Santa Paula Peak P500 LPC
Mt. McDill P750 HPS / PD
Sierra Pelona HP P1K PD
Mendenhall Peak P300 LPC

Fri, Jun 24, 2011
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 Profiles: 1 2


Santa Paula Peak rises to the north above the sleepy town of Santa Paula in Ventura County. Just missing the HPS elevation requirement of 5,000ft, it lands on the tally of the dozen or so remaining summits that I had yet to do on the LPC list. Access via the easiest route from the south is not routine, requiring an approach through an avocado farm and ranchlands. Fortunately, the owner is very amiable and allows folks to traverse his property, asking only that one asks for permission ahead of time. I had called him several days prior, found him very personable, and parked at the end of the pavement described in the LPC guide where his house is located, as requested. It was foggy out when I arrived at 6a, no one stirring outside or within the house that I could discern. The fog had pushed inland only a short distance beyond his house, and within a few minutes of starting out I was already breaking beyond the cloud layer.

The LPC guide was key in actually finding the start of the Santa Paula Trail that makes its way to the summit and beyond. One follows the road along the eastern edge of the avocado farm, through a locked gate onto ranch lands, then a series of connecting use trails and old roads leads to the hillside where the trail starts, marked by a small cairn. At some time in the past one can imagine that this trail had a real starting point accessible to the general public, but it seems to have fallen into disuse. Still, the trail is used enough to maintain a decent tread that can be followed through the grass and chaparral-covered hillsides.

I followed the route for more than two hours, winding its way above the coastal fog and the Santa Clara River Valley, and eventually along the SE Ridge of the peak. A dilapidated sign marks a junction with the Santa Paula Canyon Trail, the other, longer access route from the west and north. A short distance up from this junction is the summit of Santa Paula where I arrived around 8:30a. The summit affords sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean (when not obscured by fog) to the south, a long stretch of the Santa Paula Ridge to the west, and the higher mountains of the Sespe Condor Sanctuary that lies to the north. A register found in an ammo box dated to 1982.

Not long after leaving the summit I came across the first of two interesting wildlife encounters on the day, a horned toad that scampered off the trail as I came by. At the trail junction I turned north, intending to pay a visit to an unlisted summit called San Cayetano Mountain a few miles to the east. The trail was good until I reached the saddle on the north side of Santa Paula Peak. The good trail continued down the slope on that side to Santa Paula Canyon (the other approach route), but my trail turned eastward towards San Cayetano. There was some fencing hardware, empty plastic bottles and the exploded remains of a first aid box full of bandages that looked to have been left by a work crew but abandoned some months or longer. Beyond this gear the trail continued, but began to deteriorate the further I went. Eventually I was left to follow a series of yellow ribbons down the north slopes of a hillside in a poison oak-infested oak forest, but even the ribbons were eventually lost. I had only gotten a third to a fourth of the way to San Cayetano and decided this was going to be a much bigger undertaking than I was prepared for. The poison oak was just too abundant to strike off cross-country without a trail or markers. Back I went.

On my way back down the main trail I came across a rattlesnake in the middle of the trail, having started the process of ingesting a mouse it had presumeably just killed. It was not at all happy to see me and was completely defenseless at the moment while its mouth was engaged in engulfing the mouse. Thinking better of the situation, the snake immediately regurgitated the mouse and went slithering off the trail and down the slope out of sight. I examined the mouse briefly, then kicked it down the slope towards where the snake had gone, hoping I might have made it easier for it to retrieve its meal after I left. It was sometime after 11am before I returned to my van. There was still no sign of anyone stirring at the home as I drove off.

I headed east on SR126 along the Santa Clara River to Santa Clarita, then through Newhall and onto the Old Sierra Highway that runs north of SR14 and used to be the main route into the high desert before SR14 was constructed. I was headed for the Sierra Pelona HP and Mt. McDill (the latter an old HPS summit that was recently reinstated). The HPS route comes from the north or northwest to McDill, and Evan had approached Sierra Pelona from the southwest. I was going off some satellite views and a bit of other online beta to approach it from the southeast via Shannon Valley Rd.

The area is filled with small homesteads that look to have been there for many years, only a few of which are relatively new and adequately maintained. It was a bit creepy driving through the area not knowing if the road was open to the public or not (signs seemed to indicate not, but it was unclear), and whether I might be confronted by a resident. I managed to find the series of roads I had gleaned from the satellite view, all paved, the last of which takes one several miles up the mountain, nearly to the top and incredibly steep. A sign indicates the area is some sort of park and/or conservancy. Later I learned this is the primary entrance to this park called Ritter Ranch, but nowhere below are there any signs indicating this. Either the locals have removed any such signs or it is a closely kept secret. A well-maintained dirt road leads along the crest of the mountain to the Hauser Microwave Station, and further west to the highpoint at the Odell benchmark. Leaving this for later, I continued down the road off the north side and on up to McDill where I managed to get the van within about 30 yards of the summit shortly after 1p.

The whole area is decidedly ho-hum. There is sparse vegetation on the 5,000-foot summits of McDill and Sierra Pelona and what little there was had burned off only a few years earlier. Not much had regrown and cattle were busy removing even that. At midday the desert vistas were hazy at best. It was rather warm even at this high elevation, and very, very dry. Like many HPS registers, the one at McDill's summit dated back only a few years. A more recent entry by highpointers Carey & Hanna expressed a dissatisfaction with the HPS peak, offering the Sierra Pelona HP as a more suitable alternative. I didn't think either one was very impressive. I drove back over the road I had come on, stopping at the west end of the HP ridge in order to visit the summit and benchmark. There was a register that dated back less than a year. Oddly, Mark Adrian had been to this point four days earlier than his visit to McDill. Why he didn't visit them both on the same day is unclear, but I've done similarly myself plenty of times.

Noting that it was still early in the afternoon, I decided to hit up another LPC summit, Mendenhall Peak in the San Gabriels, not too far from where I was. I drove back down to SR14, heading towards Santa Clarita and exiting at Sand Canyon Rd. After refueling at the freeway exit's In-N-Out, I continued south on Sand Canyon Rd and into the San Gabriels. The road took me up over Bear Divide where it then becomes Little Tujunga Rd which eventually tops out at Dillon Divide where I parked. It was 3:30p when I started off on the modest hike, about four miles one-way with 2,000ft of gain.

Sometimes open to vehicle traffic, the dirt Mendenhall Ridge Rd that starts at Dillon Divide was gated shut. It was not clear if the road and surrounding area were still closed due to the 2009 Station Fire, but I saw no signs indicating a closure. Later I would find that this area was just west of the area still closed, and thus legally accessible. I started up the Mendenhall Rd, which winds around to the north side to begin its long traverse along the ridge that eventually meets up with Mt. Gleason many miles to the east. The hiking is not all that pleasant with the sun beating down, little shade and some annoying flies, but such is hiking in the lower elevations of the San Gabriels in late June. There were some colorful flowers in bloom along the way and a few roadside pines to add some interest. To the the north rose another high ridgeline going from Bear Divide to Mt. Gleason, the highpoint being tower-topped Magic Mountain, not to be confused with the amusement park in nearby Santa Clarita that goes by the same name. In between dropped Pacoima Canyon, some 2,000ft lower to the creek at the bottom.

It took an hour to hike the three miles to Highline Saddle west of Mendenhall, marked by a transmission tower and a view south into Little Tujunga Canyon. From the saddle one can either follow the road as it continues around the north and east sides of the peak before winding its way to the summit, or the more direct route up the West Ridge along an old firebreak which was the route I took. There was some fire damage to be found on the north-facing slopes before reaching Mendenhall, but the abundance of flowers that the fire seems to have brought out was ample compensation for the loss of brush. It seemed clear that the landscape was used to fires and would have no trouble recovering in time, despite all the dire concerns that people have expressed.

I found a red register can near the concrete foundation of the lookout that once stood at the summit. The highpoint was about 100 yards further north and I took a few minutes to visit it before returning to the concrete platform. Haze and/or smog marred the views south and west to no great surprise. LA Basin views are usually best in the early morning hours or after a rainstorm. I tried to identify another LPC peak, Mt. McKinley some three miles further east that I had initially hoped to do with Mendenhall. Given the late afternoon hour (about 5:15p) and my degree of tiredness, I decided I'd had enough for the day. It didn't help that I misidentified the higher Iron Mtn for McKinley, the former some two miles further east. I would save it for another day and approach it from the south.

I was back at Dillon Saddle shortly after 6:30p. The gallon jug of water sitting on the dash had warmed to a fine temperature and made for a refreshing shower there on the side of the road. I drove down to Altadena where I found a Starbucks to hang out in for a few hours while I waited for the afternoon to fade into evening. It was just getting dark around 9:30p when I bedded down on a suburban street near the entrance to Las Flores Canyon, tomorrow's destination for some additional LPC summits. I hung some towels and shirts inside the van to block out most of the light from the streetlamps that seemed designed to discourage such vagrancy. Such are the trials and tribulations of urban dirtbagging...


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