Thu, Feb 14, 2013
The highest summits in the Diablo Range are located in the southeast corner of San Benito County on BLM land designated as the Clear Creek Management Unit. It used to be called the Clear Creek Recreational Area and was a very popular OHV site until it was discovered that all those OHV vehicles were trailing clouds of dust in the dry summer months containing naturally occurring asbestos particles. Since asbestos has been associated with lung cancer, the government decided there was some risk to human health and closed off the entire area in 2008 until a comprehensive plan could be developed on what to do about it. It's been almost five years now and there is still no plan. The recreational users are up in arms, believing the government plan all along was to limit OHV use in the area and that they're using the asbestos issue as a convenient excuse. Though officially closed, it seems no physical barriers have been erected to keep vehicles out. I've been to the area on several occasions since 2008 and have found the roads ungated. The management area is huge, encompassing several hundred square miles, and one gets the feeling of isolation with nary a soul to be found. The main problem for access now is that with the closure the roads are no longer maintained and they are falling into disrepair. High clearance & 4WD are needed especially in the winter season when the roads can be muddy and treacherous. I had talked Adam into joining me for an excursion to the area to give him some 4x4 fun (and me access, since my own vehicles are woefully not up to the task). He's not so hot on the mundane peak hikes and bushwhacking some might entail, so I enticed him with an additional day of rock climbing in Pinnacles NP where he could do all the leading. We had done this the day prior, spending the night camped off New Idria Rd. In the morning we drove to the old mining town (current population: one) and into the Management Area.
The primary peaks I was interested in were two CC-listed summits, Loma Atravesada and Wright Mountain. Secondary was a list of higher named summits around San Benito Mountain, the county highpoint which both of us had visited on previous occasions when we were pursuing the list of county highpoints. The only sign of closure we found was a single orange sign indicating "Road Closed" alongside the roadway. The ground was wet in places, icy in others, with some snow found on the north-facing slopes. It had been about a week since the last storm had come through the area. Because it was on our way and as Adam commented, "we're right there", we first paid a visit to San Benito Mountain, driving to the top where a gate surrounds a tower complex. The highpoint is located a minute's scramble on the east side up a pile of rock. The register there suggests the OHV folks have not neglected the area anymore than us peakbaggers.
40 minutes more driving towards the south brought us to the southwest side of Wright Mountain. There is no road going to this non-descript summit, but the hike to the top takes only five minutes through modest brush. An old wooden stake, some rusty wire and a rusty steel pole sunk into the ground were all we found at the sad summit. The best view was to the south, looking down Pine Canyon to the Los Gatos Creek drainage. Through the trees to the north we could make out the highpoint of Loma Atravesada about two miles away, across the Arroyo Leona drainage. We retreated via the same route, driving east to the edge of the management area. We encountered a closed gate, the same we had found when heading to Joaquin Rocks a few years earlier. I spent some time closely inspecting the locks and chain which paid off - I found one of the links had been cut through to allow the gate to be opened. This would save us more than a mile of hiking each way today. Had I found it a few years ago, it would have saved us five miles of hiking each way to Joaquin Rocks. We parked at a junction with an old road that runs along the ridgeline connecting Loma Atravesada to the main crest of Joaquin Ridge. The route to our Loma Atravesada (also called Three Sisters on the older 15' map) would be about three and half miles. Two miles of this would be on road, the rest cross-country. It was the latter part that I was most concerned about of course and would prove the most interesting of the day.
The road we followed has been used periodically by motorcyclists, but it has been many years since a truck or other 4-wheeled vehicle has driven on it. We were happy to be able to use it without any bushwhacking, making good time for the first two mile stretch. It was a pleasant stroll on the ridgeline for the most part with some open grassy stretches and views off both sides, including a good look at Loma Atravesada in front of us. Some of the brush we could see ahead was thick and difficult-looking. It would be no picnic, that much was certain. We reached the end of the easy part where the road peaks briefly before starting to drop to the southwest. A wall of brush was almost immediately encountered on the ridge. Had we stayed atop the crest of the ridge and pushed through the immediate difficulty, we'd have quickly found easier going behind it. This we found on the way back, but at the moment it looked impenetrable. So we dropped east off the ridge for a hundred feet or so, looking for a way through. We ended up ducking and crawling through a nasty stretch of mature chaparral. It took us only ten minutes to cover the hundred yards to easier ground, but it seemed much, much longer. The dust from the dead layers of brush would get in our throats and eyes. Adam spent some time trying to clear one eye that had picked up a piece of something uncomfortable.
Past this initial section, things got easier as we climbed more open slopes to the main ridgeline that defines Loma Atravesada. Ten minutes later we were on the ridge heading west and the easy stuff soon gave out. We needed to drop down the west side of a local highpoint to a saddle and this half mile section in the middle of the ridge traverse proved the bushwhacking crux. There were no open sections, no animal trails that we could find, just heavy brush up to head level, a mix of burned old stuff and vigorous new growth. I took a sharp jab in the leg that didn't rip my pants but somehow managed to puncture the skin underneath and draw out some blood. We discovered ticks on our clothing and spent some time doing periodic tick checks and flicking them off. To his credit, Adam didn't get freaked out by the parasites as he had on a previous trip to Nevada. Perhaps he was growing more used to them. We ended up taking slightly different paths through the heavy brush, each of hoping to encounter a lucky find of easy going, neither of us finding it. After half an hour of such nonesense wandering along the ridge and pushing through this stuff, we emerged near the base of the east summit on some rocky slabs that gave us some welcomed relief.
The slabs led easily up to the east summit in fifteen minutes. Though we weren't on the highest point, we could now see that the rest of the route to the west summit was a straightforward hike taking but ten more minutes. It was just after 11a when we topped out. We were not surprised to find no register or survey tower or even a cairn. Surveyors had no doubt been to the summit (a spot elevation is given on the 7.5' topo for this point), but probably few others. It was about as isolated as one could get in these parts, it seemed. Our elevation was high enough to see over the Central Valley haze, the white snows of the Sierra Nevada visible for a long stretch across the range.
It took us just over an hour to make the return over the cross-country portion. We were happy to find the easier exit along the ridge rather than having to redo the crawling and dust inhalation. We did a thorough check for ticks on our clothing once back on the old road, lifting up flaps and looking in other crannies that these pests like to hide in. Another hour saw us back to the 4Runner waiting for us on the better road. We had to spend some time to get the sticky mud off our boots that had collected on our walk over the wet ground for that last half mile.
Having dispensed with the most difficult part of the day and just past 1p, what followed was a series of seven easy summits, some silly drive-ups, others more interesting.
There were no difficulties in reaching the summits. Idria Peak is only a few feet lower than Sampson and is located along the ridge a short distance from our starting point. The road goes right over the top and we didn't even bother to slow down for more than a quick picture. We reached the summit of Sampson at the end of the north-trending ridgeline around 5:10p. It has a small, rocky summit that appears more peak-like than several of the ones we had recently visited. There are good views in all directions, particularly to the north where the terrain drops off more dramatically to the much lower terrain that comprises the Griswold and Ciervo Hills. Unfortunately, afternoon hazed marred much of the view in that direction. Adam was amused to find a small socket wrench near the summit - probably dropped by one of the OHV enthusiasts to have visited the peak. We returned back over Idria Peak and back to our vehicle. The last rays of the sun were settling over San Benito Mtn as we returned, the sun making a glorious orange and red exit over the western horizon as we finished.
It would still be a long hour-plus drive back to my van and another two hours to drive home to San Jose, but it was a fine end to a good day tagging the highest peaks in the Diablo Range.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: San Benito Mountain
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