McKinley Mountain, San Rafael Mountain, Santa Cruz Peak

15 July 1995

By: Carleton Shay


Leaders: Carleton Shay, Frank Goodykoontz

I had flown over the Big Bear area on July 5 and there was solid snow cover on the San Bernardino-San Gorgonio Ridge. That plus reports of the same from hikers who had gone to Mineshaft Saddle and Dollar Lake Saddle on July 8 led us to cancel our 11-peak trip scheduled for July 15-16. Since Frank "needed" (and I could use) the Big 3 for a ninth time we switched destinations. Everyone thought we were crazy to schedule these peaks in mid-July, but since it always seems to be hot there, why not? Two of our original three signers-on (John Connelly and Betsy Horgan) were willing to brave the heat and come with us. (As an aside, my wife Hanna and I climbed Grinnell Mtn on July 12 and I have never seen so much snow melt so fast. It was evident that our original trip was at least marginally feasible, but we weren't going to change our plans again).

We met at Cachuma Saddle and were under way at 6:40; it was warm but not oppressive. Even though the wild oats were yellow and everthing seemed dry, there were numerous wildflowers to brighten the hike in. There were thistles of several colors: blue, purple, red and yellow, wallflower, lupine, mustard, scarlet bugler, and many others that I couldn't identify. Purple sage was everywhere, along with a low plant with blue flowers, probably a form of gilia, and a tall gangly green plant covered with tiny red flowers with yellow stamens.

We arrived in camp at 11:10 and rested an hour before tackling San Rafael and McKinley, which took us about 3 1/2 hours. Even in the sun, the thermometer never got above 91°, and when shaded read 82-84°. We had a gentle sea breeze to keep it quite pleasant. Not bad, although at 8:00 pm, it was still hot. We turned in early; hoping that the next day would be no worse. It cooled down nicely to about 59° in the morning.

We started for Santa Cruz at 6:25 under a partly cloudy sky and a cool wind. The old road down from the saddle and up to the San Rafael-Santa Cruz ridge was covered with wild oats and purple sage and our stockings, even with gaiters, were full of stickers. The ridge down to Santa Cruz was clear of the wild oats, but the purple sage was thick.

The old route from the end of the ridge fortunately does not need clipping because the scrub oak and ceanothus have barely sprouted since the fire in 1993. However, the burned snags, the rampant purple sage and new lush green vegetation of unknown pedigree made the going slow. Especially on the last half mile of the old road and the last few hundred yards up Santa Cruz, the thick, green, head-high, sticky plants, almost like a tropical jungle, were extremely difficult to wade through, and left our clothes incredibly dirty from their sap.

We made the summit in 2 hours 40 minutes, stayed only briefly and started back. The weather hadn't changed: it was still windy, cloudy, and a not unpleasant 70° which amazingly seemed almost too cold at times. I have always dreaded the climb back to the saddle above camp from Santa Cruz, but this time it was no problem at all. Our climb of Santa Cruz took a total of 6 hours and 5 minutes, not a great time, but certainly far better than we had expected.

We left camp for the cars about 1:00, and the clouds now looked threatening. In fact, we had a few intermittent sprinkles from about the half-way point to the cars, which we reached at 4:30. All in all, it was a fine trip, answered the question of the title of this article in the affirmative, and put the nay-sayers in their place! The worst thing was the drive home: a heavy downpour going over San Marcos pass and bumper-to-bumper traffic from north of Santa Barbara almost to Ventura (one 12-mile stretch took almost an hour).


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