Little Pine Mountain, Alexander Peak, Santa Cruz Peak
3 March 2002
By: Roy M. Randall
Santa Cruz from the South
I had already climbed McKinley Mountain and San Rafael Mountain on an earlier day trip, but I skipped Santa Cruz Peak due to time constraints. Later I had joined Byron Prinzmetal and Mars Bonfire on an ill-fated HPS trip to the Big Three. We bagged the two I already had, but rain spoiled our second day and Santa Cruz had to go unvisited.
I hate orphans! And I really hated the idea of hiking up and down that fire road from Cachuma Saddle (8N08) one more time. Byron had mentioned the possibility of approaching Santa Cruz from the south. I checked it out on the maps. It looked like a good hike, a long distance for a single peak, but it would be new to me, and therefore an adventure.
I arrived at Upper Oso Campground (1250') at about 8:00am with my backpack and gear ready to go. Upper Oso is a popular campground and the starting point for both the Santa Cruz Trail (27W09) and the Buckhorn OHV Route (5N15). If I had a dirt bike or an ATV, I could have ridden most of the way. But I would have missed an outstanding hike. There are separate day parking areas for both the trail and the road, but they share the first .7-mile. I parked at the OHV staging area. Two cycles took off just before I did. They were the only motorized vehicles I saw during the trip.
After a short hike along up Oso Canyon, the road makes a sharp right turn and begins to climb. The trail continues up the canyon bottom. Soon I was far away from the buzz of bike engines. The canyon is a pleasant stroll along a stream of cascades and pools. The mild winter was already giving way to an early spring. I spotted many Padres Shooting Stars along the trail, the first of many wildflowers I would see that day.
After another mile the trail crosses the stream near Nineteen Oaks Campground and begins to climb to a ridge through a fire damaged area. A sign warns of no water for 5 miles after Nineteen Oaks. I'm not sure where the next watering hole might be. I didn't see any water until Santa Cruz Campground.
After making the ridge top, the trail begins a long climb up to the shoulder of Little Pine Mountain (4459'). Little Pine is a recent addition to the Lower Peaks List and makes an excellent day hike. After climbing through some gorgeous high meadows on the south slopes of Little Pine, I arrived at the saddle (4012') between Little Pine and Alexander Peak (4107') at about 11:20am (about 5 miles from the trailhead). I was making good time so I decided to bag both of them. I can recommend Little Pine for its views out to Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands. Alexander is just a brush-covered bump with a nice view of Cachuma Lake. I had picked up a couple of ticks along the trail and a few more in the brush on Alexander. This was just a hint of what was to come.
It's another 5 miles to Santa Cruz Campground. The trail is not as well traveled beyond the saddle. It's well maintained, but the grasses crowd the trail making excellent springboards for the hitchhiking ticks. After removing several more I began to keep count (using tick marks, what else?) By the end of the day I had 68 marks on the margin of my map. This is a new record for me and consistent with my experience that the Los Padres Forest is The Empire of the Ticks in spring and summer.
The map shows Little Pine Spring with a campsite at the end of a spur trail about a half-mile down from the saddle. Could this be the water source alluded to by the sign back in Oso Canyon? I don't know. I couldn't see any trace of the spur along the way.
The trail crosses Santa Cruz Creek just before the campground (1935'). (Is everything named 'Santa Cruz" around here?) It crosses at a large pooled section. If you have dry socks in your pack, you may opt to slog across, but I chose to make my way downstream a bit for a dry crossing on rocks. I arrived at the campground at about 3:00pm. The campground consists of several fire rings and picnic tables, all in good repair, under ancient, gnarled live oaks. The nearby Guard Station was unmanned, but in shape to be occupied, with horse pens next door. I pitched my tent, filled my bottles, ate some dinner, checked myself thoroughly for hidden ticks, and turned in early for an alpine start the next day.
I was back on the Santa Cruz Trail at 5:30am. The map shows two track heading up to the ridgeline above the campground. The westernmost may have once been the route of the McKinley Fire Road, but there is no sign of it today. The easternmost is the continuation of the Santa Cruz Trail, marked by a sign near the Guard Station. I was on the ridge top to greet the sunrise. There, at the San Rafael Wilderness boundary, I found a sign pointing ahead to Flores Flat Campground. I had been worried about finding the McKinley Fire Road, but here was a sign pointing up the ridge to McKinley Saddle, 9 miles.
The fire road proved to be surprisingly free of brush. It starts as a footpath through grassy meadows, but soon I found myself walking on a definite roadbed. Santa Cruz Peak appears much more like a real mountain from this side, not just a bump on the horizon as it does from McKinley Saddle. The only brush I encountered was around bump 3464' shortly after starting up the ridge. After that I was on clear, but steep, fire road. I could even avoid the ticks most of the time. I hadn't seen another human being since Little Pine Mountain and wouldn't see any till I returned. Mine were the only human tracks on the fire road. There were lots of coyote and deer tracks, and higher up some large bear tracks. At about 4500' I began to see stands of Coulter Pines along the road providing some shade for the first time that day.
I saw the turn off for the spur road to Santa Cruz after almost walking right by it. The junction is indistinct and the start of the road looks sketchy because of some low manzanita and Coulter saplings growing in the roadbed. I rebuilt a small duck a the intersection. Again, the map shows two tracks connecting to McKinley Fire Road. The southernmost may have once been a firebreak. There is no sign of it today. It was about 9:00am. I congratulated myself on making good time.
I followed the road to the top of bump 5484'. I made the mistake of continuing to the highest point to survey the saddle ahead. The road actually crosses the top and makes its way down to the saddle along the north slope of the bump. It's worth your trouble to find this roadbed. It may be a bit overgrown, but it's not nearly as bad as the alternatives.
As I approached the saddle, I could clearly see the continuation of the road along the north slope of Santa Cruz, as I had seen it from McKinley Saddle in November. There would not be any trouble finding it again after the saddle. But just because you can see it, doesn't mean it's going to be easy.
The reports are true. This section of the road is extremely overgrown, mostly with greenbark and whitethorn ceanothus. Nasty, nasty plants. (I had a few other choice words for them.) After about a quarter mile, the growth became so thick that I despaired of going farther. This is probably the same blockage reported by Karen Isaacson Leverich in The Lookout, March-April. Could the open slopes be any worse? I had passed a small duck before the bad brush. It seemed to indicate that its maker (Mars?) had headed up the slope from there. I decided to head straight up.
Well, I was wrong. The open slopes could be worse. Off the roadbed, it's mostly root sprouting scrub oak and the bare, burned trunks and branches of the former, unburned brush. After a lot of struggling and cussing, I made the summit and signed in. It was now 10:20am, over an hour to go about a half-mile.
I decided to return by the ducked line that leads back toward the west side of the peak. The ducks actually lead through a comparatively less brushy area. When I met the road again, I still had to go back through that thick wall that had blocked my way earlier. If I were to do it again, I would stick with the route as described in the peak guide. If you can push through the wall of brush on the roadbed, you can get to a clearer area ahead and meet the ducked route to the peak. I made it back to the McKinley Fire Road shortly after 11:00am, about two hours of getting up close and personal with the vegetation. (And those guys play rough. I have the marks to prove it.)
I made it back to the campground at about 1:30pm. There was still a 10-mile backpack out to the trailhead. I arrived at my car at Upper Oso at 7:30pm, only needing my headlamp for the last hour of the trip.
Some conclusions. Doing this trip in only two days makes for a very long, strenuous second day. Three days would be better. Even better would be a three-day, car shuttle trip. Day 1: Cachuma Saddle to McKinley Spring, as with the usual route. Bag McKinley and San Rafael as you see fit. Day 2: McKinley Spring to Santa Cruz Peak and then down to Santa Cruz Campground. Day 3: Santa Cruz Campground to Upper Oso Campground, with maybe a side trip to Little Pine Mountain
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