Distance: 6.25 miles | Hiking time: 4-5 hours | Difficulty: 7/10 | More trail info.
The week before last, John, a friend of mine from Instagram (@adventuregraham), reached out and asked if I’d like to join him on a hike up Grapevine Mountain in the Anza Borrego Desert. I jumped at the opportunity.
Not only is Grapevine Mountain #51/100 on the Sierra Club’s 100 Peaks of San Diego list, but I had hiked with John before and was certain this would be an adventure.
Grapevine Mountain is an obscure hike located close to a remote region of the PCT in northeastern San Diego, about 12 miles east of Julian. There are a couple of routes you can take for getting to the summit. The first, described in Jerry Schad’s Afoot & Afield in San Diego County, describes a route that approaches from the backside of the mountain. Ours was to be a lesser known route that begins in a nondescript ravine somewhere on the side of the mountain off the PCT.
I arrived at the trailhead parking lot south of Grapevine Mountain on the corner of HWY 78 and San Felipe Rd. shortly before 8 am on a Sunday morning. The skies were clear and the air was already warm. Spring has just arrived and yet, in San Diego spring is already starting to feel like summer.
Looking up towards Grapevine Mountain I could tell that shade was going to be sparse if it was going to be available at all. And with the temperature already hovering around 70, I figured it was going to be another classic desert hike under a scorching Southern California sun.
Shortly after I got there, John showed up with three other friends he had invited on the adventure. Everyone was geared up and ready to go, and within a couple minutes of their arrival we were off hiking the PCT.
The PCT trail crosses HWY 78 just a hundred yards or so east of the parking lot. We took the long way around to get the full experience and hiked west towards the bridge, then under it, where we found a water stash left by trail angels for PCT thru hikers. After crossing under the bridge, we picked up the PCT and headed east toward the spot where it crosses HWY 78.
It wasn’t the most direct approach, but it was a fun little detour.
Right from the start of our hike we were seeing evidence of the desert’s wildflower blooms. The hillsides were bright with hues of green cactus and yellow and purple wildflowers. Later in the day, on our return hike, the wildflowers were even more spectacular as they opened up to take in the life-giving rays of the late morning sun.
The trail was well-groomed and easy to follow as we climbed our way up the switchbacks toward the crossing where we would start our scramble for the summit.
I didn’t know exactly what to expect from this hike, so I blindly followed John until he suddenly stopped. Here, in a narrow section of the trail, was a small wash that was densely populated with thick vegetation. John said, “This is it,” and headed off into the brush.
We made our way along the wash, being careful to avoid sharp and pointy things along the way, for about a hundred yards or so until we came to a dry waterfall. The waterfall, which was the only major obstacle in our journey, was eight or ten feet tall. Fortunately, it had plenty of hand and foot holds, so the scramble was actually fairly easy.
Beyond the waterfall the hike mainly consisted of boulder hopping and cactus dodging. About half of us were lucky enough to make it through virtually unscathed. The rest of us suffered the standard fate of desert hikes like this one and ended up pulling Cholla cactus thorns out of our legs and other regions of our bodies.
The scramble lasted for about an hour before we finally reached the first summit. It was a false summit, but we could see a clear path to our destination, so we took a minute to relax and enjoy the views before continuing our hike.
Safely out of the ravine we had been hiking in, the most difficult part of our hike was over. From here it was a relatively easy hike with some light scrambling and cactus dodging for about the last half-mile.
Once we reached the summit, we found a couple of geological survey markers and a geocache. I opened up the geocache while the rest of the group broke out their summit snacks. Its contents were fairly unremarkable, just a couple of summit registers and a pencil or two.
I handed off one of the registers to John, who began flipping through its pages and reading the notes left by previous visitors. Among them was a note left by another good friend of ours, and a well-known San Diego peakbagger, Jason (@sdhiker).
As we sat around taking in the views and sharing our snacks, we chatted about the adventure we had. Following John on a hike is no guarantee of anything except a good time and a lot of itchy scratches that will likely take a week or so to heal. This hike was no different.
The views were beautiful. From the summit we were able to see the Salton Sea beyond the Superstition Mountains to the east, San Jacinto to the northeast, Cuyamaca Peak to the west, and Granite Mountain to the South.
When we finished our hike, we headed into Julian and stopped by the Nickel Beer Company for some friendly chat and a some cold micro brews.
The brewery, with its rustic interior and outdoor patio, has a small town feel to it. The staff was friendly and engaging. The lines at the counter moved quickly and were a true indicator of how good the brewery’s beer is. They have a wide selection of brews to suit virtually any palette and offer a few snacks as well to round out the experience.
A few words of advice, however, don’t go in hungry. I was starving and was hoping for lunch. I kept hoping for lunch for the next few hours until I got back home because, hey, it’s a brewery, not a restaurant. They do beer, not food.
My Runkeeper Stats:
- Miles: 6.22
- Time hiking: 2:56:01
- Calories burned: 876
- Cover up those legs if you want to minimize cactus damage
- Wear good shoes for the scramble and don’t step on a cactus
- Bring sunglasses and sunscreen
- Carry a minimum of two liters of water, three during warmer months
- There’s very little shade, so avoid this trail during summer and early fall
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