Caliente Mountain P2K HPS / CC
Caliente Ridge
Sawmill Mountain P300 HPS
Mt. Pinos P2K HPS
Mt. San Antonio P5K HPS
West Baldy

Aug 5, 2002
Caliente Mountain
Caliente Ridge
Sawmill Mountain
Mt. Pinos
Mt. San Antonio
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 4 5 Profiles: 1 2 3 4 5
Sawmill Mountain later climbed Nov 17, 2006
Pinos, Mount later climbed Nov 17, 2006
San Antonio, Mount later climbed Dec 21, 2009

The 35 47'42" parallel running across California is a convenient man-made construction that separates the 10 southern California counties from the rest of California. This seemed a nice dividing line to use myself as I set off on a county highpoint quest for the southern part of the state. The rest of my family was flying down to San Diego to vacation with my in-laws, while I opted to drive and see how many of these 10 peaks I could manage in a span of three days. Realistically, I only expected I could reach 8 of them, and those only if I hustled and did lots of hiking and driving. I used Gary Suttle's book, California County summits as my guide along with a road atlas.

Sunday evening I left San Jose so that I could drive down to the southeast tip of San Luis Obispo County. I took US101 to Santa Margarita, then drove 50 miles east on SR58. I rather wished I could have driven it in the day to take in the views it had to offer, but instead had to settle on the fun driving afforded the winding highway. At California Valley I headed southeast on Soda Lake Road, and drove another 13mi to the turnoff for Selby Camp and the Caliente Ridge. It was a bit of a chore driving up 6mi of dirt road, but passable by passenger cars (with a front spoiler my car acts as a great bellweather for deciding what roads are passable). There were no other cars to be found at the parking lot situated at nearly 4,000ft. A light wind was blowing, and the temperature was in the 60's, ideal for camping out under the stars. It was about 11p when I settled down in my sleeping bag set on my pad just outside my car.

I woke up at 3:30a and packed up my sleeping bag and pad. I would need an early start today if I was going to complete the day's agenda. Additionally, Caliente Mtn is located in a very hot and dry part of the county. If I could finish the hike not long after sunrise, I would avoid the heat that was likely to accompany the day. Without bothering with breakfast, I was off at 4a under a starry sky using my headlamp. From the trailhead, the route follows a dirt road (gate closed, barring vehicular access) that winds it's way along the ridgetop in a southeasterly direction. There was little trouble with routefinding, and there were few rocks and stones in the road that might trip me up. I jogged the flat and downhill sections, and even some of the milder uphill ones. As is my want, I wore long pants and a long sleeve cotton T-shirt, and combined with the cool early morning temperature, seemed perfect. Shortly after 5a it was sufficiently light out to put away the headlamp and navigate by the gradually brightening sky. The horizon took on wonderful shades of purple, red, and then orange as sunrise drew nearer. It was a good eight miles to the summit, but because of the gentle rise, I was able to reach it in 2hrs.

A bit to my surprise, I reached the summit before sunrise, which was about 6:10a. Caliente Mtn, the highest point in San Luis Obispo County, is abouts as remote as any peak in Southern California. It sits near the southeast tip of a ridge dividing the Cuyama Valley to the south and the Carrizo Plain to the north. The Carrizo Plain is now a National Monument thanks to the closing days of the Clinton adminstration. The San Andreas Fault runs down the middle of it, causing the Caliente Range to inch northwest along with much of the California coast. The north and south sides of the range fall off swiftly on either side of the ridge. Little water reaches here, and consequently few trees grow on the ridge. Mostly chaparral, with a few hardy varieties of pines that grow low and scraggly. An abandoned look-out tower of WWII vintage barely remains standing at the summit. It was manned during the war to look out for enemy planes with plans on strategic oil fields nearby. I was a bit hesitant to enter the structure which leans obviously to one side, wondering if my weight would upset the delicate-looking balance. Of course I went in anyway, and the structure held its ground, looking no worse when I left than when I arrived. Inside I found a register placed by the HPS (Hundred Peaks Section) of the Sierra Club, the earliest entries dating to the 1980s. The last folks to climb it had been there a few weeks earlier.

The views were impressive, though marred by haze coming from the Central Valley. This effectively blocked views towards the Sierra and northward. To the south was the Los Padres National Forest, stretching east-west from Los Angeles County, across Kern and Ventura counties, and to the west portion of Santa Barbara County. The three highpoints for the latter three counties are all visible from Caliente Mountain, not more than about 30mi distance. I watched the sun rise spectacularly over the haze-enshrouded Tehachapi Mountains to the east, and soon the day began to warm. After about 30 minutes at the summit, I took leave.

I was able to jog most of the distance on the way back, and made it back to my car in an hour and a half. I switched out of my tennis shoes and wet socks in favor of sandals which would be a recurring event the next three days - get the feet out of wet socks after each hike. This helped them stay cool and blister-free throughout all the punishment they received. 16mi, 1600ft done, and it was only 8a. I ate breakfast (cereal and milk from the cooler) while I rested, and was ready to head down at 8:30a.

Back at Soda Lake Road, I headed southeast, 29mi to SR33. The book decribes this section as "on again, off again pavement," but it's mostly off. The pavement ends after the first mile, and there is 22mi of dirt road broken only by a mile of pavement that surrounds a historic ranch maintained by the BLM. I assume the pavement was there to keep the dust down for the folks that might work or visit there. The entire region is now the Carrizo National Monument, and though I am generally in favor of more public parks, this one seems a stretch to have justified. There are several such ranches that look to have been purchased by the BLM and are not much as visitor attractions. The skeptical side of me thinks these were more like bailouts - the ranches sit in what is desert for all practical purposes, and eking a living out of that dry wasteland must have been brutal. Road signs indicate there are elk to be found grazing nearby, but I didn't see so much as a ground squirrel the whole time I was there. Maybe it's because I was there in the middle of summer and the elk are all summering somewhere else. It's hard to imagine where that might be though. The pavement finally returns for the final six mile drive to SR33.

A right turn onto the highway, followed by a left turn not half a mile down the road put me on Cerro Noroeste Rd. heading for Mt. Pinos. This is a very enjoyable drive up a ridge climbing nearly 5,000ft to the communities north of Mt. Pinos. It was 10:30a when I finally wound my way to the end of the paved road at the Mt. Pinos Alpine Center. A sign indicates the summit is two miles up a dirt road, but contrary to what you may have read, you can't drive there (I tried, but a locked gate bars entry a hundred yards up the road). They used to allow cars to drive up to the lot at the Condor Viewing Area, but since there's no condors left to view, the Forest Service must have decided there was no need to keep up maintenance of the road. There were a number of RVs in the mostly-empty lot, drawn in a circle, wagon train style. In the center region they had lots of expensive telescopes set up, but covered to protect them. Perhaps there as a celestial event happening that evening - certainly this had to be one of the more accessible high & remote viewing areas in the LA area.

After parking my car following the aborted attempt to drive up, I resupplied my water bottles from the melted water in the cooler (not the cleanest supply of water I could have found) and headed out. I met a few folks on the easy hike up to the top, but mostly it was a quiet weekday morning. I bypassed the summit as I headed to the Viewing Area, and continued on the trail towards Sawmill Mtn. No condors anymore, but the wildflowers and views are still pretty nice.

Conveniently, the highpoints of Kern (Sawmill Mtn) and Ventura (Mt. Pinos) counties are located only a mile and half apart. They are separated by a 400ft saddle and bridged by a nice trail. The trail enters the Chumash Wilderness, and is much less travelled than the area around Mt. Pinos. Parts of the trail I jogged along, most of it I just hiked. The views are nice looking off both sides of the ridge, to the north down to the Pine Mountain Club (a mountain resort for So. Cal. folks), and south into the wilder parts of the Los Padres NF. After I started climbing up from the saddle, it became apparent that the whereabouts of Sawmill Mtn. aren't so obvious. Trees cover most of the summit areas, and it wasn't clear where the highpoint was, but it soon became clear the trail didn't cross the summit, but instead began to descend towards the west. I left the trail just as it began the descent and headed north through the forest floor. I was lucky to find the summit about a hundred yards from the trail. On the west end of a small ridgetop was a pile of rocks and a summit register placed by the HPS (as on Caliente Mtn). Caliente Mtn. to the northwest was barely visible through the thickening haze rising up from below. Santa Barbara's Big Pine Mtn. was clearer to the west, but there were no views to the east or south due to the towering pines in that direction. After signing in the register I headed back.

Retracing my steps, I then climbed the final hundred feet to Mt. Pinos. The summit is marred by a radio installation, and is one of the more unremarkable summits I've been on. The most exciting thing I found was the USGS marker, though to be honest the views to the north, from the northwest to the northeast were nice. The peak is climbed so often that a register would be impractical to maintain. After a few photos, I headed back, reaching the car at 12:30p. Seven miles and about 1000ft of elevation gain.

It's a long drive from Mt. Pinos to the northeast section of Los Angeles County where Mt. San Antonio resides. Through Frasier Park, south on I5, southeast on I205, east on I10. After a stop for gas, lunch, and some more ice for the cooler, I'd burned up nearly three hours before motoring up the winding road to my next peak. Mt. San Antonio, more commonly called Mt. Baldy, sits high above the Los Angeles Basin, towering over the surrounding communities on the eastern end of the Angeles Crest. On a clear day (admittedly quite rare) it can be seen by nearly 6 million residence, one of the most widely visible peaks above 10,000ft in the world. The Mt. Baldy Road winds its way up about 15 miles from near sea level to over 6,000ft. A small ski complex lies at the top of the road with a total of 3 ski lifts to service visitors in the wintertime. In summer the main lift is open for rides to make the climb easier, but only on weekends. Too bad today was Monday. Driving up I noticed that the Forest Service was particularly zealous in promoting the Forest Adventure Pass, the questionable fee-for-use started a few years back. Every picnic spot or turnout along the road had a large sign reminding users that a fee is required to park there. I imagine the fees they take in may just cover the cost of so many signs. I noticed all over Southern California that this was more heavily promoted, and presumeably more rigorously enforced than elsewhere in the state. As a result, I stopped at the ranger station just before the trailhead and gave them my $30 for a pass. I drove up to the San Antonio Falls Trailhead and headed out at 3:45p.

The trail follows a well-graded road that winds its way to the chalet at the top of the chairlift in about 2.5 miles ( San Antonio falls was but a trickle located 1/2 mile from the trailhead). The hillsides are quite steep, but the road follows a more gradual grade on its way up. So winding is it that I eventually got bored of trying to gain altitude, so I left the road when it passed near the chairlift. A use trail went up under the chairlift, climbing the steep ravine more directly, and more to my liking. I probably cut off half a mile of the usual distance in the process. The ski area both at the base and at the chalet were deserted, not a soul to be seen anywhere. I did see three others later on who were making their way down as I was still going up.

As I started climbing above the chalet, I followed what was a ski run along a ridge coming down from the upper chairlift. The vegetation had been cleared to allow skiing on a minimal of coverage, and the earth was loose and dusty. Orange fences marking the various ski runs lined the "trail," and Out of Bounds reminders on every other tree completed the dreary scene one gets in climbing a ski area. Once above the top of the higher chairlift, the trail and scenery markedly improved. Rather than a wide road to follow, a small trail winds its way along the edge of the ridge known as the Devils Backbone. The ridge narrows in places to as little as six or seven feet, and there is evidence of old handrails that were placed by the CCC in the 1930s but have since been dismantled. But nowhere is the exposure really deserving of handrails. While the slopes are steep down either side, they aren't cliffs but rather enormous piles of scree. A fall wouldn't be pretty, but hardly serious. Even if the exposure wasn't much, the views to the north and south were pretty nice.

Very little vegetation grows in the upper 1500 feet of the mountain, and very little solid rock as well. For all practical purposes it seems like a giant pile of scree and sand. I made good progress moving quickly, and reached the summit at 5:45p, 2hr after starting. A giant hunk of iron inscribed to announce the summit and its height. So heavy that it wouldn't last long on a pole, it simply lay flat on the summit rocks. No register was to be found anywhere. The views were compromised by the haze and smog, but still splendid. Particularly to the west where the lesser, but still impressive dozens upon dozens of peaks in the range spread out. The haze made them appear to be farther than they really were, and they seemed to stretch far to the horizon (in fact the Transverse Range extends all the way through Santa Barbara County, 100mi to the west). To the east the haze was so thick I couldn't see the higher San Gorgonio Mtn. even though it was only about 50mi away.

I planned to take the Ski Hut route down from the summit, but found the route not well marked. I didn't carry a map with me (in fact I didn't for most of the peaks I climbed on this tour), but had studied it some beforehand on several occasions. Maybe the Sierra Club didn't want to make it well known, or maybe I just missed something more obvious, but I ended up on the wrong trail. Aside from the route I'd taken up, there was a sign titled "Village Trail" marking a well groomed trail heading off to the southwest. I took this trail and climbed the nearby West Baldy that lay a short distance from the main summit. Coming down from this, I picked up the Village Trail again and headed down. It followed an excellent ridgeline down that afforded great views down into the precipitous canyons on either side. Not unlike the Devils Backbone, but this ridge had lots of trees to provide shade and interest to the hike. I was about half a mile down from the summit when I began to suspect my error, and another half mile before I was sure of it. I could see the ridge I was supposed to be on, though I never could see a trail going down it anywhere. Maybe it was a stealth trail constructed by the Sierra Club to keep the riffraff out of their hut. If so, it worked on me.

I didn't mind being on the long trail as long as it ended up in the right canyon when it was all said and done. Much of the trail was runnable, and I jogged my way down most of it. The trail eventually peeled off the ridge and headed down the slopes towards Mt. Baldy Road, but by then it was obvious I would be taken well below my starting point. I came down through the drier chaparral section below, and then though an inviting fern garden with a sign titled "Bear Flat." The trail eventually brought me out at the top of a side road that is lined with residences of Mt. Baldy Village. A steep creek followed the road down to the main road, though it was currently dry. Homes could be found on either side, with private bridges (some questionable) providing access to residents on the other side of the creek. One home had no motor access, but rather a cage that could be hauled across a steel cable spanning the creek. I suppose that more or less limits the size of furniture you can bring home.

Down at the main road, I found myself three miles and 2000ft below my car. It was only 7:30p, so I'd made good time, but the thought of climbing another 2000ft was a bit depressing. I'd just finished about 14mi and 3600ft to bring the days total to 37mi and 6000ft. As I started up the road, I held my thumb out to every passing car with a forlorn look on my face that did nothing for me with the first dozen cars that zipped by. Finally a single mother and her son stopped and gave me a ride back up to the car. I chatted with her and her 5yr-old son on the ride up, and we had a pleasant time talking about kids, Mt. Baldy, and rock climbing (her hobby).

Back at my car, I began to plan for the next day's hiking. My next stop was San Gorgonio Mtn, about an hour's drive to the east. I had considered getting a motel room to clean up and sleep the night, but decided I'd sleep just as well at the higher elevation of the trailhead. To clean up, I hit upon the idea of a paper towel bath which I did in the privacy of the restroom at a Mobil station back in town. This was quite refreshing and I was soon changed into clean clothes and headed out for dinner at Rubio's. It was 11p when I drove through Mentone and up SR38 to the Valley of the Big Falls Rd and the Vivian Creek Trailhead (picking up my self-issue permit at the ranger station on the way). Here I found a few backpackers camped in the back of their pickup truck while I set up my bedroll nearby.


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More of Bob's Trip Reports

For more information see these SummitPost pages: Caliente Mountain - Sawmill Mountain - Mt. Pinos - Mt. San Antonio - West Baldy

This page last updated: Mon Jan 16 10:29:02 2017
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