Tue, Mar 25, 2014
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The day was focused around tagging a few P1Ks in Santa Barbara County, but the highlights turned out to be two peaks that weren't even on my radar until today. Sometimes it works out that way and I'm always happy when it does.
I spent the next several hours driving back to San Marcos Pass, north to Los Olivos, and then the long, winding route into the San Rafael Mountains along Figueroa Mtn Rd. This is one of two roads to reach the Ranger Station at Cachuma Saddle, the other being Happy Canyon Rd starting at Santa Ynez. I wasn't heading to Cachuma Saddle today, but to Ranger Peak just west of the landmark saddle.
At Sunset Valley Rd, I discovered the pavement to my surprise and realized I had not done great research. No matter, I was having fun. I hiked along the road, excellent by USFS standards. I hiked for about a mile to a point southwest of my peak where the road begins to drop into Sunset Valley. The Sunset Valley Trail TH is located along the road at this saddle where I left it to start up to the summit. I turned right off the pavement to start up a steep, loose slope with minor brush issues to reach the start of the South Ridge I would use for the ascent. Once on the ridge the brush was minimal as I found a good use trail leading steeply up the slope. There are two point vying for the summit. The highest appears to be the SE one, a somewhat boring, brush-covered hump. The better one is to the NE where a loosely held together clump of uplifted river rocks and mud makes for a more interesting summit. The highpoint offers a sweeping view of the interior of the San Rafael Wilderness as one might expect from nearly 800ft of prominence. Most interesting was the long feature known as Hurricane Deck to the north. The name alone will make it worth a future visit. To the south rose the higher ridgeline capped by Ranger Peak while to the west lay Sunset Valley. I could see several trails/roads winding up from the west end of this long valley and it was then that I decided to make a loop of things and find another way back to the start. My initial thought was to follow the long West Ridge extending from Peak 3,685ft, but that looked rather involved with loose ups and downs to start followed by a brushfest. I thought better of this and decided to go back and make use of the Sunset Valley Trail I had passed by earlier.
It took but 15 minutes to descend the summit back to the road and the trailhead. The Sunset Trail proved to be decently maintained, wide where needed through the heavier brush and more like a use trail down in the valley where oaks dominated overhead and grass (and poison oak) underneath. As I was hiking through the grass and noisy dry oak leaves from the previous season, I happened to look down as I nearly stepped on the head of a 3-foot gopher snake. I paused to take his picture and noting he was just lying still, I put on a glove to pick him up for a better look. The powerful snake was able to worm its way through my grasp despite a tight hold and after a last photo I set it back down to watch it disappear into the bushes. I lost the trail for a short distance and ended up on the adjacent roadway, but after plunging back into the forest a bit further on I regained the thin trail through the trees.
At a trail junction, I turned left to follow the Munch Canyon Trail back up out of the valley. This was a pleasant trail, less steep than the White Rock Trail I had descended. I went by several trail junctions, the first a connector back to White Rock Canyon, before reaching the road atop the subsidiary ridge I had driven in on. I signed into a trail register found at the roadway because it actually had a pen and paper inside, unlike many of these registers I've seen in the Los Padres NF. I then hike along the road for about a mile to return to the van, a very pleasant way to spend the past four hours.
Zaca Peak is a huge mound of dense chaparral along the ridgeline. My only hope was going to be finding a trail of some sort from previous visitors. As I approached Zaca Peak I was watching closely for any sign of a path up from the east side where the road first starts to contour around to the south side. There was nothing but thick brush along the whole stretch until the road ended at a clearing on the south side of the mountain. This marks the start of the Zaca Peak Trail, which isn't exactly what its name suggests. It continues the contouring around to the west side of Zaca Peak past another abandoned auto, then turns left to follow the ridgeline for several miles out to Lookout Mtn. Just as the trail starts to veer away from Zaca Peak one can look up its West Ridge which at first looks like just more brush. But a careful search will find a small cairn marking the start of the use trail I had been hoping to find. This route led nicely up the ridge with only minor bushwhacking for a quarter mile and some 500ft of gain. In all it took about 45 minutes to reach the top from the car. The summit itself is poor in the way of views due to trees around the summit, the highpoint being one of several tree clusters. There is some metal hardware fastened to fallen branches and some old boards with names carved in them lying about, both evidence of visits going back decades. Tucked behind a tree I found a geocache dating back a few years with a handful of signatures. Not the greatest of peaks overall, but I enjoyed that there was actually a way to get to the top of what looked like a terrible bushwhack. It took only 20 minutes to return to the car.
It wasn't exactly the ticket I was hoping for, but it worked. The use trail led a short distance to a makeshift memorial atop a small knoll in an oak forest. There were more than 100 discarded votive candles strewn about the place, with flowers, empty liquor bottles, old clothing and other items that suggested someone had prayed, drank, and lived here for a while. It was a little creepy and I wondered if I had wandered into someone's camp, but I saw no sign that it was currently occupied. Having studied this area some beforehand, I had a good idea of where the roads were and set off cross-country along the ridgeline by headlamp in search of one. There was a good deal of poison oak from the start that made the cross-country difficult, but if one section got blocked by the stuff I managed to find another way around it, following a fenceline in the forest for about half a mile. I found the road roughly where I expected it and followed it further east to a property boundary where it met up with a better road.
There was still some daylight available under now overcast skies and I took a few photos looking east to Canada de Santa Ynez and south towards the summit. Unfortunately, Redrock Mtn was socked in by the lowering cloud layer and did not portend well for the rest of the evening. I followed this road south along the crest of the range up and over a series of bumps, some quite steep, as I made my way towards Redrock. I crossed another boundary fence as I approached the base of the mountain, moving to its north side where I could pick up a road I knew would lead to the summit. Some cows eyed me warily before taking off into the night. Movement on the road beneath my feet caught my attention and I paused to shine some light on it, finding a toad hopping across the road. Now I would have to pay more attention underfoot to keep from squishing one of them. It was 8p by the time I reached the summit. There is a communications tower found here surrounded by a fence, but the highpoint is found in a small clump of rocks just to the south, wrapped in poison oak. There was little to see from the summit at night through a thin layer of clouds, but I did note the glow of the Buellton city lights to the southeast.
A thin mist was starting to fall through the clouds and would soon become a drizzle. It seemed wise to get back as soon as possible. Ten minutes off the summit, as I was making my way down the road on the north side, I was surprised by the glow of headlights approaching from behind me. I turned off my headlamp immediately, but I was only seconds away from being caught. I could have dived off the side of the road into the brush, but would likely have landed in poison oak, ubiquitous as it is in this area. I decided to simply face the music. Needless to say, they were as surprised to see me as I them. They were two young guys, probably in their mid-20s, driving a burly 4WD truck with a couple of dogs in the back. The driver asked what I was doing there, informing me I was trespassing and that he was the landowner. I suspected his parents were probably the owners, but I wasn't going to quibble and I was very polite and apologetic. The mood lightened as he realized I was a non-threat and we got into a discussion about what they were doing out there in the dark. Fox hunting. They were decked out in heavy garb with hard plastic knee pads, probably for crawling through brush and such. I didn't ask how they avoided poison oak. The dogs in the back were a pair of fox hounds that loved the chase as much as the owners, perhaps more. They would chase the fox over hill and dale, eventually treeing the animal, whereupon the hunters would arrive, take a few pictures and leave. I had to admit, it seemed a lot more exciting than what I was doing out there. They drove off ahead after our short meeting, leaving me to hike as I liked, but I caught up again with them a few minutes later as they were fiddling with a lock at a gate. It was starting to drizzle a bit harder so I put on my fleece and a pair of wool gloves. Feeling sorry for me being stuck out in the weather, they had me get in the back seat and drove me about a mile further along the route I'd come. They warned me about the crazy guy who owned the land below to the west (the original route I had planned to take) who was more likely to shoot first before asking questions. I thanked them for their hospitality after dropping me off and bid them luck on their fox hunt. I retraced my route back through the several properties, arriving back at the saddle where I'd parked the van around 9p. Hours earlier back on Zaca, I had placed my sun-heated jug of water in my cooler to keep it warm through the evening and I was happy to find it still nicely warmed. In the drizzling rain, on the wet pavement of the remote saddle on Drum Canyon Rd, I took a shower to wash off the day's sweat before changing into some dry, fresh clothes. It had been a rather long day using all the available daylight and then some, but quite enjoyable. I would end up sleeping the night off a rural road outside Nipomo north of Santa Maria. Rain during the night and the next morning would squash any chance of hiking the next day so I was glad I had packed in as much as I could this day.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Figueroa Mountain
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