Red Top Mountain: Conquering one of Anza Borrego’s great challenges

Red top mountain in san Diego.

On paper, Red Top Mountain is really nothing special. It’s another one of the dozens and dozens of granite sprinkled peaks that are scattered about the Anza Borrego desert of southern California. The views are great, but similar, arguably better views can be attained in the general vicinity through much easier means. Relatively speaking, the mountain isn’t that tall either. At 4,446 feet high, it’s not even the tallest mountain within a one-mile radius from its peak.

So what makes Red Top so special? It’s the challenge.

First off, Red Top is remote.

The peak itself is encircled by a ring of cactus covered valleys that are enclosed by rough, desert mountains. Red Top is plopped smack in the middle of that mountain ring, like a castle keep protected by a formidable moat of geography.

Any of the multiple routes to Red Top will run you up at least 15 miles + round trip if attempting to summit on a day hike.

Secondly, Red Top’s peak is damn hard to climb.

The mountain is essentially a large pile of weathered granite boulders. There is no clear, or easy route to the top. It’s a free-for-all, boulder-hopping, cactus dodging fool’s quest that only gets tougher as you near the top.

The boulders can be as large as houses, and the narrow choke points between said boulders are all too often jam-packed with impenetrable spiky vegetation.

Many travelers end their trip oh-so-close to the peak due to the slow, labored hiking to gain the last couple hundred feet.

I once rather hyperbolically called Rabbit Peak the toughest hike in San Diego, but Red Top may have taken the cake in my book.

It would be nice to have a truck

Having a small, compact Nissan is very advantageous in many aspects of my life. I get good mpg’s, it is affordable, and I spend significantly less time looking for parallel parking spots that my car will fit in.

However, when it comes to desert exploration, a vehicle with clearance is key. Accessing trailheads in Anza Borrego usually requires some distance on rough, dirt roads that my car can’t handle.

That said, the vehicle at my disposal, which hardly sits six inches off the ground, dictated the route that I had to take to attack Red Top.

Instead of starting in the adjacent valley, I had to start at the second best location, on a mountainous plateau to the south. While the mileage of each route might be comparable, the route that I took actually starts at an elevation slightly higher than the peak of Red Top. The route first drops down nearly 2,000 feet into the valley from which the mountain protrudes, essentially doubling the total elevation gain of the hike.

Usually after summiting a peak you get to look forward to the downhill speed hiking back to the car. In this case, after summiting I would have an even larger climb awaiting me.

With the shortest day of the year approaching, I got a bright and early start, taking off from coastal San Diego to give a summit of Red Top a shot.

A Nissan Versa is parked on a dirt road in McCain Valley.
My Nissan Versa showing up for work. This road is graded and doable in my low-clearance vehicle.
A rutted dirt road runs through McCain Valley in California.
I can’t drive the last mile out to the end of the road because of many ruts like this, hence adding another 2 miles round trip to my hike.
The Sawtooth Mountains as seen from McCain Valley in San Diego County.
Descending down into Canebrake Valley, the Sawtooth Mountains come into view, with Red Top on the right.
Red Top Mountain of the Sawtooth Mountain chain.
Red Top basking in the morning sunlight with Toro Peak looming in the distance.
Canebrake Valley with Red Top Mountain in the background.
Down on the valley floor and making my approach to Red Top.

Grinding on the granite

The first 4-5 miles of the hike are so relatively uneventful that they can almost go without mention. I descended via a well-worn trail down into the valley, and then made my way across the valley plain to the point from which I intended to scale the mountain. I was logging about 20 minute miles, which is an excellent pace for hiking.

I had read some accounts online that really emphasized the difficulty of the climb, so I started with the humble mindset that I may not get the peak before my turnaround time. I knew what I was getting myself into.

While the routes were rough and the spiky plants were particularly sharp, I made pretty good work of the lower slopes fairly quickly.

I would take breaks to study the upcoming terrain, make a few moves scrambling on the boulders, and run into a dead end of granite with no holds to climb.

Once I arrived at about 400 feet below the peak is when the true challenges began.

The boulders became incredibly immense, and the routes between them exceedingly precarious.

I would take breaks to study the upcoming terrain, make a few moves scrambling on the boulders, and run into a dead end of granite with no holds to climb. I would climb up a chute only to find the vegetation so thick that even the rodents do not dare enter.

This section of the hike was defined by a lot of trial and error — trying routes, back-tracking, traversing, etc.

At one point I needed to down climb when my route up had hit a dead end. I lowered my backpack down a granite slab first, to make it easier for myself to slide down. I intended to follow my backpack down, but then decided that the necessary slide down the boulder involved awkward holds and a little too much exposure. Feeling a bit stupid, I took a major boulder hop loop route around just to arrive back at the point where my backpack had been patiently waiting for me.

As my scraped knees and shins began to bleed and my turnaround time approached, I was questioning whether I was going to make it in time. Yet, sure enough, as I pulled myself up over the last boulder I could suddenly see for miles and miles.

I made it to the top. Red Top had been conquered.

A mountain hillside in Anza Borrego Desert State Park.
Taking a quick break at the base of the mountain to plan my route up the slopes.
The peak of Red Top mountain in Anza Borrego State Park.
These last few hundred feet to the peak were brutal. I initially tried to take a very direct route at the peak, but I hit dead end after dead end, so I traversed to the south (right) and found a way to link the boulders to the top.
Evan Quarnstrom smiles stop Red Top peak.
Soaking in the summit views.
Evan Quarnstrom poses for a photo on top of Red Top Mountain.
Happy to add Red Top to the ‘bagged’ list.
Views of Anza Borrego State Park from Red Top Mountain.
Views looking east down Canebrake Valley with the Coyote Mountains (right), Fish Creek Mountains (left), and Salton Sea off in the distance.
Views of the Sawtooth Mountains and Mount Laguna from Red Top Mountain.
Views west staring down the spine of the Sawtooth Mountains, with peaks of Mt. Laguna in the background.
Panoramic view of Anza Borrego State Park.
Trying to give the panoramic views justice.
The summit block of Red Top Peak in Anza Borrego.
This boulder is the true summit of Red Top, but climbing up requires a pretty sketchy move up a rather featureless rock face. A fall in the wrong direction does have a bit of exposure, so I figured I didn’t want to push my luck as a solo hiker. If you have a friend to support you it would be safer.

A short-lived celebration

I had accomplished what I set out to do and tamed the beast of Red Top mountain.

However, I arrived at the peak right at my turnaround time and I still had to climb my ass all the way back up the other mountain to my car.

Thus, my celebration was short-lived on the peak. I stuffed myself with calories, enjoyed the views, and calculated my water rations to make it back safely.

If there is a peak log up there, I didn’t spend any time looking for it. Time was precious.

I needed every bit of 10 hours to complete the hike, logging 17.4 miles according to my phone.

I used the intel that I gained on my way up to choose slightly easier routes on the way down.

Once off the mountain and down on the valley floor, the hike was far from done. I slogged the next 5-ish miles 2,000 feet up the side of the mountain on which my car was parked.

I pulled up to my trusty, ol’ Nissan right as the last droplets of sunlight vanished to the west. I needed every bit of 10 hours to complete the hike, logging 17.4 miles according to my phone.

Red Top had been checked off the list, and the nutty desire to hike crazy desert peaks had been quenched for the time being (that desire usually takes a week or two to recharge).

Red Top was a success — a very satisfying challenge. It’s a worthy peak for anyone who is looking to push their endurance and route finding skills to their limits.

Afternoon lighting shines on Canebrake Valley.
Relieved to be back on flat ground on the valley floor.
A Native American potsherd on the ground in the Californian desert.
One of many Native American potsherds found throughout my hike.
Shadows are cast on the side of the Sawtooth Mountains.
Racing the sun back to my car as shadows envelope the Sawtooth Mountains.
Sunset in McCain Valley of San Diego County.
After 10 hours on the trail, I got back to my car just in time to comfortably watch this sunset.

3 thoughts on “Red Top Mountain: Conquering one of Anza Borrego’s great challenges

      1. Thanks for the encouragement, Evan. I did find my way through the boulders to Granite Mountain and through the cacti to Ghost Mountain. Not sure if I’m intrigued enough by the combination! 😅


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