very unfamiliar side of Rabbit, and headed northwest along the crest of the Santa Rosas. It was a little brushy, but not as bad as I expected. Along the way I saw many intriguing nooks and crannies where no doubt the Native Americans who once roamed this region hid water and had hideouts. This was wild country, an island of ;4ged mountains seldom visited by members of the surrounding megalopolis. I made my way, seldom straying more than 100-200 feet from the crest. As I was working my way up toward peak 617 F something blue caught my eye. Down below, about 0.25 mi. west of point 5853', was "some stuff." I whipped out my binoculars (something I really could have left at home!) and zoomed in. It must have been a research outpost of some sort, perhaps scientists studying bighorn sheep or maybe archeologists. There was no activity, and it appeared abandoned. There was a large "black container" that may have held water. I assumed the stuff was choppered in since the items were large and sitting in a big flat area. I thought about descending to it, but kept my focus and continued ascending. At around 5PM my legs were feeling unsteady and I was really feeling tired. I stopped at elevation 6080'+ (between the "U" and "N" in the word 11mountains" on the topo map) about 1.25 mi. east of Peak 6582'. It was around 5PM. I rolled out my bedroll under some lovely pinon pines and had dinner (instant pea soup, mashed potatoes, and a couple of bagels). I had a stove and lots of water, and felt pretty secure. That night was cool and windy. An owl hooted on and off for most of the night. That sound, and the sound of the wind in the trees was wonderful. The twinkling lights of Palm Springs and Indio belied the remoteness of my position. All that rugged walking had a soporific effect on my senses and soon I was in a hypnagogic state.
Early the next morning I was experiencing hypnopompic visions. With the wind had come clouds, which blotted out the stars and an owl hooted in the distance. I awoke well before 5 o'clock to a horrific thought. The storm that was due in on Saturday was accelerating, and I might get caught in it near Toro Peak. So I ate breakfast, packed, and was moving before 6AM. But before taking off, I took a photo of the resplendent sunrise over Rabbit Peak and the Salton Sea. Then I spent the next hour and a half bushwhacking (argh!). Sometimes the brush was so dense and tall that I crawled under it. I also climbed countless boulders to get a look at where to go next. Occasionally there would be a few yards of open ground. What a way to start the day! I reached Peak 6582'by 7:30 AM and retrieved my cache. I posed by the large cairn for a snapshot, and then seriously thought about retreating (descending to Clark Dry Lake). I had worked so hard to get to this point, but was now thinking of the possibility of being caught out in a snowstorm that night. However, I decided that quitting was not an option. The point of no return had passed, the show would go on. I added the new items to my pack and hurried along the crest. Toro Peak still looked so far away that it frightened me. My clothes, shredded and dirty, were beginning to show the desperation of my situation as I continued bushwhacking for at least two more miles. The going was slow and laborious. Finally, I began heading down to the low point of the ridge between 6582'and Toro, which is saddle 5400'+, and for the next three or four miles the brush relented. I was able to make good time along this section, and I found an arrowhead too. It may sound silly, but I made a pact with the Cahuilla hunter that if he guided me to Alta Seca, that I would place his point on Toro Peak. After passing saddle 5400'+ it became an unending series of ups and downs until Point 7280' (Alta Seca) loomed above me. I was dreading this part since it looked so brushy from a distance. From Peak 5999' there were two more drops (saddles) before I essentially headed northwest, straight toward Pt. 7280' for one steep mile. Above 6700' the terrain was once again quite brushy. I was wearing stout work gloves and blue jeans, so I just plowed through it, and because my pack jutted up above my head, I sometimes had to crawl under it on my hands and knees (ugh!). Finally, I was contouring (intensely bushwhacking) around the south side of Pt. 7280' toward an intermittent stream drainage when I spotted some large pine trees. I made a final charge through the dense vegetation and broke free to the intermittent stream where I ascended under trees to the 7200' contour. At 2:15 PM I was on Alta Seca (the "bench" that extends three miles SE from Toro Peak) at the large pine flat described in John Robinson's book San Bernardino Mountain Trails (Trip 96). It was surreal after the countless miles of brush. I was utterly exhausted as I collapsed under a large pine and guzzled a quart of water. I thought the bushwhacking was over, but above me was a sea of chaparral. I exclaimed "damn it!" and wondered if the brush would ever end, or if I was in some sort ol hell and would have to bushwhack forever! Nevertheless I crossed the pine flat to the brush, and spotted a ribbon then another. I was able to get through this section relatively quickly thanks to the ribbon and duck route and was soon in a lovely pine forest, this time for good Words cannot describe how happy I was to be in those pines. There were large patches of snow everywhere, so water was no longer a concern. It was beautiful. At 4Y PM I collapsed for good, next to a snow patch and jumbo boulders under some ponderosa pines at elevation 8000'-1 about 1/2 mile east of Toro Peak. My legs were shot. I put my 24oz. can of beer in the snow for chilling (was it eve good!) and started dinner. The clouds blew out and the sky had large blue patches. I was physically exhausted but my spirits were high. What a day! The low that night was in the middle 30s.
Friday, March 24th, I slept later than usual, then melted some snow so I could make breakfast. As I sipped coffee, I enjoyed the beautiful morning. Chickadees and little woodpeckers fluttered about in the tree above me. Snowcapped San Jacinto and San Gorgonio sparkled in the distance. It was a fine time. Around 8AM or so the sun had a little time to shine on the snow, and I headed up 1/2 mile with 700 feet of gain to 8716'Toro Peak, the regnant summit of the Santa Rosas. At one time this was an unspoiled, magnificent mountain peak. Now it had a road to the summit, which was littered with buildings, antennae, and junk. I delivered the arrowhead deep in a crack in the summit boulders, and tried to ignore the destruction and uprooting around me. Here, from the acme of the Santa Rosas, I looked down along the axis of the range all the way to where I started, nearly 25 wild miles away. It was quite a feeling of accomplishment. After a brief sojourn, I descended to my campsite, packed up, and started along the snow-covered road towards Santa Rosa Mountain. The next couple of miles were very delightful - just snowfields and pine trees. In the vicinity of Stump Spring Campground, deserted of course since the snowpack precluded drive-ups, I ditched my pack and continued along the road for another mile plus to my fifth and final summit of the traverse, 8070' Santa Rosa Mountain. Desert Steve's cabin is gone now (burned down) and all that remains is the bullet-riddled chimney. Unfortunately, some of the users of this area think of it as a shooting range and party spot. The ground is littered with broken beer bottles, cans, bullet casings, etc., and the summit rocks are covered with graffiti. It really is a shame. It's a living testimony as to what happens when mountains are rendered accessible to everyone, that when a road pierces a mountain, it ceases to be wild. I would not want to be in this area on July 4th. I returned to my pack about noon. I contoured around the northwest slope of "Stump Spring Campground Hill" on a snow-covered road (not shown on the topo), then descended the "RV" Trail (an equestrian/motorcycle trail) NE to Point 7210'. I then descended NW for almost 1,000 feet of elevation loss to the dirt road that ascends from Hwy. 74. This trail is not shown on the topo either. There was a running spring at the end of this road (converted into a trough for watering horses no doubt). There was also a large stone chimney here (the "building" shown on the topo map at the end of the road). I had scouted this route in a previous year and it's a good, or at least different, way to climb Santa Rosa Mountain. After resting and filling a canteen, I began my final descent back to civilization. I saw no one throughout the entire traverse, and was totally selfsufficient the entire way. Even though I was utterly beat, and experiencing the normal pains associated with such an epic journey, I was unhurt and in good spirits. The trip went smoothly and I was very thankful. I made my way down the dirt road, past the turnoff to the Dolomite Mine/ Cactus Spring Trail, and at 3:30 PM, 72 hours after starting, reached the locked gate at Highway 74, elevation 4000'. 1 went into the Sugarloaf Caf6 and bought some junk food, then rested behind a bush for a while (because people driving by were craning their necks just to get a look at me). A fireman out on a jog (there was a fire station across the street) called me out from the bushes. I was very dirty and wondered what he was thinking. But I produced my maps and showed him what I'd just done and he was impressed. We talked for a while, then he left. My gracious wife arrived just after 5PM (thank-you Sweetie!) and together, when the roadway was clear of course, we walked out onto Hwy. 74 and embraced. Pavement to pavement, mission accomplished.
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