Summit to Sand

Stephenson Peak to Agua Caliente
(12 miles, +500/-5,000 feet).

Ever since I started going to Mount Laguna and Agua Caliente hot springs, I have wanted to do this trip.  Even though these two lovely spots are less than 10 miles apart as the crow flies, the topography of the area means you either have to go way north and around and south for well over an hour to drive between them.  In between lies the aptly-named Sawtooth Mountains Wilderness.

There is no trail connecting Mount Stephenson in the Lagunas and Agua Caliente in the Anza-Borego desert, and this is the reason it has taken me so long to give this trip a try.  Most of the hike is cross country down steep, loose, rocky cliffs or across hot, dry, dusty desert with tons of cactuses.  But that ensures that there is plenty of solitude.

As usual, MixMaster, BarnFinder, and I hit the road early to beat sunrise.

Sunrise over the Sawtooth Mountains

The hike started out above 6,000 feet, where it was cold and there were still a couple of patches of snow from a recent storm.

Yup, it’s straight down here

The view of the Sawtooth Mountains at the beginning was spectacular.

BarnFinder admires the Sawteeth

We carefully started picking our way through the brush and down steep, rocky slopes.

MixMaster adjusts his footwear
One of several rock slides
This is pretty cool!

On the way down, I accidentally dislodged a bowling ball-sized rock and it tumbled down the mountain towards BarnFinder.  He reacted quickly, allowing the rock to pass between(?!?) his legs, thank goodness.  However, the rock struck and actually damaged his trekking pole.

After about 2,000 feet of descent that took a couple of hours, we started traversing a ridge high above the wash below.  The dense chaparral made it slow going.

Our traverse through the chaparral

At the end of the ridge we were traversing, we had to go straight down a drainage with extremely loose soil.  It felt more like skiing than hiking.

Once we got down to about 3,200 feet, the trail flattened out into a gently sloping alluvial plain.

Time to shake the dirt out of our shoes

Soon we were crossing a desert plain with numerous cacti.

MixMaster, Barnfinder, and cacti
Cactus backdrop selfie

We eventually met up with an old jeep trail when we hit a flat part called “The Potrero.”  It was kind of boring, and I had trouble keeping up with my longer-legged companions.

Hey, wait up!
Ho hum

We stopped for lunch about 11am.


After lunch, we followed the road for a bit more, and then turned east to climb up to a saddle above Agua Caliente.  It got even drier and more deserty.

Puro desierto
Agaves, BarnFinder, and Ocotillos
Barrel cactus with some tiny hangers-on
View up toward the saddle

Even though it is nearly winter, it was still pretty warm in the afternoon, and the last part of the hike was quite draining.

Now we have to climb?
Heading up to the saddle

The top of the saddle is at about 2,000 feet, so we still had another 700 feet to descend after that.  We followed a brushy wash down that was full of “jumping” cholla cacti.  BarnFinder and I both had to extricate ourselves from one of them, and I also got stabbed by an agave.

Picking our way through the desert hazards

Finally, we made it down to the Spring Trail, which was sheltered by palms.  It was a very nice finish to a tough day.

BarnFinder finds the barn

When we got to Agua Caliente we soaked in the hot springs there and played cards in our cabin.

We originally had planned to hike back up to Mount Laguna, but we decided this was enough cross country for one trip.  Tomorrow we will get a ride with BarnFinder’s wife back to San Diego (thanks Laurie!).


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