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

Me at the summit rocks

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Date: December 17, 2000 • Elevation: 6,800 feet • Prominence: 2,160 feet • Distance: 32 miles • Time: 12 hours • Gain: 4,800 feet • Conditions: Nice, but chilly • Teammates: Adam Helman

Big Pine Mountain is a remote, scrub- and forest-covered mountaintop buried in the northern hinterlands of Santa Barbara County. It is the highest peak of the San Rafael Mountains and is protected within the Dick Smith Wilderness, Los Padres National Forest. A road goes near the top, but this road is gated closed sixteen miles away. The round trip hike covers 32 miles. The one-way gain is over 4,000 vertical feet. We were looking at a dawn-to-dusk effort at a minimum.

My partner for this peak was Adam Helman. Yesterday, we met for the first time in the scraggly oiltown of Maricopa, in Kern County. There, we convened to hike the highest point of San Luis Obispo County, Caliente Mountain. That peak encompassed 16 miles of effort, much of which we covered with bicycles. We would do the same with Big Pine Mountain.

The only practical way to the trailhead, so to speak, is off of state route CA-166, which cuts across the north boundary of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. We followed a series of rural roads and situated ourselves at the Willow Campground, a basic camping area northeast of Big Pine Mountain. Not surprisingly, we were the only people there. The night was freezing cold. I slept in the open in my truck's bed, and when I awoke around 4 a.m., my biv-sack was covered in a layer of frost.

We drove about a half-mile to where the road is gated. I packed everything up, locked up the vehicle, and we were on our hike at 5 a.m., walking up the gated road along with our bicycles. The morning was uncomfortably cold, but clear and calm, with a half-moon offering enough light to navigate by. Our starting elevation was 3,440 feet.

Our first objective was the Santa Barbara Potrero, an elevated meadow at 5,200 feet, four miles away. In the darkness, we kept a steady pace and arrived to the Potrero at 7 a.m. and took a break here. The sun was barely breaching the eastern horizon, this being close to the Winter Solstice, the shortest days of the year. At the Potrero, another road veers south toward Big Pine's summit.

The first mile of this road was downhill and smooth, so we rode it on our bikes, covering it in 10 minutes. The next mile was a slight uphill, gaining 400 feet in a mile, which we walked. After that, we had two more downhill miles, but the road was rutted enough that we walked most of it. Still, we covered this four mile segment in about 90 minutes, arriving at a lowpoint of the hike, eight miles in from the trailhead. We were pleased with our pace.

We could see our road continue south, making a long sweeping gain to achieve a notch where the Madulce Trail comes to meet it. This point was another three miles away and about a thousand feet higher. Although the road was in pretty good shape, we walked much of it. A real mountain biker would probably have no problem, but we wanted to conserve our energy whenever possible, and for us, walking was more efficient. This segment took us another 90 minutes.

We arrived to this notch at about 10:30 a.m.. We had covered 11 miles with another five to go. Two men on horseback appeared and we chatted with them, then they went on their way. Adam and I debated whether to bring the bikes with us for the remaining segment. The road from the notch was downhill at first but very rough. We decided to stash the bikes in bushes near the Madulce Trail junction.

We continued our trek, dropping 500 feet in elevation in a mile and a half to Alamar Station, then from there, gaining about 1,100 feet in another three miles to just below the summit, where a lesser jeep track veers off to the actual top. We dutifully followed these roads and at 12:15, we arrived onto the broad summit of Big Pine Mountain, with its big pine trees. We spent a few minutes checking out a couple of rock outcrops to be sure we had visited the actual highest point.

We took a well-deserved break up top. The weather was clear but very cool, mid 40s at the warmest. We could see some of the Channel Islands as well as a multitude of peaks and ranges in all directions, including yesterday's peak, Caliente Mountain. The humid ocean air created haze to block out the farthest of the views. We stayed up here about 30 minutes.

We still had to retrace those 16 miles, and we had about three hours of daylight to do so, given that the sun would set about 4:30 p.m., so we didn't waste time. We walked back to Alamar Station in about an hour, and to the Madulce Trail junction in another 30 minutes. It was 2:45 p.m. and the sun was already getting low. In the shadows, the air temperature seemed to drop 20 degrees. We unstashed our bikes and finally got to ride them.

We covered the three miles to the lowpoint in the road (the one 8 miles from the trailhead) in 20 minutes. I didn't pedal at all. I just pointed the bike and let gravity do the rest. All I did was govern my speed and steering. From here to the Potrero, we walked much of it due to its rutted condition. We arrived back at the Potrero at 4:30 p.m., the shadows becoming long by now. We didn't stop for a proper break, but instead kept moving.

We covered the remaining four miles to my truck in 40 minutes. By now, the day was into dusk and darkness would be here very soon. We were thrilled to have succeeded on this 32-mile journey, and the bikes had paid wonderful dividends. However, we didn't waste time. We packed up and got rolling, trying to be back onto the better roads as soon as we could. From here, we drove back into Maricopa so that Adam could get his vehicle, which he had parked at a hotel in town. This begat a little drama to end the day.

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. The owner 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 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 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, 2016 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.