Ortega Peak P750 ex-HPS
Ortega Hill ex-HPS

Thu, Dec 29, 2011

With: Jim Burd

Ortega Peak
Ortega Hill
Story Photos / Slideshow Map GPX Profile


I had given my oldest brother a choice between two delisted HPS peaks off SR33 or an easier hike to one of the Seven Moros near San Luis Obispo and was glad he chose the former. The peaks had been delisted for more than a dozen years because the access road is in a shooting area, which means lots of empty shells and other detritus, possible dangers due to wayward bullets, and general unpleasantries for a Sierra Club outing. Ortega Peak was the highest point in this area with almost 900ft of prominence, so I thought it worthwhile to pay them a visit sometime when I had the chance. Driving home with my brother to the San Jose area from Santa Barbara, I had the chance.

It was easy enough to find the TH off SR33 with the help of a coordinate I had loaded into the GPS. There were no signs to indicate the area is open to the public, but the turnoff is not hidden or otherwise hard to find. A beefy gate blocks vehicle access, but motorcyclists have found easy ways around it. Graffiti and (big surprise here) bullet holes have made any posted signs unreadable. This was all pretty much what we might have expected.

Ours was the only vehicle at the large turnout as we started off south down the road. We went past a number shooting sites, though the Forest Service has put up "No Shooting" signs at most of them. Surprisingly, the signs are readable which means either the enthuasiasts are displaying remarkably good citizenship or perhaps the signs are fairly new and haven't had a proper chance to be broken in. In any event, there were no shooters and no gun noise to be heard on the several mile walk up the broad canyon.

We found Cherry Creek, along which the road follows further south where the canyon narrows, to be surprisingly lush with berry vines and ferns, plus some very large trees that one wouldn't normally associate with chaparral country. We came across some bear prints as well, but no other bear signs through the rest of our day.

After about an hour we topped out at a saddle west of Ortega Hill. There was one last shooting area found here before the old OHV road forks. We followed the left fork that traverses around the south side of Ortega Hill and an adjacent, unnamed summit just to the south of it. The trail was remarkably clear of brush and easy to follow. About a mile along this trail we found a duck on the left side marking the start of a route cut through the dense brush on that side. It roughly matched the route I had drawn on my map, a best guess as to where the old trail should go. The trail was narrow and lined with brush well over head level, but I was almost shocked to even find it. After 12 years I half-expected the summit to be unreachable and had come prepared to be disappointed.

But here was a trail not only usable, but in decent shape, too. Judging from the clipped branches along the way, it seemed that somebody other than the HPS had kept it alive, hunters perhaps. We followed this up in about twenty minutes to what I thought was the highpoint. There was a good view of Cherry Creek Canyon to the north, the North Fork of Matilija Creek to the southwest, to the Channel Islands and other good views. But looking east showed a higher point about half a mile further east. A quick check of the map showed this other point was indeed Ortega Peak. Though unnamed officially, I'd marked the location based on the elevation given in the HPS archives.

Luckily, the good trail continued east along the crest, sometimes using the steep and sketchy north side where there is little brush, sometimes on the south side where the chaparral took more effort to cut through. Periodically, ducks could be found along the route, though they weren't all that necessary. Another 30 minutes later we reached the end of the trail at Ortega's summit. It was just after 10:30a, having taken almost two and a half hours. Along with the remnants of an old survey tower, we found the HPS nested cans amongst the summit rocks. We came to find that Peter Doggett had made three trips to the summit the previous month, the first to sign the register in 11 years. Undoubtedly, he had been responsible for reviving the trail after so many years and for this we were heartily grateful. There's no way I would have bothered to cut a mile's worth of trail myself even if I'd brought clippers with me. I just happen to get lucky to pick a time to visit so close to Peter's efforts to reopen it. The register had only 13 pages to it. Placed in 1997, it had only four years of service before the peak was delisted and the visitors stopped coming. Though the views are somewhat blocked by trees at the summit, they are impressive nonetheless. We could see most the Channel Islands off the coast, including tiny Santa Barbara Island far to the south. The mountains surrounding the peak stretch endlessly in three directions, mile upon mile of the Los Padres National Forest.

We spent about an hour returning from Ortega Peak to the saddle on the west side of Ortega Hill. As we neared Ortega Hill we kept an eye for a use trail heading up that way, but alas did not find the wonderful cut path we'd found on Ortega Peak. I was thinking the best way might be on the northwest side under forest cover and was heading in that direction when Jim stopped me at the shooting area at the saddle and suggested we might find a way there. It looked to me that there might only be enough of a "trail" to get us about 50 yards up the hillside where shooters had placed some of their more distant targets. But I was happy to give it a try because I didn't hold out much hope for my own plan.

We started up the slope and found it easy going at first, much as expected, for perhaps ten minutes. There was a "Flooded" sign found higher up that had been used for target practice at one time but now fallen over. Beyond this, we were confronted by much higher brush and no indication that anyone had been that way in a long time. Still, it seemed like part of a firebreak at one time and we could at least make progress through it. Jim paused to change into long pants before we continued up. It took little more than fifteen minutes to make it halfway up the hillside and I was starting to think this might be easier than I'd imagined.

But then my imagination came to life and we ran up against a dense wall. We tried one way and another, getting separated as we tried different routes. It was heavy stuff that required much effort to get through or around by any means, fair or foul. I moved more to the left where I guessed the old fire break might make it slightly easier, Jim moving right to explore options there. I did pop out onto the firebreak and made decent progress for a short while, calling to Jim that my route seemed workable. But it soon became impossible to push through at ground level and I had to resort to clambering over some of it, tearing at my pants and shirt and tripping me up at every step. More ugliness. Jim was well out of sight and no longer within hearing distance as I forced my way ever higher. I'd pause to check out every conceivable option before choosing one that I invariably regreted immediately. At one point I was crawling on my hands and knees under stuff way over my head, then forced down to my belly and I began to wonder if I'd be able to stand up again. I was ready to give up (wondering if I could crawl backwards if needed) when I found a small clearing, enough to let me stand again. After this it got better incrementally until I was standing at the top - it had taken an hour to go only a quarter mile from the saddle below.

I looked around for some time until I found a rusted set of nested cans under a bush, inside a small cairn. The tattered register inside dated back to the 1970s, a collection of historical HPS names filling many pages. The last entry was in 1998 by a hunter who had found it a few years earlier, had taken it home to read, then felt bad and brought it back, all of this after the peak had been delisted by the HPS in 1992. I imagine if I'd waited another year, Peter might have clipped a route to this one as well. I waited a long time for Jim to show up, at one point I saw him pop up 100yds down the slope, just before the densest brush segment. I explored the route off the NW side, but had trouble even getting through the brush at the large, flat summit area and never made it to the start of the forested slope. That might have been a total bust, from the looks of it. I went back and waited some more, but Jim never showed up. Apparently it meant much less to him to get to the top and he turned around. It took only half as much time to get back down to the saddle, thanks to the familiarity with the route and the little path of destruction we'd left in making our way up. I found Jim about halfway down, having lost the route and not sure which way to go. It was easy enough for me to follow the GPS track to see which way we'd gone and we were soon back on the right route.

It was almost 2p before we got back down to the saddle and the dirt road. We stopped to remove dirt and branches and thistles from our shoes and socks, then continued down. It took another hour to find our way back down the road to the trailhead. A man with two youths were just starting up the road with gun bags and ammo boxes, setting out for an afternoon of shooting practice. As a gun fan himself, Jim paused briefly to talk with them and wish them well. I'd be happy if they just brought all their empty shells back out with them when they were done. It had been a successful outing, better than I had hoped as we were able to reach both of these delisted summits. Now we just had a long 5 hours of driving to get ourselves back to the Bay Area...

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