Tue, Nov 21, 2017
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Rockfront is a fairly large OHV area in the Los Padres NF located in the southern part of San Luis Obispo County, north of SR166. I had visited this area once before to climb Branch Mtn and Big Rocks, but had run out of time for nearby Brown Mtn. I came back to do a long ridgeline traverse between Brown Mtn and Shell Peak, separated by about 7mi, with two bonus peaks between them. About half of the route lies within the Rockfront OHV area, most of rest within the national forest, and a few small sections on private property. The ranchers who own the adjacent properties also graze their cattle within the forest lands (undoubtedly with a nominal use fee), so I didn't feel too bad about the minor excursions here. Based on my efforts the previous day on Sierra Madre Rd, I thought I would complete the 18mi outing in about 3hrs. It turns out it's a much bigger deal with significant ups and downs, most portions too steep to ride up (and a few too steep for me to ride down), and it ended up taking twice as long. I was happy to not see any OHVs sharing the trails with me, though I heard a few of in the distance and there were a few trucks to keep my van company when I returned to the staging area.
I'd spent the night at the Rockfront Staging Area north of SR166, far enough from the road that the nighttime noise was minimal. I was up before 6:30a and starting off on the bike less than half an hour later. It was cool in the morning but would warm soon enough. A stiff breeze helped cool things some, but it would be in the mid-80's before I returned. The OHV roads are heavily used and chewed up accordingly, leaving trails often rocky or loose dirt/sand or some combination. I only rode about half a mile before hitting the first steep slope and had to push the bike uphill. The road climbs more than 1,000ft in about 1.7mi and I spent much of this pushing the bike up to Brown Mtn, taking most of the first hour. Looking southwest, I got a better understanding of what lay ahead, with deep drops and more steep climbs ahead as far as I could see. 3/4mi and 500ft lower is an impressive feature called Twin Rocks. It looks to be a difficult class 5 climb, from all angles. It can be seen prominently from SR166 with potential access from the highway - a future project to put in the back pocket.
I dropped steeply down the southwest side of Brown, clutching the brakes tightly as the back wheel skidded and i tried not to let the front one lock up. It could not be described as a fun ride - mostly just hoping I wouldn't go over the handlebars. Once down to a saddle there was a short section of riding to a second saddle, then another steep climb up to Logan Ridge, pushing the bike up almost the whole way. The OHV road (called Twin Rocks Rd) goes nearly over the highpoint of Logan Ridge, the first bonus peak. I paused here to make the short hike to the highpoint which was modestly brushy and not terribly interesting. Back on the bike, I rode about a quarter mile downhill to a road fork (two actually, but the first one is a dead end into private property further down Logan Ridge) where there are some information boards and a sign warning of steep downhill ahead (omg, it gets steeper?). The right fork with the warning sign drops more than 1,000ft to Alamo Creek. I took the unsigned left fork that continues along the ridge. Once again the road begins to drop steeply and I was back to clutching the brakes. Halfway down I came to a rocky section, the first I came to that I was afraid to ride down. This was silly, I figured, walking the bike down and pushing it back up, so I abandoned the bike here with half the distance still remaining to Shell Peak. It was not lost on me that I had abandoned the bike on that first visit to the Rockfront Area, too. I had some other hikes planned for the afternoon but these were beginning to look iffy, at best. I figured I'd go to the third summit, only a mile further, and then consider what to do.
After descending the rest of the steep grade I reached a saddle with a locked gate marking the end of the OHV area. The gate is signed for no vehicles, but foot traffic is fine. It appears to be used by both hunters (in the fall) and cattle (nearly year-round). The road becomes a trail for most of the remaining distance to Peak 2,649ft, a delightful hike through oak woodlands that was the best part of the whole route. The summit of Peak 2,649ft is grassy and open to views, marked with an old survey sign, of the sort often used in Southern California. I still had more than 3mi to the last summit, but of course my earlier choice to postpone the decision to go on was just a ruse to get me to commit - onwards. The ranch road picks up here and continues for most of the way to Shell Peak. Another 15min past the third summit I reached a gate marking the start of private porperty. The road here goes through only a quarter mile stretch of said property before reverting to national forest. Noticeably, there is no second gate or fence to mark the end of the private property. The road continues along an indistinct ridge for another mile and a quarter before dropping steeply once again. At the saddle below, all signs of vehicle traffic appear to stop. The next section going up a plateau northwest of Shell Peak is also steep and a bit brushy, but fine for foot traffic. There is a gate up at the top on the edge of the plateau marking the second section of private property. There were no signs on this gate - I suspect few people venture up this way. I followed the road and various forks for another half mile as I made my way towards Shell Peak. The road I traveled begins to drop south into Charlie Valley, bypassing the summit by 1/7mi to the west. Unexpectedly, the remaining distance was heavy brush, unlike the grass and oaks I'd been wandering through most of the way. The distance through, and difficulty of brush one is willing to tackle depends on how much work it took to get there and how much remains. With this in mind, I had to at least give it a good try. Coincidently, the forest property begins almost as soon as one leaves the road. What at first looked impenetrable, soon began to relent. I was rebuffed at the first two points I tried to start up but found a third more welcoming. It helped tremendously that there was no poison oak, ticks or buckthorn. The chamise that covered most of the terrain was tough, but not so much that it would shred my skin and clothing. I spent about 25min making my way slowly up the hillside, wandering back and forth looking for small breaks and easier ways through. Nowhere did I find any evidence of a firebreak, trail, cut branches or anything to indicate a route up to the top once existed, ever. The summit is fairly flat with no distinct top, so I aimed for the LoJ point that would match the topo map. Near this point I found a few old wooden stakes lying on the ground, purpose unknown, but proof others had been here. A few minutes later I found a small clearing at the indicated point with half-ass views looking east and west. I built a small cairn and left a register here - anyone going to this much trouble to get here should have at least a small reward for their trouble.
Having taken more than three hours to reach the top, it would take almost as long for the return, save about 20min. With decent cell coverage along the highest parts of the ridgeline, I got word from my daughter than she planned to skip her last class at UCSB the next day so I could pick her up in the morning rather than the afternoon, as planned. Given the difficulty of the day's outing, I had already resigned the other hikes I'd planned for the next morning, but these now, would have to wait for another time. Not that I mind - it just gives me another excuse to visit my daughter at school later in the year...
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