If you've put off a visit to the local desert this season due to poor wildflower prospects, it's not too late, or too hot, for a rewarding visit to Whale Peak. This gently swelling summit, frosted with giant boulders and dotted with pinyon pines, stands in the middle of the sprawling Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, a park known for its extremes of high temperature. During the next few weeks, however, you can visit the mile-plus-high peak without too much risk of encountering a midday temperature higher than about 85 degrees.
The trip described here, which involves the least amount of hiking, is not without its complications. First, you will need a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle to reach the trailhead (compact SUVs are insufficient). Second, you will need some well-honed spatial skills to successfully navigate on foot to the peak and back again. The summit of Whale Peak lies within a complex of similar-looking ridges and gentle valleys and remains hidden from view until you are almost upon it. On the return, it is easy to get turned around while descending a promising gully, only to realize later that you are moving in the wrong direction.
At mile 21.4 on Highway S-2 (4 miles south of Highway 78 at Scissors Crossing), turn east on Pinyon Mountain Road. Stay right at the fork at 0.1 mile, and continue up a gentle incline. Watch out for patches of soft sand. A short stretch of protruding rocks is encountered about 4 miles up the road. At 5.7 miles, the road tops a watershed divide at 3980 feet elevation in the middle of a saddle called Pinyon Mountain Valley. Find a place to park along a spur road going south, or somewhere else nearby. Stash in your pack plenty of food and more water than you think you'll need for the four-mile round-trip hike ahead.
Start by heading directly up a steep narrow ravine to the south, beyond the spur road. The north-facing, partially shaded slopes hereabouts sport an agreeable collection of gnarled pinyon pines, bushy junipers, Mojave yuccas, and large, yucca-like "nolinas," a.k.a. "beargrass." A little hand-and-foot climbing may be required to get past some of the larger granitic boulders in the bottom of the ravine. As you climb, look north across Pinyon Mountain Valley to a drier ridge called the Pinyon Mountains, beyond where your car is parked. Memorize its appearance. If you lose your way on the return, this ridge, spotted from some higher elevation, can be your guiding light.
After 400 feet of ascent in the gully, you will find yourself amid level terrain. Now head generally southeast on an undulating, generally uphill track, boulder-hopping occasionally and dodging wiry pinyon pines, junipers, scrub oaks, manzanitas, yuccas, and nolinas along the way. "Ducks" (small piles of stones set out by hikers as trail markers) may help guide the way if you manage to hook up with one of the many informal pathways worn by the footsteps of hikers. Choosing a reasonably straight route to the summit will get you there in two miles or less, with an elevation gain of nearly 1500 feet.
A climbers' register can be found tucked below Whale Peak's summit boulders. On a clear day, the panorama is superb: the Salton Sea in the east, Baja's mesalike Sierra Juárez in the south, and the impressive wall of the Laguna Mountains to the west.