Cuyama Peak P1K HPS
McPherson Peak P300 HPS
Peak Mountain P1K HPS

Dec 21, 2004
Cuyama Peak
McPherson Peak
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2


Well, I'd failed at the Big Four, but only by one lousy peak. The day before that I'd failed at Cuyama after doing three other HPS peaks earlier in the day (three seems like the limit for me). There was no way I was going to go back up Big Pine Rd to climb West Big Pine today, but at least I could go up and get Cuyama before I headed off to McPherson and Peak. To make sure I had enough time for the last two, I decided to get up early for Cuyama, maybe timing it to get there at sunrise - might even be a pretty sight. I was parked in Dry Canyon about three miles off Santa Barbara Rd. This was as far as I could drive in my clearance-challenged vehicle, just like two days earlier.

I didn't sleep as well as the previous night, owing to the stiffness in my legs that woke me up a few times (Glenn had complained about it the day before, so now I knew what he was talking about). But I got up dutifully at 4a, dressed, and checked the outside temperature before venturing out of the van - 28F. Same temperature as the previous morning. Brrr. Learning from the previous day, I left the sweat clothes in the car and started off with less clothes. As expected, it took only five minutes to warm up sufficiently. I also left the bike on the car, figuring it wouldn't be too much help on this short hike (about 12mi RT).

I retraced the route up the road from two days earlier to the Tinta Creek TH. There I continued on the road up to the Cuyama Lookout. I made better time than I expected, and I suspect the distance may have been closer to five miles than six. It was only 6:30a and I was already nearing the summit and could easily make out the sillouette of the lookout against the early morning sky. By the time I climbed the steps to the lookout, it was still some 30 minutes or so before sunrise, and with the breeze blowing at the higher elevation, there was no way I was going to wait around that long without freezing. The lookout is no longer in service, but one could walk in and check out the cozy accomodations. Some of the windows were broken and there was garbage and junk strewn about. A sickly looking mattress on a spring bed was in the middle, a refridgerator was lying on its side with more trash inside, graffitti littered the walls and wood planks, and well, you get the idea. There was a FS register at the base of the lookout, filled with many signatures. Since the summit can be driven to with a 4x4, it is visited fairly often, and helps to explain the beer cans, glass, and other detritus. I stayed at the summit about as long as I could stand it without freezing, which is to say about five minutes, then headed down.

The sun came up by the time I got back to the base of the mountain, but it was hidden from the road due to shading in the canyon. When I got back to the car at 8a, I checked the temperature again - 27F. It had actually grown colder since I'd started out. I monitored the temperature as I drove out of Dry Canyon and then back out of Santa Barbara Canyon. Where the road hugged the bottom of the canyon, the temperature stayed a consistent 28F, +/- about one degree - even where the canyon was in the sun! It wasn't until I was well past the ranch at the mouth of the canyon and the road got out of the canyon bottom that the temperature began to increase (it was something like 38F out at the highway in the much broader Cuyama Valley). My guess is that the cold air flows downhill in the early morning hours to keep even the sunny areas at 28F, while just 30 feet above the canyon floor the temperature was five degrees warmer.

I drove west to New Cuyama the last town on the map for 50 miles, and home to a lone gas station among other rickety buildings (New Cuyama wasn't much different from "old" Cuyama in this respect), which was a good thing because I was down to my last fumes in the gas tank. I happily paid an outrageous $2.78/gal and filled up the tank. I didn't really need to fill it, but used it to butter up the kind old gentleman who ran the gas mart. As I hoped, he was happy to let me use an AC outlet to charge my camera batteries which were also on empty after two and a half days' usage. I used the time to clean out the van and eat breakfast while I watched the rest of Sid and Nancy on DVD which I'd started the night before. This van has everything. I finished my various chores in about 45 minutes, lastly retrieving my camera before heading off again.

My destination was less than ten miles, the Aliso Campground at the base of McPherson Peak. Though there is a road going to the summit of the peak, I thought this both unsporting and (more importantly) unmanageable since it didn't seem prudent to take the van up there after reading of the road's poor condition in various trip reports. I had no trouble finding the campground through directions from the HPS website. The trailhead is not hard to find, but it is not well-marked either. The easiest way to reach it is to drive to the south end of the campground. Where you can no longer drive, turn west and cross the creekbed (usually dry). The trail starts from here, heading west-northwest as it makes its way up to the ridgeline on the creek's western side. It was just before 10:30a when I started out.

From the trip reports, I was expecting some rough trail (aka, bushwhacking), but found nothing of the kind. The trail was nicely maintained in most places, marked by pink ribbons where it was thin, and no bushwhacking of any sort encountered. I don't know if the trail is maintained by the FS in addition to the HPS, but it appeared so, primarily due to the fiberglass trail marker at the start. In any case, it was a deluxe trail, the most enjoyable one of the whole 5 days. Not only was mine the only car in the parking lot, I had the whole trail, and seemingly the whole mountain to myself. The trail follows a ridgeline, neither too easy nor too steep, with views that get continuously better as one goes up. In the bottom portions there were even shooting stars in bloom, wholely unexpected for December!

It took me an hour and 40 minutes to hike the four miles to the summit, where I was greeted by the several telecommunications towers maintained there. The summit area (where I found the HPS register) was unmolested, but most of the surrounding few acres were bulldozed for the facilities. There was a truck at the summit with a technician working inside the building. His small lap dog was outside barking up a storm at my arrival. He needed a good macing, but all he got were curses from his owner to quiet down. I walked down the road from the summit and began the easy hike along the ridge crest to Peak Mountain about three miles to the west. The road was well-graded and seemed perfectly fine for passenger vehicles, but of course I saw nothing of the other 17 miles of road as it climbs up from Cuyama Valley. The stretch of road between the peaks offers the best views into the San Rafael Wilderness that I saw in the four days I was there - simply grand. Miles and miles of chaparral covered hills and canyons with trees lining the higher summits and the narrow canyon bottoms. The entire range looked utterly impenetrable with thick brush, but of course there are maintained trails in and out through various access points.

On my way across the ridge the technician came driving down the road after finishing his work on McPherson. A nice fellow (and his dog nicer now that he was sitting in his owner's lap), he asked me where I was heading and if I needed any water. I was doing quite well on water today, so I declined but thanked him. He then offered a Rice Crispies Treat he had in his pocket - he so seemed like he wanted to give me something that I took the snack though I never ate it. I thanked him again before he continued his drive down the mountain, and then I did have the whole expanse to myself.

I reached the summit of Peak Mtn at 1:15p, taking just under an hour from McPherson. The views were pretty much the same at both peaks, so there's certainly no reason to visit both if you're just after the views. There are no towers on Peak Mtn, giving it a more natural feel, and the summit area is much smaller and mostly overrun with brush. I found the HPS register under a small pile of rocks to one side and dutifully signed in.

On the way back to McPherson, I stopped to read a sign about the Condor Sanctuary inside the San Rafael Wilderness. Having never seen one of these magnificent birds, I have been eager to catch a glimpse of one soaring over the California skies some day. No such luck today. On the way down from McPherson I enjoyed the views into Cuyama Valley and as far away as the Sierra. I marvelled at the Central Valley fog, watching as it slowly spilled into the Cuyama Valley by way of the lower hills around SR166. I made it back to the TH at the Aliso Campground just after 3:30p, a fairly quick descent made possible with some jogging on the easy downhills. I still had some daylight left, but I was done for the day - its good to have an easy day every now and then.

I still had lots of driving to do, far more than I had thought. The easy part was driving west to US101 and Santa Maria. I considered getting a room since I'd camped out the last two nights and could use a shower. I even stopped at one place in town, but the rates seemed much too high for a weekday in Santa Maria. I ended up at one of the large malls in town where I got a dirtbag towel bath in one of the bathrooms I found inside. Using a toilet as a wash basin is about as dirtbag as it gets - I was chuckling to myself as I imagined my wife getting a packet in the mail with spy photos of me in action here. I'm pretty sure she would have found this as shocking as if I'd been caught with another women - maybe more so. But I sure felt better afterwards, with a fresh set of clothes to boot.

I had dinner in town, then drove south on US101 to SR 154, then on up to Cachuma Saddle CG by way of Figueroa Mtn Rd. This was a very long drive, with 19 miles on a narrow, winding road (thankfully all paved). It was pretty late, around 9p when I got to the saddle. Like the previous three days, mine was the only vehicle to be seen at the TH. I found the dirt road up to the Big Three that I would be taking in the morning. There was no gate as mentioned in the directions, so I started driving up the road - maybe I would get lucky and drive the seven miles up? But less than a hundred yards along I came upon the locked gate, barring progress. But right next to the gate was a large, flat gravel lot overlooking the Cachuma Saddle area, a perfectly nice place to park and camp out of view from the road (I had Matthew's expired FS Adventure Pass with me, so I was trying to avoid leaving my car in obvious places). I bedded down once more in the van and went off to sleep quite easily. I planned to rise early for the Big Three the next day...


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