Distance (round-trip)

22.7 mi

Time

18 hrs

Elevation Gain

8300 ft

Season

Spring
Fall
Winter

Weather

One of the most challenging hikes in Southern California. This ascent of a long, ramp-like ridge takes you first to Villager Peak and then, after much undulating, to the remote sky island of Rabbit Peak. The views are phenomenal, and the sunsets and sunrises can be once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Not for the faint-of-heart, and certainly only for experienced hikers, this is one of the most memorable hikes you can take in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Rabbit Peak 18

Villager Peak before sunset

If you’ve spent any amount of time in Borrego Valley, then chances are you’ve seen it staring you down, both challenging and beckoning you: a formidable wall of granite rising straight up from the desert floor and culminating in a flat, wooded summit known as Rabbit Peak. This sky island crowned with pinyon pines, meadows, and chaparral stands aloof from the rest of Southern California in one of the most isolated and difficult-to-reach parts of the region. No roads and few trails penetrate this part of the Santa Rosa Mountains, and the only way to reach the peak is to undergo the ordeal of climbing straight up a daunting ridge from the desert floor.

Rabbit Peak 19

Pinyon snag at sunset

There are two popular routes reaching Rabbit Peak. A north approach from the Coachella Valley is shorter, but far steeper. The east approach described here rises up from Borrego Valley via a ramp-like ridge that leads first to Villager Peak (itself a daunting destination at 14 miles and 5000′ of gain) before following an undulating ridgeline to Rabbit. The total distance on this route is 21 miles with a gain of 8300′.

Rabbit Peak 14

Rabbit Peak and the terrain inbetween it and Villager Peak

Incredibly, even though Rabbit Peak is only 900′ higher than Villager Peak, there is a net gain and loss of 3,300′ over the 7 mile round trip hike from Villager Peak. The adventurous and stamina-blessed souls who assault Rabbit on dayhikes insist with great sincerity that this route is more difficult than Cactus-to-Clouds, which climbs Mt. San Jacinto from Palm Springs. Remember that on Rabbit Peak, there is no conveniently located tram to take you down when you’ve had enough.

Rabbit Peak 5

Clark Valley, Coyote Mountain, and the San Ysidro Mountains from Villager Ridge

Any hike of this magnitude is going to be rife with challenges, and Rabbit is no exception. The Santa Rosa Mountains, as austerely beautiful as they are, are an unforgiving, even cruel place for the unprepared. There is no water and little shade. The terrain is craggy and uneven at best, and several portions of trail on this hike follow the edge of a spectacular 3,000′ escarpment that will give acrophobes a panic attack. The grade on the hike routinely hits 1,000′ per mile, with many sections exceeding that ratio. On nearly every step of the trail, you cross paths with some form of plant that is capable of inflicting damage, including cholla, ocotillo, agave, Mojave yucca, and thick stands of chaparral plants. And of course, you are miles away from the nearest road with no phone reception on a trail that is sparsely traveled even during the peak of desert season.

Rabbit Peak 8

The “trail” to Villager Peak

By this point, many people will have already concluded that this hike is not for them. If you’re still salivating and wish to hike Rabbit, here is what you need to be prepared for:

  • You will need to carry all of the water you need. In the desert, I generally recommend carrying a gallon per day, even when it’s relatively cool. For a two day hike, that means two gallons, which weighs about 16 pounds.
  • You will need to know how to navigate. For most of the route, there is a well-defined trail. However, there are many places where you can lose the trail, go off course, and end up descending a ridge that leads to nowhere. You should be able to read a topographic map effectively. At the bare minimum, you should use a dedicated GPS device (no phones!) with topographic map data and the provided GPS track to provide a reference.
  • You will need to be in excellent physical condition. If you don’t factor in altitude, this hike is the equivalent of climbing Mt. Baldy twice in a row while tacking on an extra 500′ of climbing. Even if you do this as an overnight, you’re still looking at carrying 16 pounds of water, 5-7 pounds of food, and 15-20 pounds of backpacking gear over 7 miles with 5000′ of gain to Villager, where you can stash some of it for the hike to Rabbit. If you’ve never completed any hike over 15 miles or over 4000′ of gain, DO NOT attempt this hike.
  • You will need to be mentally prepared. The physical aspect is one thing, but how are you going to feel when you climb 500′ up to a false summit, only to find out you need to drop another 400′ before completing a 900′ climb over .5 mile? Your attitude toward that sort of work will make or break this hike.
  • You should have previous desert hiking experience, which teaches you how to handle prolonged sun exposure, how to avoid becoming a pin cushion for cholla pods, how to navigate without trails, and how to pace yourself to avoid over-exertion, heat exhaustion, or heat stroke.
  • Along the same lines, you should know some desert first-aid. In the event you do become a pin cushion for cholla pods, you will need to know how to take care of it. I recommend a comb to separate the pod from your skin and pliers to pull the individual needles out. Add antiseptic wipes, neosporin, and band-aids, and you’re ready to face the scourge of desert hikers.
  • You should be prepared for a wide range of temperatures and weather conditions. Temperatures tend to decrease about 3-5 degrees for every 1000′ feet of elevation. The difference between the desert floor and Villager Peak is nearly 5000′, which means that it can be 15-25 degrees colder here. If there’s a low of 45 in Borrego Valley, the low on Villager might be 20. It snows with regularity here during the winter, and the wind can be a nightmare. Dress accordingly.
Rabbit Peak 17

Pinyon-juniper woodland

Tempting as it may be to hike this in a single day (or, at least a 24 hour period), we strongly recommend doing this as an overnight hike. Even if you are physically capable of such a feat, you’ll get the most out of the experience if you allow abundant time to experience the sunset and sunrise, as well as to explore the summit plateaus of Villager and Rabbit Peaks.

Rabbit Peak 24

Pinyon snag and the Salton Sea at sunrise

To begin, start from the trailhead on the north shoulder of the Borrego Salton Seaway and follow the abandoned tread of an old jeep road north. Aim straight toward the eastern base of a low line of hills in front of you. There will likely be sets of footsteps to follow, but in case there aren’t, know that you will travel due north from the parking area for .5 mile. Once you reach the base of these low hills, you will find a well-defined trail that you can follow into Rattlesnake Wash for another .6 mile to the base of the ridge leading to Villager Peak. At the base, you’ll identify a switchbacking route that climbs out of the wash and onto the ridge.

Rabbit Peak 1

The beginning

The initial .5 mile is exceedingly steep, although the grade soon attains a more manageable 1000′ per mile ratio. For the first 2 miles of the climb, the vegetation is dominated by creosote, ocotillo, red barrel cactus, cholla, and brittlebush. Initially, the terrain is fairly easy to negotiate, with the occasional bit of loose scree on a firm surface.

Rabbit Peak 3

Lone cottonwood at Rattlesnake Spring

At 3000′, the vegetation makes a pronounced change with desert agave (century plant) becoming the dominant plant. The agave stalk, of which you will see thousands, contains a fleshy “heart” that was a staple food of the Cahuilla Indians. The Cahuilla lived in and around the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains, and they eked out a living off of what may seem meager resources to us. In order to eat the agave hearts, the stalk needed to be roasted for several days in an underground, coal-fired pit. Due to the difficulty of transporting large amounts of agave stalks over the mountain trails, the Cahuilla roasted the agave where they harvested it. Astute observers may spot circles about 10-15 feet in diameter in the midst of these agave thickets. The circles that have tan-colored sand in the center were sleeping circles where the Cahuilla constructed and used shelters during their harvests. Circles with darkened sand were likely roasting pits.

Rabbit Peak 6

Tip-toeing along Villager Ridge’s spectacular escarpment

At 3.8 miles and the 3200′ contour, you’ll reach the spectacular and terrifying Santa Rosa escarpment that drops  2000-3000′ down to Clark Valley. The trail remains quite close to the edge of the cliff until the summit of Villager Peak. Meanwhile, the terrain becomes more jagged and broken, and it takes more effort and concentration to keep track of the trail. If you’re having trouble keeping to the trail, focus instead of keeping to the highest part of the ridge to avoid inadvertently descending away from the path.

Rabbit Peak 11

Mojave Yucca with Mile High Mountain and the Salton Sea in the background

Around 4800′-5000′, the vegetation again undergoes a change with junipers, pinyons, yuccas, and nolina becoming the dominant plant life. Mercifully, the agave disappears and the cholla thins out considerably, making navigation slightly less stressful. You’ll traverse a false peak, passing a few windswept campsites before making a 250′ climb up to the rounded summit of Villager Peak. Just north of the summit, you’ll find a pinyon-studded flat with abundant campsites. This is an excellent place to camp and establish a jump-off point for your summit attempt on Rabbit Peak during the following morning.

Rabbit Peak 12

Summit cairn on Villager Peak

Villager’s summit is marked by a cairn (rock pile), and from here or several flat rocks nearby, you can take in the full extent of the view that has been developing on the way up. To the south, the expanse of Borrego Valley, framed by the San Ysidro Mountains, Pinyon Ridge, Pinyon Mountains, and Vallecito Mountains lies before you. Numerous other highpoints are also easy to spot, including Granite Mountain, Cuyamaca Peak, Hot Springs Mountain, and Toro Peak. If you descend from the summit and walk across the summit plateau to some boulders on the north side, you’ll take in about half of the even more impressive Coachella Valley, framed by the the Little San Bernardinos, the Mecca Hills, Joshua Tree National Park, and the sparkling waters of the Salton Sea.

Rabbit Peak 20

Sunset color from Villager Peak

Since you’re camping, you’ll also get the benefit of watching the sun set from the summit. Watching the evening shadows lengthen across Borrego Valley while the surrounding mountains take on contrast and relief from the sun’s angle is one of the sublime pleasures available on this hike. A dayhike will not grant you ample time to enjoy these handful-in-a-lifetime kind of sunsets and sunrises.

Rabbit Peak 23

Crimson alpenglow across Borrego Valley

Rabbit Peak 21

Sun rising over the Orocopia Mountains

For the approach to Rabbit, you’ll wish to get a pre-dawn start if you want to make it to the peak and back, re-pack your gear, and then take the arduous 5000′ descent down from Villager in time to eat a hearty dinner in Borrego Springs. Because you’re backpacking, you can leave the majority of your gear and some of your water behind to lighten your load. Navigation in the dark is a bit tricky, and you will absolutely need a headlamp even if the moon is full. Previous hikers have left reflective cubes attached to trees along the path to help you find your way. You’ll miss them if you aren’t using a headlamp.

Rabbit Peak 29

Along the crest

Thus begins a rollercoaster of a hike in which you will promptly lose and gain elevation repeatedly as you ascend every undulation in the ridge between Villager and Rabbit. The initial 500′ drop from Villager is followed by several 100-300′ undulations and 600′ ascent to Peak 5859, followed by a 300′ drop and a 200′ climb before you reach the base of Rabbit Peak. From the base of Rabbit Peak, you’ll climb 900′ in a little over .5 mile to reach the flat summit. On your return journey, you’ll do the whole thing in reverse.

Rabbit Peak 22

Sun rising over the Salton Sea

Somewhere along the way, provided you had a pre-dawn start, you will no doubt notice the sky’s transition from inky, diamond-strewn black to a deep blue with a line of warm color on the eastern horizon. The waters of the Salton Sea will become translucent as the dawn approaches. If it’s cloudy, the clouds will undergo a transition from grey shadows to blood red streaks across the sky. Do your best to be atop one of the ridge’s higher points, because this is a sunrise you will not wish to miss. To the east and north, the sun rises over the Salton Sea. To the south and west, the sun’s first rays cast a violently iridescent alpenglow across the San Ysidro Mountains and Coyote Mountain. As far as sunrises go, there is a fair chance that this could be one of the most memorable you’ll ever experience.

Rabbit Peak 25

Borrego Valley at dawn

From the base of Rabbit Peak, commence the steep climb up a rocky, sandy slope through a sparse woodland of shade-giving pinyons. This arduous climb will take a lot out of you, and it’s not much easier coming back down. However, the grade will soon flatten out, and you’ll find yourself entering a heavily-wooded flat studded with pinyon pines, scrub oaks, chaparral, and several small meadows. A boulder pile with an ammo canister chained to it marks the summit. You won’t get the same panoramic views as on Villager or even on the ridge, although you will get your first clear looks at San Jacinto and San Gorgonio from the summit boulders.

Rabbit Peak 26

Rabbit Peak’s summit plateau

The real beauty of Rabbit Peak lies in its “Island in the Sky” nature. Here, you are in a secret world, separate from the rest of Southern California. You will find numerous campsites around the summit, and if you want to get a full sense of the view, you can spend several hours poking around looking for vistas north, south, east, and west. Camping here would be wonderful in many ways, but you will need to assess for yourself whether you wish to carry your full pack over the 10.5 miles and 6600′ of climbing between here and the trailhead. It will make the climb significantly more challenging.

Rabbit Peak 27

From left to right, Mt. San Jacinto, Mt. San Gorgonio, and Martinez Mountain in the foreground

Whether dayhiking or backpacking, this is your turnaround point. As you’ve probably gathered, you should not underestimate the amount of work you have before you. Not only do you have another 10.5 miles of walking, you also have 2000′ of climbing and 6600′ of elevation loss to contend with, not to mention all of the terrain and pointy-plant challenges you encountered on the way up. While physically easier, the return journey is much more challenging mentally, as you will undoubtedly reach a point when you are ready for it to be over.

Rabbit Peak 30

Toro Peak with Peak 6582 (Dawn’s Peak) in the foreground

Before long though, you will have collected your gear from Villager Peak, loaded back up, and will have made the painstaking descent back to the desert floor. By the time you finish, you will have conquered one of the most difficult hikes in Southern California, and the sense of accomplishment exceeds that which you get from other challenging hikes. More than that, there is an abundance of moments on this route where you will experience a number of sublime sensations ranging from awe as the sun rises over the Salton Sea, excitement at the sight of meteors streaking across a clear, cold sky, and the mysterious remnants of ancient cultures.

Scott is an L.A. native and San Diego transplant who pulls every trick in the book to get out on the trail. His first book, a revision of Afoot and Afield San Diego County, is now out.





Camping

Historical Interest

Solitude

Views / Vista

Trail Map

10 Comments

Jackie- @so_much_adventure Dec 2, 2019 22:12

Attempted this hike Sat (November 30, 2019). Got to Villager Peak in the good time, and there was snow up in above 5000 as well. Very nice! As we app the saddle between Villager and Rabbit, we knew that we would be descending for 3 to 4 hours in the dark if we continued. We were all prepared for that, but due to the terrain, and the fact that it was our first time hiking in this area we opted to turn back and come back for Rabbit another time. The hike to Villager Peak and down Ridge toward Rabbit was a fun full day adventure in its own right. Next time we will get an earlier start, our 6am start was too late for this kind of hike. We made it back to our car around 4pm. We did have two in our group who did continue on to Rabbit. They finished around 8:30pm. Definitely a formidable hike up there with C2C. Great trail write up! Without bagging Rabbit, our hike to Villager and down to the saddle between the two peaks and back, came in at 17.3 miles and 5819 of elevation gain for the day. Not too shabby!

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Scott Turner

Scott Turner Apr 19, 2019 08:04In reply to: HikerGirl

Hi Hiker Girl,

Thanks for the comment. I'm glad you had a great experience, and I'm happy that my guide played a part in that. Many happy adventures!

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HikerGirl Apr 18, 2019 16:04

My first season of desert hiking a year into hiking in general finished great doing Rabbit as a day hike (and having the mtns to ourselves) a few days ago. I went with my highly xp friend so knew what I was getting into, and we did Villager a few times and cached water for this recently, so I was set.

Your guide was spot-on and fun and easy to read. I agree most people would find it most enjoyable to overnight at Villager. I also agree having done both that this hike took more out of me, both surprisingly some leg fatigue and definitely mental overload, than C2C tho I was quite the newbie when I did that almost a year ago. The loose scree, constant scanning for the trail esp among the rocky areas, in the groundflower undergrowth, and to Rabbit the use trail does fade in and out, plus the many “wee hills” that just sap your energy if you don’t pace yourself and keep hydrated and fed enough, make C2C seem like Disneyland with its worst-case rescue boxes, an actually very well-maintained trail compared to the Santa Rosas, and the comfy tram station to cool off and relax, plus nice green pine - and shade! - trees much of the way to the peak. But both are beautiful in their own ways, and both are some of my favorite places! I had no idea what to expect after Villager and was surprised at both the length of the ridge to climb over to get to Rabbit and how beautiful the land was. It was great to put another piece of the entire ridge together, as we have hiked a lot of the eastern section earlier this season. It was so beautiful too!

Thanks for your great trail reports and your books - they have helped me and even my friend when they are looking for new adventures!

Happy hiking!

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Hannah Jan 24, 2018 07:01

This was the best information I've ever found on a hike. Just finished the summit of Rabbit, and I think I lost one of my nine lives. It should be reinforced that, if you are wanting anything less than a wicked adventure and you have a disdain for easy-to-follow trails (i.e., you can zone-out), then pick another hike!!!

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Scott Turner

Scott Turner Sep 26, 2017 08:09In reply to: Ali Rashidi

To chime in - the track I provided was heavily corrected to clean out all of the phantom distance that occurs whenever a hiker stops but leaves his GPS running. I arrived at the original distance (which you will see in Afoot and Afield) by running that corrected track through both Caltopo and Google Earth. For me, the mileage was neat 21 miles, and I averaged it out to a round 21.

It's possible that you may have had an inflated distance from your GPS due to the phantom distance I mentioned earlier. Any time you stop moving but leave your device on, it continues to record your location in slightly different spots - probably due to constant motion of the triangulating satellites. Your GPS records this as distance and adds the mileage to your overall distance. Hikers are often disappointed to find that they didn't hike as far as they thought because their GPS "added" a couple of miles to their overall distance.

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Casey Schreiner Sep 26, 2017 07:09In reply to: Ali Rashidi

Thanks for the catch, Ali! As you probably know, GPS outputs can be notoriously finicky and often show different distances depending on what programs you're using to look at them. I've updated the distance on the hike here to match your numbers (as well as our embedded GPS map). Glad you enjoyed the hike (even with its difficulties)!

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Ali Rashidi Sep 26, 2017 07:09

Thanks for the great write up! Just had a suggestion for you, and that's to update the mileage at the top of the page. I did this hike (dayhiked it against your advice because I'm a stubborn old fool -- ouch!) a couple of days ago and ended up with a total of 24 miles as reported by my Fenix 5. I wondered how my mileage could have been off by three miles, but then I revisited your post and found that the elevation profile plot shows a total of 22.7 miles. Wouldn't hurt to update the mileage to that value. Other than that, I found your post to be spot on. I will definitely make my next visit an overnighter.

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Ukraine Train Jan 29, 2017 17:01

This approach is not the eastern approach. It is the southern approach. The other steeper path you mentioned is also not the northern approach. It is the eastern approach.

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Scott Aug 20, 2016 19:08In reply to: Matthew JP (@mattytreks)

The small bumps do add up. The section between Villager and Rabbit is a constant roller coaster. They are not so tiny when you're up there.

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Matthew JP (@mattytreks) May 27, 2016 13:05

Great review! Just had a question about your documenting the 8,300 feet of elevation this hike gains. Based on the elevation profile on your page, the most I'm calculating is no more 7500 feet of total elevation gain. Unless those super-tiny ups and downs add up to an additional 800 feet.

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