Hepsedam Peak P500 CC
Picacho Peak
The Picachos P500

Tue, Nov 2, 2010
Picacho Peak
The Picachos
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2

While in San Benito County a few weeks earlier, I had failed to reach Hepsedam Peak after tagging nearby Laguna Mtn, both CC-listed summits. The trouble was due to Hepsedam being on private property and the route I took to approach it did not allow me go in undetected. Later that day I did a side hike down to Laguna Creek with a BLM Trail and feature called 'The Gorge'. After returning home I gave this more thought and decided I might be able to use The Gorge as an alternate approach route for Hepsedam. I did not know if The Gorge was navigable - it might end in cliffs - but it seemed worthwhile to give it a try. With this in mind, I set out once again for my recent county of choice, San Benito. I left San Jose around 3:15a to allow me to do the first hour of hiking on known ground during the dark.

From the BLM parking area along Coalinga Rd, I made my way through the recently upgraded staging area on the south side of the road, and then onto the BLM trail once past the last gate. It took less than ten minutes to hike the short distance up to the dirt road atop a N-S ridgeline, then start down the trail on the other side. For the most part I had little trouble navigating this badly overgrown route, losing only a few minutes when I lost it in a confusing area somewhere around the middle of the descent. It took less than 30 minutes to drop down to Laguna Creek where I arrived around 6:40a. It was just starting to grow light out by this time though I still used the headlamp for another ten minutes or so as I made my way upstream along a feeble use trail that crossed the dry streambed a number of times.

Shortly after 7a I had reached the furthest progress from my previous visit as I entered the narrower section called The Gorge on the 7.5' topo. There was water here, probably year round, though it disappears underground not far downstream. The sun had risen not long after 7a, though I was steeped in the shade of the sheltered canyon. The further up I went the more water there seemed to be, suggesting it might be spring-fed and then slowly seeps into the ground until there's nothing left of it after a mile or two. I spent a little over 30 minutes navigating this enjoyable stretch over rock and boulder, weaving my way around obstacles, avoiding overhanging trees and brush and past a first waterfall that was fairly easy to get around. After that things began to get a little more complicated, more mysterious, as the canyon narrowed. A fern-covered cliff appeared on the left side, seemingly out of place in an otherwise dry landscape. As I neared it I realized this was part of large second waterfall, not so easy to get around as the first. I found a way on the north side where I could climb 60-70ft up a steep slope, then follow an animal track back down to the creek. I found a deer skull with horns still attached and paused to give it a better resting place. A few minutes later I came to a third waterfall, about as large as the second. It had a large pool at its base that made for an inviting swimming hole. Perhaps on the way back?

I had to climb higher on the north side to get around this third waterfall, and by the time I had gotten well above it and could see down to the upstream side, it was looking thick with brush and swampy along the creek. It appeared I still had half a mile or more to go before I was into the more open area of Sulpher Canyon above. I decided to follow an animal track up the side of the canyon to the high ridgeline above where I believed there was road if I had remembered the satellite view correctly. I soon came to an old fenceline, the first I had crossed since I left the TH. I could see Hepsedam Peak to the south on the far side of Sulpher Canyon. The idea was to follow the ridgeline around this drainage that should take me to Hepsedam Peak, not as direct as the route up the canyon, but perhaps easier and more scenic. And so it was.

The thin trail I followed cut nicely through brush without difficultly (though I did note some ticks that had hopped a ride on my pants), eventually leading to an old fire road at the ridgeline. I had views of Rodriquez Reservoir and Black Mtn to the north, Laguna Mtn to the southeast across The Gorge, and Hepsedam to the south. There were No Trespassing signs liberally found on one side of the road or the other, but no fences or gates for much of it. The fire road eventually joined a much better dirt road that looked to be periodically cleared and leveled, but infrequently driven on.

There was a road junction at a saddle NE of Pt. 4,193ft, but only the N-S road going up and over the saddle is shown on the topo map. Fortunately there was another road heading to a point south of Pt. 4,193ft and I followed this to another junction found on the main NW-SE ridgeline leading to Hepsedam. There were fine views here to the southwest with a series of ridgelines stretch off into the distance. In between were the San Andreas Rift Zone, Peach Tree Valley, and then the Salinas Valley. To the west was another ridgeline whose highpoint was Vasquez Rock.

This whole area on either side of the ridge appear to be ranchlands. There was much evidence of cattle, but little evidence of regular use by people. I think these roads I traveled were more the 'backyard' routes, mostly fallen to disuse. Around 8:30a I crossed a property boundary into the Avaline Ranch, a large complex that I believe includes the summit of Hepsedam. There is another junction just north of Hepsedam's lower NW summit, along with a gate. I hopped over the gate and made my way along the road until I was on the north side of Hepsedam's SE summit. The terrain here was lightly forested with almost no vegetation underneath. The topo shows a gravel pit nearby, though it is now abandoned. Hiking up the north side of Hepsedam one finds acres of barren ground - there must be something in the soil, alkaline perhaps, that keeps anything from growing. In many respects it resembles the often barren slopes found in the Clear Creek Management Area, the nearby popular off-road area.

It was just after 9a when I neared the summit, a simple wooden cross having been erected there. There were also some concrete pillars fallen into disrepair, but whether they were part of a monument or perhaps built by a survey party was unclear. A USGS benchmark was found among the summit rocks, most of the pertinent info in the center having been pounded into oblivion by a summit visitor. The views to be had were grand, much better I thought than those from Laguna Mtn, primarily because of the open views towards the west and the Salinas Valley. I did not stay more than a few minutes, not even bothering to sit down for a rest. I could see vehicles to the east at the same location I had been stopped on my first visit, and did not want to push my luck by possibly being spotted.

I returned along the NW-SE ridgeline that I had traveled along, then thought I might find an alternative route back up and over Pt. 4,193ft. The road going over this summit turned west at the highpoint and looked to head off in the wrong direction. I then backtracked to the junction south of the summit, took this back to the saddle and crossroads to the east, then followed the road north. I was somewhat nervous because of the many dog prints I found in the dry mud of the road. It looked like someone had been up here with several dogs less than a week ago, taking the same road I was on now. Whether it was a landowner or trespassing hunter was impossible to tell, but I was hoping I wouldn't run into some menacing dogs further down the road. I had my pepperspray handy in my pocket just in case.

Within ten minutes from leaving the saddle I was quietly tiptoeing my way past several trailers off to the left through the woods. I saw no signs of activity and heard no noises, but was nervous all the while. A few minutes later I came upon a gate and property boundary that may or may not have marked the return to BLM lands. I had certainly just come off private property but the signs on the gate left it ambiguous where I was after that. That could be a good thing I figured, because if someone accosted me I'd simply say I had wandered up The Gorge and off-route and was trying to get back to BLM land. At another junction a short time later I took the fainter road off to the right. It's lack of use made me feel less anxious and it was also heading in the right direction, back towards Laguna Creek, whereas the main road was heading NW into Lorenzo-Vasquez Canyon.

The fainter road headed down into some lovely oak-studded meadows, then further down towards a working farm/ranch at Laguna Creek alongside Coalinga Rd. Fortunately the road did not connect directly with the buildings in a large clearing, but further upstream where it was easy to remain unseen. I crossed the dry streambed and hiked up some roads on the east side to get me back to BLM land near the staging area. There were workers there with a large crane and other trucks setting up some shade structures at the various picnic spots as part of the improvements being made. I was back to the car by 11:15a, overall a highly successful outing.

I was back early enough that I figured I had time to go check out another nearby area, maybe even tag a few peaks. I wanted to see if the Clearwater Creek Rd, the main access to the CCMA was closed or not. Much of the CCMA has been closed for more than a year now due to asbestos hazard, but I'd heard varying reports about whether the roads were physically closed or not. Though there was a large red sign outside declaring the Emergency Closure, the road was open and I happily drove through. I stopped at a kiosk that had a map of the area. This helped tremenously since I had no other map with me. The routes were all labeled with "R" for road or "T" for trail, followed by a number. R1 was the main Clearwater Creek Rd. R5 was the key road that would take me to Picacho Peak and the nearby highpoint of The Picachos. There was a second red sign about half a mile in, this one looked like it had been placed earlier when the CCMA was open to off-road traffic. No gates to stop one - nice.

The road became a bit rougher, but still navigable with the Miata. There were half a dozen creek crossings in the 4.5mi of the road that I drove, but these were all lined with concrete and only about two inches of water at this time of year. It was 11:45a by the time I found the start of R5 and parked in a clearing nearby. It was nice to have the place to myself. The CCMA has very interesting geology with large acreage of barren ground and much fascinating rock. I would often pick up a piece to examine the coloration, shininess, or texture, then toss it aside afterwards.

It was straightforward to follow the well-signed road. All the various junctions (and there were many of them) were well-marked. It took about an hour and a quarter to hike up to The Picachos, a collection of rocky formations west of the main San Benito Crest (Picacho is spanish for 'peak'). The unnamed highpoint of this feature is just off the east side of R5, but I left this for the return as I continued to Picacho Peak, another 15 minutes further south along the road. Where the road makes a sharp left turn, I left the road to follow an easy slope up to the rocky summit.

There is a 1939 USGS benchmark found atop the summit, but no register. The views are decent, though partially blocked by trees in several directions. One can see west to Hepsedam Peak and Laguna Mtn, and further to Junipero Serra Peak in the Santa Lucia Range. To the north is the Picachos HP and to the east the county highpoint of San Benito Mtn. In all directions can be seen the many roads and trails of this popular off-road area.

Returning along R5 to the highpoint area, I found no easy way to reach the Picacho HP. I ended up with some thick brush to contend with, though thankfully only 10-20ft worth until I reached the summit rocks. There was a lead pipe sunk into the earth, purpose unknown, but no benchmark or register. The views (and thus the surveying potential) were not as good as were had atop Picacho Peak, which probably explains why the benchmark had been placed on the lower summit by the survey party.

Back on R5, I returned to the junction with T113 where I thought it would be more fun to look for an alternative route back, possibly shorter. It was a more scenic route, with long stretches of rounded, barren ridges. Near the end of this series of ridges I dropped off to the left and found myself on a motorcycle trail, T117 (It seems that you can wander in any direction you like and hit another trail or road in less than a quarter mile). I followed this back to R5, landing on the road about 100yds from my car - a nice stroke of luck.

I took a rinse with the jug of water on the dash, then drove back to San Jose, already thinking about future visits to hit some of the other peaks in the area. So many peaks, so little time...

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