Mt. Lowe
Lopez Mountain P1K CC

Fri, Jul 3, 2009
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profile

Lopez Mtn lies in heart of the Santa Lucia Wilderness, a relatively small Wilderness area in the Santa Lucia Range just east of San Luis Obispo. The peak is fairly obscure and there are no reports to be found online of anyone who has visited it, or attempted to do so. My interest in the peak came from its inclusion on the CC list, perhaps the most dubious of the Sierra Club's peak lists in California. I had identified a route via dirt road and trail that would get me close, and a tantalizing dotted line on the 7.5' topo that continues nearly to the summit. It seemed worth a go as I was headed home from Pismo Beach where I had been vacationing with the family.

I was up before 5a and at the pass atop Cuesta Grade alongside US101 while it was still dark. It was necessary to first climb over a locked gate that seemed to indicate the public wasn't welcome, though I knew for a fact it was open to foot and bike traffic from my research. Alternately called the Mt. Lowe Rd or East Cuesta Grade, the dirt road traverses the hillside east of US101 slowly climbing its way to the crest of the ridgeline above. Coastal fog had encroached well inland, covering all of San Luis Obispo, the Seven Morros, and the lower portions of the surrounding ranges. By sunrise just after 6a the fog had crept higher to Cuesta Pass, but by then I was a thousand feet higher and near Mt. Lowe.

Mt. Lowe is the first named summit along the ridge, a communications-crowned peak about 3.5 miles from the trailhead. In addition to the current radio towers, there are concrete pillars that look to have been the foundation for a lookout tower at one time in the past. The views are sweeping in all directions, with line after line of coastal ranges in view off through the distance. To the south could be seen Black Butte and Lopez Mtn, just behind it. I wandered back to the main road and continued south. The good dirt road ends at another communications facility atop the ridgeline about a mile south of Mt. Lowe. Along the way I investigated the effort to climb Black Butte, just east of the main ridgeline and connected through a saddle by another ridge. There was no use trail as I'd hoped to find and the thick chaparral looked impenetrable to mortals or anyone not fully committed to reaching its summit. As it was only of side interest to me, I left it unmolested. Just south of here was a junction for the Lopez Canyon Trail. At one time this was a trailhead you could drive to, but no more - you have to walk or bike the extra five miles. This is the route I would use for my return from Lopez Mtn, which incidently can be seen to great advantage from this junction.

Just off the main road before it spirals up to the southern facility, there is another side road, gated and locked, that does not seem to be used by vehicles anymore. I initially missed this fork, but after finding no road heading south along the ridgeline, I backtracked a short distance to find it. Though a sign indicated No Trespassing, it was clear from the singletrack clearing that it is used regularly for hiking and biking. The old road continued for another two miles southeast until yet another locked gate is reached. Beyond the gate the road turns west and heads back down towards San Luis Obispo. I thought I was in trouble at this point since I needed to continue some distance further to the southeast along the ridgeline.

With a bit of trepidation, I continued down the ridgeline without any sign of a trail, to a shallow saddle a few hundred feet down. To my great fortune I found an even older road hidden in the tall chaparral on the northeast side of the ridge. This was the 4x4 jeep trail shown on the topo. After several more miles I finally came to the junction with the ridgeline heading to Lopez Mtn. I had been doing a flanking manuever around Lopez to avoid dropping down into the deep canyons that surround the peak on three sides, which would have also entailed a horrible bushwhack even if it was a shorter route.

At this juncture the topo shows a trail heading most of the way to Lopez Mtn before dropping down to Lopez Canyon. The trail is no longer maintained by the Forest Service, but it must get occasional use. I found the start of this trail quite serviceable and had high hopes for swift progress to my summit, but it did not take long to deteriorate. I found heavy overgrowth crowding the trail, and I was either stooping excessively or wading through brush with my hands in front of my face to keep from being scratched.

It was daunting work. The trail passes by Gay Mtn on the west side only a short distance below the summit. I had hoped to tag this peak as well, but it was impossible to see a way cross-country when the trail work was as hard as it was. I got a short break when I broke through a small clearing where a powerline tower was situated. When the trail began the descent with a sharp right turn down towards Lopez Canyon, I paused to look for the mythical trail shown on the topo. At this point I was only half a mile from the summit and I could almost taste it.

I was unable to find anything resembling a trail where I expected to find something, so I started making my way through the dense trees and thickets along the ridgeline. It was dusty and difficult work clambering over downed trees and through the brush. I was happy to find a few short sections on the ridge where I could make out the remains of an ancient trail, using it when possible, but shortly losing it again. I tried the left side, the right side, the ridge itself, always pushing forward through the tangled mess. I had visions of Heart of Darkness, the Joseph Conrad novel of explorers in Africa moving deeper and deeper into the wilderness along a jungle river as dangers increased and enveloped them the further they went (same book that the movie Apocalypse Now was based on). My route had slowly deteriorated from good to fair to poor road, then fair to poor trail. I was getting closer, but my progress was slowing as well and I wondered if I would ever get there. It would not have been out of place to have cannibals lurking around the corner.

With barely a tenth of a mile to go, I stumbled upon the very old remains of a campsite. A tattered Coleman tent with fiberglass tent poles lay on the ground. Rusty cooking utensils and other camp gear was strewn about, all of it looking very weathered and old. I was half afraid I would find the bones of a lost backpacker littering the ground as well. It was somewhat spooky and unsettling. This point was the end of the trail shown on the topo, and I can believe that at one time a trail had existed to this point. As I pushed further there were no more signs of trail or life or anything save the dusty undergrowth of a chaparral forest. It was maddening work that gave only short advances for great effort. I found an old roll of duct tape not far from the summit, the last sign of human existence. I had to climb a rickety pine tree to get a GPS reading for the summit that I knew was nearby.

In the end, the summit was a massive disappointment. There were no views, even from the trees, no clear summit highpoint, just a chaotic stumbling about in the understory. If there is a God-forsaken place in California, surely this must be it. I'd like to be able to say I beat a hasty retreat, but that was of course impossible. I had to reverse all my slow stumblings I had made on the way in, breathing more of the dust from the decaying matter that littered the mountain. When I had finally returned to the junction with the very poor trail, it was like I had suddenly found my way to a highway. Thank the gods!

Rather than reverse the circuitous route I had taken past Gay Mtn and the long ridgeline to the west, I decided to continue down into Lopez Canyon. The trail proved no better on this downhill section and my back ached from stooping through the nearly two miles of descent of this heavily overgrown trail. When I finally reached the junction with the Lopez Canyon Trail 1,300ft lower, there was only a sign pointing along the maintained trail to keep folks from wandering up the old one I had just descended. Not far away was Upper Lopez Camp complete with fire pit, tent pads, and a picnic table.

The Lopez Canyon Trail was in good shape and it was fairly easy going in the cool and shady canyon. Water levels were low and the stream crossings proved trivial. What I hadn't expected was the abundance of poison oak that literally carpets the bottom of the canyon. There was no way to avoid the stuff, but luckily I was wearing long pants and a longsleeve tshirt. Additionally, I had leather gloves that I had used to help beat my way through the brush. So I pretty much had to write off all my clothes as contaminated and took special care not to wipe my face with my sleeve or gloved hand.

In addition to shade and cool temperatures, the canyon is fairly lush and agreeable (unless you are wearing shorts). I paused after a while to recharge my water bottles in the small stream running down the canyon. In all I spent almost an hour and a half hiking up the canyon and climbing out to the trailhead I had passed by earlier in the morning. From there it was an easy hike down the East Cuesta Grade to the car where I returned shortly after 1:30p. The early morning fog had all cleared out and I was treated to a hazy view of San Luis Obispo and the Seven Morros to the southwest.

This wasn't a trip I was going to be recommending anytime soon. Perhaps if a massive fire were to burn everything around Lopez Mtn it could become a more reasonable venture.

Shawn D. comments on 01/29/20:
Hi Bob,

I recalled reading this fine report years ago and now I've returned for a refresher. Next month (or so) I'll be heading off trail in the same area, but not to Lopez Mountain. Your report serves as a good reminder of things to come.

Hope you're doing well.
Paso Robles, Ca.
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