Santa Rosa Traverse: 41.8 miles
Number of Peaks: 5
Elevation Gain: 14,755ft
Lowest/Highest point: Sea Level (Salton Sea)/ 8,717ft (Toro Peak)
Previous FKT (Fastest Known Time): 1.5 days (Toro Peak to Highway S-22)
Our new FKT (Fastest Known Time): 19hrs and 59mins (Highway S-22 to Highway 74)
The remote Santa Rosa Mountains crawl up from the northwestern shores of the Salton Sea and stretch out 42 miles northwest before tapering off at the base of the San Jacinto Mountains near Palm Springs. From east to west the ungainly ridgeline extends from sea level to high points at Villager Peak (5,755ft), Rabbit Peak (6,666ft), Dawn’s/ Lorenzens Peak (6,582ft), Toro Peak (8,717ft) and finally Santa Rosa Peak (8,073ft), before ending at 4,000ft at Highway 74.
Toro Peak’s western side has been graded and radio towers now claim the ranges highest point, but step just a few miles east of the ridge and you’re in uncharted territory. The last people to pass over the jagged rocks were likely Cahuilla Indians some hundreds of years ago. Various online sources and a small log book I found atop Dawn’s Peak reported scattered attempts of one-and-a-half half to three-day west-east traverses of the range. To my knowledge no one had ever completed the range from east to west in one single-day push. A total distance of 41.8 miles? It had to be possible.
Two months before the attempt I gathered with my friends Robert and Greg at a brewery. As I sipped down a beer, the three of us poured over the data from Greg’s three-day trip on the Santa Rosa’s. Taking a close look at the approximate 40-mile trek, I figured a conservative time would be around 12 hours. I’d discover months later my ‘conservative’ estimate was way-off.
The night before
It was late Friday night by the time we started driving towards Toro Peak from San Diego. Logistics for the shuttle forced us to drive separately. It wasn’t until 12:30am that the two of us finished driving the Jeep around the entire mountain range and settled into the pullout off the S-22, the start line of the traverse. Weary from no sleep, we dozed off for 20 minutes before embarking on our adventure. I was excited to try out the new inov-8 TERRACLAW 250. What better way to gear test than traverse 40+miles in them?
S-22 (sea level) to Villager (5,755ft).
Total miles: 7. Time: 2:49:00
The trek began at 3am. Heavy winds blew us along towards the base of the ridge. Despite only getting twenty minutes of sleep the two of us were spot on our navigation to the top of Villager Peak. We summited the first peak in 2hrs and 49mins. As an orange haze cast over the sky, I looked west and could barely make out the shape of a mountain in the far distance… Toro.
Villager Peak (5,755ft) to Rabbit Peak (6,666ft).
Total miles: 11. Time: 4:22:30
Moving west from Villager we descended and covered peaklet after peaklet. As we reached the last climb, we entered into the scattered Juniper Tree forest with intermixed Manzanita and what we called ‘Toe-Kicker’ cactus; our nickname for the perfectly-poised cacti ready to stab you in the foot. During the last few hundred feet of the ascent, we broke into the thicker Juniper-Scrub Oak forest. Thickening on the northern slope, we aimed left averting the sharp branches and reaching the summit in 4hrs and 22 mins.
Rabbit Peak (6,666ft) to Dawn’s Peak (6,582ft).
Total miles: 17.4. Time: 8:52:37
Robert and I knew once we took our first few steps beyond Rabbit Peak -with our minimal food and water supply -there would be no turning back. Quitting couldn’t be a part of our vocabulary, forward would be the only option. After a short break on Rabbit we were instantly thrust into a mess of rigid scrub oak, scraggly juniper and unyielding manzanita. We struggled to find small interstitial spaces to crawl in between the shrubs thick with braches. The slices in my legs, the cuts on my arms, the stabs of Yucca to the thigh; this was our harsh reality for the duration of our record-breaking mountain trek.
Ridge after ridge, our progress was often hindered to a crawl. We stood at high points staring at the next hill top and then glaring at the valley between. We tried to piece together the small patches of brush-free clearings like one large horribly painful puzzle. Microscopic decisions to go left or right around a single bush often ended in colossal mistakes where we’d ascend the wrong ridge. As we drew nearer to Dawn’s Peak; minutes of mistakes had evolved into an hour or so of wasted time. I could see the cairn atop Dawn’s Peak, but between us and the top was the thickest, healthiest Manzanita chaparral forest I’d ever seen.
Time was ticking. Whether it was the 12-hour time goal, or our inherent short supplies; quick decisions became routine, and didn’t always register the best results. I followed Robert as he dove head first into a thick scrub oak connecting two small clearings. It took minutes to gain feet. The two of us jumped from rock to rock and crawled from clearing to clearing. I watched as my GPS ticked over the eight-hour mark. I finally understood why the two of them had laughed at my 12-hour time goal back in the bar months ago.
I looked up and could make out the cairn some hundred feet above me. Anxiously, I blazed a path straight towards it, braving several more behemoth yucca trees. I was sure that this would be the worst of it, that we were nearly finished, that surely we’d covered at least 25 or more miles and that Toro would be one or two ridges over. Robert reached the top minutes after me. ‘Half-way!’ he exclaimed smiling.
Dawn’s Peak (6,582ft) to Toro Peak (8,717ft).
Total miles: 30. Time: 16:41:40
Extending my arm to touch the foreign stacked pyramid of boulders, I breathed heavily and plopped my weary legs down on the ground. There was no quitting and no way out. I stared thousands of feet below at Clark Dry Lake. After a long break, the two of us hobbled back to our feet and began moving towards Toro. Instantaneously, we were thrust back into a sea of chaparral mazes.
Hours quickly rolled by. I’d made the mistake once of glancing back to see how far we’d come, only to see the cairn in the very near distance and Toro still infinitely far away in front. Following a chain of clearings I’d spotted from a high point, we veered to the far right of the ridge trying to avoid summiting an unnecessary peak. Disaster ensued as the clearings really weren’t clearings. We traversed further right, holding onto the small hope the next ridge might yield a clear shot at getting to the Alta Seca bench. We cascaded through loose gravel and small boulders, crawling on our stomachs under trees and down into a deep gully. As we neared the end of the gully we stood up face-to-face with a massive 60% grade hill, home to the most thriving chaparral environment I’d ever seen. We fought tooth and nail to reach a massive rock outcropping. The two of us weary -and scratched to hell -scrambled up and over the huge boulders. Finally, we had made it to the bench.
A small cairn and old wooden post marked that some other unfortunate souls had made the same journey. Following the cairns down into a pine tree meadow I underestimated a drop, slipped and collapsed onto my side. Too tired, too weak and unmotivated, I just laid on the ground. But the only place to go was forward, so I regained my feet and carried on with Robert by my side. He would entertain me with stories of runs through these meadows in a full jumpsuit and goggles and how he had scared the life out of a young family hiking.
Not soon enough, we were finally digging our poles into the final ascent of Toro Peak. ‘The road!’ I cried out. The true end was near. It was an ironic and strange peak to ascend, the ease of the graded fire road and massive radio towers stood in thick contrast to the hellish 16-plus hours we’d just spent in some of the most remote terrain in all of Southern California. I stood at the top utterly exhausted and watched the sunset as thousands of feet below a massive cloud layer rolled east over the mountains vanishing into the air as it reached out towards the desert.
Toro Peak (8,717ft to Santa Rosa Mountain (8,073ft).
Total miles: 34.17. Time: 17:57:16
In my angst to be done with the traverse, I’d completely forgotten that Santa Rosa Mountain was the last thing in between us and highway 74. Santa Rosa was -at this point -the last thing between us and salvation. We toggled between short bursts of running and a crippled speed walk. The graded road was nice, but seemingly endless. Cutting the roads, we went off-trail to the top of the small peak. The two of us haggard, torn up and lumbering, emerged from the total darkness and took a quick necessary selfie to prove we existed.
Santa Rosa Mountain (8,073ft) to Highway 74 (4,600ft).
Total miles: 41.8 Time: 19:59: 16
Ten long flat-low grade miles stretched into infinity before us. The same thick cloud layer we’d seen from above was now blinding our headlamps. I reached out my arm only to see it swallowed whole by the fog. Hours passed with no conversation. There was no hope. Just fog. The hollowness of the long descent ate away at what little morale we had left. Finally we caught site of Robert’s Car. Determination skyrocketed and our pace turned into a quickened run. ‘This is it! This is the last switchback!’ Robert exclaimed, as he flew past his car and headed down the mountain. I thought he was an idiot at first for passing by his car, until I realized it didn’t count until we touched Highway 74, still a half mile beyond where we’d parked yesterday. Our toes crept onto the black asphalt of highway 74 at approximately 10:58pm. 19hrs and 59mins after we’d begun what I thought was going to be an ‘easy’ 12-hour adventure. I was completely and utterly humbled by the difficulty of this short mountain range and complained endlessly to Robert as we made the final, final ascent back to his damned car.