Exploring Climbing of Indianhead

Ever since visiting Borrego Springs last year, and hiking up Palm Canyon the year before with my friend Mike, I have been haunted by the urge to climb Indianhead, the massive, jagged mountain to the north of Palm Canyon.

On January 3rd Devin and I did this exploratory hike to find the starting point of the climb and learn what it will take.

We started at the Anza Borrego State Park camp ground. The entry fee for day use is $8. Once parked, we hiked up a reasonably developed trail for 1.5 miles. There is a picture perfect oasis with a group of massive palm trees, a perfect spot for a water and snack break and a little breather in the shade. Getting to this point involved hiking almost all the way in the hot sun. There are some crowds here, with children frolicking and clambering about. But this changed as soon as we left the oasis and went further.

For the next one or two tenths of a mile we had to scramble over and under some massive boulders. Eventually we got through them and picked up speed a bit, but never very long. We had to crawl through thickets, climb over slippery rocks (since the soles of our boots remained wet all the time). This is definitely not hiking anymore, since it simply can’t be done without the use of hands and rudimentary rock climbing skills.

We made it up to a point where we could see the ridge to ascend to the peak. From the trailhead at 600 feet elevation, this spot is at about 1800. The peak is at 3600, so the worst of the climb is still ahead, with no water and sun exposure all the way up.

I didn’t realize how close we were to the meeting of the north and south forks and the waterfalls rumored to be there, until I looked at a map after we had returned. We were worried about daylight when we turned around, but we could easily have gone on for another twenty minutes to that point.

There are many perfect camping spots for overnight stays along this stretch of creek, with nice flat sandy pads, water with pools, and solitude. Some other hikers will come by, but not many, since it takes some serious resolve to make it past the various boulder and canyon obstacles. Here we are at one of those great camping spots:

The round trip was about five miles and we were out for almost four hours. As you can see from the map, I tracked both the way up and down, and we took an alternate loop on the way back, and I am glad we did, since we saw some wonderful ocotillo with lush green leaves, greener than I had ever seen ocotillo before.

On the way back I also saw a nice little spot of new palm seedlings, all about six to twelve inches tall. I imagined what this little group would look like in subsequent years, so I decided on the spot to make it a tradition and come back every year over New Years and take a picture from the exact spot to document their growth. Here is the first one:

The new seedlings are in the center of the picture. To make sure I’d remember where I was, I recorded a way point on my GPS so I would be sure to find it again.

The hike was more challenging than I expected it to be, since I considered it a Sunday afternoon exploratory hike. I definitely know now how to climb Indianhead: I have to carry an overnight pack up to the 2.6 mile point at the junction of the two forks and start the day hike early in the morning the next day to the peak and back. And it must be done in the winter. The sun will be brutal.

7 thoughts on “Exploring Climbing of Indianhead

  1. Jason

    Hey Norbert,

    Came across your blog looking for info on hiking Indian Head this weekend with some friends. It’s very informative! Thanks so much.

    From what I’ve read and heard it’s very strenuous and can be pretty hairy but I look forward to giving it a (careful) go!


  2. Charity Dominic

    Hi Norbert. Did you ever bag Indianhead? After many “exploratory hikes”, I finally did, yesterday, and I have a few tips foryah! We hiked up past the main palm grove to the confluence of the north fork, where you can see a second, less prominent palm grove upcanyon, and turning right, we eventually gained the ridgeline as most routes recommend, but IMHO the gulleys about halfway _before_ the main grove are just a little steeper and a lot more direct way to ascend. Next time I’m just going up that way… either way is long, hard, and has hairy sections.

    1. Hi Charity – no, I was going to go back this January and wasn’t able to schedule it. After my second attempt, see
      I decided to attack it from the front ridge – forget all that hiking up the canyon. It seems the front ridge is as hairy as all other ascents. Yours sounds very reasonable. Did you come down the same way? I think it’s too warm now for my taste, so I have to wait until January 2014. I am gearing up for Baldy or such now.

      1. Charity Dominic

        Welp, we started by following Schad’s guide, which instructs hikers to head wayyy upcanyon and then take the ridge. Of course, he doesn’t mention that this is in NO way a hike hahaha, so our “hikers” turned back after about 100 feet of scrambling up big blocks. Anyways, we kept going up the ridge, and when we were officialy on the ridge, the scrambling did get a bit faster, but it was still pretty picky slow going. I must say that route does take you across perhaps the most elegant part of the mountain just above the saddle, where the drop on the north side is steep and you’re right on the edge. Very pretty. However, having scouted this hike many times myself, I had a suspicion we didn’t have to take this long route on the way back so once we hit the summit, we basically beelined for the the cars, which we could see, by heading southeast down the gulley all the way back to the trail long before the first palm grove. I’d recommend just taking this one. From the canyon trail, you’ll pass a sharp ridge and then look up a white gulley; this is your route. It gradually ascends left up the mountain and truly, we didn’t think it was all that much hairier than Schad’s recommended path. Any way you do this one, its a real mountaineering thing and not for your average hiker.

      2. Charity – your comment motivated me to go out yesterday and explore. First did a leisurely high to the grove, had some lunch, and on the way back clambered up the route for a little bit to get a feeling for the terrain and complexity. You are right, this looks like the way. Did you go from the parking lot, all the way up, and around, and down all in a day? You must be in great shape. This is not easy terrain.

        I am now scheduling this attack for January 2014. It’s already too hot for this old guy.

        Funny thing, I was there 24 hours before the earthquake in Anza today. I am glad I wasn’t on that slope when it rattled. Not a healthy place to be.

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