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Find your way to the woodland

This popular hike leads to a pinyon forest and spectacular views.

Looking to the south toward Agua Caliente County Park from the top of Whale Peak.
Looking to the south toward Agua Caliente County Park from the top of Whale Peak.
The top of Whale Peak makes a fabulous overnight campsite.

Whale Peak, though not the highest peak in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, is high enough at 5349 feet to offer spectacular views of much of the park and beyond to mountain ranges in Mexico and Arizona. It is also high enough to support an extensive pinyon–juniper woodland, a beautiful forest of miniature trees.

At mile 5.7, start hiking up the steep, boulder-choked canyon straight ahead. Consistently look back for landmarks while climbing around and over boulders where there will be only occasional stacked rocks (ducks) to mark the path. After climbing for about a quarter of a mile, there will be a sandy flat. Starting at this point, there will be an obvious path created by hundreds of other hikers who have ventured up the mountain. Although marked with frequent ducks, don’t rely too much on them, as there are numerous other routes going in different directions, also marked with ducks. This hike offers an excellent opportunity to practice route-finding skills.

Whale Peak

There are three more ridges to climb before reaching a point where the final ascent to the top of the broad, relatively flat, Whale Peak begins. Explore the peak area to find the best vantage points to view the Salton Sea to the east, Agua Caliente County Park to the west at over 4000 feet below, and northeast to the Borrego Valley, the Santa Rosa Mountains, and beyond to Mt. San Jacinto.

Although the views are inspiring, be sure to take some time to observe the variety of plant life in this juniper-pinyon woodland. In addition to the single–leafed pinyon pine and California juniper, you will also find scrub oak, huge Mojave yuccas, an abundance of silver cholla, as well as the occasional beaver tail cactus, and desert apricot. The Kumeyaay Indians collected pinyon nuts in late summer.

Whale Peak via Blair Valley

Once you have explored the peak area, return to your car the way you came. Be careful when selecting a route based on ducks or you could end up many miles from your vehicle. It can be helpful to turn around and look for landmarks noted on the way up — most trails look different on the return!

Note: This hike is best done from October through May, with the best chance of finding blooming wildflowers in March or early April. Map and compass or GPS are recommended for route finding. A 4WD vehicle and trekking poles are recommended.


Distance from downtown San Diego: About 84 miles. Allow 2 hours driving time (Shelter Valley). From Julian, travel east on SR-78 for about 12 miles down Banner Grade to Scissors Crossing, then go south on SR-2 for 4.9 miles and turn east onto the signed Pinyon Mountain Road (PMR). Almost immediately the dirt road splits, so keep going east for 5.7 miles over areas of deep soft sand, bumps, deep ruts, and rocks, and park where there is a short spur road going off to the south toward Whale Peak. Be sure to note your mileage after turning onto PMR, as there are similar spur roads going toward Whale Peak at 4.1 and 6.3 miles from the SR-2. All three have been used as starting points but the route starting at mile 5.7 is the most frequently used to Whale Peak (and the one described here).

Hiking length: 4 miles out and back.

Difficulty: Moderately strenuous with an elevation gain/loss of 1500 feet. Dogs and mountain bikers not allowed. No facilities or water.

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Looking to the south toward Agua Caliente County Park from the top of Whale Peak.
Looking to the south toward Agua Caliente County Park from the top of Whale Peak.
The top of Whale Peak makes a fabulous overnight campsite.

Whale Peak, though not the highest peak in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, is high enough at 5349 feet to offer spectacular views of much of the park and beyond to mountain ranges in Mexico and Arizona. It is also high enough to support an extensive pinyon–juniper woodland, a beautiful forest of miniature trees.

At mile 5.7, start hiking up the steep, boulder-choked canyon straight ahead. Consistently look back for landmarks while climbing around and over boulders where there will be only occasional stacked rocks (ducks) to mark the path. After climbing for about a quarter of a mile, there will be a sandy flat. Starting at this point, there will be an obvious path created by hundreds of other hikers who have ventured up the mountain. Although marked with frequent ducks, don’t rely too much on them, as there are numerous other routes going in different directions, also marked with ducks. This hike offers an excellent opportunity to practice route-finding skills.

Whale Peak

There are three more ridges to climb before reaching a point where the final ascent to the top of the broad, relatively flat, Whale Peak begins. Explore the peak area to find the best vantage points to view the Salton Sea to the east, Agua Caliente County Park to the west at over 4000 feet below, and northeast to the Borrego Valley, the Santa Rosa Mountains, and beyond to Mt. San Jacinto.

Although the views are inspiring, be sure to take some time to observe the variety of plant life in this juniper-pinyon woodland. In addition to the single–leafed pinyon pine and California juniper, you will also find scrub oak, huge Mojave yuccas, an abundance of silver cholla, as well as the occasional beaver tail cactus, and desert apricot. The Kumeyaay Indians collected pinyon nuts in late summer.

Whale Peak via Blair Valley

Once you have explored the peak area, return to your car the way you came. Be careful when selecting a route based on ducks or you could end up many miles from your vehicle. It can be helpful to turn around and look for landmarks noted on the way up — most trails look different on the return!

Note: This hike is best done from October through May, with the best chance of finding blooming wildflowers in March or early April. Map and compass or GPS are recommended for route finding. A 4WD vehicle and trekking poles are recommended.


Distance from downtown San Diego: About 84 miles. Allow 2 hours driving time (Shelter Valley). From Julian, travel east on SR-78 for about 12 miles down Banner Grade to Scissors Crossing, then go south on SR-2 for 4.9 miles and turn east onto the signed Pinyon Mountain Road (PMR). Almost immediately the dirt road splits, so keep going east for 5.7 miles over areas of deep soft sand, bumps, deep ruts, and rocks, and park where there is a short spur road going off to the south toward Whale Peak. Be sure to note your mileage after turning onto PMR, as there are similar spur roads going toward Whale Peak at 4.1 and 6.3 miles from the SR-2. All three have been used as starting points but the route starting at mile 5.7 is the most frequently used to Whale Peak (and the one described here).

Hiking length: 4 miles out and back.

Difficulty: Moderately strenuous with an elevation gain/loss of 1500 feet. Dogs and mountain bikers not allowed. No facilities or water.

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4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
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