Big Pine Mountain • Highpoint: Santa Barbara County
• Range Highpoint: San Rafael Mountains

Date Climbed
December 17, 2000

6,800 feet

32 miles

12 hours

4,800 feet

Morning frost, cool, clear
and windy during the day

2,160 feet

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Me at the summit rocks

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The highpoint of Santa Barbara County, Big Pine Peak, ranks as one of the toughest of California's 58 county highpoints mainly due to its length, which is 32 miles round trip. All of the hike is along a gated-shut road. Thus, it's an easy hike, but requires a lot of effort and a willingness to put up with the tedium of walking a road. The general area is pretty, a typical Southern Californian Coastal Range complex of peaks, covered in chaparral down low, and bigger pines and oaks higher up. A lot of it is protected as wilderness. The peak is located in the northeast part of the county, with the only practical access from state route CA-166 in neighboring Ventura county.

My hiking partner for this peak was Adam Helman, who had accompanied me on Caliente Mountain (San Luis Obispo county) the day before. That one was 16 miles round trip, which we completed with a combination of bicycles and hiking. We used Caliente Mountain to gauge our readiness for Big Pine, which we would also do by a combination of hiking and biking. After following a few poor paved roads and staying true to the description in Gary SUttle's California County Highpoints book, we made our way to the locked gate at the trailhead late in the day (in the dusk, actually), then backtracked about 0.5 mile and camped at the Willow Campground, which was pretty basic but had some decent pullouts. Not surprisingly, we were the only people there for the night. We camped under the stars (Adam on the ground, and me in the bed of my truck) and awoke at 3:45 a.m. in sub-freezing weather. The outside of my bivvy-sack was crusted in frost. We packed up camp, drove to the locked gate, got our gear and bikes ready and started in, a shade after 5 a.m. It was still dark but we were assisted by a half-moon which gave us enough light to see our way up the initial portion of the route.

The route to Big Pine Mountain is 16 miles one way, of which 15.5 miles is a fairly well-tended dirt road, easily wide enough for a vehicle. Were it not for a locked gate at the start, we could easily have driven the whole length and just scampered up the final half-mile track to the summit. But no deal. We would have to make the summit under our own power. While I wasn't looking forward to hiking 32 miles, I was eager to test myself under these conditions: I had never hiked a trail this long in one 24-hour period, although I had hiked 30+ miles in two days on other occasions. I was as mentally prepared as I could be.

The locked gate is at 3,440 feet elevation. The first portion of the route is four miles in length and gains about 1,800 feet in a fairly steady grade to a road junction at "Santa Barbara Potrero" (so named on the map), an open grassy meadow at 5,200 feet elevation. Because it was still dark, we walked the entire distance, leading our bikes along with us. We arrived at the junction at 7 a.m. just as the sun was rising. We turned south onto the road leading to Big Pine's summit and continued on.

The first mile south of the potrero was slightly downhill and fairly smooth, so we rode this on our bikes and covered it in 10 minutes. Then, there was an uphill portion for another mile in which we gained 400 feet, which we walked. Then, two more miles of mostly downhill, but featuring badly-rutted and rocky road which forced us to walk much of it. This brought us to a low-point along the road, four miles south of the Potrero and eight miles from the start. We covered this in about an hour and we were happy to be making good time. We took a food break at 8:30 a.m., now roughly halfway to the top.

From our lowpoint on this road, we had a sweeping view of the valleys and hills around us, as well as the road that we had just traveled and still had to travel. Looking to the south, we saw the road make a long gentle gain to a notch off in the distance. We figured it was about three miles to this point. The map showed 1,000 feet of gain, and while the road was mostly good and mostly of a consistent grade, we ended up walking much of it, pushing our bikes along with us. I am sure a normal mountain biker would have had the legs to ride up this section, but we did not. It was interesting to learn that hiking and biking muscles are not necessarily the same.

At this point, we passed the one and only spring along the route, at Chokecherry Spring. The water looked nasty, and besides, we had enough anyway. It took us roughly 90 minutes to get to the notch, arriving about 10:30 a.m. The Madulce Trail comes up here, and there's a wide clearing as well. We figured we still had over four miles still to go to the summit, but we were feeling good, making good time, and the weather was holding very nicely. We took another break. Two men on horseback came up from the Madulce Trail and we had a short chat. They were the only other people we saw all day.

From the notch the road descends for about a mile and a half down bad road to Alamar Station, losing about 500 feet. From Alamar Station, the hike up to Big Pine summit is still about three miles, up more road and up another 1,100 feet. We figured under normal circumstances this would probably take us maybe four hours, so viewing it this way made the final portion seem easy. Hence, we decided not to bring our bikes for the remainder of the hike, stowing them instead in thick manzanita scrub brush at the notch.

We walked down to Alamar Saddle in about a half-hour, then made the slow stroll up the road to Big Pine Peak, leaving the main road to follow some jeep ruts up to the broad top, arriving at 12:15 in the afternoon, a little over seven hours after starting. The top is quite broad and full of big pine trees, with big pine cones, the kind that are potentially dangerous if they fall and hit you cleanly on the head. Fortunately, I have plenty of natural padding up there, so I wasn't too worried. Adam was ahead of me and seeking out the top rocks. Two distinct rocky jumbles seem to vie for the highpoint, and we visited both while eating lunch. The weather was nice but very cool. Views in most directions were blocked by forest, but looking west toward the ocean we could see the water, plus some of the Channel Islands. We enjoyed the views very much. Caliente Mountain from yesterday was visible to the north. Haze occluded the farthest peaks, hiding them in veils of shades of blue.

While it felt great to have made the summit after 16 miles of walking, we knew our job was just half done: we still had 16 miles to egress, although most of it downhill. We walked back to Alamar Saddle in about an hour, and up to the notch, arriving there at 2:45 p.m. To this point we had covered about 21 miles of which we walked about 18 of them. We unstashed our bikes from the brush and finally got a chance to use them to our advantage. So close to the winter solstice, the sun was already getting pretty low, and shaded areas were already developing a biting cold to them. While Adam chose to take a small break at the notch, I grew uncomfortable in the cold and decided to get moving.

The bike was wonderful! The downhill portion to the low-point of the road, a three-mile segment, took about 20 minutes to cover. I didn't pedal much, and just had to govern my speed and avoid obvious dangers. Adam arrived a few minutes later. We had four miles to hike to the Potrero and the road junction. As was the case coming in, this section had some uphill bits that we walked, and some downhill sections that we rode. We arrived at the Potrero about 4:30 in the afternoon. The sun was already behind the peaks, putting us in shade, and getting lower very fast and leaving us maybe 45 minutes of daylight. Hence, we didn't delay, and started our ride out.

The last 4 miles, in which we descended 1,800 feet on good road, took about 30 minutes. We arrived back to my truck just after 5 p.m. just as the dusk was evolving into darkness. We took some time to change into drier clothes and stow our bikes and packs, but didn't delay too much, as we wanted to be back out of the hills before it was pitch black. Well, we didn't quite manage that, but we were back on the main highways in short order, on our way back to Maricopa where Adam's car was parked at a hotel.

The day ended with some drama: the hotel owner thought the car had been abandoned so he called the police who traced it to Adam. The police contacted his family, who in turn assumed the worst and called Search and Rescue out for us. We had to do some smooth talking to soothe the owner who wasn't too pleased about all this (Adam should have told him his intentions). But we can't blame him; he did the right thing. Adam got his gear loaded and started the drive home to San Diego, while I was tired and ready for a shower and bed, so I asked the upset owner if he had a room to rent, and I stayed there another night. I ate from the quickie-mart across the street and was crashed by 8 p.m., utterly exhausted, but thrilled to have completed both hikes in one long weekend.

My thanks to Adam for his able companionship and company. While neither hike was technical, both were long and potentially tedious without someone to chat with. We talked a lot about mathematics. Bringing the bikes was also a winner. We completed this hike in 12 hours exactly, covering about 11 of the miles on bike which probably shaved off three to four hours of hiking. What would have been a 16-hour death march was now just a 12-hour grunt. Had we been better mountain bikers we may have even done the trip faster.

The next day I began my drive north to the Bay Area to visit with my sister and hike a few county highpoints up there, none requiring any length or time, fortunately. Up next: San Benito Peak in exciting San Benito County, home of the insane dobermans...

(c) 2000, 2013 Scott Surgent. For entertainment purposes only. This report is not meant to replace maps, compass, gps and other common sense hiking/navigation items. Neither I nor the webhost can be held responsible for unfortunate situations that may arise based on these trip reports. Conditions (physical and legal) change over time! Some of these hikes are major mountaineering or backpacking endeavors that require skill, proper gear, proper fitness and general experience.