Granite Mountain

Granite Mountain has long been on my list of hikes to do – it’s a very prominent peak, visible from Sunrise Highway up at Laguna Mountains, when coming down Banner Grade (Highway 78) from Julian, and along Highway S-2 in Earthquake Valley of course. It’s a desert peak, but very much at the boundary so, very close to the Pacific Crest and Laguna Mountains too. On the 100 Peaks List of the Sierra Club’s San Diego chapter, this is peak number 38.

Somehow, hiking it had just never worked out in the past. Perhaps it was a psychological obstacle: an elevation gain of about 1000 m (3300 ft) through partially difficult terrain, cross-country style and without a trail, just didn’t sound so enticing.

Below is the photo gallery with impressions from the hike. It’s a quite large gallery because I was awe-struck with the views and beauty of the area – there was so much to see! :) The story of my hike, for those who are interested in it, is below the photo gallery. Some basic technical notes as well, at the very end.

The Hike

For my current physical conditions (knees, say hi!) and fitness level, I knew that the elevation gain of about 1000m (3300ft.) would be pretty much at the limit of what I can do. Also, I really needed some “trail time” on my own to get out, and a challenge for myself – so a solo hike to the peak that had called and haunted me for a while seemed pretty much ideal. My pace, my thoughts, my climb, my solitude, and hopefully, my success.

Winter and Spring storms at the coast and inland areas west of the mountains in San Diego mean cool temperatures and wind in the desert. In Spring, not much precipitation will make it over the mountains anymore usually, and conditions seemed to be pretty awesome on March 27th. I found a GPS log online that seemed to outline a practical route, so I was good to go!

Though there are some use-trails from other hikers here and there, there is no actual trail to the peak, and other than some aimless wandering just for fun, I had never done much cross-country hiking in more difficult terrain before – having a GPS log to occasionally check whether I’m on a good route was very helpful. So were the countless rock markers and cairns left by friendly hikers before me (they’re much easier to spot on the way down though;-).

The starting point is in Earthquake Valley near the small desert community of Shelter Valley, at the mouth of Cool Canyon. Getting there only involves driving briefly on dirt road – quite a time saver when getting there by car. The temperature was 10°C (49°F) when I got there – without the windchill of course, and the wind was strong and gusty, and felt very cold. I layered up, was glad that I had also brought my gloves, grabbed my trekking poles, and began to hike.

Cool Canyon is beautiful – full of wildflowers and interesting granitic and conglomerate rock. Hiking there is a mixture of sandy wash and small dry falls. A good warm-up. I could easily spend 2-3 hours in there, just making photos and enjoying all that’s to see. But, since my goal was to hike Granite Mountain, way above me, I did not spend any extra time there.

I was getting into a certain rhythm and routine hiking in the canyon when I checked the GPS log for the first time – and of course, I had already gone too far in, and should have climbed out. No big deal since there’s always more than one way to hike in the desert. Looking at the topo map, I made my way uphill to the ridge that connects to Peak 4163, which lies a bit south of Cool Canyon. It seemed like a good choice, but I found myself at the foot of a field of granite boulders that I had to traverse. That’s something that a topo map doesn’t show you! :-) Thanks to this misjudgment of the terrain though, I came upon a beautiful Pinyon Pine with views of Whale Peak (third photo in the gallery).

Past this area and up at Peak 4624, the route ahead looked disheartening at first: past a small saddle (interestingly, with views to Montezuma Valley and Ranchita) waits another field of granite boulders, bigger, and steeper. Thanks to the GPS log and rock markers, I stayed somewhat to the left of it, and found my way through. Above, a ridge stretches out and one can make out a use trail here and there. Two false peaks along the ridge block the view to Granite Mountain’s actual summit for a while though.

It’s absolutely beautiful up there. Chaparral shrubs like Scrub Oak, Manzanita and Mountain Mahogany mix with cacti like Beavertail and Cholla – and at this time of the year, wildflowers as well. The summit itself is a set of huge granite boulders – with the two boulder fields that I had to pass, I can certainly say that Granite Mountain is aptly named.

Needless to say – from a rather exposed peak at an elevation of 1711m (5633ft) the views are terrific, in every direction. One can see the Cuyamaca range and Laguna Mountains to the West and South-West, the Volcan Mountains and San Felipe Valley to the North, Pinyon and Vallecito Mountains with the very prominent Whale Peak to the East, and open views to the South, with miles and miles of desert, the Sawtooth Mountains, Carrizo Badlands, Coyote Mountains…

Perhaps the nicest surprise is the “manzanita garden” around the huge granite boulders at the summit – and they were in bloom! I paused, had a snack, took in the views, made many photos, added my name to the register, and then slowly began my way back down.

Technical Notes

I made all of these photos hand-held. Last year when I was hiking in Yosemite, I decided that I’m simply not going to torture myself hauling a tripod and three lenses up a mountain when I really want to hike. For as long as I’ve been hiking, the point was to hike and to make photos as well, to have lasting memories of the beauty of a landscape (and I know that I wouldn’t be satisfied with a compact camera).

I carried a single lens (my stabilized 24-120/f4), a polarizer, and an extra battery. Theoretically, I don’t even need a spare memory card – I made about 50 photos on this hike, and a 4GB card would have been enough for that. In reality, I bring a spare in case the one I have fails.

The camera is set to Auto-ISO with automatic exposure time, and I just let these two values go wherever they need to be. I just set the aperture, the camera does all the rest. After hours of hiking when I’m a little shaky, the lens stabilization (Nikon calls it VR) helps to get a steady photo, and I know the situations when I will need a faster exposure time (mostly close-ups).

And I don’t worry about image noise at all. Modern cameras are shockingly good at higher ISOs.  The shadow detail of the D800 (introduced in February 2012) probably looks better at ISO 3200 than what my D70 (introduced in January 2004) would produce at ISO 200. :-) Digital camera sensors have made gigantic leaps in image quality in the last 8-10 years.

And if there’s noise – so what? Color noise is the worst, and the refined detail controls in Lightroom v6 take care of it easily. What’s left is luminance noise, and that’s just like a bit of film grain. Just for your information – the photo “Burnt Yucca” above is at ISO 4000 and “Manzanita and Lichen” is at ISO 2200 – simply because depth of field is more important than image noise in these photos.

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1 thought on “Granite Mountain”

  1. Thanks for the write-up. I agree with your thoughts about shooting handheld when the goal is hiking. When not shooting on a tripod I also set my camera to auto ISO with a minimum shutter speed of 1/60.


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