Summits: 1380

April 10, 2012

Agua Tibia (SDC #40, 4781′) • mapdirections

Eagle Crag (SDC #41, 5077′)

My  friend Philip Stinis called me up on Sunday evening, mentioning that he had business in San Diego on Monday, and asked if he could drive down early and crash at my place. When he asked whether I had any hiking plans in the next day or two, I laughed, because indeed I did. I had plans to do the longest (though not the toughest) hike that I would do while working on the SDC peak list, and though that may not have been what Phil had in mind, I knew he’d be game.

Phil and I met back at my place at 8pm on Monday night, threw our packs together and crashed early. At 10 after 5am, I walked out into the living room and woke him up, and we were soon on our way. It took us just an hour to drive to the trailhead, located within the Dripping Springs campground. The campground has been closed to camping for years, but the trail remains open. We paid the $5 day use fee, and walked to the southern end of the campground where I signed Phil and myself in to the trail register just before 7am.

Within a few minutes of getting on the dirt, Phil and I took a right onto the Dripping Springs trail where it intersects with the Wild Horse Trail, the latter being our planned return route.     The Dripping Springs trail was in excellent shape, and the views opened up to the north pretty quickly. We could see southern California’s big three, Mt. Baldy, San Gorgonio, and San Jacinto, all poking up into the sky. We cut through countless spider webs, flicked off two ambitious ticks, and gained 3000 feet on our way to the junction with the Palomar-Magee Trail, where we entered into thicker chaparral and pockets of oak.


Looking north from the lower Dripping Springs trail


The Dripping Springs trail


Looking towards Agua Tibia


San Gorgonio and San Jacinto over Vail Lake


The Dripping Springs-Palomar Magee junction

Once on the Palomar-Magee trail, or leftovers of it, the hike changed character. Thick vegetation was above our heads on both sides with frequent sections of fallen trees and light bushwhacking. One section of the trail was so choked by vegetation crushed by a huge fallen tree, that we were forced to crawl underneath it, almost down on our stomachs. For the most part though, we were able to keep a decent pace, and we began looking for a way up Agua Tibia when we reached an altitude of 4600-4700 feet.


Obstacles on the Palomar-Magee


Phil squeezing through

The Palomar-Magee trail didn’t go to Agua Tibia’s summit, and with near impenetrable brush, Phil and I sought out a use trail or obvious passageway leading to the high point. Just a tenth of a mile and northwest from our destination, we did come across such a weakness, and followed it as it zigzagged blindly through the overgrowth. We hit dead ends a few times, only to backtrack and try another way, eventually coming across a boulder with some rocks stacked on top to instill some confidence. Soon we came to a clearing and saw our destination, a few tall boulders on a rounded plateau, and walked right up to the benchmark and the summit register as the taller flora receded. Phil and I signed our names at 10:03 am, and took a lengthy twenty minute break in seemingly perfect weather.


Agua Tibia


Agua Tibia’s summit

Once Phil and I had our fill of idleness, we retraced our steps back to the Palomar-Magee trail, and continued south towards Crosley Saddle and our next destination, Eagle Crag.  This section of the trail was overgrown as before but without the fallen trees, so pace didn’t suffer too much. Bright-colored tags marked parts of the route, but it seemed rather unnecessary. We did notice pockets of Poodle-dog bush, which we avoided like the plague. A downhill all-the-way mile and a half got us to the leftovers of the sign that still marks Crosley Saddle and the junction with the upper terminus of the Wild Horse trail.


Looking towards Eagle Crag while descending to Crossley Saddle



One of the tags en route to the saddle, Poodle-dog bush on the left


More Poodle-dog bush


Just about down to the saddle


Crosley Saddle and the leftovers of its sign

From Crosley Saddle, we started back up hill again, this time on whats called the Cutca trail on the map. Lucky for us this part of the trail had seen some recent maintenance, with fresh cut branches along the sides of the path. Some larger trees blocked progress higher up, but they were few and far between. When we were just 400 feet shy of Eagle Crag’s summit, I looked for the gully as described in the HPS directions. It did have a large cairn marking its entrance, but it could be easily missed if one weren’t paying attention. There seemed to be footprints in the leaf-cover heading up either side of the gully, so I started up on the left with Phil just behind.


Looking east from the Cutca trail


The gully leading to Eagle Crag

Phil and I weaved back forth a bit but the climb up was rather direct. We reached what we thought was going to be the summit, realizing our mistake when we saw the true Eagle Crag, about a quarter mile to our north. Easily corrected, we dropped back down a hundred feet or so and crossed over the top of the gully, finding more of the bright plastic tags leading the way. It was impossible to avoid bushwhacking through at least small sections of Poodle-dog bush (PDB), which was out in force around Eagle Crag’s summit. One of the nasty plants was even tagged!  I’d brought gloves for the occasion but was too lazy to take off my pack, so I pulled out my collapsed trekking poles from between my pack and my back, and manipulated the plants with those.


Phil heading up the gully


Ealge Crag from our false summit

I reached the summit at 12:34pm with Phil just a few feet behind me, having taken a more selective route through the PDB. The landscape dropped off dramatically to the west, giving Eagle Crag’s summit an airy feel, with what probably would have been endless views had it not been so hazy. It was surprisingly cold and windy though, a precursor of the storm predicted to hit at about midnight.  I grabbed a cool shot of Phil checking out the views, and we slapped on our gloves to wade back down through the PDB.


Phil nearing Eagle Crag’s summit


Eagle Crag

Once back down to Crosley Saddle, we started the long descent down the Wildhorse Trail. The upper trail, obvious leftovers from an old road, was incredibly scenic with deep gouges to peer down into and frequent sections of oak and shade. We crossed flowing water several times along the trail, though I’m sure that’s not the norm. After crossing the dirt road heading towards the Crosley homestead, we covered a few annoying miles of slight incline, before descending again into brushier conditions near and around Wild Horse Peak.


Descending the Wild Horse Trail


Water on the Wild Horse trail

It was around the north side of Wild Horse Peak that I noticed Phil wasn’t behind me anymore. I figured he must have stopped for a snack or something, so I did the same. Then I played around with my GPS, studied the map, and quenched my thirst. When Phil still wasn’t in sight, I went back, yelling his name, until I finally heard him respond after I’d been walking for five or ten minutes. He’d somehow gotten off the trail and had been thrashing around in the brush. With the sound of my voice he was able to relocate the trail, and we continued on towards the truck with Phil volunteering to take the lead.


Phil leading through the brush on the Wild Horse trail

As the trail nears the trailhead, it hugs the many nooks and crannies around the north side of Wild Horse Peak, with a few ups and downs thrown in to make sure you’re paying attention. The last few miles were almost comical, in that we probably covered a mile by air with two miles of walking, and no loss of elevation.  In retrospect, it may have been faster to drop down to the creek bed below, but I’m saying that from home while looking at the map, so that’s just a theory. We reached the campground at 5:35pm with sore feet and empty stomachs but otherwise unscathed. Phil thanked me for the long outing and I returned with gratitude for the company. We noticed that Agua Tibia was socked in with thick clouds during our drive out, and we grabbed a few tacos in Temecula before the lazy drive home, satisfied with the days adventure.


Agua Tibia and the beginnings of a storm


Agua Tibia/Eagle Crag hike stats: 23.8 miles, 5100 feet gain/loss