||Story||Photos / Slideshow||Maps: 1 2 3 4||GPXs: 1 2 3 4||Profiles: 1 2 3 4|
Orchard Peak is a P1K summit about three miles south of SR41. The highway is surprisingly busy at all times of the night with semis rolling by about once a minute. Where all these trucks were coming from or going to was a bit of mystery, but it was rarely quiet for long. I intended to follow a ranch road shown on the topo map heading south into a canyon, but had some trouble finding it. After hopping the initial fence, I found no road but a cattle pen and loading ramp. I hopped a second fence, crossed the dry Cottonwood Creek and wandered south in search of the road. The whole area, canyons, hillsides, ridges and all are heavily grazed and consequently wide open and easy to navigate. The early rains have left a soft cover of low grass over most of the hills and the cross-country is almost trivial. Wetter conditions would makes things boggier and much messier, but tonight the ground was just soft enough to make for cushy walking without being wet. I very shortly encountered a herd of cattle maybe 30 strong in the canyon. They split into two groups like the parting of the Red Sea as I passed through, taking off in opposite directions away from me. I found the road and followed it up the creek about a mile to the south until about the 1,300-foot level. Here the road moves to east side of the creek and away from Orchard Peak, so I simply hiked southwest up the steep hillside, climbing almost 1,000ft to the long North Ridge of Orchard Peak. Behind me somewhere I heard the eerie wailings of coyotes calling in the dark. It's a bit unsettling at first, but one gets used to it shortly and it adds a touch of magic to the night.
The route became more interesting once I reached the ridge. The hiking was easier and the views began to open up, primarily east to Sunflower Valley and the Kettleman Plain. Behind me across Cottonwood Canyon and SR41 rose Johnson Peak, where I would visit a few hours later. It had been cold to start, in the low 40's, prompting me to wear a fleece. The steep slope had warmed me sufficiently to remove it early, but it would not stay off for long. A modest wind blew up the ridge and chilled me, bringing the fleece back out once again. While I was pausing at a shallow saddle to do this, I was startled out of my complacency by the sudden snorting and squealing of pigs behind me somewhere. I looked back to see three large specimens barreling in my general direction. What the heck?! I shouted at them as I fumbled in my pocket trying to get my headlamp out so I could shine it on them. Turns out they weren't really charging me as I first guessed, but they wanted to go down the west side of the ridge from a point near where I stood, maybe 20yds off. I watched them wail and grunt their way out of sight and hearing before I could figure out how to turn the headlamp on. Good thing it wasn't a mountain lion on the attack. And my pepper spray was too buried in my pack to do any good either. Maybe I should think about keeping that more handy...
I reached the summit around 11:40p, taking an hour and twenty minutes all told. There was no register as I guessed I might find (John Vitz and MacLeod/Lilley both seem to have made P1Ks targets of theirs), but there was a USGS benchmark next to a lonely stake. The summit is moderately large and rounded, but there are no trees to block the views in any direction. It was cold and getting colder so I pulled out a balaclava to help my ears. Looking southeast I spotted a sister summit maybe 100yds off and could not tell which point was higher. I noted the elevation on my GPS before walking over to the SE summit to do the same, finding it five feet lower than the NW one. There was a second benchmark found here with the remains of a survey tower. If I'd carried a topo map with me I'd have seen that both benchmarks are depicted on the map with elevations, the NW summit being eight feet higher than the SE one. I was happy to find my GPS is fairly good with differential elevation readings based on this sampling.
Before descending, I paused at a fence to take a long exposure looking east to the lights found in that direction. I jogged the easier portions of the ridge, walking where it grows rocky in one section and for the slight uphills found along the way. The route I took was identical to the one I took going up with the only exception being near the end where I followed the road out nearly to its end. The cows had not regrouped back at the road in my absence so there was no need for them to move off any further. This didn't stop the westside group from doing so when they spotted me. Maybe they figured if 100yds distance was good, 200yds must be better. I was back on SR41 and the van shortly after 12:30a. One down.
Only a few miles up the road was the start for Johnson Peak and Three Peaks found on the north side of SR41. Both summits are on the CC list though they are only a mile apart. Ranch roads lead close to the summits with the final distance to both cross-country. The nearest road to the highway starts at a ranch complex off Stoker Canyon a third of a mile further west on SR41. My route would start cross-country from the highway, intersecting the dirt road a few hundred feet up so as to avoid getting near the ranch. Because all this land is grazed, this was pretty easy. I found the road where expected and followed it north as it climbs about 1,000ft over several miles. I passed through three boundary fences along the way, each easily opened with a simple wire loop over a stake & wire gate arrangement. Though there were signs of their hegemony over the landscape everywhere, I saw no cattle along the route. Vegetation was cropped closely to the roots, the ground was dimpled everywhere with hoof prints and their poop could be see all over, even by moonlight. Once again I heard the cries of the coyotes, possibly the same group I had heard on the south side of the highway as it seemed to come again from that direction. They carried on for about half a minute then faded into the night.
Higher on the ridge I could make out the distinct summits of Three Peaks off to the left and a few minutes later the more dominate profile of Johnson Peak on the right. Half a mile from either summit both the road and ridge fork, the right side continuing to Johnson Peak, the left to Three Peaks. I turned right and followed the road to a saddle on the west of the Johnson. Here the road contours around the northwest side of the peak. I left the track and followed the open West Ridge up to the summit only a few minutes away, reaching the top around 1:45a. Like Orchard, there was a steel stake set in the ground among some rocks to mark the highpoint. I found a nearby reference mark, but did not find the AVENAL benchmark itself. It might have been under the small rock pile, but it was too cold to spend much effort looking. There were a few names scratched into a couple of sandstone boulders about the summit near some bushes. One was from 2008, but the more interesting one was C.M. Barbeiro - Hanford - 11/28/24. The 1940 census shows someone with this name (barbeiro is portuguese for "barber") residing in Hanford, CA and born about 1908. That would make the lad sixteen when he climbed the point, probably one of the more prominent summits of the coast range as seen from Hanford.
I beat a retreat off the summit and made my way back to the junction before continuing west. Shortly after the ridge turns northwest the road drops down the west side of the ridgeline, leaving the last third of a mile to be done cross-country. Easy enough at first, there was some moderate brush to contend with for the last 200ft up to the summit. There was little bushwhacking needed, but I had to weave my way through the brush to find openings leading higher. A fenceline runs along the ridge, but there were no obvous cow paths to follow on one side or the other. The cattle seem to avoid this summit whereas Johnson had plenty of cow poop to mark their visits there. The highpoint of Three Peaks was rocky and smaller than the two previous points I'd visited. A summit cairn had been made from half a dozen fairly hefty rocks long ago. Lichen has grown over the north sides of the rocks giving some feeling for the age of the arrangement. There did not appear to be any register tucked inside, but I only looked from the outside, not wanting to deconstruct the rockpile. I could see the two lower summits of Three Peaks to the northwest not far off, but they did not seem to have anything interesting to pique my curiosity.
It was 2:15a when I left the summit, taking about 45 minutes to make the descent back the same route to the van. Trucks were still coming by periodically along the highway in both directions though it was now 3a. I continued west on SR41 past the junction with SR46 and through the tiny community of Chalome, turning southwest on Bitterwater Rd. This paved country road winds its say through Palo Prieto Canyon, Choice Valley and a few other place names that are hard to distinguish at night. Signs warn of rough pavement in a few places and they mean it - I nearly went airborn by ignoring one of these signs near a turn. The road follows for many miles along a series of canyons and valleys that are part of the San Andreas Rift Zone. Where the road is rough it is not like your normal missing pavement sections. The pavement appears to have odd twists to it that have been patched repeatedly to minimum effect. You could almost visualize the two crustal plates gnashing against each other at this point (for all I know the road problems are caused by something unrelated like seeping water, but I liked the grand theory better).
An hour later I was parked once again on the side of the road, this time without a truck for miles around. There was nothing around here - no homes, no lights, just miles of fencing and thousands of acres of grazing lands. My goal was Yeguas Mountain, another CC peak, this one at the north end of the Temblor Range. It does not have much prominence as this range is a long chain of rolling hills, the highest of which is McKittrick Summit some miles to the southeast. The land here appears to be particularly parched and barren. The vegetation is returning with the season, but mostly just a low mat of new green shoots. There are no trees and very little brush anywhere. The satellite view shows just brown hills and a few manmade lakes. I hopped a fence and started on a road that I had identified beforehand, but soon realized the road offered no advantages and was not very direct. I hiked more directly towards a crossing of Bitterwater Creek that was tucked in the narrow canyon of the same name. Some cattle were spooked by my presence and ran off. A few coyotes set up a howl and then quieted down again. The creek was mostly dry with some standing water, or rather mud - cattle had trampled everything in sight, eating whatever they could manage. On the east side of the creek I found another ranch road that I had identified earlier, this one leading past a lonely lake and a property fence that runs along the Kern/San Luis Obispo County line.
Now at the base of the mountain and less than a mile from the summit, I started up the grass slopes, steep at first, eventually finding an old jeep track that runs up the west side of Yeguas Mountain to the summit. Taking about an hour, it was nearly 5a by the time I reached the top. A small communications tower is found there, just to the side of the highpoint. A few scraggily trees masquerading as bushes were occupying the flatish summit. No cairn, benchmark or register that I could find. Once again, the wind and cold were stronger over the ridgetops and I spent only a few minutes atop. There were a few scattered lights to be seen east and south, with larger clusters to the west from small towns along US101. I took a few pictures of the tower before starting back down.
I was back at the car about 40 minutes later, following the same route with a little straightening on the return. Three down. These were the three hikes that I wanted to get in before daybreak. I had others that could be done in the daytime, mostly on public lands, so it was to these that I next turned my attention. I had already done almost 5,000ft of gain and 20 miles, but was still feeling pretty good. I had brought a third of a large pizza with me and had been eating slices during the drives between hikes and it seemed to be paying off. I finished the last of the pizza as I drove further south to the end of Bitterwater Rd at the junction with SR58. I then drove to California Valley a short distance away at the north end of the Carrizo Plain and Soda Lake. The sky was growing light in the east and early risers were already up and driving to work. It was growing colder now, well below freezing and around 23F when I next parked.
My intention was to climb Freeborn Mtn, another P1K located just west of California Valley. The town has nearly 50 square miles of streets laid out in a semi-regular grid, but few of them are paved and the homes are widely scattered. It looks much like one of those Nevada boom towns that had high hopes before fading out. I had hoped to drive close to Freeborn's summit with a series of good dirt roads I had identified beforehand, but came up short when I found an unexpected gate at the corner of Branch Mtn Rd and Gaviota Trail. It seems a large ranching conglomerate owns the property behind it and Freeborn does not lie inside BLM lands as I had thought, or perhaps more accurately, hoped. I was almost six miles from Freeborn if I followed the road, but noted the straight line distance was only a third of this. Maybe I could just head cross-country? It was early enough that I was unlikely to be noticed until my return, so I decided to give it a go. The junction I parked at was fairly remote and away from the nearest home by a good margin (a good margin is just beyond the distance a dog in someone's yard can sense me).
It was bitterly cold (for California) as I locked up the van and shouldered my pack. I suddenly had to relieve my bowels in no uncertain terms, so shucked off my pack and dug out my toilet paper. I was down to a few measly sheets but had a whole roll in the van. I opened the tailgate, got out the paper, did my business off in the weeds and then got everything in order again. Well, almost everything anyway. As I was leaving I noticed I'd left the light on in the back of the van. I went to grab my keys from my pocket and found them missing. What? I didn't. I really hope I didn't. I looked in the back window and with the aid of the light that was still on, could see my keys lying in the back. I did. I really did it. I had considered this possibility for years and it had finally happened. Once the car was locked, it was possible to open the rear tailgate with the key fob without unlocking the other doors. And if you use the button inside the car to reclose the tailgate, it will shut and lock just as happily whether the keys are inside the van or not. And I had done just this. I was in a bit of trouble.
If I had a cellphone (which everyone tells me I absolutely must have), I could call AAA and they'd send someone out to attempt to open the door with a Slim Jim and might or might not be successful. But it might be an hour before AAA arrives and by then I might be a frozen carcass. 23F is not something I could sit around and deal with so easily. I'd probaby have to wear a moat around the car walking in circles to stay warm. And then they might not be able to open it. I might call my wife and ask her to drive four hours from San Jose to bring me the spare set of keys. She'd probably be less upset if I simply told her I was sleeping with her best friend. That would be my last resort and it might mean a curtailment of my wanderings about the state. If AAA couldn't open the door, they could help arrange a spare key to come from the nearest dealer. This would take many hours, I'm sure. I half considered doing the hike to Freeborn and dealing with it all when I got back. But as the landscape grew lighter I noticed the cross-country route to Freeborn was looking to go through some unfriendly chaparral and it might prove a daunting effort. And all the while I'd be worried about the van. No, I decided I'd better forgo the hike and deal with the problem at hand.
I decided I'd have to break a window and set about settling on the best choice. The rear vent windows open up and would probably be the easiest to replace, labor-wise, so I picked one of those. I found a rock about the size of a baseball and contemplated my next move. I'd brought my bicycle with me for a possible effort near US101, and it was sitting in the rear just behind the window. If I threw the rock too hard it might go right through the window and into the back wheel, busting a few spokes and messing things up. I really didn't want to have a second repair job on my hands. So I tossed the rock somewhat lightly and watched it simply bounce off the window. Hmm, those things are tougher than I thought. The glass had a few tiny knicks in it but was otherwise just fine. I tossed harder a second time. The rock again bounced off but this time the glass shattered into a million pieces. Yay for tempered glass. I retrieved the keys after brushing aside more glass, tossed my pack in the back, took a picture of my handiwork, and decided to call it a day.
Driving back to SR58 I headed east intending to take SR33 back north towards home. I found the heater nicely compensating for the open window keeping me toasty while the back was blasted cold. The sun came up as I started up the hill out of Carrizo Plain and the temperatures soon rose to around 40F. Better. I realized as I was going over the summit that I was very near the approach route for McKittrick Summit, another CC-listed peak and P1K. I figured I could at least scope out the route and dialed in the one I had saved on my GPS. The hills here were dotted with oaks and much more like the Diablo Range further north. With the new day I could appreciate how green and lovely the hills looked. When I got to the turnoff I noticed a gate open, more or less permanently, and quickly exited the highway and drove through the gate. There were no Private Property or No Trespassing signs to discourage me. I could see McKittrick Summit tantalizingly close. I drove further up the road to a junction. The right fork led to a ranch home just up the hill, so I followed the left fork hoping to take me around and away from the home. I came up short, finding a locked, but completely unsigned gate blocking my way. I was about three miles via road from the summit. The road ahead goes right by the ranch home on the south side before veering off and out of sight. It was 7:30a and broad daylight, but perhaps I could get by unnoticed. The van at least would not be visible from the ranch while I was away. It seemed worth a try.
I parked the car off to the side and got the bike out. I lifted it over the fence and climbed the steel bars to the right of the gate. Off I went. As hoped, I was by the home in a few minutes and soon out of sight. I didn't take a close look to see if anyone was outside, but it seemed quiet enough. Parts of the road were easy to ride, but others were so steep that it was easier to push it uphill than ride it. The road was well graded and would have been a cinch to drive had the gate been opened. As I was pushing the bike up in the middle of the route I came across more unhappy cows that would rather give up their grazing and look for a more secluded spot than suffer to allow me to pass them by. They headed up the road in front of me and for about ten minutes it was just me and the cows hiking up the road. They outpaced me and eventually got out of sight. Later I found they had taken a less traveled road at a junction and were again warily keeping an eye on me as I went by a second time.
It took about 50 minutes to reach the summit, about the same time it would have taken without the bike. It's not much help on the uphill, but boy does it make up for it on the downhill. Among the moderately-sized collection of summit towers I found a small register at the highpoint next to a fence. It had been placed by Richard Carey and Gail Hanna in 2002 and had almost 20 pages of entries. The pages were wet and I left them out to flutter in the breeze some to allow them to dry while I took pictures and took in the views. There is a nice view of Mt. Pinos and the higher summits of the Transverse Ranges to the south - I was about as far south as you could get and still claim to be in Central California. There is also a pretty good view to the west and southwest to the Carrizo Plain. The pages were still damp when I put the booklet back in the jar, too damp to sign it myself, but I was cold to wait around any longer. It took only about ten minutes to ride back down. My leather bushwhacking gloves worked wonders to keep my hands from freezing. As I passed by the ranch once again, I did a quick survey to look for people outside. I saw a few horses in a pen and then spied someone in a flannel shirt in the pen with them. I kept my head down and sped on. I heard a voice calling out, but not loudly, and kept my eyes glued to the road, pretending not to hear. Almost home... A second later I was out of sight and very quickly was at the gate. I tossed the bike over the fence, hurriedly loaded everything in the van and started down the road. Almost home...
Halfway back to the highway I caught sight of a pickup truck barreling down the road after me. Busted. It was time to shift modes from Escape to Contrition. I pulled over and a middle-aged woman came up aside me, rolling down her window. She was not happy, but not insanely upset either. I apologized immediately. I described my confusion over the land ownership and lack of signs. It took less than a minute to have her relaxed and the two of us enjoying a conversation. We talked about the land situation and she described a mostly legal route from the south starting from Taft. I recall at least one register entry mentioning coming up from the south. She never did say why they didn't have any No Trespassing signs anywhere. She was impressed that I drove four hours from San Jose specifically to climb the hill in her backyard and then drive home. Of course I didn't mention the other summits I visited. I told her the hills were so lovely with the new green grass at this time of year and this seemed to warm her heart. I wasn't the first peakbagger she'd run into either. Another truck came up behind us and she introduced her husband to me. He was in a good mood even as he drove up when he saw the two of us casually chatting together. The two dogs he brought with him were more for company than protection and were quite friendly. In the end the couple were good with me and we parted on friendly terms. Four down.
Now it really was time to head home. I drove through the small town of McKittrick before turning north on SR33. This long road runs for more than a hundred miles to the west of Interstate 5, an enjoyable alternative. The road heads through the heart of California's largest oil fields with miles upon miles of pipelines, countless well pumps and plenty of storage tanks. The last time I had driven this section of the state highway had been a number of years earlier and it had seemed desolate and almost abandoned. Today it was bustling. Chevron owns most of the land and oil fields around here, and seems to have revived interest in it, probably due to the introduction of fracking to tease more oil out of tired fields. There were people, trucks and construction equipment everywhere, bringing a second boom to Taft and the other surrounding communities. Maybe it will breath some life into California Valley if it attracts newcomers to work in the oil fields. I plan to pay a return visit to eventually climb Freeborn and a few other peaks around the Carrizo Plain area. Perhaps in the spring when the wildflowers are in bloom there...
A used replacement window with shipping is costing me $95. I cleaned out the glass from the van when I got home and taped a piece of cardboard over the open window. So far it's been three days and nobody in the family has noted the broken window. I'm curious to see if I can get the window repaired before they notice. :-)
Update: They noticed. The kids were the first to notice it, the wife only after I came back from my next overnight trip in Monterey. She thought the car had been vandalized while I was out hiking and was worried that I'd had my stuff stolen.
Feb 6: The window arrived in five days from South Carolina. It took five minutes just to get it out of the bubble wrap and cardboard packaging, then only ten minutes more to install. All ready for the next adventure.
This page last updated: Tue Apr 23 12:32:36 2019
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