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Determined on Granite Mountain

Where the earth falls off into a far larger world

Granite Mountain Panorama
Granite Mountain Panorama
  • Granite Mountain
  • Located at the end of Cool Canyon Road in Anza Borrego, Granite Mountain is a grueling grind that will test your endurance and tolerance for pain. With a length of 7 miles and an elevation gain of around 3,200 feet, the hike will take most people 5 to 8 hours. Dogs and young kids are not recommended. Bring hiking boots with good tread, a map, 2L of water, and a warm layer of clothes for the summit. Do not attempt unless you have good judgment and keen wayfinding.
  • Distance from downtown San Diego: 76 miles
  • Hike length: 7 miles • Difficulty: Extremely strenuous • Season: November to April


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It was a crisp, stark, sunlit desert morning with just the right amount of warmth in the air. I was out past the Laguna Mountains in Anza Borrego, where the earth falls off into a far larger world. A land of sand and stone, where rugged mountains unfold in a maze of canyons, between which stretch colossal, barren valleys. Standing in a broad sandy wash with the sunlight pouring on me, I was wrapped in perfect silence, though I wasn’t alone. I had two companions: a watchful raven that cocked its head at me from a nearby rock and a Jeep Wrangler with a sunshade that read: “Desert Girls Rock.”

Walking along the wash

I nodded to the raven then tightened the straps on my trail running vest and checked whether my valuables were still tucked away. As I did, I looked at the trail before me and felt its weight deepen in my mind. My plan was to follow the arroyo through a rambling corridor of rock and stone until I reached the roots of the mountain about a mile away. Then I’d bushwack up a slope of brittlebush, avoiding the sharp rocks, agave, and various cacti that could dig cruelly into my flesh until I reached the ridgeline a thousand feet up. Once on this shoulder, I would come to a boneyard of burnt juniper and a meadow of ankle-high grasses, beyond which I would scramble up a series of false peaks consisting of large granite boulders while gaining 1600 feet in elevation.

Climbing a slope of brittlebush

I sighed and started. After walking half a mile, I crossed paths with the owner of the Wrangler; a woman in her late 30s with braided hair and burgundy leggings. She carried an Osprey pack with a thermos on one side and a Nalgene on the other. Unlike me, she was smart enough to bring trekking poles and we passed one another with a friendly, “Hello.”

Jeep wrangler owner

As I approached the fork, I recalled the last time I hiked this mountain. Back then, I made the mistake of turning right and meandering through the canyon, climbing up rocky chutes until I backed myself against a steep couloir. Not wanting to turn back, I scuttled up it on all fours, looking like a red-faced fool.

Determined not to make the same mistake this time, I reached the fork and turned left; though the path proved no less of a fool’s errand. At first, the way was easy to follow. For several hundred feet, I carried on as I had before, but then the path became choked with brush. Desert apricot overtook the wash, and I bent, ducked, and crawled for as long as I could, but my clothes kept snagging on the branches. Facing defeat, I decided it would be less painful to hike straight up the mountain. I laughed at myself as I scuttled up the slope like a fool — again. Fortunately, it was far less steep and miserable than before. (Later I discovered that the best path is to hit the fork and turn right, then walk 50 paces and make an immediate left into a narrow gully).

Climbing rocky chutes

As I climbed, agave and cacti seemed to gasp for life in every open nook and cranny. I paid them little interest until a cholla sank its thorns into my ankle. A familiar yet bitter discomfort radiated from my leg and I hobbled over to a boulder to sit. There were a dozen barbs in me, and I picked up a nearby stick and wedged it between my skin and the cactus to pry it off. It fell to the ground like a dead tick. The remaining thorns I pulled out with my fingers. Then I spat on the wound to wipe away the blood and pulled my sock over it.

Scrambling up granite boulders

The rest of the way up was a sweaty blur. I slipped into an aerobic void, aware of nothing but the urge to keep going. I clambered up and over car-sized granite boulders, pausing to catch my breath. During these breaks, I would watch the pinyon pines sway in the cool winter breeze until the wind began to bite, then I’d push on to keep warm.

Granite Mountain Panorama

After nearly three hours, I reached the peak with the delight you might feel in sighting an old friend. But the feeling was short-lived, as a fierce wind blew in from the west. I struggled to keep its icy touch from settling in my bones, but it was hard. My clothes were soaked through with sweat and I needed to get them dry. Near my feet, I found a nest of stones huddled around a rusty tin can, inside of which was the summit book. My hands were too numb to pick apart the pages, so I grabbed a handful of stones from the pile and put them in my pockets. Then I untied the jacket from around my neck and placed it on the ground, followed by my wet polyester sun hoodie and my pants. The rocks kept the wind from stealing my clothes as they dried in the low winter sun.

Looking east at my route up with Whale Peak behind

Standing in my briefs, I shivered as I braced against the wind, yelping and yee-hawing to distract myself from the cold. I tried to take in my panoramic view by looking for familiar faces in the distance. San Jacinto Mountain was hidden from me, but I found San Ysidro Mountain and Whale Peak clear as day; as well as Villager, Toro, and Rabbit Peaks. A few others I might have recognized, but my San Diego blood had trouble in the frighteningly cool 50-degree weather. After a quarter-hour, my clothes had dried and I got dressed and watched the sun dip behind the horizon. For a moment, the wind quieted and I stood in a rich twilight among purple hues on the cusp between heaven and earth, drawing the desert into me.

Twilight on granite mountain as the light fades on whale peak

During my descent, I found fragments of a trail marked by rock cairns left behind by bygone hikers. They were easy to follow from the false peaks down to the mountain’s shoulder. But then the trail went cold, and all I saw was a series of unfriendly paths. The desert air was cooling fast, and I stood on a granite boulder like a watchful meerkat, scanning the nearby slope for a safe path down the mountainside. As dusk descended, the terrain started taking on a uniform, lifeless hue, and it was getting harder to distinguish the details. Whale Peak held onto a bit of color, but the red-orange was draining into the valley below, consumed by a deepening shadow. I eventually found a path, though the way was tedious, slow, and uneventful. Night came and my legs carried me back by the light of the stars. With my adventure at an end, I was glad to return to my warm car.

As I made my way home, the city seemed unfamiliar. I felt dazed by the noise and rush of people. A hollow grew in my chest and I was sad that the evening’s desert sunset was receding into memory. I tried to reconcile the two worlds that I live in: one of absence and the other of abundance. But in my post-hike stupor, I felt estranged from both. Eventually, I found comfort wondering in what the next adventure would hold; for who among us knows what the tide will bring tomorrow?

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Mojo Nixon, 1957-2024

Local musician was subversive and scathing
Granite Mountain Panorama
Granite Mountain Panorama
  • Granite Mountain
  • Located at the end of Cool Canyon Road in Anza Borrego, Granite Mountain is a grueling grind that will test your endurance and tolerance for pain. With a length of 7 miles and an elevation gain of around 3,200 feet, the hike will take most people 5 to 8 hours. Dogs and young kids are not recommended. Bring hiking boots with good tread, a map, 2L of water, and a warm layer of clothes for the summit. Do not attempt unless you have good judgment and keen wayfinding.
  • Distance from downtown San Diego: 76 miles
  • Hike length: 7 miles • Difficulty: Extremely strenuous • Season: November to April


Sponsored
Sponsored

It was a crisp, stark, sunlit desert morning with just the right amount of warmth in the air. I was out past the Laguna Mountains in Anza Borrego, where the earth falls off into a far larger world. A land of sand and stone, where rugged mountains unfold in a maze of canyons, between which stretch colossal, barren valleys. Standing in a broad sandy wash with the sunlight pouring on me, I was wrapped in perfect silence, though I wasn’t alone. I had two companions: a watchful raven that cocked its head at me from a nearby rock and a Jeep Wrangler with a sunshade that read: “Desert Girls Rock.”

Walking along the wash

I nodded to the raven then tightened the straps on my trail running vest and checked whether my valuables were still tucked away. As I did, I looked at the trail before me and felt its weight deepen in my mind. My plan was to follow the arroyo through a rambling corridor of rock and stone until I reached the roots of the mountain about a mile away. Then I’d bushwack up a slope of brittlebush, avoiding the sharp rocks, agave, and various cacti that could dig cruelly into my flesh until I reached the ridgeline a thousand feet up. Once on this shoulder, I would come to a boneyard of burnt juniper and a meadow of ankle-high grasses, beyond which I would scramble up a series of false peaks consisting of large granite boulders while gaining 1600 feet in elevation.

Climbing a slope of brittlebush

I sighed and started. After walking half a mile, I crossed paths with the owner of the Wrangler; a woman in her late 30s with braided hair and burgundy leggings. She carried an Osprey pack with a thermos on one side and a Nalgene on the other. Unlike me, she was smart enough to bring trekking poles and we passed one another with a friendly, “Hello.”

Jeep wrangler owner

As I approached the fork, I recalled the last time I hiked this mountain. Back then, I made the mistake of turning right and meandering through the canyon, climbing up rocky chutes until I backed myself against a steep couloir. Not wanting to turn back, I scuttled up it on all fours, looking like a red-faced fool.

Determined not to make the same mistake this time, I reached the fork and turned left; though the path proved no less of a fool’s errand. At first, the way was easy to follow. For several hundred feet, I carried on as I had before, but then the path became choked with brush. Desert apricot overtook the wash, and I bent, ducked, and crawled for as long as I could, but my clothes kept snagging on the branches. Facing defeat, I decided it would be less painful to hike straight up the mountain. I laughed at myself as I scuttled up the slope like a fool — again. Fortunately, it was far less steep and miserable than before. (Later I discovered that the best path is to hit the fork and turn right, then walk 50 paces and make an immediate left into a narrow gully).

Climbing rocky chutes

As I climbed, agave and cacti seemed to gasp for life in every open nook and cranny. I paid them little interest until a cholla sank its thorns into my ankle. A familiar yet bitter discomfort radiated from my leg and I hobbled over to a boulder to sit. There were a dozen barbs in me, and I picked up a nearby stick and wedged it between my skin and the cactus to pry it off. It fell to the ground like a dead tick. The remaining thorns I pulled out with my fingers. Then I spat on the wound to wipe away the blood and pulled my sock over it.

Scrambling up granite boulders

The rest of the way up was a sweaty blur. I slipped into an aerobic void, aware of nothing but the urge to keep going. I clambered up and over car-sized granite boulders, pausing to catch my breath. During these breaks, I would watch the pinyon pines sway in the cool winter breeze until the wind began to bite, then I’d push on to keep warm.

Granite Mountain Panorama

After nearly three hours, I reached the peak with the delight you might feel in sighting an old friend. But the feeling was short-lived, as a fierce wind blew in from the west. I struggled to keep its icy touch from settling in my bones, but it was hard. My clothes were soaked through with sweat and I needed to get them dry. Near my feet, I found a nest of stones huddled around a rusty tin can, inside of which was the summit book. My hands were too numb to pick apart the pages, so I grabbed a handful of stones from the pile and put them in my pockets. Then I untied the jacket from around my neck and placed it on the ground, followed by my wet polyester sun hoodie and my pants. The rocks kept the wind from stealing my clothes as they dried in the low winter sun.

Looking east at my route up with Whale Peak behind

Standing in my briefs, I shivered as I braced against the wind, yelping and yee-hawing to distract myself from the cold. I tried to take in my panoramic view by looking for familiar faces in the distance. San Jacinto Mountain was hidden from me, but I found San Ysidro Mountain and Whale Peak clear as day; as well as Villager, Toro, and Rabbit Peaks. A few others I might have recognized, but my San Diego blood had trouble in the frighteningly cool 50-degree weather. After a quarter-hour, my clothes had dried and I got dressed and watched the sun dip behind the horizon. For a moment, the wind quieted and I stood in a rich twilight among purple hues on the cusp between heaven and earth, drawing the desert into me.

Twilight on granite mountain as the light fades on whale peak

During my descent, I found fragments of a trail marked by rock cairns left behind by bygone hikers. They were easy to follow from the false peaks down to the mountain’s shoulder. But then the trail went cold, and all I saw was a series of unfriendly paths. The desert air was cooling fast, and I stood on a granite boulder like a watchful meerkat, scanning the nearby slope for a safe path down the mountainside. As dusk descended, the terrain started taking on a uniform, lifeless hue, and it was getting harder to distinguish the details. Whale Peak held onto a bit of color, but the red-orange was draining into the valley below, consumed by a deepening shadow. I eventually found a path, though the way was tedious, slow, and uneventful. Night came and my legs carried me back by the light of the stars. With my adventure at an end, I was glad to return to my warm car.

As I made my way home, the city seemed unfamiliar. I felt dazed by the noise and rush of people. A hollow grew in my chest and I was sad that the evening’s desert sunset was receding into memory. I tried to reconcile the two worlds that I live in: one of absence and the other of abundance. But in my post-hike stupor, I felt estranged from both. Eventually, I found comfort wondering in what the next adventure would hold; for who among us knows what the tide will bring tomorrow?

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