Little Pine Mountain P500 LPC
Alexander Peak
Old Man Mountain
Nordhoff Peak P500 LPC

Thu, Jun 23, 2011
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2

Between a couple of summertime family commitments I had three days to run off and do some peakbagging. There still seemed to be too much snow in the Sierra for my liking, so I decided to do some LPC peaks in the Santa Barbara/Ventura area of Southern California. Little Pine Mountain is in the front, or southern part of the San Rafael Mountains, just outside the San Rafael Wilderness. The terrain is typical coast chaparral which can be very thick in this part of the state, making cross-country travel virtually impossible and impractical for any significant distance. The Santa Cruz Trail, starting at Upper Oso Campground in the Los Padres National Forest, goes nearly to the summit. The LPC peak guide describes the highpoint as "inacccessible because of extremely heavy brush", and locates their summit and register at a lower point half a mile to the west. I was not convinced of this prognosis after examining the satellite views which showed the area had burned over a few years back. An overgrown but possibly useable firebreak looked to go over the summit and it seemed worth a try to reach it. The highpoint is in the California Mountain Atlas with a prominence just exceeding 500ft which offered additional incentive. Nearby are two other named summits, Alexander Peak and Old Man Mtn that I figured I'd pay a visit to as well.

I had driven down the night before, arriving in the area around midnight. The road was gated and locked at the Los Prietos Boys Camp, several miles short of the Upper Oso Campground. Here the river goes over the road and was apparently too deep from spring runoff to allow safe crossing. I wandered down to the river's edge at midnight, but all I could see was a 50yd swath of water running over where a road should be. I slept in the car at the day use area and waited until morning to determine the situation.

I was up before 6am and it was already quite light out when I started off about a quarter before the hour. The crossing turned out to be about 8 inches deep with relatively slow-moving water, no trouble at all. Another hiker starting at the same time as myself but using a mountain bike to reach the TH motored across the river and passed me by while I was still putting my boots back on. Beyond the river, the Upper Oso Campground and the usual starting point was less than two miles up the modest gradient of an old paved road. There was no one at the campground when I reached it aside from a caretaker who looked to live there year-round. The pavement turns to dirt as it continues up past the campground. The start of the Santa Cruz Trail is found a bit more than half a mile along the dirt road which turns to climb out of Oso Canyon. The good trail continues above the creek initially. I found the other guy's bike stashed just off the trail soon after starting up it. Rocks and other obstacles make it less suitable for use further up. The trail drops down slowly to the creek level, crossing it several times before it starts climbing out for good at Nineteen Oaks CG, about a mile from the dirt road.

Now hiking up through chaparral, there were good views looking back to Oso Canyon where the early morning had retreated and the sun was taking command. It would not take long to begin warming, but luckily the trail stays in the shade for much of the early morning hours. Alexander Peak came into view around 7a though Little Pine would stay out of view for most of the hike out of the canyon. Soon after I passed by the other hiker, just before reaching a saddle north of Pt. 2,938ft. We greeted each other upon crossing, talking a bit in the process. He lived near San Marcos Pass and had made this his regular workout, having hiked it every day this week so far. A nice hike to have in one's backyard, I commented.

Further up, the trail was overrun for a short distance with sand and gravel sliding down from above. It took a bit of dancing gingerly across the steep slope to get to safer ground on the other side. By 8:10a I had reached the saddle between Alexander Peak and Little Pine Mtn. An old metal trail sign indicated the Santa Cruz Trail continued over the saddle and down the other side at least another five miles. My route turned right, heading up a weak trail towards Little Pine Mtn. The official trail made a few switchbacks climbing the initial steep slope, but a more direct use trail has formed going directly up the ridgeline (I used this on the way down). As described in the guide, the trail flattens out some and then contours around the north side of Pt. 4,459ft, the LPC summit. A use trail to the right goes briefly through the oak understory before emerging onto the grassy, south-facing slopes of the summit. I found the geocache described in the guide in the hollow of a large oak at the flattish top, but did not located an LPC register. The geocache was rather wet from moisture and I didn't bother to sign it (nor did it seem possible to do so, given its condition).

I continued east down the other side of the summit, then north through a good deal of downfall to the neglected Happy Hollow campsite found between the LPC summit and Little Pine's highpoint. There were many standing snags from the fire that had swept through a few years ago, the brush reclaiming most of the open areas that had been burned out. I found the old road on the opposite side of the campground and followed it up towards Little Pine. A short distance southwest of the summit I found the cross-country up from the road about what I had expected from the satellite view. It was quite easy in fact to make my way up the slope and then over to the summit, only a few minutes' work. There were decent views of the higher mountains of the San Rafael Wilderness to the north and northeast, but views to the south and southwest were mostly blocked by the two barely lower summits of Little Pine.

It took only half an hour to return to the Santa Cruz Trail junction and then the short distance up to Alexander Peak. The LPC guide reports a use trail, but it was all but nonexistent, mostly a modestly brushy hike along the ridgeline. I spent another half hour continuing on the ridgeline to the northwest for the highpoint of Old Man Mtn, the lowest of the three summits I visited in the area. Both Alexander and Old Man have good views looking west, Cachuma Lake visible almost ten miles away. The fog had burned off in the inland valley, leaving a clear view.

It was just 10a and everything was going pretty much like clockwork. It was going so well that I decided to be a little adventurous for the return. The other hiker had told me that it was possible to follow the Southwest Ridge down from Alexander for a more direct route back to Nineteen Oaks and the Santa Cruz Trail. It looked good on paper, but in execution it was no time saver. From Old Man, one can see a very old road cut on the west side of Alexander leading over to the Southwest Ridge and I made the mistake of following this rather than go back up and over the summit of Alexander. It saves perhaps a hundred feet of elevation but the brush was over head level and the going so slow as to offer no advantage at all. Once on the Southwest Ridge things got faster, but I did not find much of a use trail at all. I'm not sure if the fire had made things better (at least the brush wasn't so high) or worse (the old trail seems to have fallen into disuse), but I made the best of it. At least I was going downhill. Much of it followed barbed-wire fencing along the property boundary and I found myself hopping from one side to the other in order to take advantage of the best tracks I could find down the ridge. In all I spent almost two and half hours on the venture from Old Man to Nineteen Oaks, probably an hour longer than if I had just taken the Santa Cruz Trail back. At least it was an adventure.

Now heading down the maintained trail, I came across a two-foot snake near the creekbed. It slithered into the creek and out of sight when it tired of my harrassing it for pictures. Where the trail begins to climb back out of the canyon to the dirt road I dropped down to the creek for a relaxing dip in the waters of the Oso Canyon Creek. It was a little too cold to spend much time in it, but just washing off the salt and dust and thistles of the last few hours was quite enjoyable.

Descending the road from Upper Oso Campground, I came across a party of more than a dozen college-aged youths making their way up the road. They were casually dressed in flip-flops, shorts and summer dresses, carrying ice chests and tossing frisbies as they went. Not fluent in English, they wanted to know where the lake was, or at least the pools one can swim in. They were not happy to learn there was no lake and no pools in the direction they were heading. They had wanted to get to Red Rock and missed a turn lower down by the Santa Ynez River. They were also unprepared for the ten mile hike it would take to get there and back. Normally one could drive all the way to Red Rock, but the gate closure had spoiled their plans. They had come from UCSB where the persistent fog had driven them to look for warmer recreation. Today was a bust.

There were dozens of others I found along the Santa Ynez, swimming, floating, or just playing at the water's edge to cool themselves off on this warm afternoon. The temperature by 2p had reached into the 90s, quite warm indeed. I could use a break myself. Back at the car before 2:30p, I drove to Santa Barbara to see if my brother was home and might possibly be interested in dinner. As I did not call ahead, I was not altogether surprised to find him not at home. I needed a new plan for the rest of the day. I first went to Starbucks to recharge on caffeine and carbohydrates, then headed south on US101 in search of Nordoff Peak. I had planned to do this one the next morning, but it now seemed reasonable to get it done before dark, or at least not too long after dark.

Nordoff Peak is a prominent point along the eight-mile long Nordoff Ridge, overlooking the small community of Ojai that lies below to the south. The highpoint of the ridge is Chief Peak on the east end, an HPS summit I had climbed some years earlier, almost a thousand feet higher than Nordoff Peak. The route I planned to take along the Howard Creek Trail requires one to climb over the ridgeline from the north, actually going higher than the summit, before dropping down to a saddle and then up to the summit on the dirt Nordoff Road.

Once again I followed the description in the LPC guide, driving up SR33 and then around to the north side of Nordoff where I found the unmarked trailhead after only a little deliberation. The mileage in the guide provides sufficient information to reach it. It was almost 4:45pm before I started out, hiking up a dirt road a short distance before finding the barely signed start of the Howard Creek Trail.

For the most part the trail was in good condition, overgrown in some places, but compensated with the abundance of wildflowers that were thriving along the route. I spent an hour on the modest gradient, gaining more than 2,000ft in the three miles it took to reach the Nordoff Road. With Nordoff Peak now visible to the southwest, I followed the road down the hill, losing some 800ft to reach a saddle marked by a junction with the Gridley Trail, a longer alternative that climbs up to the ridgeline from the south. I spent another half hour regaining the lost altitude as I made my way up to the Nordoff summit, crowned by a high lookout platform with a picnic table beneath it. I found several benchmarks placed by different survey parties.

It was nearly 6:30p, still plenty of available daylight so near to the summer solstice. The views were somewhat hazy stretching out to the fog-enshrouded coast and far back into the interior of the Los Padres National Forest that stretched out for 180 degrees to the north. Nordoff Ridge is part of the Topatopa Mtns, but those further north seem to have been left without an official name, though just as rugged as the Topatopa Mtns.

After descending the platform, I spent about an hour and a quarter returning via the same route, making it back to the TH by 7:45p. I enjoyed the small luxury of a quick rinse from a gallon of warm water and a fresh change of clothes. I found dinner in Ojai and then drove further east towards Santa Paula, finding a cool place to spend the night near the highpoint along the road between the two communities. This would leave me only a short drive to the TH for Santa Paula Peak, my first stop for the new day.


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