Cerro Pinacate Mexican DPS Peak, Campout, and Lava Caves

  • Updated: November 13, 2016
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

November 12th & 13th, 2016
Carnegie Peak (3,707')
4.09 miles 1,900' in via the DPS route + Carnegie 
6.74 miles, 1,289' up and 3865' down out via the road

Cerro Pinacate is one of the 4 Sierra Club Desert Peak Section peaks down in Mexico and one of the final three I needed to complete the list.

Normally it makes sense to combine this peak with a few in southern Arizona.  Ajo, Kino, and Baboquivari kind of naturally combine since they're roughly in the same area.  Except as this point I've done all of those twice (minus Kino which I've only done once) leaving Pinacate a very long distance orphan.

Red arrow points to Pincate

I'd actually attempted this peak before only to be turned back at the park gate for a very vaguely worded "security concern"  Having seen friends be let it before and after that I always wondered what was going on and this time when Jen called to verify we could get in she mentioned we'd been turned back.  Apparently that was the only time they'd ever shut it down and that was because they found some illegal radio towers and had kept out everyone for a season until it was resolved.

So here I was several years later still needing the peak and under the gun to get it before my December list finish.  With Jack Kieffer completely out of vacation days that limited our options for trying to do more than one peak so we settled on making it a party.  Come join us for a 400 mile drive, a campfire and overnight in Mexico, and a 6 mile hike (according to the DPS guide) followed by another 400 -ish mile drive.  We made plans for a festive happy hour and soon had 7 us signed up.

We settled on two vehicles (no jeep this trip since it tends to stand out slightly) and met at a park and ride in Orange County at 6:30 am.  We were driving by 7 am and by 7:10 am someone realized they'd forgotten their passport.  Oops.  So car #2 was about an hour behind us as we headed for Calexico.

We already had mexican auto insurance so we gassed up, exchanged some currency, and crossed the border around 10:30 am.

They didn't even check our passports and we were across in only about 10 minutes roaming the streets of Mexicali.

At this point the driving became a bit more stressful as drivers seemed to enjoy merging with no notice on lanes that were often not really defined.  Also the speed limits (especially later along the 2) seem to swing wildly with no apparent logic.  Which is fine since the locals seem to ignore them anyway.  Personally I didn't want a mexican speeding ticket so we drove cautiously and tried not to get sideswiped.

I could relax a little once we were past San Luis and out on the 2.  We had a good long drive to Sonoyta and then south on the 8 to the entrance of the park.

We pulled up to the gate at 3:30 pm.  This is as far as we'd made it when we'd been out here before so I was a little nervous when we went inside and talked with the local park employee.  Technically they'd recommended we get there at 3 pm so we wouldn't have to drive the rough road to the trailhead in the dark but the slightly nervous quasi english speaking person behind the desk let us through no problem.

Interestingly enough to permit you fill out asks you to report how much alcohol you brought in.

These are the permits which cost $3 a day and which he was vary careful to explain were only valid for a single day each and had to be worn on our wrists at all times.  We promised to do so.

Once inside the park it's a dirty road but well graded.  The turnoff to the Cono Rojo camping area which is also the trailhead for Pinacate was well signed

Which is good because maps in mexico are somewhat harder to come by than in the US.  This is all the park had and as you can see he had to draw the road into the campsite by hand.  So I'd strongly recommend grabbing either Harlan's or my own maps linked at the top.

We'd been warned at the gate the road can get a little rough at times but we made it easily in a Subaru.  Jen Black and James Barlow were back here a few years back and there was a burm so large they couldn't even get into the road out to the campground but this time I could have probably gotten a passenger car back there with some care.  But as with all desert approaches things can vary greatly.

The campsite was about 13.75 miles from the gate and we got there around 4:30 pm.  I wasn't sure what exactly to expect after reading a few trip reports online which referred to it as ugly and empty.  Personally as someone who enjoys desert camping it was a really nice spot.  It's a protected alcove with a nice fire pit and plenty of flat areas to camp.  There's no bathroom facilities but there is this...helpful...guidance on the sign.

TO GO TO "THE RESTROOM" Please cover your feces and toillet paper completely, you may also burn it.  Think of other people!


There wasn't much else to the sign but there was this gem at the start of the hiking trail (which looked like it used to be a road leading almost to the summit)

I did my best to comply the following morning.

We made a feast of margaritas, tacos, freshly made guacamole (with more lime than anyone could ever want), and more before settling around the fire.

It was a spectacular night.

We had an odd warning from the park about making sure we slept in tents but on reflection we decided that was probably just boilerplate warnings for the tourists (and if our sacrificial blonde was going to get bitten in the face by a gila monster then hey at least it would make for a good story...)

We had a superb night sleeping out other than the moon which was so bright you woke up thinking someone was shining a light at you.  And no gila monsters bit anyone in the face.  This time...

We had a long day ahead of us so we were up before dawn and moving around first light.  We left camp at 7:15 am.

The sign said Pinacate was 24 km round trip and claim it's a 10-11 hour hike.  Then there's this one...


The DPS route leaves the trail fairly early and crosses a large lava field.  Some tracks I'd found showed people swinging around to south and avoid it.  Once across it's small lava rocks and lots and lots of cholla which makes the hills a little less than pleasant.

You can also stay on the road which we did coming out just out of curiosity but if you check the map at the top you'll see it takes you quite a bit out of your way.

It's really a beautiful area if you appreciate desert scenery.

The peak your hiking towards from camp isn't actually Pinacate but instead a provisional peak on Peakbagger called Carnegie Peak.  Mark and Mat were excited about it so we diverted from the DPS route to climb it.

We aimed for the eastern ridge since it looked slightly less steep than the other options.  Along the way we crossed another lava field some of which had pits that looked like collapsed lava tubes.

Sure enough...

We found entrances going in either direction.  One went about 100 ft before ending while the other went at least 150 before reaching a point small enough even Jen didn't want to go further.

Jack, Jen, and I ran into the cave like a bunch of little kids while Kristen and Kay followed a little more cautiously.  Mark and Mat remained outside and stomped around on the rocks above us.

We also found this at the end of one side.

And another bottle which may not have been pee.  Maybe...

We saw several other holes that looked like collapsed entrances in the distance and if we'd had more time I would have happily gone exploring.  Maybe when I'm back for my second lap around the DPS list.

We eventually emerged slightly scraped up (lava rock is sharp) and ready to start climbing.

Aaaand Carnegie was not fun.  Even the eastern ridge was steep and covered in small lava rock pebbles that slid back down 3/4 of the way each step.  And as an added bonus there's even a false summit along the way

After what seemed like a very long time we reached a very non descript summit and had a view of our actual goal.

Pinacate looked depressingly just like the crap heap we'd slogged up.

On the plus side the loose rubble on Carnegie made for a really fun descent and we were down in just a few minutes.

We thought we could make out a road below and made the educated guess that it was the trail / road we'd left not far from camp.  One trip report mentioned it made for a more pleasant way up Pinacate than the DPS route so that's what we went for.

That was the best call we made all day.  There's a slightly loose but still decent trail that winds up the north slope of Pincate marked by a series of posts.  We found evidence of a fair amount of foot travel and even a fire ring or two.

From what I've read the DPS route is somewhat similar to our experience on Carnegie so I'd recommend the trail.

The register was filled with a fair number of people we knew in addition to all the locals.

We had a spectacular 360 degree view from the top that stretched from the Sea of Cortez off to the south and well into Arizona.  It was a shame to leave but we had a bit of a drive ahead of us.

We decided to take the trail/road back mostly so I'd have an actual track to share since I hadn't found anything but guesses online.  And we stuck to that even when it became apparent that the road swings way out of the way.  So you're welcome :)

Blue is the road.  Red is our route.  Cyan is the DPS route

It was about 6.75 miles from the summit back to camp making it around 11 miles round trip.  That was more than we'd been expecting having read others trip reports but we appreciated the fact it felt like a decent hike.

If you're looking at doing the peak my recommendation would be to stick to the DPS route on the way out but then switch across to catch the road north of Carnegie and take that to the peak.  And that Carnegie really isn't worth it.

The drive out was uneventful and we'd been instructed to just let ourselves out of the gate.  Heading north we looked at the border crossing times and decided since it was getting dark we'd rather cross at Lukesville and deal with the slightly longer but far more relaxing drive north of the border rather than return to Mexicali or San Luis.

That turned out to be a really good call.  We were through in maybe 30 minutes.  Granted the vendors along the side of the road in Lukesville are boring compared with Tijuana.

We stopped for mexican food at Marcela's in Ajo (which was good but they were out of chips which should be a crime) and were back in Orange County by 1:30 am.  Everyone was tired but we'd all had a great time.  I'm looking forward to heading back to Mexico in the future for more climbing.

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