Toro Peak • Southern Riverside County
• Range Highpoint: Santa Rosa Mountains
• Highpoint: Santa Rosa Indian Reservation

Date Climbed
May 28, 2008

8,716 feet

4 miles

2.5 hours

1,100 feet

Breezy, clear

3,996 feet

Click on the thumbnail to see a full-size version

Toro Peak is the highpoint on the left of the ridge. Santa Rosa Mountain is the highpoint toward the right

Interesting "graffiti" on the drive up the road

Toro's summit peeks out from the trees along the road

Climbing directly up the
slopes, the summit is in view

Getting closer

The final few feet to the top

And the top

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Toro Peak is the highest summit of the Santa Rosa Mountains, a compact but towering range located south of Palm Desert and Rancho Mirage in Riverside County. Although "only" 8,716 feet high, Toro Peak is a thoroughly impressive mountain due to its huge prominence (nearly 4,000 vertical feet) and lack of foothills, giving the range the appearance of being essentially one giant mountain. The Santa Rosa Range is not far from the higher Mount San Jacinto, but Toro's impressiveness is hardly diminished by San Jacinto's own grandeur. As viewed from the south in Anza-Borrego, one sees the full 8,500-foot vertical differential from summit to low desert. It is truly a beautiful sight.

Getting to the summit of Toro should be easy enough, since a 4-wheel drive road (the Santa Rosa Mountain Truck Trail) winds up from state highway CA-74 all the way to its summit, where there is an assortment of communications towers and a lookout. However, it took me two tries to visit the top, the first culminating in a near fight with some tower workers.

A year ago (May 2007), I was here on the tail end of a four-day tour of peaks in Southern California. I planned to visit Toro Peak’s summit, then drive some miles on the way back to Phoenix. On that trip I drove the steep road to a Y-junction about 12 miles from the highway. I got my boots on and figured a quick one-hour round-trip up the remainder of the road. As I approached the top there were lots of work trucks parked along the road. This is not unusual and something I had encountered many times before, never with a problem.

Closer to the top I came upon a group of workers and just continued on past them, but they stopped and came toward me. One guy, the leader I assume, started to give me lip about “being on Federal Indian Property”. I asked if it would be fine if I walked the final few feet to the top, then I’d be on my way. Again, the leader started to get all worked up. He asked me if I knew I was on Indian land and if I had seen the sign. I tactically played it dumb and answered no to both questions. He suggested I “better turn around right now.” He was pissed, moreso than he should have been. It was a bad scene, and not getting any better.

In the meantime, his work buddies had circled me. It looked like a rough crowd. The numbers were not in my favor so what choice did I have? I turned around and walked out. So frustrating, so close to the top. Naturally I was not happy about how this all went. It’s one thing to be told to get lost, but another thing to be surrounded by a bunch of white-trash losers itching for a fight. What bugged me was the mock air of authority this guy put on, as if he gave a hoot himself about this being Indian land.

So here it is May 2008, and a good time to be looking at Toro once again. With a week off before teaching, and a freak cold-front that moved through the Southwest dropping temperatures about 15-20 degrees below normal, the SoCal desert peaks looked enticing where otherwise they’d be too hot this time of year. Once again, I placed Toro on the back-end, convenient on my way back to Arizona. The first two peaks went well, Rodman Mountain and Ord Mountain near Lucerne Valley in the high desert. Then, a fun visit with my brother’s family and my favorite niece and nephew. And finally, on my way back to 'zona, my second tangle with Toro.

I arrived in the Palm Desert area around noon in pleasant conditions (80s instead of 100s), got some food and supplies, and started up the Palms-to-Pines highway (CA-74). From the intersection with CA-111 in Palm Desert, it is 18 miles up CA-74 to the Santa Rosa Mountain Road, marked by a sign mentioning Santa Rosa Mountain being 10 miles ahead. Toro (unmentioned on the sign) is about 3-4 miles farther via the road. The road itself is bumpy, narrow, exposed and sometimes rough. Four-wheel drive is mandatory, in my opinion. It’s not really the most scenic mountain road as too much of the views are obscured by trees, foreground hills and chaparral scrub. Mostly, the road is a chore, and hope no one is coming in the opposite direction.

After about an hour, I passed the turn-off to Santa Rosa Mountain, and another mile and a half later, I parked in a broad clearing called "Toro Camp" on the map. This is a campground, but the forest service seems to use it as a place to store cut logs for transport. It’s very ugly. It was about 2 p.m., and I had enough provisions for an overnight camp. I had plans A, B and C for the peak, including possible middle-of-the-night hikes in the moonlight if need be. Nevertheless, I thought to go with plan A first, to hike the road to the top and hope no one was home.

I parked about a mile short of the Y-junction mentioned on my first attempt. The road walk along this stretch was easy and mostly level, and went quickly. In time I came to the Y-junction. On a tree right at the junction, the Forest Service taped a big sign saying “No Entry, Fire Danger”. I continued on a few more feet to the gate that spans the road, presumably at the Indian Reservation boundary (up to this point the entire route is within the San Bernardino National Forest). A newer “no trespassing” sign was on the gate, describing the penalties for entrance. I could have conceivably played ignorant on one sign, but not on two. The gate was also open, which suggested there may be someone up there. So I entered with some caution.

After a few minutes of hiking up the road, I decided to make myself invisible, leaving the road and starting directly up the slopes. I was at a point where I could see the summit towers about 600 feet up and a half-mile distant. I hiked up the slopes, which was a mix of branches, brush, open areas and rocks, with solid footing. Big trees hid me well, and I could see parts of the road but never saw anyone or any vehicles. The rocks start in earnest about 200 feet below the summit. From below, the rocks looks very jumbled and possibly cliffy, but up close it’s easy scrambling. I came to the top directly, achieving the summit rocks, careful to observe if there was anyone about. No one was home, but I didn’t stay long. I had no desire to meet anyone. A couple of quick photos to document my visit, and I started down. Last year on my "almost-got-beat-up" hike, I went slow and admire the views, especially looking down into the Anza-Borrego region to the southeast. This time, there was no time for views.

For the downhill trip I felt slightly more confident there was no one up here to hassle me so I started to walk down the road, which zig-zags steeply in this section. I passed the area where I had my "chat" with the tower workers from last year. A little lower down there is one last building, and I could hear a generator buzzing. Again, this is not uncommon to hear, since they are often on timers, but in this case there was the outside chance of someone actually there, keeping in mind the gate below was open when I walked up. Thus, I thought it wise to hide myself again and ducked back into the trees.

The downhill went very quickly, the pine-needle mat on the slopes making for easy steps all the way down. I came back to the road still inside the prohibited area. As I hiked down on the road, I could see the road coming up and see if anyone might be driving up. If so, it would be easy to just jump into the forest again and hide. But no one came along, and I quickly hiked out past the gate, back on to legal land. The walk back to my truck took another 15 minutes, and my total round-trip was 2.5 hours.

It was getting real cold and breezy up here, so I decided against camping here and opted to put in some miles back to Arizona. The drive down took an hour, then another hour from there back to Interstate-10 (including stops for photographs). I camped in the desert southwest of Blythe at the Wileys Well BLM campground, south of the giant Chuckwalla Valley State Prison. With Toro Peak done, I have no reason ever to go back up that road or retry that peak. I cannot comment for sure what the overall access is like. It seems others have had no trouble at all. My attempt last year must have been a fluke, given what I encountered. It feels good to get it done and out of the way.

It is interesting to note that the Desert Peaks Section of the Sierra Club has at times included Toro Peak on its list, and at other times has excluded it due to its cloudy access situation. This is presumably not new: one reference shows that in 1975 the peak was excluded from the list, but then again added back on ... and very recently, excluded again, probably for the very reasons I describe here. It's amusing to note that the DPS instead suggests a hike to the "Toro West" summit, in which one ascends the slope above the gate, ascending to a bump slightly west of the true summit and thereby staying off the restricted property.

(c) 2008, 2013 Scott Surgent. For entertainment purposes only. This report is not meant to replace maps, compass, gps and other common sense hiking/navigation items. Neither I nor the webhost can be held responsible for unfortunate situations that may arise based on these trip reports. Conditions (physical and legal) change over time! Some of these hikes are major mountaineering or backpacking endeavors that require skill, proper gear, proper fitness and general experience.