Agua Tibia Mountain and its encompassing wilderness lies on the northwest extremity of the Palomar Mountains. This remote and unspoiled preserve presents some of the wildest and most remote landscapes in all of San Diego County.
Distance: 20.8 Miles
Elevation Gained: 4,100′
Critters: Rabbits, quail, hawks
Note: You will need an adventure pass to park at the trailhead.
This Tuesday, Kyle and I set out for a 14 mile exploration of the Dripping Springs Trail and the northern portion of the Agua Tibia Wilderness. The plan was to walk up to Agua Tibia’s crest, enjoy lunch and soak in the view, turn around and get home in time for me to shower before school. I had the additional thought that, time-permitting, we could possibly hit the the flat-topped summit to enjoy what was reportedly a fine view of San Diego County from one of the most remote peaks in the region.
Naturally, that plan all flew out the window as a slightly bold and slightly reckless impulse took a hold of us. We had passed the high point of the trail, which meant climbing uphill on the return journey, and we had yet to find a great view from which we could revel in the results of our efforts. On we walked for at least a mile before we came to the view we were hoping for all along. Subtract about 400′, and it became clear that it would be an easy downhill trot back to the trailhead, despite the knowledge that such a trot would lead to a 21 mile roundtrip loop.
Thus, caution was thrown to the wind and we went for it all the way. I wasn’t thinking about just how long 21 miles of hiking really is. I was thinking “downhill all the way home.” And for the first 13 miles, we were rewarded with a spectacular hike, featuring blooming chaparral, oak woodlands, patches of forest, ghost forests, canyons, mesas, and views of major peaks throughout Southern California.
Now, I won’t say that it became a bad hike after that, but the last 7 miles on the Wild Horse Trail were tediously endless. The trail builders did an admirable job of adhering to the naturally curvy landscape, but after circling into canyon after canyon with seemingly no end in sight, the experience became wearisome. By the end, I was ready to be done, even though I had, at times, fallen into that rare trance that comes with hiking endless miles. Time seems to disappear and thoughts seem to sink into oblivion. Twenty minutes go by and you wonder how it happened.
This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy this hike. Any hike that goes beyond 12 miles runs the risk of having dull and difficult bits thrown into the mix, and this was no exception. However, this is beautiful country, and, being a protected wilderness, it is remote, quiet, untouched, and unspoiled. A tremendous amount of effort goes into enjoying this experience, but that’s what makes hikes like this so rewarding. You witness so much and accomplish so much that it is forever seared into your memory.
Please note that there is no easy way to hike at Agua Tibia. During the hot months, it would be foolish to hike here. During the cold months, it can still be warm, so you’ll need a lot of water. If you come here, be prepared to hike at least 14 miles if you wish to get close to the summit. Fair warning if you come here, but also know that your efforts will be rewarded.