Picacho del Diablo
(The Peak of the devil, Baja's highest peak)

16-20 Apr 2013 - by Dave Miller

A climb of Picacho del Diablo can be quite the adventure...a remote wilderness, wild terrain, snakes, etc. I've always compared it to some type of Indiana Jones adventure. This trip was my 5th successful summit of Picacho.

Our trip began with a stay at the Rancho Meling Guest ranch on the road to the San Pedro Martir National Park, about a 4 1/2 hour drive south of San Diego. Rancho Meling is a working guest ranch with good food, comfortable rooms and even a swimming pool which make it a great place to stay before entering the park.

I usually choose April as the best month to climb Picacho del Diablo. It seems to offer the best combination of good weather and cool temps. When it gets hotter later in May, the rattlesnakes become an issue down in Canon Diablo. The snakes here are known to be more aggressive than their counterparts elsewhere and in the past I've experienced that first hand! I've never seen a snake in April though. I've also had good conditions in November, but shorter days.

There is a park entrance fee payable at the gate and it's best to check there to see if the gate on the road to the Blue Bottle (Botella Azul) trailhead is unlocked. If it's not, it does add about a mile each way to your approach. On April 17th we were able to drive all the way to the trailhead. We began our hike to the rim of the Canon Diablo in great weather. The first 6 miles or so are on gentle and easy off trail terrain with some cairns for navigational help. Once arriving at the rim of the canyon, you get your first good views of Picacho del Diablo as well as the Sea or Cortez. This is also the last time you will actually see the summit of Picacho until you are feet from the top.

After a lunch break at the rim, it's a tedious 2800 ft descent down into the bottom of Canon Diablo. This involves a lot of bushwacking, boulder hopping and a little scrambling. From the rim it's best to traverse towards the notch to the East farther than you think before moving directly down. We found some small snow patches on the traverse. Once on the canyon floor, the vegetation becomes lush and the creek is flowing well. The creek is year round and there is always water available. We found a lot of cairns on this last trip (maybe too many!), and as usual, some of them will lead you astray. It's a good 3/4 mile boulder hop along the canyon bottom to our goal for the first night, Campo Noche. Campo Noche has two tiers and room for at least 10 tents if need be. There's also a wonderful pool right there. It's so pristine here I doubt you would have to filter your water, but we did anyway.

The ring tail cats were going off at Campo Noche! Bear canisters or a very good hang is highly advised as these little bandits are very aggressive. Don't leave food in your tent.

On day three we began our ascent of Picacho at first light. It begins with ascending Night Wash directly above camp, you then cross into another sub wash to the left before cresting out into the massive Slot Wash. You basically stay on the right side of Slot wash following cairns until you arrive beneath a large rock buttress that divides the wash. You then pass underneath this buttress and take the left fork of the wash ascending up and to the left of the actual wash. At this junction, water is found in pools.

Soon after taking the left branch of Slot Wash, the wash opens up a bit and that signals the time to start looking for another side branch up to the left again. Shortly after taking the new left side branch, you will hopefully spot Wall Street up and to the right. Wall Street is the key to the climb, if you don't find it you may not make the summit and spend the rest of your day getting cliffed out. Wall Street lives up to it's name and begins with a steep granite wall on it's left side and then quickly narrows with walls on both sides. You will find some 3rd class scrambling here.

Eventually Wall Street opens up and you basically head straight up following the path of least resistance until eventually you hit the summit ridge and can see down into the Sea of Cortez. The true summit (the North Summit) is just a few minutes up and to the left. We had spectacular views on this trip and could see pretty much down towards the Pacific Ocean and were able to clearly see the San Felipe area along the Sea of Cortez.

The entire summit day is on very rough off-trail terrain full of large boulders, brush and some scree. Not for the feint of heart! The micro route finding is a lot more tedious than my trip report suggests and there are no "cruiser" sections. Like all desert peaks though, the rewards are big! We did find an extraordinary number of cairns, but of course you can't count on that. The decent back to camp takes just a little less time than the ascent due to the tedious nature of the terrain. We arrived back about 7 hours after leaving camp, the quickest I've ever done Picacho. My guests John and Art were in very good shape and used to this type of terrain.

The last day was the big hike back out of Canon Diablo. Once we arrived at the rim we saw the only other people I've seen in the last three trips down here, a couple guys from San Diego who were making their second attempt. We arrived back at Rancho Meling just in time for a hot shower, Tecate beer and a big meal! On the last day, we chose to drive back to California through the town of Tecate which took us through the beautiful Baja wine country along highway 3. Tecate's border crossing is much less hectic than San Ysidro.

All in all a great trip and I am already looking forward to my next Baja adventure!

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