Fox Mountain P750 HPS
Lizard Head HPS

Sun, Dec 19, 2004

With: Glenn Gookin

Fox Mountain
Lizard Head
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2

Shortly after 2a on a Sunday morning, I found myself hurling down US101 out of San Jose heading for the Dick Smith Wilderness in Santa Barbara County the week before Christmas. At the Fox Mtn TH in Santa Barbara Canyon I was to meet Glenn, who was driving up from Fullerton in Orange Co. This was the first of five days I had arranged for some peakbagging adventures right before Christmas ("Honey, why don't you fly with the kids down to San Diego and I'll drive down to join you." - it really did go something like that). Having been to Santa Barbara Canyon the previous year, I had some notion of how long it would take me, and with little traffic at such an hour I made good time. I was driving the family van, the first time I'd used it for such outings, and in addition to the camping and hiking gear I had a load of Christmas gifts in the back and a bike on the roof. The bike was to be used for a couple of long-mileage days in my quest to bag as many of the HPS peaks in the area as I could in the allotted time. Stopping only once for gas, I arrived at the TH at 7:15a, only fifteen minutes late. Glenn's Honda Civic was already there, with Glenn inside in a sort of half-awake, half-asleep stupor. My arrival roused him out of his car and into the sunny, but chilly morning air.

Having hiked on several times with Glenn in the past, we were able to dispense with the lengthy greetings and other pleasantries. "Hey, how's it going? Long drive? Ready to go?" We whipped our gear together and headed out at 7:30a. We would have plenty of time for chatting during the day. This first peak was more of a warm-up, 2,100ft and 2.5mi to the summit. To our delight we found a good use trail that went the entire distance, forgoing the need for bushwhacking through the dreaded chaparral. Right from the start the route heads up a fairly steep ridgeline, only relenting in a few locations, notably where the ridge shifts directions and where a pair of small saddles are encountered about 2/3 of the way up. There was some random trash along the trail, plastic water bottles, aluminum cans, shotgun and other assorted shell casings. Ok, maybe not that random. Good thing hunting season lasts only a month. How can one have no trouble hauling a deer carcass a thousand feet out of ravine, but be too weak to carry back empty water bottles? To be fair, they may not have been discarded by hunters - maybe they were just guys who like to climb hillsides and hear the echoing through the canyons of their guns all ablaze. Or maybe they were discarded by - gasp - thoughtless hikers? No, that seemed too absurd. Over the next few days I noted such garbage along the dirt roads and within a couple miles of a given trailhead, but rarely anything beyond that. I think there must be a limit of two miles or some such figure as to how far one can carry a gun before the owner is spent or in need of another beer back in the cooler. I'm joking here, please don't shoot me if you meet me on the trail sometime!

We reached the summit of Fox at 8:30a, pretty good time. The summit offered fine views of the Cuyama Valley to the north, and the San Rafael/Dick Smith Wildernesses on the other three sides. Most of the major peaks in the area were plainly visible - Samon, Big Pine, San Rafael, McPherson, Cuyama. Now that the sun had taken the chill out of the air, it was a glorious day with nearly unlimited visibility. We signed into the summit register (a fairly popular one that dated back only a decade), took a short break, then headed back. Shortly after 9:30a we were back at the cars. We tossed our stuff in the cars, then headed up the canyon a few miles to the Cuyama/Lizard Head TH in Dry Canyon. We successfully negotiated the first dry creekbed crossing, but stopped short at the second one less than three miles up Dry Canyon, a more formidable obstacle for our low-clearance vehicles. Though we hadn't planned to, we decided bikes were in order to get us the rest of the way to the TH. Our goal was a climb of Lizard Head, an 11-mile RT climb from the TH, and because of our limited driving abilities, we would be tacking on an additional 6 miles on the bike.

At 10:10a we set out, and by 10:15a we were rudely aware of the fact that mountain biking was a lot more work than we had expected. Neither of us had been mountain biking in several years, and in the intervening time we had somehow romanticized the ease with which the bikes would help us up the mountains. We didn't ride far before we were off the bikes and pushing them uphill. In a standard 2-4hr ride, I recall being able to ride the bike up some fairly steep fireroads. When the ride only lasts a few hours it's possible to push the legs harder on the uphills than one can do when the outing lasts all day. The name of the game for us was to conserve energy for the long haul, and on even moderate uphill slopes it was easier to push the bike than to try to ride it. So for the next two and half miles we mostly pushed our bikes up about 1,000ft, wondering not a little if we were being idiots. When I reached the pass at 4,853ft, I paused in the shade for a short rest while waiting for Glenn. Some five minutes later he appeared, and together we road down the short but steep eastern side of the pass, about half a mile down to our TH. We left our bikes locked to a steel gate found there, and headed off on the maintained Tinta Trail which follows the gentle slope of dry Tinta Creek downhill to the east.

Tracks from dirt bikes were evident along the trail as we hiked along, how they managed to navigate the rugged streambed in places was impressive. The trail lies just along the northern boundary of the Dick Smith Wilderness, so this is a multi-use trail, even if it seems to get little use. There was no way we could have been very successful with our mountain bikes, so we were happy to have left them where we did. We paused a few times along the trail to take photos of Cuyama Peak rising high to the north of us - I was hoping we would be back in time to tackle it as well. After a little more than a mile we came across a side trail heading to the right off the main trail. Almost missing it, this was the location of the Upper Tinta Campground and our turn off point. Hiking up and through the small campsite (a picnic bench and firering were it's main features), we paused a moment to consider our course. To the west we could see the obvious fire road we were cautioned to avoid. So we went off on a fainter use trail heading south, and this promptly led us up and onto the proper ridge we were looking for. A fire road had been bulldozed some years earlier and the chaparral was slowly retaking much of it. But our friends in the HPS (presumably) kept a path clipped through the encroaching brush and we had no bushwhacking to speak of, except the few times we would get off-course for short distances.

We climbed a thousand feet over the next couple miles, emerging atop a high ridge at noon. From here we had a commanding view into the Wilderness area, but we could not pick out the less-than-prominent Lizard Head still some miles off. Our next order of business was to find the connecting ridgeline, and after hiking a couple hundred yards to the west we found it. We followed another slowly diminishing firebreak south over half a dozen intervening bumps along the ridgeline, and again we found it well-groomed. I got ahead of Glenn in this section, but since the route-finding challenges were minimal it made little difference. Every now and then I would look back and pause until I saw Glenn emerge over the bump behind me, I'd wave to catch his attention, then continue on. We went up and over Pt. 5562ft, the highpoint along the ridge, and here the firebreak ended. A good use-trail continued for the last mile to Lizard Head, where I arrived at 1p, Glenn not far behind. It was recognizeable in the last couple miles because it is the only rocky prominence along the ridgeline, probably the reason it is the only named point along it.

We weren't at the summit long before catastrophy struck - Glenn dropped his digital camera three feet down a crack in the rock not more than about 2-3 inches wide. Squinting against the bright sunlight, we could just make out the camera down the deep, shaded crack. The narrow width of the crack was consistent, no way we could reach an arm down it. There was an old, weathered wood slat about the size and shape of a yardstick at the summit, but there was no way to push the camera out of the crack at either end. We pondered and racked our brains for a solution, something we could use to fish it out with. Glenn poked all through his backpack, but nothing hook-shaped. Finally he hit upon the key ring attached to one of the zippers - the kind which spreads apart and then one slides a key under and around until it is on or off the metal ring. He took it off, bent one loop into a hook, and wedged the contraption onto the end of the stick - a hook on the end of a pole. Since only modest pressure was holding the hook to the stick, Glenn knew he had to be careful in hooking and lifting the camera, lest too much downward force would leave both the camera and the hook at the bottom of the crack. He fished around for some minutes before finally getting his hook around the camera strap, then very slowly brought it up through the vertical maze of the crack trying to avoid bumping the sides or wedging it in place. After some minutes, Glenn rose from his prone position, the camera once again in his possession. I was amazed. Figuring he might not be the only one to drop something in there, I peered again into the abyss, spotting something shiny below. "Hey, there's some batteries down there," I commented. Then, looking at his camera with one of the latches opened, added, "Oh, I suppose those are yours." Somehow the battery lid had been opened in the fall, spilling all the batteries. No more pictures for Glenn this trip. The camera was a bit scraped up, but appeared to be in decent shape. Good thing too, because it wasn't even his camera - it belonged to his dad.

As we packed to leave after signing the register, Glenn joked that the whole camera escapade had been a ruse to give him more rest at the summit. I laughed, replying it was pretty convincing, though an expensive ruse one shouldn't try too often. We retraced our steps back along the ridge. Before heading down towards the campground, I paused again to wait for Glenn. This time he was much longer in catching up, some 20 minutes or so. He admitted that he was getting pretty beat and had no energy left to go after Cuyama Peak. We didn't have much time either, as it was already 3p, and I wasn't so sure I wanted to do so myself. Glenn suggested I could zip ahead if I still wanted to give it a try, and figuring I'd leave my options open, I headed down the hill at a good clip. I was back at the camp in 45 minutes and back at the bikes by 4:15p. Decision time. There was little doubt it would be dark before I got back to the car, but I had a headlight on the bike that should work fine. Also I probably wouldn't be able to reach the summit before sunset, missing what would likely be a pretty good one, too. What to do? I finally decided to give it go and started up the road to Cuyama. I didn't ride more than 100ft before I was off the bike, walking it, and remembering that the bike wasn't much good on the uphills. Argh. I had to admit it had already been a pretty long day and this last peak might be a factor in tomorrow's much longer outing - I'd hate to miss out on the Big Four because I'd pushed it too hard the day before. All of this played out in my head in less than a minute and I decided to turn around again hardly before the TH had gotten out of sight.

I rode back down to the TH, then pushed the bike the half mile back up to the pass we'd come over earlier in the day. The last three miles, mostly downhill, were wonderfully effortless. All I had to do was keep from crashing with very little energy expenditure. Those last three miles were enough to convince me that the bike had some redeeming value, but only at the end of the day. I was back at the van just after 4p, Glenn about 20 minutes behind. I'd had enough time to freshen up (a change into clean clothes) and get something to eat before he'd returned. After packing the bikes up, we got in and drove to yet another trailhead, this time to the end of the road in Santa Barbara Canyon where a locked gate bars further progress (you have to be a ranger or rancher to drive any further).

Our dinners consisted of similar items: cheese, salami, pita bread, fruit. Nothing terribly elaborate (no grilled steaks or fajitas) nor exciting. It grew cold quickly as the sun went down and we were both pretty beat for the day - not much in the mood for a roaring campfire or rousing drinking & mirth-making . By 5:30p I'd made all my preparations for the next day and was ready to bed down. I said good-night to Glenn and hit the sack I'd laid out inside the van - it was a very cushy camp vehicle I was to find. Glenn was up a short while longer adjusting a headlamp for his bike - we planned to start at 4a and were pretty sure it would be quite dark at that time. Afterwards he too went to bed, on the cot he'd set up just outside his car. It didn't take long for either of us to drift off to sleep...


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