Wed, Jan 23, 2013
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Just south of town is a small range of brown hills called the Jacalitos Hills (Spanish for "little ponies"). The unnamed highpoint is not quite 1,900ft in elevation and located less than a mile from SR198. There are oil fields located within the range, but most of it appears to be used for ranching. There are few homes in the immediate area along SR198 where I started, so there was little concern with disturbing the natives. Because of earlier rains, I was modestly concerned with the crossing of Warthan Creek along which SR198 follows, but it turned out to be dry and the only modest difficulty was finding a path through the brush that lines much of the creek. The cattle have done a good job of finding or creating breaks, so it was a simple matter to follow one of the cow paths to make my way to the opposite side.
Though short, the climb was terrificly steep up loamy grass slopes, damp from the early season rains and turned up by the hooves of hundreds of cattle. This was actually a plus as it gave purchase to the slope and made an unplanned tumble highly unlikely. But it was steep, climbing almost 600ft in 1/7th of a mile. Above this, the meandering Northwest Ridge leading to the summit is gained, where it becomes much more pleasant. A cow trail leads along most of the ridge making for easy walking. To the east can be seen the city lights of Coalinga and further into the Central Valley. The southwest side of the ridgeline is precipitous, much more so than the slope I had just climbed. The mountain appears to be composed almost entirely of sedimentary material, with sandstone cliffs visible off the right side of the ridge and a good deal of compacted sand underfoot. In all I spent about 40 minutes climbing to the highpoint.
The summit was somewhat small and rounded, affording good views in all directions. A fence runs over the summit and I used one of the posts to assist in taking a picture off to the east towards Coalinga. There was no register or benchmark found in the grass or among the few scattered rocks. The return along the same route took but twenty minutes, the steep descent back to the creek going particularly fast with the help of a sandy cow path that I found. The moon had been sufficient to hike by on the way up, but for the rapid descent I used a headlamp to be more sure of my footing. I kept an eye out on the road below, intending to quickly turn the headlamp off if a car approached. Back on the north side of the creek I came upon a small field of wooden boxes that I had not seen earlier. I walked close enough to confirm that they were beehives but then gave them a wide berth. I heard no buzzing and so no activity but did not want to disturb the occupants. I wondered if bees sleep at night but wasn't about to find out.
It was almost 11p by the time I got back to the van. I drove west up SR198, intending to drive to Parkfield Grade and approach Curry Mountain from the west. Curry Mountain was the focus of the evening's hike with (barely) more than 1,000ft of prominence. There are no roads or trails that I was aware of leading near the summit. Only ten minutes up the road I came across a BLM Curry Mountain trailhead. Up to this point, I didn't know Curry Mountain was on BLM land and had just assumed it was private ranchlands. I stopped at the kiosk to see the extent of the public property. Curry Mountain was indeed found at the center of the BLM property shown on a map there. Almost all of it was surrounded by private property, the trailhead being the only access point that touches a public road. There were no trails shown on the map other than a very short one starting out from the trailhead. Would I even be able to reach the summit? I knew from the satellite views that the north side is particularly brushy, whereas the southwest side I had intended to use was more open. I guessed that the area is primarily used by hunters and that use trails have probably developed over the years - certainly hunters have no more interest than myself in wading through dense brush, right? It seemed worth a try to see if there was an all-public access route to the summit. One further potential trouble was that the highpoint was actually a mile southeast of the point marked on the map. I remember looking very carefully at this ridgeline in the satellite view and seeing no road or trail along it, and in fact it looked quite brushy. I might make it to the lower northern summit but still fail to reach the highpoint.
I squeezed through the small opening in the barbed-wire fencing, so narrow that I had to have my arms in front of me to get through. It seemed poorly designed. What for instance would a portly fellow do if he wanted to shoot pigs here? Immediately on the other side of the fence I picked up a trail that followed west in the direction of the fenceline only to find it petered out into nothingness about 30 yards later. Had I started uphill from the gate opening I might have found a good use trail that I only discovered upon my return. Having no knowledge of this, I started to head up through open grass slopes that I found above me but thought it might be a very short outing indeed. I climbed some 500ft up steep slopes that were similar to those found on Jacalitos (but brushier), eventually reaching a ridge on the northeast side of the north summit. The climbing became easier thanks to the discovery of a good use trail running alongside the ridge - this was more like it. There were still steep parts running up the ridge, but the trail cut nicely through the brush. Curry Mountain appears to be built out of the same stuff as the Jacalitos Hills with plenty of sand. Much of the trail was compacted with dampness and use by both man and animal, but parts were somewhat slippery due to the steepness. There was no switchbacking or any sort of gradient control - when the ridge went towards the vertical, so did the use trail. There was some old flagging scattered in places, but for the most part the trail was unmarked, relying on regular usage to keep from disappearing back into the brush.
Almost before I knew it, my enthusiasm for Curry Mountain turned around. This place was great, and all legal, too. I reached the north summit shortly before midnight, taking less than an hour, though I knew I was hardly done. The GPS showed the higher south summit to be still more than a mile away as the crow flies, more than I'd traveled so far. At the north summit I found a steel pole sheered off near ground level and a few wooden sticks, probably remnants of a survey tower. I found nothing else among the rocks and brush. Where the overhead satellite view could detect no trail, I was happy to find it continued nicely along the ridge towards the southeast much as I'd hoped. Though undulating, the ups and downs were mild and the hiking a breeze. The views off either side were again fine, though thin clouds were now partially obscuring the moon. I'd end up using a headlamp the remainder of the night. Not long before reaching the south summit I was stopped in my tracks by the beady eyes of a large skunk staring me down. It did not move off when I shouted or waved to it or even approached it a little. Hmmm. What to do? Glad I didn't run into this thing with the headlamp off! I eventually found that if I turned my headlamp away the skunk would turn around and start waddling off. If I resumed the light on it, the skunk would turn to face me again, obviously agitated. I choose to keep the light off him and give it a chance to move away. I stepped gingerly through the area where I had seen him disappear, then once satisfied I was not to be ambushed, I picked up the pace and continued to the summit.
It was 12:30a by the time I reached the highpoint at the southeast summit. The GPS showed it to be at least as high as the difference shown on the topo map - 17ft+. There were a number of wooden survey sticks lying about the small rocky summit and a glass jar inside a small cairn held a one-page register place by John Vitz in 2010. I added my own name, put it back where I found it, and headed back. The return went much quicker, again thanks to the easy downhill on damp, compacted sand and grass slopes. I was back by 1:30a and once again headed west up SR198 for the next summit.
Charley Mountain lies atop the main crest of the Diablo range, a few miles south of SR198. It is higher than the first two summits I visited, but not the highest in the area. It is overshadowed by Center Peak to the northeast and Smith Mtn to the southeast, but it sports over 900ft of prominence and worth a visit to its 3,885-foot summit. Though the summit itself is BLM land, all the surrounding territory is private property. A VOR station used for aviation navigation can be found at the top. There are various dirt roads leading to the summit from a variety of directions, some better than others. I chose an old road approaching from the northeast that appears to be little used. It had no discernable homesteads anywhere along the route and seemed to offer the most seclusion. It would work out to be about three miles to the summit with 2,000ft of gain.
The route proved to be more secluded than I had guessed. Parking alongside the road, the entrance gate did not appear to have been opened in a long while, possibly years. The road too had no recent vehicle tracks, no old ones for that matter. I did run across a few human tracks, probably hunters, but mostly it was animal tracks and erosion ruts. The road was relatively free of encroaching brush which made me wonder if I was wrong about it being used much. There were various forks that I came to, but the GPS did a good job of keeping me on the right path. I came across a water basin at one location and a large, rusting water tank half a mile later, though neither seemed to be maintained. If there were cattle in the area grazing, they didn't leave much evidence. Unlike the previous two peaks, this one seemed to have very little open grass areas. It's possible that I just didn't have a good view of the landscape though, as by this time the moon was completely obscured by clouds and I couldn't see much past my headlamp.
I reached a fork where my intended route still showed 1.5 miles to the summit, though I was only half that distance in a straight line. I thought perhaps the unknown fork to the right might allow a more direct route to the summit, so taking a chance I decided to head off that way. I wasn't going completely blind, because I recalled seeing a route going around the north side of the mountain in the satellite view. The problem I recalled was that it went well below the summit and far to the west before coming back around to the top. There appeared to be an old route directly up the north side from this road but it looked to be badly overgrown. And so it was. The brush is very thick on the upper part of the mountain's north side. I found what looked like the old route which I think was just an old blaze that was used when they ran a line of utility poles up the mountain to power the VOR station on top. Not far from the top I ran out of usable breaks in the brush and had to resort to crawling underneath it. This went on for about 50-75ft (but it seemed twice that) until I was about to give up and go back down to the more certain road fork. Finding a glass beer bottle in the brush gave me some hope - at least I wasn't pioneering a way through the chaparral. Just as I was about to despair, it suddenly opened up again and only a few minutes later I was at the summit.
I walked around the bulldozed summit, flat as could be with a large center cone and a series of periphery instruments that help avionics in airplanes aloft to determine their direction from this point of land (with two widely-spaced VOR readings one can fix their location fairly accurately on a map - this has mostly been rendered obsolete with the advent of GPS). An old wooden fence surrounds the facility, it's purpose to keep animals out, not really people. On the west side is a gate leading down from the summit. Though the ascent route proved shorter, I'm not sure that it saved any time and I resolved to go back the intended route so that I wouldn't have to crawl through the dusty underbrush a second time. I made good time by jogging much of the route, getting back in about 50 minutes, arriving shortly after 4a.
I decided to sleep in the car where I had parked to make the most of the remaining hours of darkness for this purpose. It took only a few minute to change into some dry, comfortable clothes and then set out my bedroll in the back of the van. I think I had too much caffeine as part of my hydration scheme over the past hours as sleep did not come easily. Oh well. I eventually drifted off and decided to call it good after about three and half hours. It was overcast but quite light out at 7:30a. After changing clothes I cracked open another caffeinated beverage in way of breakfast, got in the driver's seat and started off.
It took about an hour to drive the remaining distance west on SR198, then a few miles south on US101 to the paved Lockwood-San Lucas Rd which I drove to the Williams Hill Recreation Area. Williams Hill itself is a P1K located at the southern edge of the recreation area, but first up was the more modest, unnamed Peak 2,577ft with just under 900ft of prominence. Both of these summits are publicly accessible. The area appears to be mostly utilized by hunters and OHV enthusiasts. I spent an hour in total hiking to the summit of Peak 2,577ft and back. The road was not in good enough condition for me to drive it, but any modestly high-clearance vehicle should suffice. The summit offers views of the Salinas Valley to the northeast (North and South Chalone Peaks in Pinnacles NP easily discerned in the background) and the San Antonio Valley to the southwest. To the northwest could be seen the twin summits of Junipero Serra and Pinyon Peak while to the southeast was the rounded hump of the barely higher Williams Hill.
After returning to the car I drove south into San Antonio Valley, through the small community of Lockwood, then back up into the hills on the dirt Lockwood-San Ardo Rd. At the crest of this small range is found a 4-way junction, the southern fork leading to Williams Hill. This road was well-graded and easily driven with the van. Less than a mile from the junction is a brand spanking new BLM camground, complete with shaded picnic tables, gravel tent platforms, pit toilets and fire rings. No restrooms, water or trash collection, but no fees either. There's also an information kiosk telling some of the history of the area and a helpful map. Williams Hill is located 4 miles from the junction with Lockwood-San Ardo Rd and I had thought I might have to hike the entire distance. As it turns out, the road was in excellent condition and I could drive all the way to the locked gate found at the summit area. In addition to cell towers and other communication towers, there is a decomissioned lookout found at the very center. The lower 3/4 of the stairway has been removed making it very difficult to climb for a view. I did note a pipe running vertically up the west side of the structure that could be used by the more determined to make an ascent. Today I was not one of the more determined. I took some pictures of the views to San Antonio Reservoir and Valley, of the plaque at the lookout and the nearby outhouse before returning to the car.
The return home would have been mostly uneventful if I hadn't somehow gotten a leak in one of my tires somewhere along one of the dirt roads. I was lucky the leak wasn't severe and that I had an electric pump with me, but I still had to pull over five times on my way back to San Jose over the next several hours to pump it back up after it had partially deflated. A small price to pay for an enjoyable night and morning spent in the Coast Ranges. Oh, and I just managed to get back in time to pick my daughter up from school - not ten extra minutes to spare!
This page last updated: Sat Aug 31 09:46:08 2013
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