Avoiding the Sand Men and Ghost Lights: Hike to Goat Canyon Trestle, Puff Benchmark, and Jacumba Mountain

Today, I decided to go on a hike to Goat Canyon Trestle and Puff Benchmark. While up on Puff Benchmark, I made the sudden decision to also shoot for Jacumba Mountain. Overall, the whole day was absolutely amazing, and I was very happy with my decision. The combinations of views was absolutely breathtaking!

Before beginning, it is worth noting that Puff Benchmark is #82 on the Sierra Club’s 100 San Diego Peaks list, and Jacumba Mountain #84. Hitting up Goat Canyon Trestle was an additional bonus. I have uploaded my full GPS track on my Google Drive.

Full Disclaimer: The route I describe below not only carries the usual dangers of wilderness and scrambling hikes, but there is the added danger of the railroad itself. Although it has not been used in some time as of the writing of this post, there is no telling when that may change. Additionally, some of the bridges and tunnels are of questionable safety, and there is a very clear status that any walking upon the railroad is considered trespassing. You could end up injured, dead, and/or with a ticket from law enforcement. This is all your own responsibility, and I am giving you a fair warning not to do it.


If that isn’t enough warning, there is the ever present danger of the Borrego Sandmen and the Ghost Lights that have both been spotted around this area. Actually, that might convince you to go, because it is intriguing! It certainly added some elements of fun to my own adventure today!

IMG_3412This morning, I woke up with the clear goal: set out to hike to Goat Canyon Trestle, and then scramble up to Puff Benchmark overlooking it. Although I had read of the legal issues and some questionable safety of the bridges and tunnels required on the route, I wanted to follow the railroad, mostly, all of the way.

Driving to a familiar trailhead at the end of Mortero Canyon Road, I parked and set off. Initially, it was following the railroad for a ways, until I made the decision to head off into the desert. Some dirt roads were available that created a small shortcut through the twists and bends of the railroad, and I opted to take it. This took some proper pathfinding of knowing which path to take, but it was easy, and I continued onward.

IMG_3389I realized quite quickly that the railroad was finally close again when I came upon an old camp used by the men who built this railroad. This would not be the only one that I would see like this all day, and I found it really interesting! I passed it, and continued on, intersecting the railroad right next to one tunnel and before another. That’s one tunnel I wasn’t going to have to worry about!

IMG_3415From this point, it was all just following the rail tracks. The tunnels, largely, were not too sketchy today, but the a few of the bridges showed the lack of repair and upkeep. It’s not really a fun adventure for someone scared of heights, and I was glad that my reaction to heights is at least minimal! Nonetheless, in no time at all, I reached the Goat Canyon Trestle; about 5 or 6 miles into the hike. Really a simple route!

I messed around checking everything out for a while around the trestle before heading out, with Puff Benchmark clearly visible from where I stood. The tunnel to the north side of the trestle has an access trail going on the outside, which I had hoped to find some path up to Puff from. It wasn’t easy, but I found one spot that seemed “good enough” and headed up.

It was a scramble and desert bushwhack! The cacti on the slope really had it out for me today, cutting me on a couple of occasions, and otherwise sticking their barbs into my skin left and right. It wasn’t very pleasant during a somewhat difficult scramble.

IMG_3449_2Alas, I made it, though! It wasn’t too difficult, and the view over the Carrizo Gorge was absolutely stunning. Which is something that can be said of the entire hike today, really: the Carrizo Gorge showed off, changing with every step that I took. Puff Benchmark, however, provided a truly beautiful panoramic of the gorge.

After stopping there and eating lunch, I decided that I didn’t really want to head back down the same way. I considered it for a moment, and then I decided to shoot for Jacumba Mountain. I have never spent any time planning such a thing, so I was in the dark, navigating the terrain entirely by ear!

It was a long shot from Puff to Jacumba. However, it was surprisingly easy, for the most part. At times, the climb got steep, and I was resorted to scrambling over boulders on occasion. For the most part, it was just a clean bushwhack around the mountains, headed constantly for Jacumba.

IMG_3459After a couple of false summits and some realizing that this was much further than I had thought, staring at the map, Jacumba Mountain was pretty clearly in view. There was snow all over the slopes of the mountain, some of which I was forced to walk in. No big deal, though, as I just continued on.

The summit was cold and slightly windy, but the 360 degree view that I was rewarded with was absolutely stunning. I threw on my jacket, and enjoyed another small meal, staring at the view around me. From more unique views of Carrizo Gorge, to McCain Valley, down to Mexico, all over Imperial Valley, the Salton Sea, and all of the way up to the San Jacinto Mountains, this view was impeccable. I didn’t really want to leave!

Of course, I had been keeping my eyes on my watch and decided that it was becoming imperative that I start heading down the mountain. I wasn’t really sure about the way that I had sought to attempt a climb later, having never touched these slopes before, but I went ahead and tried a path.

My chosen path wasn’t bad, at first.

IMG_3469As the way got more difficult, however, it was back to that familiar bouldering episodes I’ve been facing all over the Jacumba Mountains. Here, I thought I had finally escaped it, if only for one hike! Nope! I ended up on a difficult, technical scramble all of the way down the mountain, until I arrived at the Montrero Palms.

Thankfully, this ended quite quickly into the dirt road that provides a much quicker access to the area. The sun was setting as twilight set in, but I was simply excited to have an easy road walk, even if it was a dirt road.

Ultimately, I made it back to the car before I had to break out the headlamp, and I had a wonderful, successful hike today! It’s been a tough hike, but absolutely worth it!

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