How high can you actually drive on a four-wheel vehicle in the Philippines?
The answer is 2,340m above sea level, at Babadak Ranger Station in Mount Pulag, Benguet, where you can go above the clouds.
For years, the Philippine Pali (or highest point in the Philippine Highway System) had been in Cattubo in Atok, Benguet, along the Halsema Highway. Its elevation is 7,400ft or 2,255m above sea level. With the road improvements from Ambangeg junction all the way to the jump-off point of Mount Pulag in Babadak, it is now possible to drive even higher.
But why just drive if you can climb Luzon’s highest peak at 2,922m?
Aside from having a vehicle with a good ground clearance, climbing Mount Pulag does not require many preparations. All you have to do is decide to go, reserve, drive, trek and enjoy the Philippines’ most stunning mountain.
But to make it even more enjoyable, here are some practical tips on how one can scale Luzon’s highest peak.
Book the schedule well in advance. Park superintendent Emerita Albas’s number is (0919) 631-5402. Text her about the requested schedule and the number of people coming with you, and wait for her reply if the request is accepted. There is now a limit to the number of climbers (maximum of 150) that can go to the summit to watch the sunrise.
Climbers are advised to still do some physical preparations. The trek to the summit from Babadak is less than 10km. Although moderately easy except for the final assault to the peak, the conditions at high altitude are quite different. Do some running or brisk walking several weeks before the climb.
Climbers are required to be adequately equipped when scaling Mount Pulag. Three layers of clothing are ideal: base layer (long-sleeved shirt and cycling pants), insulating layer (fleece or sweat shirt) and outer shell (windbreaker with hood). An emergency raincoat would be wise. Trekking pants, trekking shoes, warm socks, bonnets, gloves, trekking poles, sleeping bags and headlamps with batteries are the basic necessities to help get you through to Mount Pulag. Of course, you need to place them all in a waterproof backpack.
How to get there
There are now two ways to drive to the Mount Pulag base: via Baguio and via Aritao. Via Baguio, take North Luzon Expressway from Manila, continue via SCTEX and TPLEX, and then exit from the new Binalonan. Turn left to the National Highway and continue driving all the way to Rosario, La Union. From Rosario, take either Kennon Road or Marcos Highway to reach Baguio City.
Upon reaching Baguio, find your way to Leonard Wood, carry on to Pacdal Circle (before Wright Park), and then take the exit to Pacdal Road going to Ambuklao. The road descends to Ambuklao Dam (nice place to have a group photo with your vehicles) before continuing to Ambangeg. Along the way, there’s this quaint little restaurant called Jang Jang that has been serving mountaineers with hot meals as early as 3am for decades. A few kilometers after Jang Jang, the road separates: left to Kabayan and right to Aritao. Turn left to the road going to Kabayan. Stop at the Visitors Center located in Ambangeg, Bokod.
Via Aritao, take also NLEX, SCTEX and TPLEX, but exit from Pura and continue driving via Guimba up to Muñoz, then turn left and proceed via Maharlika Highway. Enter Dalton Pass via San Jose and continue via San Jose. Upon reaching the town center of Aritao, turn left where the “To Baguio” sign is located, and drive to the mountain roads of Kayapa before descending to the junction going to the Visitors Center in Ambangeg.
The Visitors Center is open from 8am. All climbers are required to attend the briefing being conducted by Park superintendent Albas.
Climbers are to pay P225 each for registration and green fees. Guide fee is P500 for a maximum of five people. Porter fee is P300 one-way, for a maximum weight of 15kg, plus P20 per additional kilo. An P80 cultural fee is collected in Babadak.
After the briefing, you can drive your vehicles to the Ranger Station. The road going up is now fully cemented. However, remember to drive carefully. The narrow road is single-lane only so be wary of oncoming vehicles (mostly trucks loaded with vegetables). Have your headlamps on at all times as the fog comes at any given time of the day. The drive up takes about an hour. There is ample parking space at the Ranger Station.
Where to stay, what to do
Visitors to Mount Pulag now have a choice: Either camp and sleep in the cold, or sleep inside the comforts of a homestay. Most still prefer camping.
Those who opt to camp can trek to the three established campsites around Mount Pulag. Camp 1 is located in the mossy forest, and takes about an hour to reach. Camp 2 is at the grassland and can be reached in two hours. And Camp 3 is located right below the summit and can be reached in three hours.
The largest and most popular of the three is Camp 2, which can accommodate over a hundred tents. Here, you may pitch your tent, take a little rest, and then cook and have dinner. If the weather is clear, you may choose to go directly to the summit and watch the sunset. Or wake up early the next day and join the long procession of climbers going to the summit to watch the beautiful sunrise.
By 3am the next day, it’s time to start trekking single file in the dark with only headlamps on. By 5am, you reach the summit and position yourself to the east, and pray that the total darkness will soon fade to give way to a spectacular explosion of colors.
Those who have decided to take refuge at a homestay should start trekking from 1am to reach the summit by 5am.
In Mount Pulag, you simply sleep inside your tent, eat whatever food you can cook under the windy weather, and just enjoy the experience of being above the clouds. You don’t really care about your social-media accounts. It’s all about nature.
Driving to an elevation of 2,340m above sea level is just a bonus.