Caliente Mountain • Highpoint: San Luis Obispo County
• Highpoint: Carrizo Plain National Monument
• Central California Coastal Ranges


The Caliente Range from on high


The old WW-II lookout
tower atop the summit

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Date: December 16, 2000 • Elevation: 5,106 feet • Prominence: 2,206 feet • Distance: 17 miles • Time: 6 hours • Gain: 1,300 feet, plus 1,200 feet when all ups and downs are added • Conditions: Crisp and dry • Teammates: Adam Helman

Caliente Mountain is a lonely mountaintop located in eastern San Luis Obispo County. Most of San Luis Obispo County is lovely beaches and lovely hills, and as one moves eastward, lovely mountains and lovely forests. Then there's the east part of the county, which is known as the Carrizo Plain, featuring deserts, stark mountains and salt pans. This is where Caliente Mountain resides. It's a different kind of loveliness out this way. You would never guess the ocean was just 30 miles away.

Way back in 1990, a college friend and I drove to the Los Padres National Forest and camped. He was scouting and hunting for feral pig, and I went along for the experience. We took the usual route getting there, following US-101. When we exited, we went east along state route CA-58 through the Carrizo Plain, the Temblor Mountains and the San Andreas Rift Zone. This was my first time here and I was very surprised how stark and vacant this area was. It's as barren as the basins of Central Nevada.

Caliente Mountain is the highest point in San Luis Obispo County. Adam Helman and I agreed to meet and hike this peak, along with Santa Barbara County's highpoint, Big Pine Mountain, also located in the general region. We planned to hike both peaks over two days. Caliente Mountain's "easiest" route requires 17 miles round trip, which is just a warm-up for the 32 miles needed to hike Big Pine Mountain. If successful, we'd be putting in nearly 50 miles over the weekend.

I drove from Phoenix and 500 miles later, had located myself to the little town of Maricopa, which is about 45 miles southwest of Bakersfield. Maricopa is in the flat Central Valley, but abuts the foothills and mountains of the myriad of coastal ranges. The town is tiny, just a few hundred people. But it does have a decent hotel, the "Motel 9". This is where I stayed the night. Very early the next morning, Adam drove in, and we met one another for the first time. He transferred his gear into my truck, parked his car here at the hotel, and we were off.

From Maricopa, I drove west along route CA-166 to Soda Lake Road, then northwest on Soda Lake Road through the foothills, emerging onto the Carrizo Plain. At first, the Carrizo Plain was socked in with heavy fog. The road itself was unpaved in segments, but there was no one else up here except for us. I stayed on Soda Lake Road for 29 miles to the turn off for Caliente Mountain. The fog dissipated as the sun rose.

From Soda Lake Road, I followed a steeper service road to the range crest, the last mile rather steep on exposed shelf roads that in wet weather would be treacherous to drive. Once at the range crest, I parked near a substantial gate. We were eight miles from the summit. The road goes most of the way to the top, but the gate kept us from driving farther. Instead, we had bicycles to mitigate some of the road travel. We started our trek about 9 a.m.

The first 2.5 miles of road were pretty good, clearly maintained on a regular basis. We came to the top of one ridgepoint where some workers were there, erecting a new tower. They had driven up from a different location, and were surprised to see us. After that, the road's condition grew worse. In another mile and a half, we came to a wrecked trailer set in a clearing, apparently an old ranch-hand residence from years ago. We were about halfway to the top.

The farther we walked, the worse the road became. It essentially petered out into a footpath after two more miles, passing by a helicopter landing pad where we stashed our bicycles. The road then dropped and for the remaining couple of miles, worked its way up and down intervening ridge points until finally emerging to the summit. We arrived here at 12:15 p.m. in clear conditions.

The summit features an old wooden shack, which served as a lookout during World War II. Men were stationed here to keep an eye out for possible air attacks off of the Pacific Ocean that could affect the oil fields near Bakersfield. It was ready to fall over when we were there. The weather was lovely, so we spent the better part of an hour here, relaxing nearby the building and picking out ranges in all directions.

We started the walk out at 1 p.m., picking up our bikes and riding the downhill segments whenever possible. We were able to exit in less than two hours, riding out most of the last four miles on the good service road. We were back to my truck at 3 p.m., which amounted to a six-hour day for us. The bicycles certainly helped cut off a lot of the time for us. After reloading the truck, I inched us down to Soda Lake Road and back to state route CA-166. Instead of returning to Maricopa, we drove west and south on route CA-33 to situate ourselves near tomorrow's big hike, Big Pine Mountain. Being so close to the Winter Solstice, the sun set early this time of year. We were already into dusk as we rolled into camp at the Willow Campground.

Interestingly, the old shack finally collapsed, probably in 2012 or early 2013. I found an interesting report with photographs of the old summit structure. The trailer at the four-mile mark has also decayed into a heap of metal too, judging by his photographs. I wish I had taken more images while there but this was back in 2000 when digital was still very expensive and I wanted to "conserve" my film. Those were the days.

(c) 2000, 2013, 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.