El Picacho del Diablo
By: Ron Jones
I wanted to re-climb my favorite peak on the Desert Peaks list by the Diablo Canyon route. I had first climbed it in February 1964 and have climbed it 11 more times from both the east and the west since then. Eight people were invited to join me on a "leisurely" climb taking one day more than the usual 4 days. Jim Hinkley, Evelyn Reher, Dean and Pat Acheson were able to find the time. I carried a camcorder on the climb and shot a total of two hours of video tape of the trip to edit for a future DPS program, and I will sell copies of this video for my cost to anyone who contacts me.
We drove down in two vehicles and parked about a quarter of a mile from the waterfall at the northern most roadhead shown on Jerry Schad's map (rather than the old hunting camp located near the mouth of Diablito Canyon). All the dirt road driving, down to Laguna Diablo (used to be known as Laguna Santa Clara), across the dry lake, up past Ranch Santa Clara and to the roadhead, was great, and any passenger car could have done it.
I suggest the following changes to the Desert Peaks driving route for this peak: At the intersection of Mexico Highways 3 and 5 there is a large new pink colored restaurant/truck stop which should open soon. Turn west on Highway 3 and drive 20.4 miles to a major dirt road leading south. The intersection is marked by two rusty, barely readable signs, one which reads in part SARH and the other. Rancho Villa del Sol. Drive about 4 miles to a fork, the right fork signed "Meno". Take the left fork for 2.6 miles (no longer any evidence of an abandoned rancho) on a major dirt road to the edge of Laguna Picacho. From this point there is a faint sandy road heading 160 degrees to your left, almost due north. Do not take this road when you come off the dry lake on your way home, as it is sandy and has little traffic (it is the very old road leading back to the Pemex station just south of the Mexico 3-5 intersection). Turn onto the laguna and drive 8.8 miles on the lake bed, staying more or less in the major track. Near the apparent end of the lake follow the major road turning right and drive about 0.2 miles to the upper end of the old lake shore. Follow the road another 1 mile to Rancho Santa Clara. Follow the fence line on your right, stay to the right and at 4 miles beyond the Ranch entrance the road forks. The left road leads to the Diablito roadhead, the right fork leads 2 miles to the roadhead closer to the mouth of Diablo Canyon, with solid parking for 6 or 8 cars.
To get ahead of my story a bit, it appears that perhaps half of the U.S. cars parked at the roadhead nowadays are broken into. The car parked here previous to us was broken into. Our cars were broken into. Theft was minor and consisted of food, clothing, ice chests and cooking utensils. Radios, water purifier pumps, tires and more valuable things were not taken. Another couple who returned while we were at the roadhead from climbing up Providencia Canyon had kayaks on their van. They paid the folks at the ranch a little money ($10-20) to watch their van and gear at the ranch and hiked from there. We gave them a lift 6.4 miles back to their van. I suggest that with several cars, all but one car be left at the ranch, the packs and participants be ferried to the roadhead and the one car returned to the Ranch. Make sure that someone at the Ranch will be there during the time you're gone. Maybe somebody at the ranch could be paid to return the one driver to the group. This does mean that at the end of your climb someone must walk an extra 6.4 miles to bring back a car.
The next morning we hauled our heavy 5-day packs up over the waterfall, and pendulumed ourselves up to the top of the falls using the metal cable permanently in place. Immediately above the falls, a previous pebbly sand bar which you could usually walk on, has been washed away and replaced by a large five foot deep pool. This pool can be by-passed by climbing along a 30 foot crack on the steeply sloping rock wall to the right. A fixed line at this point helps install confidence and balance to the hiker with a heavy backpack.
We then followed the usual, difficult to follow route up Canyon Diablo to our first night's camp at about 3,000 feet. Many old stream terraces, which I used to hike on to avoid the rocks along the stream bottom, are gone, washed away, and there is more rock walking than the used to be. The day was hot, with afternoon temperature in the 90's. We did see several rattlesnakes in the lower, warmer parts of the canyon. At the present time most of the best sandy beaches to camp on are located between 2,800 ft and 4,500 or 4,600 feet, below the narrow section in the canyon with the red rocks.
The second day was more of the same, without as many rocks above the red rock at 4,800 feet but more brush and tree branches. Just above the red rocks, perhaps because it was spring and there was lots of new growth, I saw a variety of poison oak which is a little different than the one we see in California. I knew it was in the canyon somewhere, because I had gotten a light rash before, but I had never seen it. It is found only in the next 3 or 400 yards and we never saw any more. We reached Campo Noche in the afternoon and were the only persons there. I looked forward to spending the next two nights in this wonderful spot.
The third day was a routine climb of the peak up the Night Wash, the Slot Wash & Wall Street. We never used a rope after the first morning. The Baja California Alpinista climbing club had replaced their register book in July of 1993 and removed their previous book to Tijuana. We were the first DPSers in the new book. There were still small patches of snow in Wall Street and near the summit, the meadows on the western plateau were free of snow but the north side of Blue Bottle was more than 50% covered with probably thin, soft snow. We spent 45 minutes on top eating lunch and I video taped the views. Upon our return to camp it was nice to relax instead of packing up to get a head start down the canyon. That night, as with our first night at Campo Noche, we were visited by one or two ring tail cats. These animals are cute to watch but will pilfer food that is left out.
We got a 7 o'clock start the fourth morning and returned down canyon, avoiding the poison oak again and had a great clean sandy camp site at about 3,300 feet. The final morning we got a 6 AM start to avoid the heat in the lower part of the canyon. We had lunch a little ways above the waterfall and after lunch we pendulumed back down the waterfall, the ladies without packs, the guys with. The guys did all right and stayed dry but I got a great video shot of both the ladies slipping off the rock and into the pool. A short ways below the waterfall we stopped and spent an hour splashing around, swimming and cleaning up at a really big swimming hole. Temperatures here were 100 degrees.
After finding our cars broken into with our food and clean clothes stolen, we had to improvise with remnants of food from our backpacks, a cheese soup, top ramen, crackers and cookies meal.
The next morning it was up and Out, a stop for coffee at La Ventana, and a leisurely drive to Mexicali and arriving at our homes in late afternoon. My thanks to everyone on the trip, but SPECIAL THANKS to Jim Hinkley who had climbed the peak several times before, and without whose help this trip would have been a lot harder.
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