Santa Cruz Peak P500 HPS
San Rafael Mountain P1K HPS
McKinley Mountain P300 HPS
Cachuma Mountain P500 LPC

Wed, Dec 22, 2004
Santa Cruz Peak
San Rafael Mountain
McKinley Mountain
Cachuma Mountain
Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profiles: 1 2


The Big Three is the HPS term for the combined outing to McKinley Mtn, Santa Cruz Peak, and San Rafael Peak in the San Rafael Wilderness in Santa Barbara County. Matthew had done this long, 32 mile outing earlier in the year and had found it quite arduous owing to the heavy bushwhacking in getting to Santa Cruz Peak. He had recommending I bring a bike for the the 8 mile approach on a good road - the HPS guide suggested the same thing, so it seemed a good plan to me.

When I awoke at 4:30a the wind outside the van was blowing noticeably, more than it had the previous three mornings. While this at first had me concerned, I was happy to find that the outside air temperature was 47F, a full 20 degrees warmer than the last two mornings. This would bode well for the coming day, and though the wind never ceased, it died down considerably after the first hour and was never a bother the rest of the day.

I had eight miles of road to McKinley Saddle, only some of it actually rideable on the bike due to the steepness. For most of it I had to push the bike uphill in the dark, starlit hours before dawn. Having eaten well (quantity-wise) the night before, I was feeling good and had little trouble with this initial part. Always a pain so early in the morning with the darkness and cold, things improved as I neared the saddle. I passed by McKinley Spring (Cold Spring on the map) about a half mile before the saddle. It looked to be a nice campsite in one of the few flat areas along the route, complete with a picnic bench resting in a grassy area under the trees. It is the only place with reliable water on the entire route.

I reached McKinley Saddle just before 8a, and left my bike leaning against a trail sign here. Now for the more enjoyable remainder of the day! Sunrise had been some 40 minutes earlier, but there was no sunshine. Thin clouds had come up to the east and the south, and these gradually took over much of the sky, not relinquishing their position overhead until late in the afternoon. This kept the overall temperatures rather constant throughout the day, maybe in the 47-57F range, quite pleasant for a day spent hiking.

My first goal was to reach the most difficult of the three, Santa Cruz Peak. From the saddle I descended some 600 feet before climbing a similar amount in a down & up (and seemingly roundabout) route to get across the SW Face of San Rafael Peak. I was happy to find a good use trail through this first mile, mostly following a long-abandoned jeep road. On the other side I joined the undulating ridgeline between San Rafael and Santa Cruz, with an old firebreak running across the top. This made for an easy trail, though also easy to lose in a few places - nothing serious though and it was always easy to get back on track. After two and half miles of this I was approaching Pt. 5484ft just before Santa Cruz, and I began to watch the trail closely. Matthew had found a duck on his way back from Santa Cruz that he thought might mark an easier route, and told me to watch out for it. That was the best beta I had all day. The duck, on the NW side of the bump before the uphill grows steeper, leads to an impressive trail cut through the thick brush around the west side of Pt. 5484ft. The HPS guide has no mention of this fairly new route, so I'd likely have missed it and re-experienced Matthew's bushwhacking nightmare without it. With the trail I found very easy going around to the base of Santa Cruz Peak. I found the old road going around the peak's north side as mentioned in the HPS guide and used by Matthew. This second section had been quite a bushwhack as well. I walked up the road a very short way to where the brush grew thick and difficult, then I stopped. It occurred to me that with the previous section so nicely groomed, there ought to be a groomed way to the summit as well. I backed up and noticed some branches had been laid across the road, signalling "Don't go this way!" Looking uphill to the south, I saw a duck leading off through the underbrush. Aha. This was the second key find, and it led through the thickets and along the NE Ridge of Santa Cruz all the way to the summit - a fine trail indeed, well marked and heavily groomed.

By 10a I was on the summit, only two hours after leaving the saddle - what a different experience from Matthew's! I found his tiny message in the summit register with a single comment - "UGH" Almost all of the register entries were from HPS members, not terribly surprising considering it's relative remoteness. Clouds and haze obscured the views today, definitely not the crispness of the previous three days. I could see west to Lake Cachuma and SR154, but could not see to the Pacific Ocean and the Channel Islands. I took a few pictures, had a short break, and headed back. I retraced my route back towards San Rafael Peak, stopping at the point on the ridgeline where I needed to drop 600' then back up to McKinley Saddle. I had noticed a road heading up from where I was to Pt. 6523ft, just SW of San Rafael's summit. The road was old and heavily overgrown, but I thought I might bushwhack my way up as a shortcut and save 600' to boot. I had good success for about 5 minutes, but the route grew thicker and thicker and I eventually concluded that continuing was foolhardy. I might eventually have forged a route up, but it would probably have cost me a few extra hours in the process. So I retreated back through the brush and took the use trail back to McKinley Saddle.

From the saddle, there is a good FS-maintained trail out San Rafael Peak (and beyond). There's not much elevation gain, and I had a leisurely two mile hike out to the summit. Though it is the highest peak in the whole area, the views from it were somewhat limited - by McKinley Peak to the west and other similar peaks to the north and east. After signing the register I continued east on the trail to the next bump about a half mile away in order to get a better view into the San Rafael Wilderness. I climbed a short, rocky outcrop at the top of this second bump, providing me with the nicer view I was looking for. I would have loved to continue on the trail all the way to West Big Pine, but it was much too far off (~10mi) - perhaps another time.

Returning again to McKinley Saddle, I climbed the last and easiest of the three peaks, McKinley Mtn. This is a steep, but short half mile to the summit, atop which the best views of the three could be found. Much of the road down to Cachuma Saddle was visible, the same I had taken in the morning while dark. 2/3 of the way down along the ridge was Cachuma Peak, what looked like an easy side trip - I decided I ought to pay it a visit while I'm in the area. The summit register of McKinley Mtn had quite a few more entries than the previous two. Falling outside of the Wilderness boundary, one can ride a dirt bike to the summit and many do - as attested by the numerous tracks along the route up. Hiking back down, I retrieved my bike at the saddle around 2:45p. The ride down was as fun as one could hope, and I enjoyed it a great deal. I only had to walk it in a few places, most of it downhill or very short uphills that could be gained mostly with the downhill momentum. I stopped a few times to get my bearings and to be sure I didn't pass Cachuma Peak by accident (it wasn't as obvious from the road as it had been at the summit of McKinley). The views along the road were quite nice, and I was sorry to have missed them in the morning.

I left my bike on the SE side of the peak and made the easy trek to the summit in 20 minutes. A fire had cleared the entire peak in the last several years making the going very easy. There were nice views to be had from the 4,696-foot summit, and an unexpected summit register. I retraced by steps down the burned hillside, still saturated with the recent rains, then I road the rest of the way back to the car, arriving just after 4:30p. A very nice 12-hour outing indeed.

I spent the next 6 hours driving south through Santa Barbara, Los Angeles (much traffic), and south towards San Diego on I5. Turning east to Temecula and then another 30 miles further beyond that, I made my way to a lonely dirt road outside Aguanga. I still had one more day before I was due in San Diego, and I chose a couple of peaks on the border of Riverside and San Diego counties, Beauty Peak and Iron Spring Mtn. It was nearly midnight before I got to sleep, very tired after a long day...


Tom Becht comments on 12/21/12:
Santa Cruz approach: The clipped trail around the west side of Pt 5484 is no longer maintained and heavily overgrown. Instead, follow the road for another 5 minutes and climb the steep but brush free (as of Dec 2012) firebreak. The final climb to the summit still follows the second clipped route but easier travel is encountered on the open terrain of the south face after 100' or so through the thickets.
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