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Mt. Vaca later climbed Tue, Nov 12, 2013|
We were up at 6a, ate breakfast in our motel room in South Lake Tahoe and headed out for another day of snowshoeing. We found three inches of new snow on the car and the roads and it was still coming down, quite heavily at a rate of several inches an hour. Sometime in the early morning it had started to snow and another snowshoe adventure was looking to become quite the adventure. As we turned off US50 to SR89 we read the road advisory sign that indicated SR88 was closed due to avalanche in the vicinity of Kirkwood, opening unknown. This put an instant end to our plan to climb the highpoint of El Dorado county, Thunder Mountain, and an end to our snowshoeing for the weekend. As we drove over Echo Summit we started formulating a new plan to salvage what we had left of the day.
We had originally planned to head to Northern California for a long weekend to tag some county highpoints. But after doing some research we found that many of them were difficult at best to access in winter, mostly impractical. So we had changed plans to climb some more accessible peaks in the Tahoe region. We'd had some luck, but that had run out with the new snow, and I think we were both looking for something a bit warmer. As we got through the Sierra foothills the snow had briefly become rain before stopping altogether. Then we could see to the west what we'd hardly hoped for - clear skies. Seems the foul weather was restricted to a lingering over the Sierra and we would find dry ground once out in the Central Valley.
So we made plans to head for the highpoint of Yolo county, a peak in the far northwest corner of the county so remote that it wasn't even identified as the highpoint until 1991 (of course that also tells you that it's not particularly outstanding either). After driving for something like three hours across the Sierra, the Central Valley and finally up through the beautiful Capay Valley, we came to the turnoff we'd been seeking - a 10-mile dirt road that leads to the trailhead for a 8.5mi hike. Trouble was there was a gate barring the road and down below we could see the Cache Creek washing across the road a foot deep. Even some of the easier county summits weren't so accessible in winter. Darn.
Heading back towards I505, we next set our sights on Mt. Vaca, the Solano county summit. This turned out to be not only as easy as advertised in Suttle's book, but easier. We were able to forgo the measly one mile hike to the summit by simply driving to within 50 yards of it. The summit (along with much of the ridgeline along which it lies) is covered with telecommunication towers. We walked around the approximately one acre site taking pictures and taking in the views. There at least four other nearby county highpoints viewable - Mt. Diablo, Mt. Tamalpais, Mt. Saint Helena, and Little Blue Ridge Peak, though the last two we didn't know well enough to identify. The Sierra would probably look impressive too from this vantage point if they weren't buried in clouds (it was probably still snowing up there). The tall building of downtown Sacrameno looked like a far off island in the Sea of Flatland. For a podunk peak not even 3,000ft high, it was a darn nice view. But we didn't really feel like we'd climbed anything - probably because we hadn't. Welcome to the silly fringe sport of County Highpointing! We found a small cairn around on the west side, took a last victory photo, then started back down. We got on I80 heading west. Matthew asked about lunch. "Do you think we deserve any?" was my reply. Pulling off one of many typical California exits we found a plethora of fast-food selections to tempt all but the vegetarians amongst us. Fortunately we didn't have one of those with us, and neither of us is too picky besides. Matthew selected the Burger King where we got our fine American meal. Yum. I can't even remember what I ate, it was so good.
Next stop - San Francisco. I had thought that Sutro Tower represented the highpoint of San Francisco County & City, but that honor goes to Mt. Davidson, at 927ft, a mere 18 feet higher than Sutro Crest. As we headed across the Bay Bridge leading into the city, it was easy to pick out San Francisco landmarks like the Transamerica building, Coit Tower, and Sutro Tower. But where was Mt. Davidson? Once across the bridge we were lost amongst the towering buildings and heavy traffic. We followed Suttle's instructions leading us to the south side of the city and wound our way up the narrow streets to the trailhead. We parked on the side of the roadway a few feet from the trailhead (no parking trouble here), and hiked up the easy quarter mile to the summit. A huge cross 40-50ft high tops the summit area, a monument to the aremenian genocide during WWI at the hands of the Turks. Sometime in the 1990s this became an issue because the cross lies on city property and this seemed to violate the separation of Church and State. To avoid a lawsuit that would likely have ended in the cross's removal, the city sold the land at public auction to the Armenian Church for something like $1. That seemed pretty clever to me.
There was about a dozen other folks walking around the park on a fine Sunday afternoon. The weather was cool but sunny and we had fine views of the city and across the bay. We spent all of about 10 minutes on the summit ourselves, just enough to take a bunch of pictures and walk around the small hilltop. Then it was time to head down - we still had two more highpoints to visit and time was growing short.
We cruised down I280 past some very scenic regions of San Mateo county, much of it pristine and owned by the SF water department. 40 miles later we turned up Page Mill Road, drove up to SR35, and then 6 more miles to the trailhead for Long Ridge. It was 4:30p and we were getting short on time to make the last peak of the day before dark, so I suggested we jog the 2 miles out to the highpoint. Matthew was game, so carrying my camera in one hand and our guidebook in the other (we didn't want to get lost), we ran off down the trail. We passed a couple out for a late afternoon stroll who kindly moved aside to let us pass. I read the trail sign at the first junction and we turned right, heading back west. After a few hundred yards I realized we went the wrong way (remember, we didn't want to get lost, and it took all of about 5 minutes to do just that). On the way back we passed the couple again. As I went by I commented, "Just a couple of idiots out for a run."
We made no more navigational errors. The two miles to get out there seemed longer, and the trail steeper than made running comfortable. We were actually breathing hard and gasping for breath trying to keep up the running. This was far more work than we had anticipated - we had been driving over 300 miles and so far done about a mile of walking. I found it interesting that if you lower your expectations enough then even a five mile hike can seem like a lot of work. There were some clouds over the Pacific as we reached the ridge, portending of a fine sunset, less than an hour off. We followed the directions in Suttle's book to the letter, climbing a rounded hill bordered by a fence next to gate. When we got to the top, however, we were surprised to find we weren't on the highpoint. About a hundred yards to the northwest was higher hill surrounded by a fence. Inside a new home was being built, most of the exterior already completed. Suttle mentioned that the highpoint was on private land in his book, but there was no development on it at the time.
We walked a small use trail that lead to the fence gate. It was locked and it looked like the property was currently unoccupied. The fence was electric which made us pause a few moments to determine how best to breach the perimeter defenses. We had no experience with electric fences, but we figured it couldn't be high enough voltage to kill, just to shock and discourage the deer it was intended to deter. It might also deter less determined humans (or those with more respect for private property), but not us. As I was about to scale the gate I found that the wires running horizontally across the fence were easy to separate and we simply stepped through the fence. From there it was a short 50 yards or so to the top of the hill just above the level of the home being built. A multi-million dollar home on a breathtaking viewsite overlooking the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Pacific ocean. It was hard to view money as the root of all evil from that angle.
We didn't stay long, just a minute to take a few pictures and leave. There were bordering neighbors as well that looked to be at home so we thought it best not to linger. Back through the fence and into the Open Space Preserve, then another jog back to the car.
We had only six miles to drive to the last stop of the day, the Santa Cruz County highpoint. Mt. Biewlawski (aka Mt. Mcpherson) is also located on private property, atop a small Christmas tree farm open to the public for only three weekends a year (this was another motivating factor in our heading off on this boondoggle). The property has been in the Mcpherson family for over 100 years, and currently leased to the owner of the tree farm. We parked along SR35 as suggested by Suttle, presumeable to not take up extra space in the tree farm lot and invoke the ire of the farm management. We hiked up a dirt road for 30 yards, walked around a closed fence, and then another 50 yards to the tree farm. Looking around, we located the radio towers, the trees, but the top is rather rounded and flat, making it difficult to find the highpoint. As we wandered by a small trailer used as an office, a scruffy middle-aged man came out and asked if he could help us. "Why yes, I believe you can," I replied, "We're looking for the county highpoint." "Huh? What's that?" he said. He let me go into an explanation and showing him our guidebook before we realized he was joking with us. He knew exactly what we were talking about, had another highpointer visit not five minutes earlier, and the fourth or fifth party or so this weekend. "You know, we're not in the business of tourism, we sell trees here," he commented, "so we're asking $5 donations if you're not here to buy a tree." Matthew and I looked at each other, not knowing if he was joking or trying to milk us. We didn't have our wallets with us, so he wasn't going to be getting any money from us anyway. As he went on telling us about the Mcpherson family and other local history trivia, he walked us over to the USGS marker which is about as official as one could get, located about 10 yards south of a tractor parked nearby. We took a few pictures and headed back, enjoying a beautiful orange-red sunset over the Pacific. The gentleman showed us the view over Monterey Bay as well, on a clear day one can easily see the Ventanas on the horizon in the same direction. This would probably make another great $10 million homestead, and I wouldn't doubt if someday in the future it becomes just that. We thanked our guide, apologizing for not having our donations handy (he said he was joking, but I'm pretty sure he would have taken our money had we proffered it), and headed back. It was 10 minutes past 5p and closing time for the tree farm, and time for us to call it a day.
Matthew drove me home (about 20 minutes away), and left me on my doorstep. It had been a long day, but hardly exhausting, physically anyway. We'd felt somewhat embarassed about our quest, this county highpointing thing is far less impressive than chasing after SPS peaks in the Sierra. But it was entertaining.
Postscript I was shamed to find out after the fact that the San Mateo HP can be accessed by legal means with the cooperation of ranger Loro Paterson and the graciously accomodating landowner. See this thread for more information concerning this.
Second Postscript, 11/14/2013 I tried for several years to contact Loro Paterson to arrange a visit to the highpoint with my son. I was told repeatedly to try contacting her again in a few months, but always to no avail. I don't think Loro has been involved in trips to the county highpoint for many years now.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Vaca - Mt. Davidson - Long Ridge - Mt. Bielawski
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