Tar Peak
Garza Peak CC
Zwang Peak P300
Flattop P500

Sat, Apr 7, 2012
Tar Peak
Garza Peak
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 GPX Profile

With the moon just past full, I set out once again to the southern end of the Diablo Range for my last night hike of this moon cycle. Because I left San Jose around 1p, I got to the start around 4p, which meant the hike would be spent in more daylight than moonlight which suited me just fine. It was nice to be able to view the area in daytime to take in the surrounding scenery. The start was located about five miles south of the small town of Avenal off SR33 in the Kettleman Plain. The Avenal State Prison (for which the town owes most of its economic support) is located a few miles south of town. I had two primary goals for the afternoon/evening, CC-listed Garza Peak and the 500-foot prominence summit of Flattop. There were three other named summits in the area, all roughly lined up on a long ridgeline called Reef Ridge.

Parking just across the highway from a gated dirt road, I waited for a break in the light traffic to hop the fence and begin hiking westward along the ranch road heading across the plain. I felt uncomfortably vulnerable for the first fifteen minutes or so that I was clearly visible to passing cars and trucks. I kept waiting to see a car stop and someone jump out to yell to me, but luckily they all kept driving right on by.

Reef Ridge was to the left, or south, across the Kettleman Plain. The closest, Flattop, was easy to pick out with the relay towers atop its summit. Directly ahead of me was the more interesting-looking summit, Tar Peak, with a pointy top. The Kettleman Plain is fenced off in large sections used for grazing cattle. This part of the range is one of the driest areas of all the Coast Ranges, but even here had seen the benefits of recent rains as the grasses sprung to life and gave the hills a soft green shade. Two miles in I came across a large herd of cattle gathered on the south side of the fence that follows the road I traveled. All of the cattle looked curiously at me, some of them advancing towards the fence, perhaps hoping for a tasty handout to supplement the meager grass they were feeding on. Finding no hoped-for response from me, some of them began lowing in apparent disappointment. Portions of the herd followed along in the direction I hiked hoping by chance that I might change my mind, but I gave them no encouragment and eventually they gave up all expectations.

I was watching the scenery around me, paying little attention to the decently graded road when I was suddenly stopped by the unmistakable sound of a rattlesnake going on the defensive. He had been sunning himself on the road when my approach caused him alarm. I was only two steps from squashing him when I was abruptly halted in my tracks. I took a few pictures of it and tried to shoo it off the road - I didn't want to be surprised by it later when I would be returning in the dark. It refused to budge. I tossed a few dirt clods at it to get it moving, initially having no success. The snake seemed confused by the projectiles, probably the first time it had been subjected to an air strike when the biggest threat it had faced so far was getting stepped on by a cow. Eventually a few direct hits convinced the snake to get out of the way, but it left only reluctantly.

After a couple of miles the ranch road turns from due west to northwest and continues in that direction for several more miles. There is another road about a mile north of the one that I took that cuts about half a mile off this four mile stretch of road, but that road passes by an occupied home about 3/4 mile in which I wanted to avoid. The road I traveled ends where it abuts the Tar Canyon Rd. Here I turned left. Big Tar Canyon cuts through Reef Ridge between Tar Peak and Flattop. The good dirt road follows along the west side of the creek, now mostly dry. I met a second herd of cattle here, though these didn't find me nearly so interesting and took off as I approached. As one passes between Flattop and Tar Peak it is easy to see that Reef Ridge owes its nature to a near-vertical tilted strata that forms the rocky spine of the ridge. Particularly on the Flattop side, the hard layers of rock stand out much like a rock wall, the softer material on either side having eroded much more over the eons, but far less than the surrounding plains.

It was 5:40p when I reached a gated road on the right side of Tar Canyon. I hopped this gate and followed the winding road upwards as it heads to the western crest of Reef Ridge. Hiking up the road I had an excellent view of the southwest side of Flattop and picked out a route to climb it, taking advantage of a little-used road that follows along a set of power poles leading to the summit from that side. I would remember this upon my return after visiting the other peaks first. Rising higher, I could see the town of Avenal through the gap in Reef Ridge created by the Big Tar Canyon. The prison, too, could be seen a few miles to the south with a large array of solar panels nearly the size of the town found just across the highway from the prison.

The road passes under the southwest side of Tar Peak's summit, and where the road reaches the crest it was easy enough to follow a thin use trail about 100 yards east to the highpoint. The summit is a small collection of rocky outcrops, the highest sticking up only a few feet more than the others. There is a fine view overlooking the Kettleman Plain to the north and east. Looking west into the sun could be seen the nearby summits of Roundtop and Garza Peak, to which I headed next. To no surprise, there was no register or benchmark found on Tar Peak.

With about an hour before sunset I headed west off the peak, rejoined the dirt road and continued about 2/3 mile to Roundtop. Like the previous peak, the road bypasses the summit on its way to Garza Peak, requiring some easy cross-country to climb the rounded knob to the scrub-covered summit. There is a good view of Tar Peak to the east from the summit. To the south can be seen Garza Peak looking very unpeak-like, though I doubt if there's any angle from which the peak looks very good at all. It seems to simply lie at a highpoint along the long ridgeline. It took another 20 minutes to return to the road and hike the remaining distance to Garza. Here the road goes within about 10 yards of the summit, making the diversion to reach the top very short. There was the expected benchmark at the top, but no register (and none on any of the summits I visited this evening). About five miles to the southwest could be seen the similarly unimpressive Table Mtn, the highpoint of Kings County, the only other peak I had been to in this area until recently. The view west was blinded by the soon-to-be setting sun, but one could see the silhouette of Black Mtn, the highest peak around with more than 1,800 feet of prominence. Though only about 6 miles distance from Garza, reaching it looked to be a very difficult effort from this side of the range due to the lack of connecting roads for several miles. Halfway to Black Mtn is another named summit, Zwang Peak, that I had originally planned to forgo. My plan had called for me to return after Garza (already 10 miles from the start) and then drive south on SR41 to two other nearby CC peaks. But now that I was at Garza I decided to change the plan and do Zwang instead, another 4 miles along the road.

It would take another hour to go between Garza and the slightly higher Zwang, traveling at a good clip and jogging the downhill sections. The sun would set during this time as the temperatures dropped from slightly warm to slightly cold, the latter much more comfortable for hiking. The terrain changes some here as pines begin to make an appearance, although not very strongly and not all that healthy-looking. No doubt the summer heat at 3,000ft here can be tough on them. I passed under a pair of towering transmission lines that connect the grid along Interstate 5 to the power plant at Morro Bay, a distance of some 70 miles.

It was fairly dark when I reached Zwang Peak. The road bypasses the actual summit which is covered in thick, nearly impenetrable brush. A path had been clipped sometime in the past to a small clearing at the approximate summit - it is large and flat and difficult to assess which point is highest. The views were completely non-existent, this peak being pretty much a bust. Oddly, I found a small cache of water just off the summit and the road - to what purpose I could not well imagine. The road continues another mile and a half to the west where it meets a saddle with Black Mtn before forking and starting down in two opposite directions. I did not hike this remaining portion since it would not reasonably help me to reach Black Mtn - I'd do that one another time from the Parkfield side of the range.

I enjoyed the cool nighttime air as I returned back east along the crest following the same route to Big Tar Canyon. I thought a lot about the nighttime dangers which included rattlesnakes, mountain lions, and skunks, though not necessarily in that order. I pondered which of these dangers were of real concern and which were less so. Obviously an encounter with a mountain lion could prove fatal, but the odds of one hunting me down seemed remote. But as I was jogging the downhill sections I wondered if that might increase the chances of being mistaken for game. Common propaganda tells us that running can trigger a predator's chase instincts, but how realistic is that with a mountain lion? Who knows. The moon was not due to rise until after 9p, so it was fairly dark while I was pondering this issue, and it was difficult to see the trail. I pulled out my headlamp to help keep me from stumbling, but part of me was thinking this would ward of a stalking mountain lion.

I had just passed by Garza Peak and was on my way back to Roundtop when the dark orange moon began to slowly rise over the eastern horizon. By the time I was past Tar Peak and on my way down the curving road to the canyon, the moon was bright enough to see by and I put away the headlamp. Only a few minutes later my right foot would strike a rock in the road and send me sprawling head over heel into the dusty roadbed. Aside from a few scratches on my hands I was uninjured and my fall had me chuckling even while I lay on the ground. I instantly recalled the last three times this had happened, both in daylight, once on the way down from San Jacinto, another time in Venanta and most recently in the Sierra returning from Eagle Peaks. Those had been amusing falls as well. I picked myself up, dusted the debris out of my hair and off my clothes, and continued down to the gate at the road junction.

Using the route I had picked out earlier in the day, I left the road and crossed the creek, then started up the steep embankment to the utility road. The moon was hidden behind the hill necessitating the headlamp once again, at least until I reached the old road and the moon was once again visible. I followed the road up to the summit of Flattop which I reached just after 10p. The moon was still low on the horizon, but bright white now, and easily illuminated the utility building and several towers that surrounded it. The primary road leading to the towers comes up the northeast side which fortunately corresponded to the direction I needed to go to return to the highway. I headed down the road, bypassing some of the sweeping turns with a more direct descent down the grassy, cow-mowed slopes. The large herd I had encountered near the beginning were nowhere to be seen, just the rolling terrain of the ranchlands. Beyond were the lights of Avenal, the prison and a scattering of other lights from oil projects and other installations. Two miles from Flattop I hopped a fence and returned to the original dirt road I had started on. It would be 11:20p before I returned to the car.

Of course I still had nearly three hours of driving to return to San Jose and it would be 4a before I got to bed this morning. To keep from growing sleepy I turned the radio to Coast-to-Coast AM, a late-night hangout for fans of the paranormal, UFOs and conspiracy theories. I may need to include aliens in the list of dangers to look out for on these remote nighttime hikes...

imalsm@hotmail.comn comments on 06/25/16:
Having spent my childhood in Tar Canyon, I very much enjoyed the return visit through Bob's written account and accompanying photos. I was a bit confused at the beginning of the article until I looked at the photos and realized Bob came in on Utica Avenue instead of coming up Tar Canyon Road. Thanks for the vicarious visit home!

By the way, side #26 is mislabeled. It is titled "Looking East" but is obviously shot looking directly into the setting sun.
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