Lizard Head, Cuyama Peak
30 September 2001
By: Karen Isaacson Leverich
When Sandy Sperling and I visited the Cuyama Peak Lookout in mid-September, I noticed that we were just north of Upper Tinta Campground, and could see the two firebreaks that started there and went up the ridge to the south. One of them, I dimly recalled, was part of the route to Lizard Head. I sure hoped it was the right hand one, which while longer, looked to be much lower angled. Well, of course, things seldom work out so nicely. It would be the nasty steep firebreak we would ascend on September 30th. We were all quite impressed with ourselves for having done it, when later that day, we stood on Cuyama looking back at where we'd been.
The meeting place for this hike was the junction of Highway 33 and Soda Lake Road. The group (Mars Bonfire, Joanne Griego, Brian and Karen Leverich, Martin Parsons, Ping Pfeffer, and Ingeborg Prochazka) gathered at the abandoned Union Station there at the top of Grocers Grade (closed for a decade now but still proudly proclaiming itself open on its highest sign). We headed south on 33, then west on 166 until we'd crossed the Cuyama River (preferring to do so on a bridge rather than fording it), thence south and up Santa Barbara Canyon, and east up Dry Canyon (a bit soggy at the initial ford but easy enough to cross) to the Lizard Head parking area. The roads were in good shape, though a bit intimidating to those with only 2WD.
Brian and I had hiked in Tinta Canyon last year, starting at the Lower Tinta Campground and heading up, although turning back before making it all the way up to Upper Tinta Campground. The upper and lower canyons are very different -- the lower portion of the canyon is steeper, narrower, with dryer rockier terrain. The upper portion, down which we hiked for maybe a mile, is more open and gentle, almost a meadow. We appreciated in advance that on the way back out, our final uphill segment would be so gentle of slope that we might not even notice.
Although the trail in Tinta Canyon is a motorcycle trail (Lizard Head itself is in the Dick Smith Wilderness, but this portion of the trail is on the wilderness boundary), it doesn't get nearly the level of use that the motorcycle trails near Tecuya Mountain and Lockwood Point attract. This made for fairly easy walking, we seldom had to slog through deep dust, and didn't walk that far along rocky gullies. Upper Tinta Campground has seen better days -- most of the improvements that had been made there (whatever those improvements might have been) have been destroyed by irresponsible visitors. We stopped there anyhow, and enjoyed the shade (this day was substantially warmer than the day before when Mars, Ping, Martin and I had hiked to Caliente) before leaving the motorcycle trail and (to quote Mars) having to work a bit.
Now there was an understatement. Although it starts out gently enough, that firebreak just goes up and up and up. Hang on while I consult the topo. Well, this doesn't sound that awful: maybe 1200' in just under a mile? I suppose it seemed a struggle because it was so warm, and so relentless. The discouraging part, though, was that once we were at the top and asked the inevitable question ("Where's the peak?"), Mars looked way off in the distance, not to the next ridge, but the one past it, and pointed to a rocky speck way way out on that distant ridge. Can anyone tell me why lowly Lizard Head is on the list, instead of the peak where we stood looking at it (Tinta, 5804', according to my Dick Smith Wilderness map)? Grumble! Oh, wait, never mind -- we weren't actually on Tinta Peak. That peak lies west on the ridge a bit. Still, it would've probably been easier to get there (maybe on the kinder gentler firebreak?) than Lizard Head.
The other unanswered question from the day is ... whyever is it called Lizard Head? Those with active imaginations (especially by day's end, when we were getting a bit punchy from tiredness) could maybe pretend they saw a lizard's head, the more imaginative even an entire lizard. Though perhaps if we'd come at it from Route 2 (ascending Rancho Nuevo Creek), and seen it from the other side? Well, I suppose that's a research question we can postpone for some other day.
The good news is that for most of the way from the Tinta ridge out to Lizard Head there was an old firebreak we would follow. The bad news is that it was an old firebreak, and thus a bit overgrown. The worse news is that the firebreak doesn't go all the way to Lizard Head -- it ends maybe a mile away. But an overgrown firebreak is better than no firebreak at all. Ask Ingeborg, who did this hike in shorts.
The hike from the Tinta ridge to the "peak" (it's hard to take a peak seriously when you're looking down at it) was a long run along intersecting ridges, up and down, sometimes tiresomely steep, but never as long and relentless as that first stretch up out of Tinta Canyon. The views are awesome. From Ray Ford's "A Hiker's Guide To The Dick Smith Wilderness": "Though not a land of pristine beauty, this newly-created wilderness was Dick Smith's kind of country. To him it was not forbidding, but a world of unsullied grandeur, a land he thought of as inner wilderness, where beauty came not so much from an appreciation of its surface features but something that developed from within, personal growth that evolved in the face of wilderness challenge." All that, yes, but this land does possess a unique beauty in its surface features as well: the sandstone outcroppings, the serrated ridges, even the chaparral (when one is looking at it from afar rather than pushing through it.) Because of its remoteness and wildness, this may be one of my favorite HPS peaks to date...
Eventually, we worked our way across all those ridges and all that brush to arrive on the peak.
Thinking about all the ups and downs we had to do to get back to the cars, and looking down a gentle-looking (who knows what reserves of brush it held, however) slope to Rancho Nuevo Creek, I wondered briefly if Route 2 (hike several miles along a trail following Rancho Nuevo Creek, then climb some ridge or another to reach Lizard Head) wouldn't have been an easier hike, even if the miles were longer. Certainly the drive to the trailhead (although it involves fording the Cuyama River) would have been much shorter. At least once one reached the peak, it would have been downhill all the way out. Oh well!
It was almost dusk by the time we hiked (slowly, we were tired) back out of Tinta Canyon to the cars. But not quite! So after swapping our boots for sandals, and hydrating a bit, everyone piled into the two 4WD SUVs and headed up the last three miles of dirt road to our second peak for the day, Cuyama Peak Lookout.
We looked over at the firebreak we'd climbed, impressed. (It had seemed long and steep, but that long and steep, wow!) Then we hiked the last few feet of road
Well, almost. There was still the small matter of driving out. The 4WD cars did OK, but for Ingeborg's Jimmy, it was a struggle. The first two cars out (Ping and Martin in her pickup, Brian and I in the Cherokee) waited at a vista point in Santa Barbara Canyon until we had seen Mars' and Ingeborg's cars successfully make it out to the easier roads. Then we headed out, Martin and Ping for the city, Brian and I for a wonderful steak dinner in Ventucopa. What a wonderful weekend this had been!
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