Sombrero Peak rises head and shoulders above the southern precincts of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, its summit overlooking a hundred-square-mile expanse of rock-strewn mountains and gorges, sun-baked valleys, and shimmering badlands. Conversely, the peak itself is a prominent and familiar landmark — having a sombrero profile —that is widely visible from the desert floor below.
Climbing Sombrero Peak is a feat attempted by relatively few people, but not because of its height (4229 feet above sea level), which is quite modest. Rather, the peak is remote from paved roads, and its boulder-guarded flanks discourage those who are not willing to put up with either a long march to its base (from the west) or a shorter but sweaty eastern approach up from the desert floor. Sketched here is the shorter eastern ascent — only one-and-a-half miles one way, but with 1900 feet of elevation gain. The three round-trip miles might require three hours at athletic-event speed, or it might take up to six hours at a dilly-dally pace. Don’t skimp on drinking water. Desert temperatures are cooling in late October, but they can still top 85 degrees.
On Highway S-2, the main road through the south half of Anza-Borrego, note the green mile-marker signs posted at one-mile intervals. When you reach mile 46.1, just south of mile 46, turn west onto a dirt road (suitable for high clearance vehicles) and drive toward and finally through steep-walled Indian Gorge. After 2.7 miles the road splits, with branches going into the north and south forks of gently sloping Indian Valley. Keep left at the junction and drive into the south fork about three more miles to the road’s end near the mouth of a canyon dotted with a few native palm trees.
From the road’s end, climb straight up the ridge to the south until you reach a flat spot at an elevation of 3100 feet. (As a side trip, if you’re game, you could traverse over to Sombrero Peak Palm Grove, a dense cluster of palm trees perched on a rocky slope high above the big canyon to the south — Bow Willow Canyon.) Continue west, then southwest up the ridgeline to Sombrero’s boulder-studded summit, scrambling over modest-sized rocks at first, then over car-sized or larger boulders near the top.
On the summit, the best view is east, where Bow Willow Canyon and its tributaries yawn open in the blazing sun.
On your way up, carefully note your route so you can follow that same route back down. Don’t descend the peak on a route too far to the south, lest you run into a nearly impenetrable maze of house-sized boulders and scratchy thickets of scrub oak.
This article contains information about a publicly owned recreation or wilderness area. Trails and pathways are not necessarily marked. Conditions can change rapidly. Hikers should be properly equipped and have safety and navigational skills. The Reader and Jerry Schad assume no responsibility for any adverse experience.
Scale Anza-Borrego’s Sombrero Peak, step by step, boulder by boulder.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 105 miles
Hiking length: 3 miles round-trip