The Mountains of California
Stage Benchmark • Tierra Blanca Mountains
• Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
• San Diego County

The peak as seen from the start of the hike. The day was clouded over at first, so the colors were muted as a result

Now in the inner pasture, looking at the rocks I need to ascend and the peak up there somewhere

I walked up the ridge at the right, to the left of the gully

Looking down at the Inner Pasture, and a conga-line of cholla cactus being led by a barrel cactus

About a third of the way up. Lots of cholla

About half-way up, the summit is still hidden behind the ridge above

Another view about another hundred feet higher

After getting to one side of a subridge, I finally see the top

The top, finally

North view of Stick Scott and of the Inner Pasture, with a very old landing strip back there

South view

East view. That bump is about ten feet lower in elevation

Whale Peak

General summit area and benchmark

View of the summit from within the canyon

Montage of canyon views

Whale Peak as I re-emerge back to the highway

The strange "street" sign along the highway

Date: December 28, 2014 • Elevation: 2,816 feet • Prominence: 1,016 feet • Distance: 9 miles • Time: 4.25 hours • Gain: 1,670 feet • Conditions: Clouds, then clearing, cold all day


Stage Benchmark is a principal summit in the Tierra Blanca Mountains of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in Southern California. It is not the range highpoint, but it is (I am pretty sure) the most prominent peak in the range. We were camping at nearby Bow Willow Campground on our yearly trip here. Stage Benchmark is about six miles west of Bow Willow, as the crow flies.

We left Arizona on the 27th and arrived at the park just as the sun was setting. We found a spot in the campground and set up camp, me erecting the massive tent that weighs about a hundred pounds, but is big enough to stand in, store all our stuff, and even includes a porch. I got it built in about 20 minutes, put all our stuff in it, then walked around camp in the moon-lit darkness. We ate dinner, but by 9 p.m., we were both asleep or getting there.

Today, the 28th, I set aside for the hike of Stage Benchmark, but there was no need to be starting at dawn. The overnight lows were in the mid-30s, so once the sun rose, we took time to let things, including ourselves, warm up. I didn't get rolling from camp until about 10:45 a.m. She would stay back at camp, fully stocked with provisions in the mongo-tent. I kissed her goodbye, then set out for the hike.

I drove north and west up Highway S-2, which for a segment is officially called The Great Southern Overland Stage Route of 1849. I suspect that the Stage Benchmark derives its name from this historical connection. Curiously, the same road is called Sweeney Pass Road down by the Bow Willow area. It changes its name at a soft bend in the road, and even more oddly, there is a street sign there to identify the names, like you'd see in a suburb. Somehow, they fit that entire name onto the street sign. Anyway, the drive took just ten minutes. The map showed a road going into a canyon, but I could not find this road. I parked in a small turn-around, about a hundred feet off the main highway. My truck was reasonably hidden from view.

I started hiking at 11:15 a.m., walking up a slope to gain onto a desert plain that slowly rose to meet the base of the mountains, set back about a mile. I looked for this supposed road, but found no hint of it. I simply walked by sight cross-country toward the canyon that splits through the range. The summit was visible, but past reports suggested not to approach it from this side, but instead come in from the other side.

The walk across the plain was easy, mainly avoiding cholla cactus. Soon, I came upon the sandy wash emananting from this canyoin, dropped in, then walked the approximately two miles through the meandering canyon to emerge on the other side, onto an elevated valley called the Inner Pasture. The walk up this canyon went very fast. It was wide and sandy, and just a couple places where the rocks closed in. In about an hour, I was now in the Inner Pasture, having gained about 600 feet in almost three miles of walking. The weather, which had started out with overcast skies, had started to clear to reveal a beautiful blue sky. The temperature was chilly, staying in the 50s. There was no breeze, and it was very pleasant.

The Inner Pasture is a desert plain stretching about five miles from end to end, maybe a mile wide, separating the Tierra Blanca Mountains from the higher ranges to the west. There is a ranch road here, plus an ancient landing strip, but it would seem that very few people come back here, given the effort it takes to get here. I followed the drainage until it merged with the old road. The scrub was a dense mix of agave, cholla and ocotillo. The whole area felt untouched and ignored, which was good. I felt truly alone out here.

I kept walking until I had placed myself about as due west of the summit as possible. There were opportunities to start up the rocky slopes, but I sensed that it was wiser to stay off the rocks as much as possible, being on them as little as necessary. The ridges looked very rocky, but I found one that looked manageable. Finally, I started up the steep, rocky slopes. I had about a thousand feet to gain with about a mile to go.

The hike upward was not difficult, but it was steep and loose in spots. There was a cholla cactus every five feet ... and I had forgot my gloves back in the truck. I challenged myself to not get caught by a cholla at all during the hike. No matter how careful I am, I always get caught by a cholla at least once. This time, I'd be extra careful.

I hiked uphill, going from rock outcrop to rock outcrop, each time seeing the overall route a little better. The summit was hidden from view for the first half of this portion. I had to work through one section of giant talus blocks, about as big as a desk to as big as a vehicle, and not all were set solid. Some creaked and moved as I hopped on them. I took this section very slowly. Past this, I gained up another slope to another ridge, and once past that, could see the final 300 unobstructed vertical feet to the top.

This final segment laid back nicely, and I was on top fairly quickly, arriving at 1:40 p.m. The top is broad and rocky. I found a few rocks that seemed to stick up the highest, so I tagged them. I found the summit cairn, benchmark and register, and signed in. The top sees a few hikers every year, many names I recognized. The views were outsanding in all directions, the clouds having completely cleared out. I sighted over to a hill to the east that looked like it might be as high, but it was clearly about 5-10 feet lower. I spent about ten minutes on top before starting down.

The downhill hike went fast. I was able to worm down through routes that I did not see coming up. The nature of the terrain meant I had to go slow and carefully, lest I let loose a giant rock or get caught by a cholla. I followed the same route down to the Inner Pasture, which took me about 45 minutes. Once on the flatter ground, the walk went very fast, and I was back to my truck by 3:30 p.m. That included a little "lost" time. I did find some sense of that old road and followed it, then aimed for a power pole that I recall passing near where I parked. I walked all the way out to the highway, and for a moment, had no idea which way to turn! I went one way for about a quarter-mile, saw nothing, then the other way, and then found my truck. Like I said, it was reasonably well hidden.

By now, the sun had set behind the mountain and in the shade, the temperature chilled fast. I drove back to Bow Willow, arriving there a little after 4 p.m., where βð was snug as a bug in a rug in the tent porch. The sun had set completely within the hour, but we had a half-moon and a starry night. We had a peaceful evening, and I was asleep before 9 p.m.

The following day was a relaxed day, but I did spend two hours exploring the Bow Willow Bumps, the series of rocky hilltops overlooking the campground. We returned to Arizona the day after.

(c) 2014, 2019 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. .