Branch Mountain P500 CC
Peak 3,518ft P500
Big Rocks P300

Sun, Apr 15, 2012
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 GPX Profile


I had slept the night off to the side of Tepusquet Rd in the hills east of Santa Maria. I had planned to hike or bike some P1K summits in the area including Tepusquet Peak and Los Coches Mtn, located in the Sierra Madre Mtns, part of the Los Padres National Forest. Unfortunately as I found in the morning, all the land along Tepusquet Rd is private and there is no public access to the adjacent National Forest lands. I could have ignored the No Trespassing signs - it wouldn't be the first time - but I decided I didn't want to deal with such issues today - I had other options that I could use. I drove north on Tepusquet Rd to its junction with SR166, then 11 miles east to the Rock Front Ranch. Branch Mtn is a CC-listed summit in the southern end of the La Panza Range, north of the highway. Most of the approach is on Forest Service land, a semi-popular OHV area, with the last few miles on private ranch lands. Far from any occupied structures, I didn't expect to find anyone once I neared the summit area.

Because I was up late the night before visiting with family, I did not get an early start, and the morning was well on its way when I pulled off the highway after 8:30a. It is not obvious that there is any public access at Rock Front as there are no signs along the highway indicating so, and one must first pass under the ranch entrance sign before seeing a fork through the brush that crosses Brown Creek and goes to the OHV staging area. It appears to be kept as a local secret intentionally. A large mudhole on the otherside of a cattle grate discouraged me from driving further, so I parked off to the side of the road and started off on my bike. A sign just past the mudhole indicated that the OHV roads were closed, presumably due to the recent wet weather, but possibly for the winter season. I rode only a bit further to find the staging area and the closed gate across the road. I took the bike through the pedestrian bypass and continued on my way.

The route to Branch Mtn, all on dirt roads, is nearly nine miles and I had hoped to be able to ride my bike most or all of the way. What I found was damp, sometimes muddy conditions, steep, and in places rocky terrain. I managed well enough in the beginning with bikeable gradients, but these soon became quite steep and I found myself pushing the bike up the hills. This would be followed by a short downhill, then off the bike again for more pushing. After 45 minutes, just after passing by the turnoff for Big Rocks (which I would visit on the return), I decided to abandon the bike altogether - it just didn't seem worth all the sweat. The uphill sections were far easier without it. I was on the Big Rocks OHV Trail that follows a meandering ridgeline up to the crest of the range, about five miles in length with some significant ups and downs. I passed by some bear tracks in the reddish dirt, relatively fresh, perhaps only a day or two old.

Views opened up as I gained elevation, north to Branch Mountain, northeast to Peak 3,518ft, south to Big Rocks and Brown Mtn, and southeast to the higher elevations of the Sierra Madre and San Rafael Mtns where recent snows could be seen down to about 5,000ft. At a second junction I stayed on the Big Rocks Trail, following it up through some oaks that began to make more regular appearances in the higher elevations. By 10:45a I had reached a property boundary marking the end of public access. The road had become much less traveled, heavy with grass, even before hopping the first of two fences in close succession. By 11a I had reached the crest and a fork - the right fork heading east to Peak 3,518ft, the left one to Branch Mtn.

I could now see over the crest of the La Panza Range, into the Carrizo Plain and the Temblor Range beyond. A hawk soaring overhead was one of half a dozen I saw today, along with dozens of ravens. The hawks were methodically looking for prey on the ground all the time while the ravens seemed only to delight in soaring on the updrafts created by the wind blowing over the crest. Much of the chaparral gave way to oak forest and grazing lands. A third gate was simply latched and marked the property boundary for the Buckhorn Ranch which encompasses a large section of the ridgetop along with Branch Mtn itself. I passed by several small herds of cattle that watched me warily but didn't run off as I continued up the road perhaps 50 yards from them.

By 11:30a I had found my way to the summit, crowned by an old Forest Service lookout tower. In addition to the tower, there was an old dilapidated cabin under an oak, a nearby outhouse that had fallen over, and a fairly new-looking remote weather station, all USGS property. A visitor log station like those found at some trailheads was at the base of the stairs, but there was nothing inside but an old pen. I climbed the stairs to find the lookout cabin shuttered, but by crawling under the shutter through the unlocked door one could get inside. There were several birds flying around in a panic when I first peeped in, so I waited outside for them to stop bashing into the covered windows and allow them to make an exit (the lower part of the door was the only way out apparently) before going back in for a better look.

It seemed like someone had stepped out for the afternoon one day and failed to return. There were dishes, cleaning supplies and paperwork left in untidy piles. There was no graffiti and none of the windows were broken - most unusual. An old mattress and spring, a stove and some cabinets made up the furniture. The observation reports were last dated 1992, probably the last time the cabin was manned. A visitor logbook with more than a hundred unused pages (and no used ones) sat open with much dust on it. I flipped to a clean page and made an entry for 2012 - possibly the first visitor in 20 years. Outside I took in the views, west to the Garcia and Machesna Wildernesses, northeast to the Temblor Range, east to the Caliente Range, southeast to the Sierra Madre and San Rafael Ranges. To the southwest were the lower hills of the Santa Lucia Range with the Pacific Ocean just visible in the distance.

I had started back down the road, only ten minutes from the summit when I was surprised by an ATV coming up the way. Busted. A young man looking to be around 20 rolled up to a stop, looking surprised to see me (which itself was no great surprise). I was polite and courteous from the get-go. He informed me that I was on private property to which I partially feigned surprise, "Both sides of the road?", I inquired. I had seen the private property signs, but thought the road might be USFS lands since it led to the tower. So I wasn't exactly sure, but if I were betting I'd have bet against myself. The question threw the broad-shouldered lad off-balance and his firm statement melted to uncertainty.

"Well, I'm not exactly sure. The property boundaries are confusing, but my Dad's just down the road and he'll know." He offered to give me a ride down the hill but I politely declined and we both started down the road again. A few minutes later the son and father came up on their respective ATVs. Bill Beechinor looked every bit the rancher I'd expect. Beefy, weathered, hands thick with calluses, the cracks filled with dirt from his land. If he was at all upset he hid it well and we soon were conversing almost warmly. I made an effort to apologise several times during the conversation. Yes, all this land was his as part of the Buckhorn Ranch that his father had purchased in 1959. The small plot upon which the lookout tower sits is owned by the Forest Service, but everything around it is private. He related that they stopped manning it 20 years ago (which I had surmised from the loose papers). He was surprised that I had been inside - he'd thought it had been tightly locked. I remarked that his land was quite beautiful, which he seemed to appreciate. He took down my name and some other info which I gave willingly (and completely accurate, too). He seemed most glad that I wasn't carrying a gun and poaching on his land. He was surprised to find I had walked all the way from the highway, having guessed that I had come up on a motorcycle as far as the gate. Though he wasn't welcoming me to come back any time, he seemed okay that I was on the property and even better that I was on my way off. He was happy to hear I knew some things about being on ranch lands - avoid spooking the cattle, climb the gates on the hinge side, and such things. After about fifteen minutes we parted ways, myself continuing down the road while they headed up to do ranch stuff.

Once I was back at the junction on the crest, I turned east to head to Peak 3,518ft. With close to 600ft of prominence, it had gotten enough attention from me to pay it a visit. At least one sign along this branch of the road declared it to be part of the same Buckhorn Ranch, but I had my doubts since Bill had told me the property boundary was back at the gate, almost a mile behind me now. It seems likely that the ranch was once larger but has since been subdivided. As Bill described it, ranching is not an easy way to make money - seems everyone with some grass on their land gets the idea to toss a few heiffers on it to make easy money, only to find out differently when they see how little they get for them at market. It took about 45 minutes to make the pleasant 2.5 mile hike along the road that follows mostly on the crest.

The summit of Peak 3,518ft is nothing special, a small grassy knoll dotted with some oaks. The views are pretty good, though. One has to walk around to nearby knolls to get a view to the southwest and south. This is the last highpoint of the La Panza Range at its southeast end, the elevations dropping 1,000ft to a saddle above Carrizo Canyon, marking the boundary between the La Panza and Caliente Ranges.

It was almost 2p before I returned to the crest junction and began returning down the south side of the range. I found a use trail that bypasses the two lower, locked gates along the way, but one must still hop a barbed-wire fence line in order to return to the Big Rocks Trail. It was 3:20p before I'd returned to my bike, riding it back down to the saddle east of the Big Rocks formation shortly thereafter. As I was getting off the bike here to make the short side trip to Big Rocks, two shirtless young adults came hiking back out. They were as surprised to see me as I them, as we were the only visitors to the Rock Front area today. There is a use trail through the brush to Big Rocks, making it a fairly easy affair. Once at the south side of Big Rocks, there were two routes right next to each other that I found to scramble to the summit. The eastern one was a knobby slab, probably class 3-4. Noting several rocks that pulled out easily as I climbed up, I guessed it probably wasn't the usual route to the top. On the way down I found the other route, just to the west, that goes up through a gap in some bushes and then up the rock that has had a few steps carved in it, making it class 2-3. I looked around at the summit for evidence of rock climbing, but found no rap stations and saw no bolts. This was in marked contrast to the wet, mossy wall I saw in Brown Canyon earlier in the morning, near BM 1320. The north facing wall of that canyon was loaded with hanging chains, probably 30-40 in all, looking like a very much over-developed sport climbing area.

Once back at the bike, it was less than 15 minutes to ride back to the car. I had initially planned to pay a visit to Brown Mountain another mile or so to the south, but I lacked the enthusiasm and energy to make the day longer. The two gentlemen I'd met earlier were just leaving when I pulled up. The water jug I'd left on the dash was now in the shade, but plenty warm still for a nice rinse. Once freshened up, I drove back across Brown Creek to the highway and then west to US101. I stopped in Arroyo Grande for gas, food, and Starbucks, though not in that exact order. Having another day before heading back to San Jose, I drove north and then east to Pozo and the end of San Jose Avenales Rd along the headwaters of the Salinas River. I spent the night outside the locked gate, planning to head to the Garcia Wilderness in the morning for the two highest summits there. I was in bed early, before 8p, planning for an early start. The poison oak that I'd picked up the day before was just starting to mildly itch, but not enough to keep me from sleeping well that night after an enjoyable but tiring day...


George comments on 04/14/14:
About 8 years ago or so, I started from the Gifford Ranch trailhead just off 166 a few miles east of the Rock Front ranch, hiked it to the old ranch, them took an old road up the ridge and and to the road to Branch Mountain, which I followed to the summit. It was a lovely February or March day, I think, and the shooting stars were out in force. A fine, long (18 miles?) day hike. Saw no one, as expected.
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