Hiking Granite Mountain

Anza-Borrego Desert SP

By Dave Taylor

Stone walls and a roof which looked like dried mud. No timbers buttressed them. Sunlight flooded over my shoulder, penetrating deeply into the shaft. I could stand up now, and against my fears and common sense, I was drawn deeper into the hole. The beam from my pocket flashlight played past the sunlight. I glanced down, right, left, up, looking for life: black widow spiders, mice, coyotes, mountain lions.

Then I heard the squeaking protests of bats.

Have you ever thought about the stone walls that brace the early mountain roads in the desert? Crude looking, but they still work. The walls seem to last longer than the roads. I think of the sheer amount of energy that went into finding and gathering the rocks and then constructing the walls, and doing it well. Surely, there must have been the promise of something of great importance to justify such an effort.

There is such a road going up the side of Granite Mountain. I have thought about it for years. I had never heard nor read anything about the road or Granite Mountain. The topographic map suggested a mile and a half hike to two mines, but Granite Mountain was a pure mystery to me, usually an irresistible lure. Yet, I had never hiked it.


Trail looking east, Sawtooth Mountain Range in the background

Granite Mountain is in the southwest corner of Southern California’s Anza Borrego State Park. It is the northern side of Rodriguez Canyon, just outside the San Ysidro Mining District. It is a transitional zone. The forest from above prods down. The desert from below shoves back.

One Saturday morning, my old buddy, Sharkbait, and my five year-old son, Alex, mustered out for a Granite Mountain hike. We parked in a sparse field of Matilija Poppies and ambled up the light grade of a road that faded to a trail. We found a trailhead sign. That morning, a few wind-torn clouds scudded through a cobalt sky. Silence ruled Rodriguez Canyon. No wind. No birds.

The climb is gradual, which makes the view that overtakes you all that more dramatic. Half a mile into the hike, you are looking south up Oriflamme Canyon, gray with creosote and barren rocks, with a crystal green finger of forest, choked with Sycamores, running down the middle of it; east across Mason Valley, bare, flat, stark, with the Sawtooth Range beyond; and southwest, up Rodriguez Canyon, into the Cleveland National Forest and the Banner mining area.

The old mine road was a garden trail, with creosote-shaded hummingbird trumpet and light gray sage, tender and new. Immense asparagus-like spears pushed up from agave plants. The sticky white heads of buckwheat hugged brittle bush. Elkslip, their location defying all logic, broke out in the shade of cholla and blossoming barrel cactus. Where the road cut deeply into the mountain, desert velvet sprang from the crumbling brown stone wall.

At about a mile and a quarter, the road follows tight switchbacks up to a saddle, and the view changes completely, looking northeast, through Box Canyon. There are little mesas here, covered with agave and cholla, and just where the ground becomes flat, the road disappears. From here, it is a gentle walk down to a crease in the mountain.

This was where the immense solitude of the area struck me, right here, hiking through the saddle. My old friend, my young son. All the humanity left in the world. Melancholy sweetness for all those who had just faded into memory.

Ahead, due north, is a ruby-colored eruption of stone about a hundred feet long and six feet tall. It looks as if it has been frosted by some god-sized pastry chef.

When we reached the mining area, we found that the miners’ cabins are gone. A steep wash is filled with their litter: wood, tin roofing, galvanized water tanks, a metal bed frame, all jumbled and beaten about by Man and nature. In the crease, the drone of bees and flies surrounded a stand of tall brush adorned that day with sticky purplish flowers.

We could see tailings scattered along the mountainside above us. The trail here becomes a rocky pass through huge chunks of quartz. We had reached the ruby red outcrop, which is a solid wall of quartz. The frosting is white quartz embedded in the crimson, exposed by the cut of the grain.

At the closest end of this quartz bastion is a manmade wall of stone. The handiwork seems crude and ancient, especially when compared with some of the massive gold operations further up, toward Julian.

Just behind this, around the right side, is a mine shaft that goes into the wall of quartz, six feet deep. Dark green junipers appear. The cholla gets denser. The trail skirts the south side of this wall, giving a fine view of the surrounding countryside. The area is teaming with cactus: cholla, beavertail, barrel cactus. At the far eastern end of the quartz wall, before a stand of junipers, cut into the stone like a petroglyph, is the inscription "C Redman, 1905."

According to the Geology and Mineral Resources of Santa Ysabel Quadrangle, there was a Redman Mine, part of the Ready Relief group. That, however, is southwest of Banner, and Granite Mountain, with the inscription, is east of Banner. A minor mystery.

We started climbing toward the tailings. I noticed four or five stone walls, primitive, crude, terracing the mountainside. We reached a level spot above the tailings. Rusty metal half-tubes, possibly ore flumes, three feet long, four inches wide, had been pieced together, looking like a surreal hitching post. Behind it, a mine shaft. The sunlight sank far into the shaft, like a beacon. Though my eyes adjusted quickly, I could see no end.

I suddenly had an irresistible urge to go in. The walls were bare, with crude cuts; the floor, dusty, solid. Little debris, no fallen timbers, no collapse of any kind. Deeper I went, fifteen feet, twenty. And still I saw no end, only a path as clear and curiously lit, even without my flashlight. Then the squeaking started.

Bats in the twilight, scurrying about in the heavens over camp. Good. But bats, possibly rabid, trapped in a tunnel with me, a human cork, blocking their escape route. Not good.

I sprinted the twenty feet back to the exit and rocketed out into the sun. My son laughed. "You really moved, Daddy, you really..."

"Bats were a surprise, huh?" Sharkbait gibed. "Lucky there weren't a couple coyotes. Or four."

"Oh, yeah, you knew."

"Well, c'mon, Bats in a mine shaft? Goes without saying..."

We found six shafts, five horizontal, and a vertical one which seems to drift backwards, down into the mountain. One mine had a burrowing creature's nest close to the front of it, with bird feathers and small shattered bones falling out of its eye-level entrance, scattering across the shaft floor.

The sun started failing us, we'd spent the whole day there. We had to get back to the car. From where we parked, the return hike was no more than a mile and a half, with a descent of a thousand feet, from three thousand seven hundred to two thousand seven hundred feet.

Sharkbait wanted me to write about the hike, but not where we had gone. "Make 'em hunt for it, exploration, make 'em guess." He had a point. We didn't see another soul for the whole trip. I hope you have the same luck.

There are two ways to hike Granite Mountain, one if you have a four-wheel drive vehicle and want a short hike, the other if you want to park on the side of Highway S-2 and make a longer hike.

Although it is not on the map, the California Riding and Hiking Trail is west of the dirt road, hugging the base of Granite Mountain. It is marked, somewhat. It ultimately merges with Mason Valley Truck Trail and continues up the same way. Right now the wash requires more scrambling than the Granite Mountain trail. This round trip hike is about seven miles.


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