San Diego Trail Tramps

  5349' Whale Peak in the Anza Borrego Desert State Park - North Approach

Date:  Sunday February 15th, 2015 8:00 AM - 5:00 PM

Location: Anza Borrego Desert State Park


Carpools should depart our Hillcrest meeting site at 8:00 AM. To access Whale Peak, drive from San Diego to Julian and take Hwy 78 that connects Julian and the Salton Sea. About 12 miles east of Julian there is a signed junction (Scissors Crossing) with the Great Overland Stage Route on the south side of the Highway. Take a right and head southeast on S-2 for about 4.5 miles through Shelter Valley. At mile 21.4 (Across the highway from the Stagecoach Trails RV Resort), turn left (east) onto unpaved Pinyon Mtn. Road and stay on the road. Off road excursions are not permitted and it's easy to get stuck in the sand. Whale Peak is ahead and to the right.

Stay right at the fork in 0.1 mile, and continue up a gentle incline on the eastward-trending, sandy road. At about 3.6 to 4 miles up the road, you will encounter a short stretch of protruding rocks that may block all but off-road-capable vehicles. At 5.7 miles, the road tops a watershed divide at 3980' in elevation in the middle of a broad saddle called Pinyon Mountain Valley. Park along the spur road going south or where it dead-ends in .3 mile. There is parking here for 4-5 cars. The trail head is straight ahead up the drainage. Elevation at the trailhead is about 4,110 ft. Trailhead Latitude and Longitude are 33° 2.793' N by 116° 19.982' W. For maps of the area, CLICK HERE. For a Google Earth 3-D model of the hike, see below.

Background info.:

Whale Peak is probably the most visited major summit in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The area around it, however, can prove distressing from a navigational point of view. The peak lies within a complex of similar-looking ridges and gentle valleys, and the peak itself remains hidden from view until you are almost upon it. On the return, it is easy to get turned around while descending a promising gully, only to realize later that you are moving in the wrong direction.

The mature pinyon pine, juniper, scrub oak, manzanita, yucca, and nolina on the north slopes of Whale Peak are San Diego County's best example of the pinyon-juniper woodland community.

Hike Description:

Distance: 4.4 miles roundtrip, out and back. Hiking Time: 3.5 hrs. Elevation Gain/Loss: 1450'. Difficulty: Moderately Strenuous. Navigation required, difficult terrain. From the end of the spur road going south, head directly up a steep and narrow ravine to the south. A little hand-and-foot climbing is required to negotiate some large boulders. After a 400' elevation gain, the canyon widens into a sandy flat just below the 4400' contour. You can now pick up an informal trail heading southeast over and around several rocky summits. It's unreliable to focus only on following that one "trail", since thousands of hikers, taking different paths, have worn in a variety of routes. Keep track of your position by carefully using a map and compass or GPS.

Eventually you should reach a small valley west-northwest of Whale Peak. From this point, you can scramble directly up the slope to the somewhat level 5349' summit, which is crowned with rounded boulders and a grand 360° panorama.

Google Earth:

Google Earth streams the world over wired and wireless networks enabling users to virtually go anywhere on the planet and see places in photographic detail. This is not like any map you have ever seen. This is a 3D model of the real world, based on real satellite images combined with maps, guides to restaurants, hotels, entertainment, businesses and more. You can zoom from space to street level instantly and then pan or jump from place to place, city to city, even country to country.

Below are the two Google Earth .kmz files, for the drive in to the trailhead and for the hike itself. To preview a 3D model of this actual hike in Google Earth, right click on the .kmz files links below and save the files to your desktop. Then double click each of those desktop files and they should launch Google Earth if you already have Google Earth installed on your computer. (If you do not have the free Google Earth application already installed, first go to

Road access via Pinyon Mountain Road: Whale Pk Pinyon Mtn Rd.kmz
Whale Peak Hike via North Approach off of Pinyon Mountain Road: Whale Peak Hike Route North Approach.kmz

After Google Earth launches, scroll down to the bottom of the "Places" column on the left and locate the hike file "Whale Pk Pinyon Mtn Rd.kmz" and "Whale Peak North Approach.kmz" in the "Temporary Places" folder. Click the side arrow to the left of each .kmz file to expose the tour file. Then select that file, and click on the triangular "Play Tour" button just below and to the right of it. Enjoy!

If you'd like to check out the elevation profile of the hike, just right-click the active file in the left hand column and select "Show Elevation Profile". Move your cursor over the profile and watch the arrow move along the loop hike to determine the altitude at any point!