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It was my birthday, and rather than sit around the house fixing the dry rot that is afflicting my window sills, on a whim I decided to go climb something. Inspired by a couple of 15 year-olds from SummitPost, I decided to head to Mt. Umunhum and pay a visit to the huge concrete box that sits atop the summit. For almost twenty years I've wondered what the abandoned radar site, a relic of the Cold War, looked like up close.
I headed to Lexington Reservoir and parked along side the road near one of the trailheads into the Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve. I decided against the shorter, more obvious all-road routes from the west or east as these pass through private property that straddles the ridgeline on either side of radar base. On a previous visit to the Open Space Preserve I had noticed an "Area Closed" sign at the junction with a ridge connecting to Mt. Thayer from the north. The 7.5' map shows a trail along this ridge. I expected the trail (or more likely a fire road) to be overgrown, requiring a good deal of bushwhacking. I got all that and more.
It was easy enough making the first six miles in an hour and half or so along a good dirt road that services PG&E power lines running through the preserve. A bit of jogging on the downhill sections helped make it go faster, and I was thinking I might easily make the summit in far less than the three hours I had originally estimated. At the turnoff to the ridge I found no sign as I had a few years earlier, and there was a beaten trail through the brush along the top of the ridge. So far so good. I followed this for a quarter of a mile until I came to a small clearing where a newer "Area Closed" sign was found along with a plastic container for a register that looked to be a GeoCache. Along with the usual assortment of trinkets, there was a register placed a few years ago, with maybe a half dozen entries. Most of these were by one of the preserve rangers. From this point Umunhum looks tantalizingly close, no more than a mile away to the southeast.But now the hard part began.
Beyond the sign the trail was no longer used or periodically maintained as the first section had appeared. Under the tangle of brush was the remnants of an old fire road that ran across the ridge, but there was no sign of recent passage and the thickets had reclaimed the ridge. In the first hundred yards I was pushing through shoulder-high brush, then ducking under it, then crawling on my hands and knees. The ground was actually quite soft with many years of decaying leaves padding the ground and it was quite comfortable crawling along this way. But there was no way I was going to make resonable progress. I noticed that on either side of the ridge the trees grew taller leaving the underbrush thinner. So I bailed off to first the west side, sidehilling a good distance along animal trails, then back up to the ridge and along the east side of the ridge for more sidehilling. It was tedious going. After an hour along the ridge I paused to survey my progress through a small clearing. I was little more than halfway along the ridge and it was already near noon, closing in on the three hour mark. If I continued on, it seemed unlikely that I would be back in time to pick up the kids from school at 3p as scheduled. Rats.
Only a minute after I had made up my mind to turn back, I pushed through another hole in the thicket and pressed on. I didn't seem to have a plan. I was fairly certain in all my thrashing about in the brush that I had covered myself in poison oak. So late in the season, all the leaves were on the ground, so I had no idea which of the thousands of sticks and branches I pushed aside were those of poison oak, but undoubtedly it must have been quite a few. The real suffering would come several days later, most likely. As I continued on, it occurred to me that I should give up trying to return the same way. Private property be damned, I would head back along the road - let the property owners call the sheriff if they liked, I didn't care any more. By a quarter to 1p I had completed the bushwhacking and reached the radar site. Success! Of sorts, anyway. It certainly hadn't been done elegantly, was in rather poor style actually, and there was no way I could recommend the route to anyone for a future adventure.
At the base I found many abandoned buildings. The swimming pool had been reclaimed by nature and the gymnasium had seen better days. The basketball hoops were still mounted on the walls, but the wood floors had been partially torn up by vandals and left to decay. Windows were broken, doors were all locked or otherwise sealed, wooden sentry stations were dilapidated, and there was a general air of a modern ghost town all around. I hiked east along the road to the top of the flattened peak that was home to the concrete monolith. I made a circuit around the base of the thing looking for a way in, but all the entrances were paddlocked, welded, or bolted shut. I climbed the nearby lookout tower and took in the views - the Santa Clara Valley to the north and east, Santa Cruz, Monterrey Bay, and even the Ventanas were clearly visible to the south. The views almost (but not quite) made the bushwhacking worthwhile.
Leaving Umunhum, I headed west along the old paved road and up to the summit of nearby Mt. Thayer. It was a less impressive summit, also bulldozed flat, but home to a rather homely building that was in various stages of decay. Looking west from the summit I spotted a white sedan about a mile down the road. I wondered if they had spotted me atop Mt. Thayer, and hoped that they would be gone as I made my way down that way. From Mt. Thayer the road becomes dirt for a few miles. About the middle of this section I came to a locked gate with the white car parked just on the other side of it. A landowner waiting to read me the riot act, no doubt, but I had no qualms. As I approached the gate I was happy to see the occupant of the car waving to me. He had an orange vest on with a PG&E logo. Not a property owner. We talked briefly, and he explained he was trying to reach a pole in need of repair atop Mt. Thayer, but was denied access by the property owner. I guess hikers aren't the only ones stymied by private property.
I continued down the road and through an open gate at the end of the dirt road, putting me back on a county maintained (and public) paved road. The private property section had been very short and not at all the gauntlet that I had expected. This would be a much better route for reaching the two peaks. Not a half mile later, as I was jogging back and realizing there was no way I could get back in time to pick up the kids, the PG&E employee came by, slowed, and asked me if I'd like a ride. Yes! He put his rain gear down on the seat to protect the car from poison oak, and I put on an extra shirt I was carrying to keep my infected shirt from contacting the seat as well. It was tremendously good fortune, as I was able to skip the last six miles of road and got back to my car by 2:20p. I had just enough time to drive home, strip off all my clothes to toss in the wash, and take a shower before I had to be at the school. Now I just have to wait a few more days to see how bad the poison oak really was...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Umunhum
This page last updated: Thu Jan 1 17:08:22 2009
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