Mt. Pajaro
Atherton Peak

Wed, Feb 1, 2012

With: Steve Sywyk

Story Photos / Slideshow Map GPX Profile

Mt. Pajaro and Atherton Peak are two summits at the southeast end of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Neither is particularly high nor prominent, really just bumps along a long ridgeline stretching from the Pajaro River in the south to Hecker Pass in the north. But they offer some fine views overlooking Watsonville and the Monterey Bay area to the south and west. All of the land we crossed was on private property, so we took advantage of a moon just past half full to hike this in the evening. The 7 mile hike took us three and a half hours starting around 7:45p. There are no nearby houses at the start or anywhere on the route, making it a very low-stress affair. The highway we parked along, SR129, is fairly busy, so there is some concern from being spotted either starting or returning.

We parked just off the highway where an old gate marks the start of a dirt road that appears no longer be used by vehicles. After hopping the fence we found the road usable as the cattle that graze the area have kept the vegetation nicely trimmed. Recent rains made the earth damp and soft to travel upon, but not muddy. After about a quarter mile along the road we headed cross-country up the hillside on our left, climbing about 400ft until we met a firebreak along a ridgeline leading further up the hillside. The firebreak and other roads we came across seem to be mostly traveled by cattle, though we saw none on the outing. Higher up the grass gives way to tall brush, but we found ways through the brush without having to resort to bushwhacking.

We reached Mt. Pajaro in about an hour. A good road leading to the top petered out and we found no easy way down the connecting ridgeline to Atherton Peak. We ended up backtracking our way down the road to the north side, dropping down a steep firebreak of sorts for several hundred feet, then some steep downhill bushwhacking for another 100ft until we landed on an old road on the north side of the ridge. This road was easily traveled, heading west up to the ridgeline and eventually to Atherton Peak in about a mile and half. The highest point along the ridge turns out to not be either summit, but instead an unnamed point about halfway in between that has a VABM benchmark. We tried to reach this benchmark that is about 300ft off to the side of the road, but heavy brush turned us back - it didn't seem worth the trouble to try and reach it.

At the end of the second hour we had reached Atherton Peak. Much of the route between the two summits along the way is lined with some very tall trees, that made for a good windbreak to lessen the cold breeze blowing over from the north side. There appears to be no development at all in the surrounding hills for some miles as we saw no lights of any kind - it has a very old and ancient feel up there, as it might have looked hundreds of years ago. Even the road we traveled felt ancient. Though the city lights to the south and west were nice, there were no hard surfaces with a view to capture the scene on camera, so that will have to be left to the imagination - but definitely worth a visit.

It took about an hour and half to return pretty much via the same route. The bushwhack section on the north side of Mt. Parajo took us only ten minutes to negotiate, so it wasn't nearly as bad going back up as we had anticipated. Whether we could have found a series of roads connecting the two segments of our route we never found out, but from the map it appeared not likely. Overall, a very fine evening.

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