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The Garcia Wilderness is located in a remote part of the Los Padres National Forest, east of San Luis Obispo and Pismo Beach. The two highest summits are unnamed, but have been given the titles "Garcia Mtn" for the higher eastern summit and "Garcia West" for the western summit, less than 10ft lower. They are separated by a low saddle (Garcia Saddle) that drops almost 1000ft between them. I hoped to be able to climb both of these on the same outing, though I knew there was no trail from Garcia Saddle to the eastern summit. The network of existing trails have deteriorated some due to access issues and lack of visitors. The Avenales Ranch once allowed access through their property on the north side along the Salinas River, but now appears to have closed off this option. I decided to use this approach anyway since it was the shortest available and did not require any dirt road driving. I had spent the night at the end of San Jose Avenales Rd where a locked gate marks the boundary of Avenales Ranch. A myriad of locks on the gate suggests there are a number of landowners having access through this same entrance. One vehicle was exiting while I was lying down in the twilight hour, but they didn't bother to check me out, nor I them.
I was up at 4a and on my way half an hour later, hiking eastward along the well-graded dirt road that follows along the north side of the Salinas River. As there was no moon, a headlamp was needed to navigate by for the first hour and a half or so. I left the main road after a mile and half to follow a fainter, grass-covered road to the south. The heavy dew on the grass would have my boots wet within minutes and my feet not long after. Drats. This would have been a good day for the waterproof boots. I crossed the Salinas River where the road abuts the watercourse, at the deepest only about six inches. On the other side I picked up a horse trail and followed this along the river for a quarter mile or so before realizing I was off-route. I backtracked to a junction and followed the fainter track further south away from the river where I discovered the old road with a gate across it and a sign indicating the Garica Wilderness boundary. At one time a road ran from here up to Sellers Potrero and then up to Garcia Mtn West before turning west for 8-9 miles where it meets the Hi Mtn Rd. It has been decades since any car has driven any portion of this road and from the looks of it, the place sees little traffic. There was a trail register at the wilderness sign with three parties signing it in the last year.
I was happy to find the Sellers Trail navigable and reasonably clear. There was no downfall across the trail, but there was plenty of encroaching poison oak that I watched for very carefully. From the look of the trail surface, it appears most of the visitors are on horseback, probably local landowners. A crescent moon hung just above the eastern sky, portending the coming day with a faint glow on the horizon. As 6a approached I found myself at Sellers Potrero, spanish for "meadow". It isn't a meadow that one thinks of in the usual sense of a flat area in a canyon or on a mesa, but instead is a large, sloping hillside high above the canyon and just below the ridgeline heading to Garcia Mtn West. A trail sign here indicates a turn to the west for the trail and I followed this into the open potrero. Both eastern and western summits could be seen from this vantage (though the eastern highpoint is actually located just behind and out of direct view) as I paused to put away my headlamp. I followed the Sellers Trail for a quarter mile before realizing I'd missed the junction with the Garcia Ridge Rd. Backtracking, and not finding a marked or unmarked junction, I simply followed along the ridgeline through the tall grass.
I had some semblence of a trail through the grass, though it seemed more like grass knocked down by a few deer walking up or down the ridge over the past week. The grass soon ended in the more typical chaparral cover and it was here that the old road/trail was easily evident. Many parts of it were overgrown with thorny, stiff bushes mixing with more pliable flora, poison oak, manzanita and the usual coastal mix. The predawn sky began to turn shades of orange around 6:20a and 20 minutes later the sun was up. Now that it was much lighter out I began to notice for the first time that the place was infested with ticks, many of them eager to catch a ride on me. I was surprised to find that most of the ticks came not from the grassy sections, but from the denser chaparral. Usually the drier ridgelines are not where I'd expect to find them, but there was no mistaking their presence here. I would pause every five minutes or so to flick them off, a few longer stops to flick them out from under my pocket flaps and pant seams where they liked to hide. I must have gotten several hundred ticks on me throughout the morning, but only one managed to get into my skin and it had barely scratched the surface before I discovered it after the hike was over.
Some portions of the trail were so overgrown that I was forced to crawl along the ground for 10-30ft at a time. This of course meant that I could get ticks almost anywhere on my body and I found more than one on my neck and in my hair. I was lucky to have short (and thin) enough hair that a regular racking across my scalp could discover the little beasties. This was not your normal outing. I laughed at myself, thinking even my hardcore hiking partners would say I was nuts to continue. There was more than two miles of such ridgeline but thankfully most of it could be navigated at a regular pace, and I managed it in about an hour and a half. It was 7:15a when I reached the upper gate just below the summit and ten minutes later I found my way to the large clearing marking the top of Garcia West.
There was no benchmark, no register, no survey stakes, no puny cairn or other signs of humans. Just an open dirt patch surrounded by chaparral and modest views. The view I was most interested in was the west side of the eastern summit since I would have to find a cross-country route for nearly a mile that gains more than 1,000ft from that side. What I saw was most discouraging - the entire side was bathed in dense chaparral. Taking stock of what I'd just gone through with an old road to follow, I couldn't see any reasonable way up from below. I was going to have to rethink my plans. It didn't take long to abandon the second peak altogether. I'd have to do more research and see if there wasn't another direction to approach it from. In the meantime, I'd get back earlier and could easily make it to my daughter's softball game scheduled for 3:45p. Heck, I reasoned I might even be able to reach Black Mtn, depending on how far up the road I was able to drive. And so with a new plan quickly in place, I started back down from Garcia West.
The return went quicker, taking roughly two hours after the three hour ascent. I had much fewer ticks as one might expect since I'd already drawn most of them off their waiting branch and grass tips on the way up. It was 9a when I once again crossed the Salinas River and just after 9:30a when I got back to the gate where I'd parked. I was happy not to see another soul the whole time. A car parked inside the gate had been there the night before and had not moved at all.
I checked my road atlas upon my return and was happy to see that the road to Black Mtn was shown as paved the whole way. Black Mtn is located at the northwest end of the La Panza Range and sports nearly 1,000ft of prominence. This area north of the Machesna Wilderness is home to a network of OHV trails and provides a through dirt road to SR58 as well. I spent the better part of the next hour driving to the FAA station located close to the summit of Black Mtn. Though paved, the road is a bit hairy - in addition to being windy and narrow cut into the side of very steep slopes, it has much sand on it. Where the gradient is quite steep this makes for some slippage with a 2WD vehicle. Luckily I was in the van instead of the Miata, the latter which might have proved too light to get traction up some sections.
There were several service vehicles at the FAA station when I pulled up, but I quickly realized the highpoint was a quarter mile to the southeast. I drove back down a short ways to the start of a dirt road that goes up to the highpoint. Not wanting to risk driving it, I parked and hiked the easy 200 yards or so to the summit. Near a small building and old radio tower is a benchmark labeled "CHICHES 2", Spanish for "breasts" in one translation. There is also a very healthy looking pine tree next to the building - it was good to see it wasn't knocked down when they were bulldozing the summit. The views are really quite outstanding. From three directions, north, east and west it is the highest point around for many miles. Only Machesna Mtn well to the southeast is higher.
Upon my return to Pozo I decided to stop by the USFS Ranger Station and ask some questions about access to the Garcia and Machesna Wilderness from this side. I found the office easily enough with four or five cars and trucks parked outside, but the door was locked and no one answered when I knocked. I would have guessed they'd be open midday on a Monday, but perhaps budget cuts have reduced hours here. I'll have to find answers to my questions by phone or elsewhere I suppose...
This page last updated: Wed Jul 29 12:24:55 2015
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