Jacumba Mountain 4512′
Total Time: 3:50
Roundtrip Mileage: 5.0 miles
Elevation Gain: 2600′
Crux: Class 2-3
Trailhead: Mortero Palms, no facilities
Jacumba Mountain is the southernmost summit in California on the Sierra Club’s Desert Peak Section List in the United States. Only a few miles north of the US-Mexico border, Jacumba is at the southern edge of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and sees comparatively less traffic compared to the bulk of the park near Borrego Springs. Having already driven west for a climb of Picacho Peak that morning, I hauled another two hours west for a climb of Jacumba in the afternoon, with plans to climb Sombrero Peak and Whale Mountain the following day. Cutting through the small border town of Ocotillo, I headed north into Anza-Borrego SP before heading west along a good dirt road. There was really only one spot where high clearance was required, and the road was for the most part sandy with the occasional rock. The climb starts at the trailhead for Mortero Palms, a small fan palm oasis tucked in a canyon at the base of Jacumba. I was surprised to find about 10 other cars at the parking lot, and I half expected to find a DPS outing group during my climb.
I didn’t bother to check my map starting out and hiked directly up the wash, finding it featured a lot more scrambling than I expected with large boulders filling the canyon. I rounded the bend and encountered a small collection of palm trees, but was surprised to find no other hikers despite the full lot at the trailhead.
Moving past the small palm grove (only about 4 trees) I came to a large split in the canyon about 0.25 miles further. I knew that the summit of Jacumba was slightly south, so I took the left canyon which I thought angled a bit more towards the summit, still not bothering to consult my map or GPS. As I ascended the not-very-steep canyon, I had my first views of the summit directly above.
Near the top of the drainage, the terrain looked to become flatter based on the map. In reality, it was a mess of weaving washes spilling in random directions. None were very deep, but it took some time to cross the various depressions to reach the final steep slope up to the summit. I finally checked my map for the first time since starting out, and was surprised to find I had taken the completely wrong canyon, heading up the large canyon south of Mortero Palms (which explains why the grove I encountered was unimpressive and had no hikers to be found). Thankfully, this canyon was actually a more direct line towards Jacumba and if anything had saved me some time. I was finding cross country in this side of the Sonoran Desert overall more forgiving than in Arizona with the terrain considerably less brushy, so I aimed for the large ridge running east from the summit and started directly up. The ridge steepened considerably, and I tried to utilize the various boulders to keep from sliding in the loose sand.
About halfway upslope, I was surprised to find the cacti replaced by junipers at such a low elevation. Working around them was a bit more tedious than the sparse cacti, but the grade began to ease the higher I went, ultimately topping out at a false summit just east of the high point. From there it was a quick 5 minute walk to the surprisingly blocky summit with recently replaced summit register. It looked like I was again the first to summit the peak in 2017, although this peak saw way more action than Picacho, being a short drive from San Diego. The sun was already quite low bringing some beautiful lighting across the desert, and I could see Whale Peak far to the north and the mountains spilling into Mexico to the south.
With the sun setting quickly, I knew I would be cutting it close and I did not linger at the summit long. Looking like it might be faster to descend the drainage rather than the east ridge, I hiked north a few hundred yards before dropping into the broad drainage on the east face. The upper third was fantastic- sandy slopes that I could quickly plunge-step down. Halfway down became more tedious as the cacti blended with scrubby juniper, and I found myself dancing out of the brush.
There was a decent sized dry fall that I had to work around, but beyond that the brush improved and I dropped completely into the sandy bottom. Following the drainage put me on a path directly towards a prominent pinnacle that divided several of the subdrainages all leading towards the trailhead. Wanting to see the true Mortero Palms, I cheated north trying to work into the correct drainage. But a nice, wide sandy wash became too inviting to pass up, and I followed this instead, ultimately rejoining my ascent route at the first major junction of the canyon shortly above the small palm grove. I reached my car just as the sun was beginning to set, and drove back to Ocotillo to house an entire pizza at the Lazy Lizard Saloon (highly recommended). After chatting with some people out from San Diego for the day, I headed back in to the park to get some sleep before another early morning tackling Sombrero and Whale before a long drive home…