Whale Peak


By: Wes Shelberg



The Vallecito Mountains in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park are configured as a gigantic horseshoe with westward pointing prongs. The Whale Peak Massif comprises the west end of the southern prong, and supports Whale Peak itself which is on the HPS Peaks List. This pattern can be seen on the combined Whale Peak and Harper Valley Topo Maps (7.5 Min.).

A one-way solo traverse of the entire Whale Peak Massif back in 1972 revealed broad, desert-ridge summits of high quality. Enjoyed were: mountain sheep, habitat ranging from badland to pinyon pine type, awesome views of a desolate land, and absolute loneliness. The one-way traverse required a full day (sunrise-sunset) and a one-man, 54 mile vehicle shuttle. (You are now wondering how one does a solo vehicle shuttle). At that time I carried a Yamaha 175 motorcycle (trail bike) mounted on the rear of a full-size station wagon, a practice that ultimately busted the rear axle on a jeep road (so I had to give it up). The traverse proceeded from Sandstone Canyon in the east to the petroglyphs at Little Blair Valley in the west. The terminus was purposely made the station wagon at the Little Blair Valley petroglyphs since, in contradistinction to the eastern route-head, there would be more winter visitors to the general area if assistance were needed for any reason. It is always preferable to return to a car rather than a motorcycle (even though the bike is hidden and/or chained to something) because bikes are too easily stolen. If one does plan on returning to a motorcycle in an isolated desert area, he should always hide a couple of gallons of water nearby by burying them.

I have drawn the exact route on three 7.5 Min. topo maps (Arroyo Tapiado, Agua Caliente Springs, and Whale Peak). This cannot be reproduced herein because there is just too much map. Furthermore, a detailed verbal description is impossible because some of the badland topography is too intricate. However a general map description of the exact route follows, and this requires reference to and perusal of the topo maps:

1. (AAA San Diego County Map; Arroyo Tapiado Quadrangle). In Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, take the Fish Creek road through Split Mountain and proceed to Sandstone Canyon. Go up Sandstone Canyon as far as your vehicle can go and park at some spot where you will not block the very narrow canyon. You should probably leave a note in the window stating that you will be back the next day. This is a popular winter route so you will probably not be isolated out in the middle of nowhere. Road conditions can be good or bad depending upon recent weather and the extent of recent use. At times It can very sandy (especially around the mouth of Sandstone Canyon) although passenger cars frequently negotiate the route when winter use has established good tire tracks. Road status can be checked by telephoning Park Rangers. If possible, use four wheel drive and forget road condition. In any event, If you have never seen the Fish Creek drainage, you should.

2. (Agua Tapiado Quadrangle). My hiking started 1.1 miles up Sandstone Can- yon near the letter T in the word TRAIL. I could have gone farther with my bike, and on other trips with four wheel drive I have been able to drive much farther. In any event, proceed up Sandstone Canyon to the Agua Caliente Springs Quadrangle bearing to the left at major drainage confluences at 1680 ft. and 1880 ft. elevations.

3. (Agua Caliente Springs Quadrangle). Only the upper right, two inch square of this map is needed. At the letter 0 in the word Sandstone, leave Sandstone Canyon and proceed to your right up the prominent wash trending westward and traced by a blue drainage line. Proceed to the Whale Peak Quadrangle.

4. (Whale Peak Quadrangle). Upon entering the quadrangle at the letter W in the word Washington printed at the map edge in the lower right corner:

a. Immediately gain the ridge exactly by the letter h in the word Wash.

b. Follow the ridge to the broad plateau marked as 3313 ft. elevation.

c. Cross the broad saddle to the west and follow the shoulder north-west to the broad summit of 4840 ft. elevation north-north-east of the letter S in the word MOUNTAINS.

d. Proceed to Peak 5018, descend the west side to the long east-west trending saddle, and then continue to the drainage location exactly between the letters U and N in the word MOUNTAINS (this is north of peak 5024), losing elevation from the saddle and then regaining it to avoid difficult contouring.


Avoid Peak 5018 by going around it on the south to the spot just above the letter T in the word MOUNTAINS, and then continue to the drainage location exactly between the letters U and N in the word MOUNTAINS.

e. Contour just south of the letter 0 in the word MOUNTAINS, cross the flat wide plateau, traverse Peak 5169 and gain Whale Peak.

f. Proceed from Whale Peak to the road-head at Petroglypha in Little Blair Valley by usual routes. My route trended westward to the 5000 ft. little summit just within the mile square area identified by the red number 23. Descend the broad slope south-west to the head of a drainage depicted two millimeters north of Summit 4016. Follow the incised drainage which first goes west and then turns south, cross Smuggler Canyon, and follow the long shallow saddle to Petroglyphs.

The traverse described is 10 miles as measured on the maps. The total elevation gain is about 4100 ft. A gallon of water and cool weather are advisable. You Hundred Peakers will be interested to know that in April 1972 near the top of Whale Peak a three + ft. diamond ("coon-tail") rattlesnake buzzed me 10 ft. directly ahead and raised his head perhaps 1-1/2 ft. to look at me.

Detailed information for visiting one or more peaks mentioned in this article can be found in the
Desert Peak Section Road and Peak Guides

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