Picacho del Diablo Attempt
(Our first attempt derailed by rain... and machaca)

18-21 Nov 2016 - by Mark Stickel

A group of us have been itching to get out and do some backpacking this year, and our calendars didn't line up until the weekend before Thanksgiving. This limited our options... the Sierras were out due to snow, and there wasn't much in Southern California that we haven't already done. So we looked south.

Picacho del Diablo is the tallest point in Baja, at more than 10,000 feet tall. It's located in (actually, it's just outside the boundary of) Parque Nacional Sierra de San Pedro Martir, a Mexico national park that's about a 6 hour drive south of San Diego. I read about other attempts on climber.org and it sounded challenging and interesting. This was the perfect time to attempt it.

We drove down to Ensenada on Friday night so our drive on Saturday wouldn't be as long. Earlier that day I had discovered that the Baja 1000 was going on at the same time. This turned out not to be a problem, other than paying inflated gringo prices for a mediocre Ensenada motel room.

On Saturday we got up early, filled up at the Pemex and headed south. There is a military checkpoint just south of Maneadero that we got stopped at. When we told the soldier we were headed south to go climb a mountain, he looked at us sideways like we were crazy and waved us through. Highway 1 south of Maneadero winds through some hilly areas, which of course they're doing road construction on. We got stuck behind a couple of slow trucks and buses but this didn't cost us too much time since we were able to pass.

Near the turn off from the main highway to the park is a town called Punta Colonet. There's not much here other than a Pemex, a couple of shops and some agricultural businesses, but we did manage to locate an tasty spot for breakfast, called Las Palmas. It's nothing more than a room with a kitchen in the back, attached to a house. We walked in and there were only two other people in there, so we figured it would be a quick stop for desayunos. But as it turned out, at least half the town had placed an order to go ahead of us, so we ended up waiting for about an hour. The food was definitely worth the wait - get the machaca and chilaquiles. But it did slow us down quite a bit.

After breakfast, we headed up the hill to the park. The road is paved, winding, and has some really fun / damaging bumps and dips (depending on what kind of car you have). I think we achieved flight at least once on these.

An hour later, we were at the park entrance station. 60 pesos per person per day gets you in to the park. This equates to roughly $3, and in my opinion is a steal. The park is an amazing place that will challenge everything you think you know about Baja. It was well worth the small fee to enter.

At the entrance station, we asked in broken spanish about water at Campo Noche, which is where we intended to camp both nights out on the trail. The ranger did not know, but another guy there did. He indicated that there was plenty of water down in the canyon at Campo Noche.

We proceeded on to the trailhead, which is easy to find once you turn off onto the correct dirt road. The drive is really beautiful along this section of the road: scrub brush and chapparal have given way to Jeffrey pines, large granite rock faces, open meadows, and dry sandy washes. It reminded me of some of the mountain areas near Idyllwild and on San Jacinto peak.

The road ends at a small parking area that has some trash cans and a teepee-looking structure, and though the road continues, it's signed for hiking only beyond this point. Initially we started off down this road, but the guy who informed us about the water was also attempting the same hike with his family, and steered us in the right direction. They appeared concerned that we had no idea what we were doing. Their concern was probably a little bit justified, though we didn't quite know what we were getting in to yet.

The trail starts up a wash and is very faint. At times we lost the trail and hiked directly up the wash. After about a mile, the trail veers off to the left of the wash, up a small hill, and then through an aspen grove. At this point, we completely lost the trail and started bushwhacking up another wash. This wasn't the right way to go. My map indicated the trail was somewhere to the south of us, so we cut up the hill. We then ran into the same family group, who had caught up to us despite being much slower. We followed this crew up the trail to a saddle, then down a wash, until they took a break and we passed them once again.

At this point, the trail veered off to the left, up a ravine. This was the final approach to Cerro Botella Azul, and it was a tricky one. The trail was very faint at this point, so we ended up just hiking up the wash, through brush, around boulders and fallen trees. Near the top of the wash there is a bit of scrambling over some rock slabs. It was getting dark due to the sun setting and also increasing cloudiness. We reached the top of the wash (Blue Bottle Saddle) just as the last daylight was fading. At the top of the saddle we got our first glimpse of Picacho del Diablo.

Our original intention was to hike all the way to Campo Noche in one day, but there was clearly no way to attempt the scramble down 3000 feet of brush-choked gorge in the dark, so we set up camp in a sheltered area at the saddle. At this point, the wind started kicking up and it started raining. Luckily, this quickly passed and we were able to whip up dinner on the stove. The wind continued to kick up and the temperature was dropping, so we decided to call it a night and go to sleep.

The next morning, we awoke to dark clouds, intermittent rain, and high winds. After a quick discussion, we decided to call it and head back out. It wasn't going to be possible or safe to hike all the way down to Campo Noche, dump gear, and then climb the 4,000 feet up to Picacho del Diablo, and then back down - in the rain, all in one day. We packed up and started hiking down.

The route back out took us virtually no time at all, despite it raining nearly the entire time we hiked. We reached the car at 9:45am, quickly tossed our soaking wet packs in the car, and cranked the heat. The air temp outside at the trailhead was 45. We might have seen some snow had we stayed another night at the saddle.

We drove back to Ensenada (stopping at a couple of good wineries along the way), and then made the obligatory visit to Hussong's where half the town was singing along to a mariachi band. On Monday, we headed back north across the border.

Final score: Picacho del Diablo 1, Nosotros 0. But we got to backpack into an amazing place, and we know what to do next time. We will make the return trip and try it again in the spring. Next time: skip the machaca, skip the rain, and get an earlier start. We'll probably drive all the way to the trailhead and spend the night there so we can get a full day to get to Campo Noche.

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