Machesna Mountain P1K CC
Old Castle Crags
Pine Mountain P500 CC

Fri, May 6, 2011
Machesna Mountain
Pine Mountain
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 GPX Profile

Machesna Mountain is the highpoint of the poorly defined La Panza Range northeast of Arroyo Grande in Central California's Coastal Range. It has a significant prominence of more than 1,600ft and is on the CC peak list. As part of the Los Padres National Forest, it lies roughly in the center of the Machesna Mountain Wilderness, a collection of chaparral hills dotted with pines near the summits. Much of the area was burned over in 1996, destroying much of the mature pine forests at the higher elevations. Fifteen years later, the pines are making a slow, but encouragingly steady comback in the area. The beta I had from others that had been to the summit was that it wasn't particularly remarkable - dry, often hot, and rife with ticks and some poison oak. Having seen what must surely have been the worst of California ticks in the regions just north of here only a month earlier, I had mostly gotten over my phobia for the little blood suckers.

Having a Friday to spend in the area, I was actually looking to combining Machesna with another nearby CC-listed peak, Pine Mountain, in a long 25mi+ day taking me around much of the Wilderness area. The route back from Pine Mountain was the only section of the large loop that I could not be sure of beforehand, and there was some apprehension that it might involve trespassing on actively inhabited ranchlands. There was also some uncertainty in just getting to the Forest Service's American Canyon campground as the access goes through private property and visitors outside hunting season are asked to call the Forest Service for the lock combination on the gate. I didn't bother to call ahead of time, figuring I could just hike the extra 4 miles or so to the campground and had already incorporated that as part of the 25mi+ estimate for the day.

It took almost 4hrs of driving from San Jose to get to the trailhead at the end of the pavement east of the small town of Pozo. As expected, the gate here was locked, but I found a small parking area for several vehicles in the grass on the right side of the road. Starting out just after 6:30a, I hiked for several miles along a well-graded dirt road running roughly eastward along the north side of the Salinas River. The La Panza Range is the southern headwaters of this long river drainage that eventually reaches Monterey Bay near Salinas more than 100 miles away. At this point the river is less than knee-deep and would not be difficult to cross were that necessary (needed for access to Garcia Mtn on the south side of the river). There are some ranch buildings in a large clearing on the south side of the large valley, but I saw only a few cattle and no vehicles or persons on the early morning hike.

Just after a bridge across the mouth of American Canyon is the junction to the campground. Half a mile up the canyon one passes a gate marking the boundary between private and public property. A trail register here showed a number of more recent visitors, suggesting it a fairly popular location at least for the local population. The road up American Canyon is not as good as the along the Salinas River, but still useable by any vehicle. The campground was empty when I arrived around 7:45a. There are numerous campsites, most outfitted with BBQs and picnic benches, and from all appearances the area is popular for horseback riding. In 2010 a Scout had made updating the signage along the trails in the Wilderness area part of his Eagle Project. As a result, the trails and junctions were well-marked with durable iron signs, the likes of which can be found all over the Yosemite backcountry.

The trail out of the campground took only a little bit of searching to find, and I was soon entering the Wilderness. The lower part of the trail climbs gradually out of the canyon through grassy hillsides, somewhat overgrown at times, but generally easy to follow. The first of a number of ticks began to hitch rides on my pants as I waded through the tall, green grasses. I would stop every quarter mile or so to flick these off until they stopped being a nuisance. Over the course of the day I knocked off perhaps 50 ticks, a high number, but still much less than I had seen earlier in the season elsewhere. Views of the American Canyon open up as one climbs higher, Pine Mtn overlooking the canyon on the west side. The grasses give way to chapparal in the middle elevations and the trail is wider and easier to follow here. For the most part the ticks become a non-problem in the chaparral. Views of Garcia Mtn (another CC-listed peak) open up to the south as one gets higher. I was surprised to find a horned toad in the trail and paused to take its picture. These would become a more regular sight during the day (I saw about six, all told), more common than ordinary lizards in these parts it would appear. This was more horned toads than I'd seen previously in the wild, all combined.

Where the trail makes a long, traversing detour around a side canyon, it crosses over a small creek (the only water along the entire route once out of the campground). I picked up another dozen of so ticks in a small stretch on either side and found the first sampling of poison oak that otherwise wasn't too prevalent along the hiking route. The trail moves back to the main east-trending canyon where the gradient levels off and more grassy terrain is found in the higher elevations, dotted with oaks and younger pines. There is a small manmade pond here and the first evidence of cattle grazing (lots of poop, but no cows in sight). The route isn't exactly obvious from this point, but I knew Machesna Mtn was to the south, clearly visible for much of the hike. I crossed over the dam then hiked south along the southern edge of the pond until I spotted one of the newer signs leading me back to the trail. An older sign nearby was lying in pieces on the ground, ample evidence of the need for the Scout's updating project. Reaching another trail junction above the meadow area, the terrain returns to chaparral and the rougher dirt trails for the remaining mile or so to Machesna. The summit is a quarter mile west of the main trail off a little-used spur trail that is moderately overgrown in places, but still serviceable. I reached the summit not long after 10a.

Along with a USGS benchmark, there was a red can register among the summit rocks. Some loose pages dated back to 2000 with a small book dating to 2002. There are 2-4 parties each year that sign into the register, a collection of familiar highpointer names (MacLeod/Lilley, Mark Adrian, Richard Carey, Gail Hanna (the last three from the San Diego area), Evan Rasmussen, Dingus Milktoast, Vic & Sue Henney, random familiar names (Matthew Holliman, John Fedak) and the rest unfamilar names, mostly Sierra Club members in the Central Coast area from Santa Barbara to San Luis Obispo. The views were not particularly good due to haze. To the northwest Pine Mtn stands out, with Black Mtn behind it.

I returned to the maintained trail and then back to the last trail junction I had seen marked with the newer signs. From looking at the map, this alternate route heading east looked to avoid losing and regaining altitude as I started around the crest of the range to Pine Mtn. My GPSr concurred, showing a trail going along the various bumps in the crest heading east then turning north. This ended up being somewhat of a mistake. This old route ended after about 15 minutes in a fog of brush and downfall. Not exactly impenetrable (which probably would have been better since I would have gone back the maintained route), I could see that a firebreak had once gone up the ridge and I plunged into the mess to fight my way through, thinking it would soon break into a clearing. It didn't of course. I found my way to the top of Pt. 3,930ft, then down the other side. In places I was scrambling down big blocks and slabs in between the fun with the brush. By now my mistake had been made quite obvious, but it seemed the shortest way back to sanity was to continue forging ahead. Luckily things got easier and I eventually got back to grassy slopes and almost immediately found the trail. I'd spent half an hour on half a mile and had many miles to go - hopefully this wouldn't become a trend.

Thankfully, it didn't. The trail continued north along the crest, almost in a straight line for two miles to Castle Crags. It was a very pleasant stroll along this section of single track with fine views to the east into the Carrizo Plain. Castle Crags has almost no prominence, a collection of rock outcroppings off the northeast side of the crest. A good use trail leads from the maintained trail a short distance to the rocks above, and from there it is a class 2 scramble east to the highpoint, though at first glance it looks harder. It was shortly before 12:30p at this point and it seemed I was finally making good time.

Back on the main trail, it was less than fifteen minutes to the trail's end at the Wilderness boundary where it meets a forest service road. This road would take me most of the remaining distance to Pine Mtn. I spent the next hour hiking this 4x4 dirt road (not an easy drive) up and down along the crest heading mostly west. I found a tow hook and chain that had been lost or abandoned along with a license plate that had come off an unfortunate vehicle in some sort of mishap. The most interesting find was some squiggly lines made in the soft dirt at one point, undoubtedly done by a snake crossing the road. There was a picnic bench and campsite just off the road at a scenic location with a fine view looking north. Ten minutes past this point the road starts a gradual descent down to Pozo summit. My route turned southwest here, along an overgrown fireroad that would serve as a trail.

I was happy to find that though overgrown, it was not difficult to navigate along this portion of the route, unlike what I had encountered earlier. In a few minutes I was atop Pt. 3,737ft looking south to the higher Pt. 3,777ft. It is not clear which is the true Pine Mtn as the USGS has given the designation to the broad swath of ridgeline I was now on. Google Maps shows the summit as Pt. 3,611ft to the northeast, but this seems almost certainly auto-generated based on the location of the text on the 7.5' topo map. The California Mtn Atlas and the CC-list designate Pt. 3,777ft, with the SAN JOSE benchmark as the highpoint. Yet the highest point shown on the map in the area is Pt. 3,782ft which is just southeast of Pt. 3,777ft. In order to cover my bases, I would simply plan to visit them all.

On my way south to Pt. 3,777ft I found an old survey sign along the route with some evidence of damage from the fire that swept through the area in 1996. I found the benchmark atop Pt. 3,777ft easily enough, and looking southeast it certainly seemed that Pt. 3,782ft could be higher (I've learned by now that you can't always trust the elevations given on the map). Luckily the firebreak continued to the highpoint where I arrived shortly before 2:30p. The views were so-so at the flattish summit, partially blocked by young pines, now 10ft tall. Haze continued to mar the distance views, but there was a good survey of the American Canyon to the south. More interesting, I could make out a use trail of sorts descending a ridgeline to the south in the direction of the campground. This offered a more promising return route than the one I had expected to use through the private property to the west and southwest, keeping me within the confines of the Wilderness area.

The route turned out to be good, but challenging. From what I could tell, it appears to be a hunter's trail used to reach Pine Mtn directly from the campground. The steep ridgeline offers excellent views east and west during the ascent/descent, good for monitoring the wildlife over a broad area. Much of route was easy enough to negotiate, with a few sections of heavier brush to contend with. A small fire pit was found about halfway down in a rough clearing. In all I dropped 2,000ft in about two miles before ending by the creek north of the campground. Walking alongside the creek on my way back to camp I was shaken from my calm, relaxed mood by the sudden rattling in the tall grass I was walking through. I jumped back as I spotted a coiled rattlesnake just as I was about to step on it. Unhappy to be disturbed, it quickly slithered off into the bushes before I could catch my breath or think to pull out a camera. The literature on snakebite treatment is a bit shaky and changes from time to time. Current approaches suggest immobilizing the limb and getting treatment as soon as possible. Walking is highly discouraged. Running is a real no-no, as are tournequets and trying to suck the blood out. Practically, I don't have much choice if I'm out on my own, but one treatment suggestion says to lie still for 20-30 minutes first to allow the venom to "localize". I think that would give the snake an opportunity to sneak up and finish me off. In any case, I'm glad it ran off without striking as that might have ruined my day.

It was 3:30p when I got back to the campground. Walking down the road now, I noticed a large white pavilion-style tent that I hadn't noticed in the morning. There were also a number of portable toilets set up around the area that I didn't recall from earlier, either. Although there was no one around, no sounds and no vehicles, I had to conclude that someone had come up while I was off hiking to set up for a get-together of some sort, perhaps scheduled for the next day. When I got back down to the main road by the Salinas River, I found a recent, small pink sign attached to the larger sign indicating an AMC function. Would they mind that I had hopped the fence and gone hiking here, I wondered? I wasn't too concerned as the worst I expected was a scolding. When two pickup trucks came rumbling down the road a short time later, I moved to the side and waved as they approached. They simply waved back without stopping. Apparently they didn't mind, or didn't care all that much. It was 4:45p before I got back to the entrance gate at the pavement, making for a bit over 10hrs for the hike. Though it had taken some two hours longer than I had planned, I considered it a great success overall, and a very enjoyable outing despite the ticks. Thankfully none of them had a chance to bite.

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