Condon Peak P500 CC
Santa Rita Peak P500 CC

Tue, Oct 12, 2010
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profile
Santa Rita Peak later climbed Thu, Feb 14, 2013

Having spent a fine day in Pinnacles a few days earlier, I was eager to go back to the southern part of San Benito County and explore the area further during the nice fall weather. Chasing peaks on the CC list gave me ample excuses to do so. I had visited San Benito Mtn, the county highpoint, some years before the area was closed due to asbestos hazard. The naturally occurring asbestos has been there for countless years, but measured levels of asbestos dust in the air exceeded allowable limits when measured by federal authorities. It didn't help that there were a number of open-pit asbestos mines operated on the property back in the 1960s and 70s. The Clearwater Creek Management Area attracted many off-road enthusiasts and their vehicles were primarily responsible for the asbestos dust. The dangers are much less during the rainy season and less so for hiking, but for two years most of it has been off-limits to all recreation as part of the Emergency Closure.

In an online search exercise, I was looking for access routes from the west to Condon and Santa Rita peaks, and came across the BLM's Condon Peak Access TH off the paved Coalinga / Los Gatos Creek Rd. I expected the area to be officially closed, but figured a lone hiker could make the 20mi round trip hike probably undetected. Best of all, it would avoid the need to cross private property found along both sides of the road in much of this area.

I left San jose around 4:30a, taking 2.5hrs to make the drive south to the TH. There were no signs at the gravel parking area to indicate the closure, but the access roads were gated and locked as expected. There was another vehicle there when I pulled in, someone who looked to be on an extended road trip judging by the amount of gear strapped to the roof, but the car was gone when I returned in the afternoon and I never saw the owner. The staging area looked to be recently improved, with fresh gravel on the roadbed, a nice-looking restroom, picnic benches and ample parking in several areas behind the gates. I followed the higher of the two options, expecting it to lead to the route along the west ridge of Condon that I had spied from the satellite views, and it did so nicely. For most of the way, that is.

Sunrise came shortly after I started out, a beautiful sunny, cloudless day, albeit a bit warm as the day progressed. I followed the road along the ridgeline that follows the San Benito/Fresno County border. A fenceline along the ridge indicates private property to the north, BLM land to the south. The road fades on a steep slope leading up to Pt. 4,442ft after which a use trail takes over up to the top of the point. This was somewhat of a surprise to me since I thought the entire ridge to Condon Peak had a road along it. Not so.

From Pt. 4,442ft, the use trail continues for a short while, soon becoming hard to follow. I lost it completely for about a quarter mile that involved some nasty and altogether unnecessary bushwhacking in places (I did a better job of finding the trail on the way back) as I continued up the ridge. Eventually the trail becomes more distinct, good even, as it approaches the start of the road just east of Pt. 4,900ft. Forest Road 18 then continues almost all the way to Condon Peak about 1.5mi further east along an undulating but scenic ridge top. The road goes nearly to the top before passing it on the east and then dropping down the southeast ridge. There is a use trail leading from the highest point on the road to the summit, where I arrived around 9:15a. There were nice views in all directions, no trees or high brush to block the scenery. To the north could be seen the rocky summit of Santa Rita Peak with a large open pit asbestos mine to the left of it. Many more open mines could be seen to the east. The best view was to the south where several parallel ranges could be seen stretching off into the distance.

My day was on a somewhat fixed schedule as I needed to be back in San Jose by 5p for a family errand. I was a bit behind schedule in reaching Condon, but figured I could make it up with some jogging. With this in mind, I started down the road again after leaving the summit, shortly to realize it went southeast, not exactly where I intended to go. The satellite view had shown a fairly direct route off the east side of Condon so I went back up the road to investigate. A short distance down on the northeast side I found I found the junction I was looking for, marked by a break in the fenceline. This secondary road was badly overgrown and rutted, unused by vehicles in many years. But the roadbed was good enough for hiking and in a slightly hunched over posture for much of it, I made my way down to a saddle and Forest Road 16 east of Condon.

It was easy to tell I was now in the main OHV area of the CCMA. The roads were well-marked and there were signs of off-road travel all over the place. It was easy to see the appeal of smoothly-shaped dirt hillsides of varying degrees of steepness. It would be great fun motoring around these parts. Far from civilization and Yellow-Legged Mountain Frogs alike, the chaparral-covered hills seem ideal for this recreational pursuit. Too bad we had to find something evil about asbestos.

There are far more roads, both useable and otherwise throughout these parts than those shown on the topo map, and it's easy to get confused relying on a map alone. I had intended to use my GPS to find a few key junctions, but alas my GPS had fallen off my pack strap somewhere back on Condon's West Ridge and I would have to look for it on my return. Because the area has been heavily mined, some of the roads lead to old pits, some lead nowhere, others connect and reconnect with yet more roads. I followed a path roughly resembling the one I had drawn in on my topo map, with marginal success. One of the roads had an old rusty tire pump for a landmark, leading to a washed out section and a quickly deteriorating remainder. I found myself in a clearing with 4-5 parked RVs, a private inholding in the CCMA. Though I didn't see anyone around, I didn't knock on any doors either. The windows looked clean and there were other hints of current usage, so I kept walking through the place to get to the other side. Large rocks blocked the entrance that was marked with No Trespassing signs. It did not appear that there was any way to get the RVs back out of the place should someone care to try.

After following more roadways, I determined I was probably too far east of my intended route and now south of Santa Rita Peak. Unfortunately the roads didn't seem to go in the direction I wanted. So I struck off cross-country up a brushy hillside south of the peak. It very quickly became difficult and I was starting to think I just might not reach Santa Rita. But by pausing for a moment to look for better ways, I managed to get myself up the hillside and within sight of the peak I was after. The bushwhacking turned easier at this point, though there were a few stiff parts as I forced my way up an old use trail of sorts on the south side.

There is a radio tower and communications installation at a flat area east of the summit, but fortunately the top is left unmolested. It consists of about a quarter acre of volcanic rock, the leftover plug of some ancient volcano. The top can be reached via a class 2 route on the east side or class 3 on the south or north. The views are quite good as there is nothing to obstruct the sights. There is a fine view to the Central Valley looking east though much of it was obscured in haze today (likely on most days, too). Like on Condon, there was no register, no benchmark to be found. It was only 10:45a, the jogging on the downhill sections having allowed me to make good time coming from Condon. I would have no trouble making my schedule.

I descended off the class 3 north side, making my way for the road that passes by the summit on that side of the peak. This led down to a junction west of the peak a short distance further, with more options on which fork to take. I chose an unmarked route heading west along a ridge in that direction, eventually dropping me down near the large open pit mine that had been evident from Condon Peak. There were signs to keep traffic out of the fenced off area, a stagnant-looking pool in the middle of it - it was certainly not very inviting.

I missed another turn somewhere and ended up on the paved road leading to the mine. I followed this down for about a half mile and then found my way to Forest Road 16 leading back up to the east side of Condon. I was back to the junction just below the summit of Condon before noon, then heading west on FR 18 again. With a better job of route-finding through the unroaded section, I was back at the staging area by 1:30p and to the parking lot a few minutes later. Though I spent much of the return from Condon looking for the lost GPS, I had no luck and had to write it off as a loss. It was time for a new one anyway I suppose.

A quick rinse with a gallon of cool water, a change of clothes and I was a new man. The drive on 60-some miles of winding county road was quite enjoyable with the top down. It's beautiful country back there, even more so I imagine in the springtime when all the grassy hills are fresh and green. I made it back to San Jose by 4p, an hour ahead of schedule. A very enjoyable day overall.

An email exchange with one of the folks at the Hollister BLM office suggests the area may be open with restrictions sometime in the summer of 2011.

Anonymous comments on 06/07/12:
The private property with the rv's is actually the benitoite mine. The California state gem stone and the only spot gem quality benitoite is found in the. Entire world. Now you know lol
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