San Pedro Martir


By: Bill Clifton


SOUTH SAN PEDRO MARTIR WILDERNESS BACKPACK (Up via Canon Aqua Caliente, Down via Canon El Cajon)

Because of heavy rains at San Diego we decided to head for San Felipe and the eastside of the Martir instead of going on south to join John Robinson and group.

March 23 (Sun)
After leaving gifts at Rancho Aqua Caliente (you park on their property), four of us started packing up the very gradual canon starting from an elevation of only 1800': at about one mile, the one inch pipe line ends in a small dam; at 2.5 miles the hot spring can be found flowing up from the ground in a grove of Mesquite trees on the right hand or north side. Just above the spring are two palm trees, one short and healthy, the other badly burnt, from here we followed the right fork or main canon (don't take the left fork) to a fresh water spring. The canon narrows to about 15' here. Since this small marshy area is the last sure water until Santa Eualia meadow (about 7 rough miles above) is reached, we all took on 3 quarts each. This spring is about 5 easy miles from the roadhead and is approx. 2500'. About 1/4 mi above the spring we left the main canon following a poor trail (at times).

In 1972 on our first backpack to Santa Eulalia, Chuck Vernon and I followed the main aqua Caliente canon to where it ends just below the eastern escarpement. We found this route slow and rough due to a series of vertical dry waterfalls from fifteen to twenty five feet in height. There is no advantage in going up the main canon to a point more than about 1/4 mile above the fresh water spring. After contouring up most of the afternoon we made a dry camp just below the first pinon pines (elevation 4000').

March 24 (Mon)
Getting an early start we soon intersected the best section of the remaining trail (the Santa Eulalia trail is now seldom used in favor of the Cajon trail 17 miles to the north) until it faded out just above a draw. Hiking mostly west we crossed the eastern escarpement (just rolly, brushy hill at 6100' in this area) and intersected a good trail which we followed south to Santa Eulalia. The south end of this meadow is an excellent campsite with year around running water, a few pools 3-4 feet deep for bathing and plenty of firewood. This area is also both the very south end of the high San Pedro Martir plateau and the Jeffery Pine forest. South of here the topography drops off rapidly with only two peaks of any significance, Serra Chato and Pico Matoni. Because everyone liked the campsite so much we made our 2nd nite camp here.

March 25 (Tues)
Following the main Santa Eulalia wash north we reached the next water in about 2.5 miles. There is a good casa and corral here. At about 5 miles we came to a campsite J.R. and I call Media (about 1/2 way between Santa Eulalia and Santo Tomas by trail). There is a nice fresh water spring flowing from some large willows east and above the stream bed. Two miles north of here Santa Eulalia wash branches out into a number of side draws because of a divide or ridge running west from the eastern excarpment. Since there is a trail in almost every draw it is difficult at the present time to know which to follow to pick up the main trail on north to Santo Tomas. Again picking the wrong one (we did this last year too) we soon lost the trail and had to hike up 300' cross country in a northerly direction to the top of the divide. We then dropped off thru heavy brush on the north side into the Jeffery Pines at Arroyo Flamosa. Because of a cold drizzle and heavy clouds we had to make camp short of our days objective, Santo Tomas only 2 miles away. We know now J.R. and group had reached there this same evening.

March 26 (Wed)
This morning we found the ground covered with at least 1/2 inch of snow. After a hassle but thanks to my habit of carrying a small plastic bottle of Kerosene, I was able to get a good fire going. When the weather improved about noon Betsy Morgan, Cris Vance and I hiked on over NW to Santo Tomas, leaving Jim Layden to keep the fire stoked.

March 27 (Thurs)
After camping 2 miles just above Arroyo Alamosa, we followed it east 2 miles until it ends at the SW corner of the Santa Rosa meadows. We took on two quarts of water as there would be no more sure water until Cottonwood Camp, at 3500' below the eastern escarpement on the desert side. The two casas in huge Santa Rosa are in poor condition due to the unstable water supply in this entire area. Leaving the two casas we hiked east across and around the south end of the meadow until in about 1 hour or 2 miles we intersected the Cajon trail leading up to the saddle in the eastern escarpment. It will take you about 1-1/2 hours to reach this summit of about 7200'. There is a stock drift fence and gate here. The trail drops down on the east side rapidly (except for one 300' pitch) until pinon camp, elevation 4800', is reached. In March and April there is usually some water in the draw about 50' above the trail crossing. (Don't count on it). This campsite is in the first heavy grove of Parry Pines east of the summit, usually used on the up route only. Descending on rapidly we soon came to a big spring flowing in from the left or west. About 1/4 mile below here we made camp in some Fremont Cottonwoods (Cotton Camp, elevation 3500'). On the route up the above spring is the last reliable water supply until the SW end of Santa Rosa or more sure Santo Tomas and year around water.

March 28 (Fri)
A half mile below Cottonwood Camp the trail bypasses a 15' vertical waterfall to the north or left. About a mile below Cottonwood Camp is the last visible sign you are on route, a piece of pipe and a length of jack hammer drill bit embedded into the smooth granite rock on the left of north side of the stream bed. Its purpose (with mesquite wood filter in between the iron supports) is to keep cattle from sliding off. About 2 miles below Cottonwood Camp this side canon joins the main canon, El Cajon, at 900 coming in from due south. There is a confusing draw coming into this intersection from the NW (it has a 50' dry waterfall about 1/2 mile up the draw). This is the common mistake made by those seeking the Cajon Trail to Santa Rosa Meadows. One must take the small side canon due south from the main canon. This is the error J.R. and I made in Spring 1965 while making a number of exploratory hikes in search of it. It wasn't until Dec. 1965, when I found the two pieces of iron rods in the granite that I was sure of the correct route. We used this route in Spring of 1966 for the first Sierra Club climb of Middle Tres Palomas. Just below where the trail (or side cajon) meets the main canon is a deep depression in the bedrock with a 2' waterfall flowing into it that I call the Bathtub. Directly across on the east side of the canon on a crumbling cliff are the Cajon Petrographs. This area is about 3 miles from the roadhead or corral end of Cajon Canon. We had no sooner reached this nice clean up place than 3 people approached us. Two were Mexican guides with a big game rifle and both had large binoculars around their necks. The other, a hunter, said he was from Texas and was seeking a trophy Mountain Sheep. He said, also, he had a permit (this is a game refuge) and that there were four more hunters in the cajon to the north (probably Canon El Oso). This hunter lost no time in telling how hikers disturb the sheep and further said that the Mexican government would soon be closing the eastside canons from north of Del Diablo on south to Pico Matoni. The exception being possibly to hunters who are willing to pay high fees for a permit. We did not take this man seriously until later at the roadhead we met a Mexican offical (a game warden with offical seal of Secateria de fuona on his 4 WD Bronco). He spoke up first. Jim Layden, who speaks good spanish said he wanted to know if we had any weapons, knifes or guns. He seemed disappointed in our answer and I'm sure we would have been arrested if we had any. The warden further reiterated how hikers disturb sheep and said soon the canon would be closed off. He was furnishing transportation for the 2 hunting parties. Although we were 17 miles from our Jeep, he made no offer of a ride to Aqua Caliente to help us. Betsy Horgan and Crie Vance volunteered to hike on down, 6 miles to Rancho Algondes. There people were most obliging and soon Jim and I heard the Jeep once again. This ends a fine wilderness backpack about 50 miles round trip.

In conclusion, for those who haven't yet had the pleasure of climbing Picacho del Diablo, especially from the beautiful but rough Canon del Diablo route, time may be running out. (sooner than you think for making a legal climb) If what the warden says comes true, we may find by late fall or next spring, the east side canyon's closed as far south as Pico Matoni.

No doubt that problems caused by a few careless hikers in canon del Diablo have helped the Mexican government in making this decision, so we can't blame it all on the sheep hunters.

Climb! Climb! But fast. No more Helicopters.

DPS Archives Index | Desert Peaks Section