McPhails Peak P1K CC

Sun, Jul 17, 2011
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I was tentatively scheduled to make a one day trip to Sequoia-Kings Canyon for a climb of The Minster and West Spur out of Roads End. The plan was to hike in starting around 3a, meet up with Tom and Laura who were camping with a small group at East Lake, make the climb of the two summits, and return home. A rather long way to drive, but it seemed like just the sort of thing I love to do. Four to five hours before I was due to head out I got an email that the group was not at East Lake as planned, but rather Rae Lakes. That would be a bit far for me to hike in from the west side of the range and besides there were no summits in that area that I had not yet climbed. My plan fell apart. Over the next few hours I came up with a new plan to make a night hike to McPhails Peak in the Gabilan Range just east of US101 and south of the town of Hollister. McPhails is the second highest peak in the range, on the CC list and has over 1,000ft of prominence. For all these reasons, I'd been looking for an opportunity to pay it a visit.

The route I picked was from the northeast, along Cienega Rd off SR25. There are shorter approaches from the north along Limekiln Rd, but there are active vineyards and homesteads on the ranch roads off Limekiln, and I wanted to avoid disturbing any of the locals if at all possible. There was a single dog barking about a quarter mile to the south from where I parked, but it soon stopped and I had a very quiet hike for the most part. My route was a collection of older and newer roads along a fine ridgline rising up from Pescadero Creek and Cienega Rd. A short distance from the start I was startled by three large mammals coming towards me in the moonlight, the moon having newly risen only 20 minutes earlier. Thinking there might be a bull among them, I darted for a nearby barbed-wire fence, ready to leap the 4-foot barrier, most likely with some superficial wounds to my flesh if forced into it. They turned out to be three curious horses come to see if I was familiar or had some treats for them. They stayed back about 20 feet and let me continue on my way unmolested.

After crossing an initial quarter mile of open meadow and passing an old barn, I turned onto a little-used road winding up the north side of my ridge. My GPS, loaded with a few key junctions I'd gleaned from the maps and satellite views, was most helpful tonight. Without it, I might not have found my way to the summit and undoubtedly would not have found the return route upon my descent. Much of the route was shaded by oaks and pines and I used my headlamp most of the time. After the first fifteen minutes I was no longer worried about being spotted from below. It was too late and too remote a location for someone to bother with a faint light high on a hillside.

Portions of the ridgline had nothing but cow and animal trails, but it was enough to keep me from bushwhacking - just a minimum of bending down or pushing through a particularly vigorous bush. The headlamp served a second purpose in keeping me out of poison oak. There were only a few bushes on the ridge itself, but these would have been easy to brush up against in the dark, particularly the lower ones only a foot or two tall. Off the ridge, especially on the northern side where the roads tended to follow, poison oak lined the sides in great abundance. Cross-country travel through the understory would have been impossible in daylight, downright suicidal at night.

I had to cross 4-5 property boundaries along the way. The easier crossings were marked by a locked gate on the road, easy to negotiate. The harder ones had no connecting roads and required finding my way along an animal trail to the fenced boundary, then through it. I had some hunting to do in several places to find the animal route through denser brush. Perhaps the biggest obstacle was three sets of beady eyes I came across on one of the ranch roads. They belonged to a trio of skunks that found my headlamp rather curious and began waddling towards me enthusiastically. To avoid an unpleasant encounter I picked up some dirt clods to toss at them in way of discouragement. After a few waylaid lobs, my aim improved, the skunks got the message and dispersed in different directions. There would be other eyes that I would come upon in the night. A small herd off cattle were as startled to see me come around a bend as I them and they took off without spending much time deciding. Other eyes I spotted off to one side or another I did not identify as they took off or turned away before I could get a better look. A little eerie at times. As long as they didn't belong to a hungry mountain lion, I figured I was OK.

It took just about two hours to cover the 5.5 mile distance to the summit. There was a picnic bench, a BBQ grill, and some large concrete foundations for a tower of some sort that used to occupy the summit. The top had been bulldozed flat, occupying about an acre of space. There was a small tower with weather instruments in the middle. I found a USGS reference mark to one side, but no benchmark. It appears the benchmark was removed from the concrete in which it was encased, possibly as a souvenir. The nighttime views were enjoyable. The moon was high to the south, city lights from Salinas and smaller towns to the south along US101 were visible to the west. To the north were the lights of Gilroy and Hollister. The soft moonlight could be seen on the many hills and valleys visible in all directions. The air was cool but enjoyable, a beautiful night for a hike.

Returning via the same route, I jogged much of it to allow me to descend in about an hour and a quarter. The GPS was instrumental in keeping me on route as I had to back up after starting down the wrong subsidiary ridge in several places. I was happy to not run into the skunks again unexpectedly. It was not long before 2a when I returned, no barking dog and no lights or sounds of any kind to greet me. Not quite the grandieur of the Sierra, but it turned out to be an enjoyable outing nonetheless.

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