Piedras Grandes and Indian Hill – Peaks #32 and #33 – A Loss of a loved one

Dos Cabezas Water Tower

Dos Cabezas Water Tower

Piedras Grandes
Elevation: 2,601′
Miles: ~2

Indian Hill
Elevation: 2,240′
Miles: ~2

On this Sunday morning, I scrambled atop a small rise and saw a large coyote turn and look at me, then run down the rise into the desert floor below, joining other coyotes to disappear among the cactus and chaparral.

The morning was beautiful, the sun was shining on my back and the breeze had enough chill in it to cool me from my exertion. Other than the birds, it was completely silent and I was the only person for miles. I was completely filled with the joy to be alive at that moment. I took a breath and continued up the mountain.

I found out later, that at roughly the same time, someone dear to me had passed away. It was sudden, and it wasn’t supposed to be her time to go. She was too young and too healthy. Random. Shocking.

Over the last few days, I have moved from denial to grief and acceptance. She was my favorite aunt. She gave me my first cassette tape, U2’s Unforgettable Fire, when I was 12. I was initially disappointed, since I didn’t know any songs on it. But it quickly became one of my favorite albums of all time. I learned every word and nuance on the album. Over the years, I felt like she always understood me. Her sons, my cousins, became my good friends throughout my childhood years.

She wasn’t my aunt by blood, but that didn’t matter to me, or to anyone in my family. She could always be counted on. Since my childhood, we grew apart, as people do, I moved away and I saw less of my cousins and my aunt. I still enjoyed her company on holidays and always knew she was there.

My wife had to break the news to me and I’ve made it very clear over the years that this aunt was very special to me. She took care of all of those around her, from her mother to her grandchildren.

As my emotions run all over, I’d like to think that the coyote I saw on Sunday was a message sent from the spirit world saying a last goodbye before she rejoined other spirits in the great desert basin of the sky.

It’s been a couple of days and I am now writing the trip report, which lost all significance in light of Sunday’s passing. However, life is about living it, so on with the trip report.

I initially had grand aspiration of conquering 5 peaks in one day, but several things got in the way of that:

1. Dirt roads to desert trailheads are slow to drive on
2. Easy to make wrong turns on said dirt roads
3. Cacti make bushwhacking more difficult
4. Some rock scrambling may be necessary
5. Routes up to peaks may be hard to find and require multiple attempts
6. I had forgotten about daylight savings, in which I lost an hour of sleep

On top of all of these things, my printed topo map fell out of my pocket on the way up to Indian Hill, so I stayed on the trail for most of the way. I had a topo map on my iPhone via AccuTerra and AllSportGPS (though cell coverage was spotty for the latter), but I have a rule: No paper, no hiking, unless it is a well-established trail. This was hard cross-country hiking, so I took it as a sign to not take any chances.

I left my house when it was still dark, but the sun was warm and shining by the time I got to Dos Cabezas in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. I saw the water tower with homage to Tool’s 10,000 Days album artwork that a fan had scrawled on the side. While I am also a fan, I was put off by someone’s compulsion to deface a historical relic in a State Park. I drove a little bit further to a small wash and started my way up to Piedras Grandes.

Green Desert

Green Desert

Flowers among the cacti

Flowers among the cacti

Like I stated above, it was a beautiful morning. I saw a lot of rabbits hopping around and the birds were everywhere. It felt good to be back on the trail. Noting the time I left the trailhead, and I use that term loosely, I figured I wouldn’t be summiting all the peaks I wanted to today. The desert was abnormally green, with little flowers starting to poke out there and there, but not that explosion that will happen in a week or so.

Although the way to the peak looked pretty rocky, I was able to make it to the top without using my hands to scramble. Minimizing the scramble factor is a goal of mine on these peaks. The view was great and I could see all the way down to Dos Cabezas with Red Hill, Mine Benchmark, and Carrizo Mountain beyond it.

View of Dos Cabezas with Carrizo Mountain in the Distance From Piedras Grandes

View of Dos Cabezas with Carrizo Mountain in the Distance From Piedras Grandes

I made my way back down to the car, feeling great and headed down the dirt road towards the area near Indian Hill. By this time, I had removed one peak from my possible summits for the day and was ready for three more. I immediately made the wrong turn and ended up in a wash filled with deep sand. Luckily, the all-wheel-drive Tiguan handled it without a problem, only getting a little loose in a couple of sections. I turned around and drove a bit and got my bearings and headed northeast. I soon came behind some trucks attempting to navigate a steep hill. They ended up pulling over and parking, hiking from there. I got out of my car and jogged up the hill to take a look. The pits in the road were just too deep. My AWD would have handled it fine, but I had clearance concerns. While standing on top of the hill, I saw another road come from another direction and meet this road without having to scale the hill, so I got back into my car and retraced my path for a while and found the road and passed the hikers on my way down the road.

Everywhere I’ve read has explicitly stated that hiking on the railroad tracks in this area is illegal, yet I saw several groups of people park and immediately use the tracks as a trail. Perhaps they don’t realize that the tracks are still in use on a daily basis and that it’s dangerous behavior, particularly in the narrow sections and through the tunnels.

I parked and starting hiking down an old 4×4 trail that is no longer in use, although I did see some tire tracks on it. I don’t know how they got there. And it was only for part of the way. I cut across the desert to scale Indian Hill. From the top of Indian Hill, I could see the next peaks on my schedule and the route immediately ahead of me looked daunting. I decided to follow the mountain range a bit to see if I could find a good way up.

Looking towards Moan Benchmark from Indian Hill

Looking towards Moan Benchmark from Indian Hill

As I went in and out of small washes and canyons, I noticed the day was getting late. I had already scaled two peaks and had a long way to hike back and drive home. I decided that the rest of the day would be to do recon for next time. I hiked the jeep trail all the way to the railroad tracks and tunnel. I saw a chubby horned lizard scamper across the trail and sit still, so I took some photos of it. This one was a different color than the ones I saw on Mount Gower or Combs Peak.

Horned Lizard near Carrizo Canyon

Horned Lizard near Carrizo Canyon

Near the railroad tracks, ON THE TRAIL, someone had decided they had waited long enough and did their business right there and left the toilet paper and everything. Is common decency not that common? Maybe they had the impression they were the only people that would ever see this “secret” place that is in several popular guidebooks.

I also wish people wouldn’t let their dogs do their business in the precise center of the trail. I see it all the time, and I can tell the different between dog and coyote waste. Please have them go to one side or slightly off the trail please.

Train Tunnel near Carrizo Canyon

Train Tunnel near Carrizo Canyon

I jogged an easy 2 miles back to the car and headed out, driving seemingly forever on dirt roads. For the record, Mortero Canyon Road seemed a lot shorter and easier to navigate than Dos Cabeza Road.

It took me about 3 hours to get home to some bad news. But, overall, after about 6-7 miles of desert hiking, it was a great day to be outside.

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  1. says

    Wow. Sorry for your loss, that had to have been tough. Looks like a good day out on the trail. Are those pics from your new camera? They’re great. Thanks for another great entry. Makes me want to get out there even more.

  2. says

    Thanks for the kind words.

    The pics were from the Canon G11 and I am happy with it. I just missed my zoom on Sunday, when I could have gotten some great wildlife photos.

  3. Zevensphin says

    I’m so sorry for your loss. Unforgettable Fire is one of my favorite albums, too. Great blog entry and great pics. That is one chubby Horned Lizard!

  4. says

    Sorry for your loss. Sounds like you will always have special memories of her.

    I camped at Piedras Grandes last November. A wonderful place to roam around. I’d like to hike out to the Goat Canyon Trestle sometime, maybe soon, before it gets too hot. At 600′ long and 200′ high, the Goat Canyon Trestle is the longest curved and one of the hightest wooden trestles in the world.

  5. says

    I am hoping to get out there, too. There is one benchmark just above the Goat Canyon Trestle and the “path” to Jacumba Mountain is nearby, too. It would be an epic day.

    But every day hiking in Anza-Borrego feels like an epic day…

  6. says

    Great pictures, I can not believe how green everything is also you were right that lizard looks alot like the one I saw this past weekend. Maybe at some point we could hike to the Trestle and also bag Jacumba Mountain. Let me know when you are free I still would like to get a hike in with you sometime.

  7. says


    I am still scrambling to find a day where I can be out from dawn to dusk and conquer that area. It looks like incredible country and would definitely like some company. I will let you know.

  8. says

    Let me join the chorus of folks sending good thoughts to you due to the loss of your dear aunt. Very sorry, sir.

    As always, great photos. I just picked up a G11 a few weeks ago and am loving it. I’ve not touched my DSLR since it arrived. Today, I hope to see waiting on my doorstep the filter adapter set from Lensmate. It appears to be better quality than any others on the market and the 72mm filter arrangement negates any possible vignetting issues that occur with other setups. If you’ve not seen their products, I recommend you check them out.

  9. Rick Loranger says

    Derek, thanks for all the kind words about my Mom. You always made her feel special by including her in your family. I hope that you will think of her and smile every once in awhile on the hiking trails and the trails of life.
    On the lighter side – my Mom bought me my first cassette tape when i was twelve also. It was by Wham. Definitely not as epic as U2’s Unforgetable Fire.

  10. says

    Hi Derek,
    Little late on the post but wanted to say sorry also. Just found your post when i was doing a Piedras Grandes search.

    We spend a lot of time hiking around there as well as Carrizo Gorge and Goat Canyon etc.
    For me it is the best part of Anza Borrego.

    I enjoyed your pictures and writing,
    Best Regards,

  11. says

    Thanks for the kind words.

    Yes, I did read your great write ups of the area, but I read it after I went, so I did not find the cave nearby when I was there.

  12. Casey Van Tieghem says

    I’ve enjoyed your youtube videos, and just discovered this site. I’m getting interested in the Carrizo Gorge area and the Goat Canyon Trestle bridge. I’m trying to find an easy way to get to the Carrizo Gorge area without walking on the tracks. I think I might have found a way, but I will check it out this weekend.
    I have created a Google Map for this purpose, and I’ve outlined in green the path that I propose to take. It goes from Piedras Grandes up this wash just north of Piedras Grandes to this creek that is the north fork of this wash, then it seems to cut right through this range all the way to a view of the tracks from above. Hopefully not too much cactus and rocks to climb. But from the wash to the tracks I have measured 1.5 miles via this path.


  13. says

    This does sound like an interesting route. Some of the washes can be pretty challenging, since they tend to be more choked with vegetation and have dry falls within them that cannot be climbed or down-climbed. Sometimes it’s easier to get to the ridge line and go that way. I am very interested in hearing about whether or not you made it, so please let me know.

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