Cerro El Centinela • Sierra Cucapa
• Baja California Norte, Mexico


El Centinela


Still down on the
lower portion


Break time. Looking back
at the blue tower. The USA
is in back


More uphill hiking


Coming to the first false
summit with the antenna


Looking at the true south summit


Summit lunch!


Peaks to the southeast


Laguna Salada


Some of the team


Marker left by Sr. Tiznada,
who climbed the peak 150+ times


From the north summit,
looking back at our route


South summit from north summit


Cross at north summit


On the descent, coming
to the stegosaurus

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Date: December 18, 2010 • Elevation: 2,493 feet • Prominence: 2,165 feet • Distance: 5 miles • Time: 5 hours and 45 minutes • Gain: 2,600 feet • Conditions: Cool with slight ground fog, high clouds • Teammates: Scott Casterlin, Brian McNeece, and about 10 others

El Centinela ("The Sentinel") rises suddenly from the desert plain south of California's Imperial Valley. Given the flatness of the valley, the simple fact that there's a peak there at all is surprising. It dominates the southern horizon from everywhere in southern Imperial County. I had always assumed the peak was inside the United States.

On a trip to the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park a few years ago, my wife and I detoured onto state route CA-98 instead of Interstate-8. Highway 98 runs along the Mexican border, often within a mile of it, and when abeam of the mountain, I "discovered" that it was actually barely over the boundary inside Mexico. I still didn't know it's name, but I saw old signs on shuttered buildings in the area that said "Mount Signal". This was a lead, which I could follow up on later.

The peak is actually the northernmost of a set of ranges in Baja California, a small "mini-cordillera" that extends south about forty miles. The border runs immediately north of the northernmost base of the peak. In the old days, e.g. into the 1990s, hikers from the American side would simply pop over the line, hike the peak, and return. Nowadays, it's not that simple.

In my research, I consistently came upon the name of Dr. Brian McNeece, a professor at the Imperial Valley College in El Centro, and an expert about the borderlands region. He makes regular trips into Mexico and has climbed the peak over a dozen times. With nothing to lose, I emailed him and expressed an interest, and although it took more than a year to get a trip organized, Dr. McNeece let it be known to me that a group was going in December of 2010, and I was invited. I invited Scott Casterlin from Tucson to join me. We would be the Arizona contingent.

Scott and I left Scottsdale in the evening of the 9th, driving in the dark through Yuma and finding a quiet place to camp in the sands off Ted Kipf Road, northwest of Ogilby Road near the Algodones Dunes. Early the next morning, we rode into the southeast corner of civilization, technically within Holtville, to meet Ralph S., a friend of Brian and with whom we'd be riding as we entered into Mexico. Ralph is a farmer, and like many who live this way, has a keen interest in the situation along the border, plus years of valuable experience.

We rolled into Calexico to meet the rest, our team numbering 11, a mix of people ranging from a couple of teenagers, some young men and women, to old guys like me. We met Brian there, and all shook hands. They seemed like a good group. We discussed the general plan, then got to the real task: entering into Mexicali, then driving west toward the peak. The day was cool and sunny, and very pleasant.

Being a passenger with Ralph was a godsend. We entered into Mexicali, and Ralph was able to weave through the warren of side streets toward Mexican Route-2, the main east-west highway through the city. For now, the streets were bare of people and the whole place was still and quiet. Soon, our convoy was out of the main city and into the desert hinterlands. Centinela rose high to the west, its profile more elongated and less "pointed" from this vantage than from the usual vantage we see from the north. We stopped for tacos along the way. I kept mine for a summit lunch later in the day.

About 7 miles west of Mexicali, we turned north onto a side road near a "Karne" stockyard, then followed that almost to the border with the USA itself. We then turned west and followed a lesser road toward the north-tip of the range, notable for a large blue acqueduct snaking up the hill. These large tubes take water from the Colorado River to Tijuana, and one of the pumping stations was situated atop a spit of land at the north base of the range. At times, we were within feet of the border, and could see U.S. Border Patrol vehicles parked on the other side, about 150 feet away.

We continued west past the pumping station to a Mexican military encampment. The dozen or so Mexican military guys work here as part of the border interdiction patrol. Brian and his pals speak fluent Spanish and were able to get us the okay to go on past them and up the steep road to the top of the ridge, to that pumping station situated up there. Finally, we parked and this is where we'd start our hike. Getting to this point was an adventure in itself, and something I would not have been able to do on my own. Already, tagging along with Dr. McNeece and his group was paying huge dividends.

The hike follows a beaten path most of the way to the summit, but it is steep with three or four sections of low-end rock scrambling and other sections of loose chossy rock on steep slope. We followed a path from our parking area, gaining onto the spine of this northeast ridge. Here, the going was easy, but soon we came upon the first obstacle, a series of rock outcrops (Brian calls them the "stegosaurus").

A couple of spots on this section narrow to a "dull" knife-edge, with a foot of actual room, while another spot requires a short traverse over a twenty-foot drop. However, the rock is solid and we all got past it without any drama. After a few more yards, the trail comes to a small saddle below a steep slope. Some in the party went straight up the slope, others (including me) went left along a rough path and up a more lenient slope, but with looser rubble. Next, we reconvened and hiked up the path steeply upwards, aiming for a hilltop.

Past this hilltop, the trail drops about 150 feet to another saddle. It's also here that the first false summit comes into view, covered in antennae. Three trails go up from this saddle. We chose the middle one (The right trail also works but is longer, while the left-most trail seems to end halfway up the hillside). This segment put us onto the west-facing slopes of Centinela, in a big bowl formed by a couple of ridges. The main ridge was to our left, while a gentler ridge went to our right.

Here, the team split again. Ralph, Scott and I went right up this gentler ridge, but then had to climb a very steep gully strewn with big boulders to gain the main ridge. Some of the others went up the main ridge, with big rock outcrops. A few tried one way, then opted for the other. We all convened on top this main ridge, now directly below the first false summit, the one with the antennae. We had been hiking for two hours, making good time.

The path continues south past this false summit, sidehills briefly, then the second false summit comes into view, but with a steep drop to a saddle and rocky ascent to this second summit. Brian assured us "40 more minutes", and it was never as bad as it looked. The path petered out in the rocks, so we clambered up steep rock slopes, which were mostly solid but a few places where rock was loose. A magnitude-7 quake from last March knocked rocks down in spots. Signs of recent rockfall were evident, and some of the people who'd been up here before commented on these new "soft" spots.

The group split into small teams and we strung out slightly, with Brian assuring us "40 more minutes" a few more times. After the rocky ridge, the trail crosses over the second false summit, on which sits a small cross. Fortunately, the actual highpoint is just a few more yards south, requiring a drop of 30 feet to a lowpoint, then up to the top. And Brian was right: 40 minutes from the first false summit, and we were here. It had been a grueling hike, but we had all made it in about 2 hours, 40 minutes.

We all sat and had a restful break and lunch atop the broad summit. I had those tacos for my lunch. The summit features a big cross and artful graffiti painted on nearby rocks, put on by the peak's most famous climber, a Sr. Tiznada. To the south were the rest of the Cucapa Mountains, and a big salt playa (Laguna de Salada) to the west. Way off to the southwest we could see the profile of Picacho del Diablo, the highest summit on the Baja California peninsula. Looking north we could see desert, farms and peaks inside California, but haze obscured the Salton Sea. Looking east we could see more desert and farm fields, but the main part of Mexicali was hidden beneath mist and haze. After about 30 minutes, we started the walk down.

Back at the second false summit, we walked over to the smaller cross and walked the area. Personally, I couldn't be sure which summit was the highest. We crossed that rocky ridge back to the first (antenna) summit, reconvened, then all of us went down the main ridge that some of us, including me, had bypassed coming up. It went well, and getting through the rocks wasn't too bad, but we had the advantage of seeing ways through the rocks from above that would have been difficult to see from below.

We would spread out on the easy parts, reconvene at the saddles, then spread out again as we all made our way down. The "stegosaurus" section wasn't too bad but it took some time to get past. We arrived back to the cars at 2:30 p.m., where we each enjoyed a cerveza. The hike had taken a shade under 6 hours. It was a well-earned peak.

We rumbled back down the road, said adios to the military guys who were taking it easy for the time being. The real action doesn't start until nightfall, and we didn't want to stick around. We drove into Mexicali, where we had a post-hike dinner at a Chinese restaurant. There is a significant Chinese population in Mexicali, partly a result of onerous American immigration policies from the early 20th-century, where the Chinese were essentially forced to leave, many taking up residence in Mexico.

I thoroughly enjoyed the drive through Mexicali, this being my first time here. A common theme in Mexican cities is the incredible mish-mash of buildings, very modern to the very old, pristine clean to covered in graffiti, and big colorful signs everywhere, everywhere, everywhere. It was visual overload, but fascinating.

Here, we said our goodbyes. The others would re-enter the United States at Calexico. Ralph drove Scott and I to the eastern Garita 2 (Gate 2) border crossing, bypassing the long lines at the main Mexicali-Calexico crossing. Finding this crossing was tricky since the signs don't always mention where to go, but Ralph figured it out. He has a special pass that allows him to bypass the lines, which were lengthy here, too. Instead of waiting upwards of two hours in line, he went right up to the crossing. Scott and I had to exit and go through the walk-through customs. The whole thing took just 20 minutes. Ralph then picked us up again, and we drove back to his farm nearby, where we said our goodbyes. Scott and I then piled into my truck for the 4-hour drive back to Scottsdale, arriving about 10:30 p.m.

The whole journey had gone extremely well, and I cannot thank Brian, Ralph and everyone enough for their kindness and knowledge that made the logistics of getting into (and out of) Mexico, getting to the peak, getting past the military guys, and knowing the route, so much simpler than had I gone by myself. Every single person was cool, patient, and friendly. For a group of 11, there was no discord whatsoever, and they were very kind to us Arizona strangers. It was a truly fun day's journey and great way to get another neat Mexican summit. I deeply thank Brian for his organization of the hike, and Ralph for driving us over, and everyone else for their great camaraderie.

(c) 2010, 2016 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.