Sawtooth Peak, Red Top


By: Erik Siering


I did my homework assignment!

Barbara Lilly sent me an irresistible trip suggestion (challenge) some time ago when I finished The Peak Lists. Thanks for a satisfying ordeal, Barbara. The Sawtooth Mountains form a 34,000-acre BLM wilderness on the western edge of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. It is rugged land with harsh flora and little water. "Sawtooth Peak" is the unnamed highpoint. Nearby, yet so far away, is Red Top. These twin peaks crown the isolated range. The summits have been climbed individually, but apparently not together before in a day trip. An overnight backpack may be more pleasant and reasonable. Writeups by Wes Shelberg (DPS Sage, Nov 1995) and Richard Carey (Peaks Gazetteer) provided me with background on the area.

The strenuous, non-technical climb entails lots of crosscountry scrambling. Flat terrain here is precious. It often seemed like an endless jumble of boulders. Visitors are rare: the most recent summit logs were 1997 (Sawtooth Peak- Ron Hudson) and 2004 (Red Top- Gail Hanna). There were only a few cairns (and less now) on the untracked approach.

I set out early from Agua Caliente County Park, on the west end of the signed Moonlight Canyon Trail (1360'). I left the trail midway, heading south up a lovely wash with dry waterfalls, to reach Moonlight Pass (2250') at sunrise. The Inner Pasture lies below, with the Sawtooth Mountains beyond. This "desert meadow" was used in the distant past by wintering Indians, and more recently for cattle grazing. Now, eager new immigrants occasionally cross on foot headed north.

I dropped to the plateau on a faint use path. Any footprints disappeared here. What appeared pretty from afar is a wide expanse filled with cholla, ocotillo, and cholla. Did I mention the cholla? I crossed the flat a mile towards a discernible ridge to intersect an abandoned jeep road indicated on the topo. The track fades as it curves around the ridge into the mouth of a broad canyon. At roads end is a seasonal spring (2600'). The spring was dry today.

The general route continues south from the spring up a narrow and brushy wash. Both summits are roughly equidistant from the saddle at its head (3800'): Red Top to the east, Sawtooth Peak to the west.

I pressed up the wash, at times staying high on the west side to skirt foliage. At 3000' elevation I impatiently contoured for the ridge northeast of Red Top. This went well to the ridgeline (3900'), but my hopes for an easy walkup were dashed. It was necessary to work for some time over and around massive boulders to attain the highpoint. The summit canister lies between two immense boulders.

Crux of the day was now picking a clean line through yet steeper large boulders to reach the aforementioned saddle between the peaks. From here a subsidiary rock pinnacle precludes direct access to Sawtooth Peak. I traversed around its south side to a pleasant highpoint plateau. A climbers' register rests below the class 3 summit block.

My final descent was a difficult northeast contour into the canyon wash at 3600', then following it back to the jeep track. The flat desert walk thereafter was bliss after the rock hopping. I returned over Moonlight Pass. Ann Kramer met me there having come up at midday. On our hike out, for grins we completed the east end of the Moonlight Trail loop as a full moon aptly rose at dusk. The highlight of Agua Caliente County Park is the restorative powers of its hot spring pool. It was greatly appreciated that evening.

Roundtrip stats were 14 miles and 5000' gain. Amplified by the difficult terrain. Live the adventure.

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