Morena Butte Hike – San Diego

San Diego, CA

We recently moved from Santee, CA to Mission Bay RV Park, about twenty miles to the west.  The park is right on Mission Bay just a few miles from the ocean.  We booked one of the sites that back up to the bay for a month so we can enjoy the great sunsets over the water.  Also, our daughter, Jessica, is flying in for a visit over the holidays, so we are conveniently located near the airport.

Our friends, Hans and Lisa, are still back in Santee but will also be moving to Mission Bay in January.  Hans and Lisa are former residents of San Diego and have extensive hiking experience in the area, so we love to take advantage of their experience and guidance on some of the best local trails.  Recently we picked them up near Santee and drove east on I-8 into the mountains to tackle one of their favorites, the Morena Butte Trail.

The trailhead for this hike is located at the entrance to Lake Morena State Park, just south of I-8 about fifty miles east of San Diego.  The hike begins on a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail.  The PCT is a trail that goes from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, a distance of about 2,663 miles.  It is the trail featured in the new movie Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon (although the main character in the movie started up near Los Angeles and hiked north).

The trail quickly gains elevation providing views of the land covered by Lake Morena.

Hans, Lisa, and John with the main section of Morena Lake in the background

Can you see the lake in the background in the picture above?  OK, so there is no water visible.  Morena Lake is really a reservoir created by a dam built in 1912 as part of San Diego’s water system.  It is one of the few facilities in the San Diego water supply system that relies entirely on local runoff, and lately that runoff has been a bit sparse.  In fact, today the reservoir is only at 3% of capacity.  We’ll look at the lake from a higher position later in this blog, so hold on to that thought.

Climbing up to the top of the Morena Butte

After about three miles we left the PCT and headed up a narrow trail headed for the top of Morena Butte.

We spotted a Manatee enjoying the sunshine

OK, remember the discussion of the lake earlier in the blog (go back and re-read it if you need to, no one will know!).  The picture below is a view of the lake from on top of the butte.  Water is now clearly visible, but this is only a small section of the reservoir near the dam.  The large, flat area above the water, in the center of the photo, should be filled with water also.

The main reason the lake is so low is that the city of San Diego owns the water and decided to let most of the water run out of the lake and down to a treatment plant, then in to the city’s drinking water supply.  This is cheaper than purchasing water from the Colorado River and saved the city five million dollars.  But the County of San Diego owns a state park by the reservoir and is not to happy that the lake, a fishing and recreation attraction, is pretty much gone!

Lunch on Morena Butte

While searching for a plaque that was suppose to be on the butte, Hans found a Geocache canister hidden at the very top.  Some readers may be saying, “He found a what?”  A bit of information may clear things up for you.

Geocaching is an activity where people use a GPS (Global Positioning System) receiver  and other navigational techniques to hide and seek containers, called “geocaches” or “caches”, anywhere in the world.  A typical cache is a small waterproof container containing a logbook (with a pen or pencil).  The geocacher enters the date they found it and signs it with their established code name.  After signing the log, the cache must be placed back exactly where the person found it.  Since we were not “geocaching,” Hans just returned the container back where he found it.

The hike back down provided some great vistas and great rock scrambling.

After descending back down to lake level we passed by an old foundation with a chimney that is still standing.  It made us wonder what was originally located there.

We continued on a dirt road along the lake for about 2 miles to get back to the trail head. On the way we passed through the Morena Lake Park and Campgrounds and came upon the Hatfield Plaque that sits near the entrance of the park.

Hans and Lisa rate this as one of their top five in the San Diego area.  We think it is the best hike we have done in our two visits to San Diego.

We have a visitor from the east (i.e. our daughter, Jessica) arriving in a week, so we’ll spend the next few days checking out some things to do and see in the area during her visit.

More on that later . . .

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Return to San Diego

Santee, CA

Months ago we made a reservation at Mission Bay RV Resort in San Diego for a month stay beginning in the middle of December.  With nothing planned until then we thought about heading to Yuma for a couple of weeks.  But when our son, Kevin, called and said he had a few days off and could fly out from Atlanta for a visit, we changed plans and headed for San Diego early.  Since Mission Bay limits your stay to a month we couldn’t go there early, so we decided to return to Santee Lakes Regional Park, where we had spent a month two years ago.  Santee is just east of San Diego and the campground is located along a number of small, man-made lakes.  The park is well-maintained and the sites are wide and long.  The only negative is that the sites are dirt and gravel and can be a problem when it rains.

Our home in Santee Lakes

We picked Kevin up at the San Diego airport on Saturday and that evening enjoyed a delicious belated Thanksgiving dinner perfectly prepared by Chef Pam.  The next morning we headed west into the hills for a hike.  We drove out I-8 for about 20 miles then seven miles north on Rte. 79 to the Sweetwater River parking area.  That is the trailhead for the Airplane Monument/West Mesa Loop Trail near Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.

John and Kevin head up the trail

After hiking up into the hills for a few miles we came to the Airplane Monument, an old Liberty 12-cylinder aircraft engine mounted on stones.

The engine is from a DH-4B biplane that crashed on December 7, 1922 (ironically our visit was on December 7th).  An Army pilot, First Lt. Charles Webber, volunteered to fly Col. Francis Marshall to Arizona from San Diego to conduct official military business in Fort Huachuca.  When the weather deteriorated, Webber turned back to San Diego.  Shortly after reversing his course, the plane experienced engine trouble, and without a radio to communicate their engine failure, Webber and Marshall crashed into the ridge below Japacha Peak.  Neither Webber nor Marshall survived.  Search-and-rescue teams failed to recover the men and their plane after months of searching.  Five months later, a local rancher by the name of George McCain found the burned remains along with the airplane wreckage.

The engine block of the DH-4B biplane was mounted as a memorial for the World War I veterans.  The memorial was dedicated in May 1923 and refurbished by Civilian Conservation Corps workers in 1934, who constructed the Airplane Monument Trail, and again in 1968 when the state parks improved the monument.

Looking west toward San Diego and the Pacific Ocean


As we crossed a ridge we were met by three hikers with riders on their backs.  Slick, Bandit, and Hoot stopped for a few minutes to allow their riders to talk with us.

When there are no dogs around to feed, a horse will do!


Kevin stayed with us for two nights before boarding a flight back to Atlanta.  He flies airliners for a living, so a cross-country flight wasn’t very exciting.

Friends, Hans and Lisa, (Metamorphosis Road) are also staying in Santee Lakes, so the day after Kevin left we joined them on a hike up Iron Mountain.  We met Hans and Lisa during our stay in Santee Lakes two years ago and haven’t seen them for about a year and a half, so it was great to re-connect.  They are avid hikers and are from the San Diego area and always have some great hikes for us.

Heading up Iron Mountain Trail


Not far up the trail we passed an open pasture where dogs undergo training to work as sheep dogs.  The dog pictured below needs a little more practice as when the trainer called out, the sheep returned to the barn but the dog stayed out in the field!

The main trail at Iron Mountain is a basic up and back hike.  We took an alternate loop trail that was a bit longer and gave us more elevation changes along with cool views to the east and west.

The view to the west . . .

. . . and to the east

The next morning we decided to hike up the canyon north of the park.  The area is heavily used by mountain bikers, so many trails wind through the valley between the hills.

Going from the park to the trail required a bit of scrambling

A few miles from the park, at a spot where many of the mountain bike trails intersect, someone is in the process of painting something on a large boulder.  At this point we couldn’t tell just what it would end up looking like.

Looks like someone has overstayed their parking meter time


The main trail was pretty flat so we took a side trail up the hillside for a change of pace.

Lunch under one of the few trees along the trail

Someone didn’t enjoy their bike ride!


Lisa has told us that she thought that the area was used as a training area for helicopter pilots, so we were not surprised when a chopper did some landing maneuvers near us.

We will be in Santee Lakes for about a week before making the short move to Mission Bay where we will spend a month.  The possibility of another family visitor looms large for Christmas morning, barring a blizzard in southern Pennsylvania.

More on that later . . .

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Final Days in Lake Havasu

Lake Havasu City, AZ

The end of our two week stay in Lake Havasu City is rapidly approaching.  So we thought we’d post one last blog from here highlighting a few of the “non-hiking” activities we did.  We were not able to book the entire time in one site here at Lake Havasu State Park so we had to do a short move to another site after the first week.  Our first site was fine, but the second one was much nicer as it was more private and had a great view of the lake.  The site is designed to back into, but to take advantage of the view of the lake when we sat inside we pulled straight in and ran our electric and water lines under the motorhome to connect.

Site 43 in Lake Havasu State Park

Our site with the lake in the background

For part of our stay Norm and Lisa of Those Young Guys were also in the park, so they joined us (or we joined them?) for a number of activities.  Norm enjoys flying his radio controlled airplane so one morning we went over to a nearby empty parking lot in the park to watch him fly it.

Preparing for take-off

This was a perfect landing!

We wanted to get out on Lake Havasu at least once, so one day we took advantage of a ferry boat that goes over to Havasu City on the California side.  The California side is an Indian Reservation and has a casino, so the ferry is just $2 round trip.  They anticipate their passengers will donate more when they play the slots.

The ferry docked at Havasu City, CA

Two potential gamblers enjoy the crossing

They lost money on us as we stepped into the doorway of the casino, smelled the strong odor of cigarettes, and turned back around.  We then walked up the street to a bar/restaurant for some lunch while waiting for the return ferry.   Havasu City, CA is a very small town and nine out of ten vehicles is either a golf cart or ATV.

One of the most attended activities in Lake Havasu City is the lighting ceremony for the annual Festival of Lights.  The honor of flipping the switch turning on the holiday lighting goes to the first swimmer to cross from the island to the mainland next to the London Bridge.  With a water temperature of about fifty degrees the swim was only for the hearty/crazy.

The start line across the channel

And they’re off

The winning swimmer exits the water

The lighting ceremony took place on a bandstand under the far side of the bridge where we couldn’t see it.  So we crossed the bridge to the island side to enjoy dinner while they had the ceremony.  They claim that there are over 500,000 lights along the channel near the bridge.

From the island side we could see a blue lit walkway along the channel so we went back across to check it out.

We had a great time during our stay near Lake Havasu.  The weather was great (don’t come here in the summer!) and there is so much to do.  But now it’s time to head toward San Diego!

More on that later . . .

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Keyhole Landing/Lizard Point Hikes near Lake Havasu

Lake Havasu City, AZ

In our previous post we highlighted a hike to the Crack in the Mountain, just south of Lake Havasu City, with Norm and Lisa of Those Young Guys. The area has a couple of other great hikes that we completed.  The first was to Keyhole Landing, again with Norm and Lisa.  Its an easy hike down through a wash for about three and a half miles to a secluded section along the shore of Lake Havasu.

Hiking through the wash

A bit of bushwhacking was necessary near the lake

Approaching Keyhole Landing

The Keyhole

Photo-bombing a great shot!

John, Lisa, and Norm at Keyhole Landing


As we hiked the return trail we could see a point called Lizard Peak in the distance.  It looked like it would have a great view of the lake, so we put it on our “to do” list.


So a couple of days after Norm and Lisa headed south, we decided to climb up to check out the view.  The hike up to the peak is not very long, only a bit over a mile, but the elevation gain is a bit steep.

Once up to the peak, the views were impressive.

At one point John hiked down the peak to set up the camera for a timer shot.  He then quickly hiked back to the top to be in the picture.  Good thing he’s retained the speed of his youth because the timer only lasts for 30 seconds!

From the peak we could see a rock formation someone built in the sand far below.

We hiked back down to the base to get a closer look at the giant lizard.

Three different hikes starting in the same parking area!  Each one had a different challenge and provided different scenery.  Enjoying two with Norm and Lisa just added to the fun.

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Crack in the Mountain Hike – Lake Havasu

Lake Havasu City, AZ

On Sunday friends Norm and Lisa (Those Young Guys) arrived here in Lake Havasu State Park.  They stopped by for a visit and we arranged for a hike the next day to one of the most popular hikes in this area, the Crack in the Mountain.

On Monday we drove the short distance south of town to the north entrance road to SARA Park, the location of the trailhead.  Construction on the entrance road forced us to drive a bit further south to the south entrance road to access the park.  This created a bit of confusion as to which parking area we ended up using, since they are not labeled.  Our map had us getting on the trail at parking lot number one.  But the map was not very precise and we ended up wandering for about an hour before locating the correct trail.

John and Norm wandering through the desert

Finally, Lisa spots a trail marker!

A large apple above the trail?

Entering the Crack in the Mountain

The Crack in the Mountain (some call it SARA’s Crack, but we don’t want all those “wisecracks” about that name!) is a slot canyon about a half mile in length.  The highlight of the slot is a pour over almost ten feet high.  Our information about the hike said to just slide down it, but we thought it was a bit steep for such a long slide.  Fortunately, someone left a rope hanging over the drop, making the ride down a bit more controlled.  Lisa and Norm enjoyed the ride without a problem.  John also enjoyed the trip.

The nimble hiker really enjoys these types of adventures and contemplated not using the rope for her descent.

In the starting blocks!

But she ended up using the rope and enjoyed a very lady-like ride to the bottom!

Oh boy, hold on tight!

The eagle has landed!

Lisa maneuvers through the slot under Norm’s helpful instructions


After exiting the canyon, the trail follows the wash for another mile or more to Balanced Rock Cove along Lake Havasu.

After enjoying lunch along the water, we headed up an alternate trail, going up and around the Crack in the Mountain.

Balanced Rock Cove

Along the return trail we had a good view of another local landmark, Arch Rock, in the distance.

Arch Rock

The return trail goes over the saddle in the distance in front of us

Going over the saddle with Lake Havasu in the background

We crossed the main trail (that goes along in the sandy wash) and joined a parallel trail with better footing.  Our map showed this side trail re-joining the main trail just before the parking area, but that didn’t prove to be accurate.  We ended up on the main park road and, after some scouting and calculations, found we were just south of the parking area.  Returning to the Jeep, the hiking app said we had hiked just over six and half miles.

We had a great time hiking with Norm and Lisa, and the slot in the Crack in the Mountain was very interesting.  We plan on joining them for more hiking later in the week so stay tuned for more exciting posts!

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Welcome to Lake Havasu City, AZ

Lake Havasu City, AZ

Last Friday morning we left Furnace Creek in Death Valley and drove about 260 miles back to the south east to Lake Havasu City, AZ.   Lake Havasu is created by Parker Dam, on the Colorado River about 30 miles to the south.  Lake Havasu City is fairly new, established in 1963, and its claim to fame is the London Bridge.  What?  Isn’t the question, “Where is the London Bridge?” sort of like the old joke, “Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?”  Apparently not, as this bridge is definitely not in London anymore!

The London Bridge in 1870 (in London)


The bridge was purchased for $2.5 million from the City of London when it was replaced in 1968.  The bridge was disassembled, each piece was marked with a number, and the marked stones were shipped to Lake Havasu City and reassembled for another US $7 million. It opened in October of 1971.

The London Bridge today


The bridge was not reconstructed over a river, but rather it was rebuilt on land in a position between the main part of the city and Pittsburgh Point, at that time a peninsula jutting into Lake Havasu.  Once completed, the Bridgewater Channel Canal was dredged under the bridge and flooded, separating Pittsburgh Point from the city, creating an island.

Crossing the London Bridge


The Bridgwater Channel Canal from the center of the bridge


We are set up in the Lake Havasu State Park, just north of the bridge, for the next two weeks.  There are a number of recommended hikes in the area so expect more rock pictures in the future.  As we speak, the nimble hiker is busy reviewing future adventures.

More on that later . . .

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Twenty Mule Team Canyon and Dante’s View

Furnace Creek, CA

On our final day in Death Valley we decided to take it easy and just visit a couple of places in the Jeep.  We first went south on Rte. 190 to drive a scenic loop road through Twenty Mule Team Canyon.  The loop is just a couple of miles long on a one-way dirt road that is smooth enough for any vehicle.

Twenty Mule Team Canyon Road


The loop road showcased some of the multi-colored rock outcroppings and mountains.

Next we continued south on Rte. 190 to the road to Dante’s View.  The road to Dante’s View is paved and thirteen miles long.  At the parking area there is a great view of Death Valley over 5,600 feet below.

Death Valley from Dante’s View


We intended to hike a short distance to another viewing point and have lunch.  But it was just a bit over 50 degrees and the wind was howling so we just enjoyed our lunch in the Jeep while checking out the view.

We returned to the motorhome in the early afternoon to begin packing for tomorrow’s departure.  The park service operates three campgrounds in the Furnace Creek area but this is the only one with full hook-ups (Furnace Creek Campground).  Their website states that the sites are gravel but, as you can see below, they have all been paved (including the no hook up sites in this park).  We were told that there may not be any cell service in the park but found we had four bars (extended service for Verizon) and decent 3G data.

We have thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Death Valley.  The beauty of the park was a surprise to us and the hiking was excellent.  Next up is a visit to Lake Havasu.

More on that later . . .

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