Junipero Serra Peak 2x P2K CC
Bear Mountain CC
Pinyon Peak P1K CC

Oct 22, 2009
Junipero Serra Peak
Bear Mountain
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profile
Junipero Serra Peak previously climbed May 15, 1998

Earlier in the week I had climbed Island Mtn in the Ventana Wilderness, my first visit to the area in several years. Despite wet and rainy conditions, my love for the area was rekindled and I was eager for more. A short email exchange with John Fedak following that outing put the bug in me to climb Pinyon Peak, and an unexpected opportunity opened up a few days later.

Pinyon Peak lies along an undulating ridgeline connecting to Junipero Serra Peak with more than four miles separating the two. A series of roads and firebreaks used to connect the two in a straightforward manner but it has been many years since any of this has been maintained. Though parts were still usable, thick coastal chaparral had reclaimed much of the route making for a very difficult undertaking once the end of the trail to Junipero Serra was reached. The 2008 fires were reported to have made the undertaking easier, so it seemed an opportune time to give it a try.

It is a long 3hr drive from San Jose to the trailhead for Junipero Serra near Memorial Park. It was still quite dark when I arrived there at 6:30a and headed out shortly thereafter. Though I found a sign indicating "Trail", it was not the correct one (I had passed the correct TH about 100yds back up the road on my way to Memorial Park - easy to miss in the dark). The trail I followed was thin and lightly used, not what I expected for a somewhat popular peak. I paused a few times to consult my map, but I seemed to be heading in more or less the correct direction so I pressed on.

Luckily it grew light soon after I started out so I was able to begin to see the lay of the land more clearly. The trail braided, disappeared, reappeared and generally confused me. It looked more like a cow path which I suspect was its primary use. With all the missteps and hesitations I had only gone about a mile in those first forty minutes before I eventually emerged upon the real trail to Junipero Serra. The correct trail was much as I expected - well packed and easy to follow. For the next two hours I followed this trail first east across easy ground, then up an ever-steepening canyon with a few easy creek crossings until eventually it starts switchbacking up to the main ridgelines. One of the trail signs at the 2mi mark had been badly damaged by fire, another at the 4mi mark on the ridge was absent altogether. The trail signs seemed to have gotten the worst of the fire whereas the chaparral and various tree species were already vigorously recovering. Some sections of the ridgeline had escaped the burn though most seemed to have been swept up in the conflagration. Tall ponderosas on the north and northwest side of Junipero Serra survived with only fire scars to their trunks at the base. Other forested areas with younger trees only 30-40 feet in height were wiped out almost entirely. Still, new seedlings were visible in abundance.

By 9:30a I had reached the lookout atop Junipero Serra. The small cabin/shed at the base that had been here on my last visit had been erased, but the steel tower stood same as always. I climbed up to the top of the tower for views and pictures, careful in stepping around the outside walkway where only a few usable sections remained, the rest having gone to the elements in years past (John Fedak reports that, " These were removed intentionally as part of a plan to install a radio repeater on the tower. The plans were adjusted midstream and the repeater relocated to Pinyon, the missing boards were never replaced"). After descending I walked to the higher east summit where used to exist a special benchmark mounted on a tall concrete pillar. I found a nearby locating benchmark (which merely points to the one used for actual triangulation measurements), but the original was removed from the concrete pillar.

Six miles down, four to go. So much for the easy part. As if to get a taste of what was ahead, I wandered down the east side of the summit in search of the old road shown on my 7.5' topo map. After a cicuitous descent of more than a hundred feet through the regrowing chaparral I concluded there was no such road evident on that side of the mountain. Back up I went. I then searched the south side of the peak and found the old remains of the road. I checked my map again to be certain the road's location had been drawn incorrectly. It was, but it would make little difference I soon found.

I was able to follow the road through a few switchbacks down to the first small saddle at which point it was entirely choked by unburned manzanita. The road traversed down on the northeast side of the ridgeline, but it was impractical to try and follow it. Instead I switched to the ridgeline itself where evidence of an old firebreak could be found and though difficult, travel was at least possible. I toiled for almost two hours to reach the low saddle along the ridge about half a mile southwest of Bear Mtn. From this point up to Bear Mtn the old road was in better shape thanks to the drier conditions on the southwest and south-facing slopes. After a short climb the road meets at a junction with another road coming in from the south and Hunter Liggett. I continued up to the summit of Bear Mtn where I arrived at noon. Bear Mtn isn't much of a mountain, more of a subsidiary point along the ridgeline to Pinyon Peak. I looked around for a register but found nothing. Nice views of Junipero Serra and Pinyon, though.

I continued north down the firebreak towards Pinyon now less than a mile away. The firebreak deteriorated until I was met with a wall of unburned chaparral and could follow the road/firebreak no longer. I bailed west through the thicket until I reached the easier going through burned slopes, thrashing my way to the saddle between Bear and Pinyon. From this point it was easy to once again follow the road as it switchbacked up the south side of Pinyon where I arrived about 12:40p.

There are actually two summits to Pinyon and I first carried myself to what I think is the higher west summit. I took a few photographs and a snack break there, but found no sign of a register. I then hiked over to the east summit where I found four concrete pillars, the only remains of a lookout that once stood at the summit. A register was wedged in a small plastic bottle among the summit rocks. It predated the 2008 fires, but only by a few years. John Fedak's entry made reference to flagging that had been along the route, but I had seen not a single ribbon the whole way. I imagine those burn pretty quickly in a fire. I also found the remains of a broken glass jar not far away, probably the register container at one time before being dropped.

I expected the return to Junipero Serra to go more quickly by about an hour now that I was familiar with the route, but in this I was sadly mistaken. In fact it took a bit longer because I made the mistake of trying to follow the road more closely as I neared the saddle just south of Junipero Serra. I found myself thrashing through shoulder high manzanita. My pants, having started to shred a few hours earlier, were only getting worse. My exposed shin was taking the brunt of the abuse, poked and prodded by countless branches, cut and bleeding.

I was relieved to finally return to Junipero Serra and the trail around 4p. With almost all of the remaining trail involving downhill I picked up the pace by jogging much of it and managed to finish the last six miles in an hour and a half. I was surprised to come across a party of three a few miles from the trailhead and they must have found me an odd sight. My clothes were streaked with black carbon and rather filthy-looking. I had removed one of my pant legs at the convenient zipper since it was hanging down in a useless flap by this point, but kept the other pant leg in place to help protect the skin. I smiled, gave a short greeting, and jogged on by.

The water I had left in a gallon jug on the dash was quite warm upon my return and made for a most delightful rinse. There was much dirt to remove and I felt quite freshed afterwards. The drive back was quite relaxing (except for the dodging of tarantulas crossing the roadway - it's mating season and the males are out looking for mates). Though it had been a tough outing I was even more enamoured with Ventana and will eagerly look for more opportunities to return in the coming months.

fedak comments on 11/10/09:
"The trail I followed was thin and lightly used, not what I expected for a somewhat popular peak"

This was a *much* more distinct trail before the fire. During the yearlong closure, the grassland portions of the trail were mostly reclaimed by the wilderess.
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For more information see these SummitPost pages: Junipero Serra Peak

This page last updated: Wed Nov 11 10:08:56 2009
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