The Mountains of California •
Big Pine Mountain • Highpoint: Santa Barbara County
• Highpoint: San Rafael Mountains
• Dick Smith Wilderness, Los Padres N.F.

Me at the summit rocks

Date: December 17, 2000 • Elevation: 6,800 feet • Prominence: 2,160 feet • Distance: 32 miles • Time: 12 hours • Gain: Over 5,080 feet when ups and downs are included • Conditions: Nice, but chilly • Teammates: Adam Helman


Big Pine Mountain is a remote mountaintop in northern Santa Barbara County. It is the highest peak of the San Rafael Mountains and is protected within the Dick Smith Wilderness of the Los Padres National Forest. A road goes near the top, but this road is gated sixteen miles away, so a round trip journey covers 32 miles. The one-way net gain is over 3,400 vertical feet net, but with many drops and regains along the way. My figure above of 5,080 gross feet is conservative --- it may be as high as 5,400 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 oil town of Maricopa at the south end of the San Joaquin Valley. 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 today with Big Pine Mountain.

From state route CA-166, 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 here. 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 hiking at 5 a.m., walking past the gate, 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.

In two hours, we had covered four miles and gained over 1,800 feet to arrive onto the Santa Barbara Potrero, an elevated meadow at 5,300 feet elevation. We took a break here. Being so close to the Winter Solstice, these being the shortest days of the year, the sun was only now breaching the eastern horizon. It was brighter now, clear and calm, but still very cold, a shade above freezing. At the Potrero, Big Pine Mountain Road branches south.

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 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, elevation 5,203 feet according to the map, eight miles from the trailhead. This point is about a mile north of Chokecherry Spring. We were pleased with our pace, having covered half the distance to the peak already. Conditions were still cold, but with the sun up, not as chilly. It was a clear and calm day so far.

We could see the road continue south, making a long sweeping traverse to achieve a notch where the Madulce Trail comes to meet it. This point was another three miles away and about 800 feet higher. The road was in pretty good shape, but we walked much of it. A real mountain biker would probably have no problem on it, 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. and took another rest break. We had covered 11 miles with another five to go. So far, things had gone very well. We were moving at a good pace, the weather was agreeable, and I felt more energy than I probably should have felt after covering 11 miles. While we were relaxing, two men on horseback appeared. We had a chat with them, then they went on their way. They would be the only people we'd see all day.

The remaining five miles broke down into two segments: a one-mile, 500-foot descent to the Alamar Guard Station, then a four-mile, 1,200-foot ascent to the summit. We debated whether to bring our bikes. The road down to the Guard Station was rocky, so riding it was not an option. We decided to stash the bikes in the bushes here and walk the remainder.

The downhill hike went quickly. The Alamar Station was just a simple shack, and no one was home. The hike to the summit also went fast, the road being better here. We were in heavy pine forest, pine cones on the road, some as big as a football, and heavy. We were mindful that if one fell on us, it could be bad news. We just hoped one would not.

A scant side track branches off the main road and leads to the summit. At 12:15, we arrived on top, the culmination of 16 miles and over 7 hours of hiking and bicycling, although just two or three of those miles was done on the bikes.

The summit is broad and open, ringed by the big pines, but also allowing for distant views. We could see the Channel Islands and the Pacific Ocean, along with a lot of forested ridgetops. The temperature up here was still cool, in the 40s, but clear with no breeze. We lucked out with the weather today. Any rain, fog or breeze could have made this a miserable slog. We spent about thirty minutes wandering the top, tagging any rock outcrops that could be the highest point.

Now for the hike down. It was sobering to contemplate that we had 16 miles to cover, with sunset about four hours away. We moved quickly. Not running or jogging, but with a steady fast walking pace. The hike down to the Alamar Station took an hour, and another 30 minutes to the Madulce Trail Junction and our bicycles. It was 2:45 p.m. now. The sun was lowering to the southwest, creating long shadows. In the shade, the temperature would drop 10 degrees.

We did not really stop for a break here. We unstashed our bicycles and only now would they pay their dividends. Sunset was less than two hours away and we had 11 miles to cover. To now, we had covered 21 miles, of which 18 of those were by foot.

The roads, thankfully, were in decent shape. I mounted my trusty steed, pointed it downhill and let gravity handle the rest. I rarely pedaled, and mainly just governed my speed with the brakes. We weren't moving terribly fast by bicycle standards, but we were able to cover the three miles to the 5,203-foot lowpoint in twenty minutes (doing the math, that comes out to a whopping 9 miles per hour on the bike).

The four mile segment back to the Potrero took a little over an hour. We biked what we could, but walked most of it due to the road's rocky and rutted condition, and that most of it was uphill. It was now roughly 4:30 p.m.. The sun was low and the land was now mostly in shadow. The temperature was dropping fast.

The remaining four miles back to my truck took just 30 minutes. The road was mostly in good shape and we were able to ride virtually the entire four miles out, arriving back to my truck at nearly 5 p.m. on the nose. By now, the sun had essentially set. It was not completely dark, but getting there. We were done! Big Pine Mountain was now ours to claim, and that felt exhilirating.

But we weren't exactly done. Neither of us had any desire to be stuck here any longer than necessary. We didn't lollygag, shake hands and congratulate ourselves. We got off the bikes, stowed them in my truck, got whatever else we needed to get done taken care of, got into the truck and hustled out of there. By now, it was dark.

To say I was exhausted is an understatement. I was thrashed, but also feeling pretty damn pleased. We had covered 32 miles today, roughly 20 by foot, 12 by bicycle. Without the bikes, we were easily looking at another 4 or 5 hours of hiking. There'd be no way we could have done that without coming out near midnight. The bicycles were critical to our success.

The drive back to Maricopa took about an hour. Adam had parked his vehicle at the Motel-9 in town early yesterday morning, where I had stayed at the previous night before we first met up. Adam had not cleared it with the owner, so when we got back, the owner was upset at us, explaining that he had to call it in as a matter of due diligence. Somehow, Adam's family were notified and they assumed the worst and had called out for Search and Rescue to come save him (and presumably me, I am not sure). It took a lot of apologizing from both of us, and a lot of talking by Adam to the owner, his family, and even the sheriff's people, to calm everyone down.

After about 30 minutes of this drama, everyone had mellowed slightly. We transferred Adam's stuff from my truck to his car, and only then congratulated one another for a successful weekend of bagging two peaks, covering 48 miles. Adam got moving soon thereafter.

I was extremely tired and had no desire to start driving anywhere. My plan for the next day was to drive toward the Bay Area to visit my sister. Since I was already standing in the parking lot of the Motel-9, I asked the owner if I could get a room. He was cool. He understood, once it was all explained, that it was a judgement error to leave the car there without permission. My dinner was whatever I could scare up at the nearby mini-mart, and I was fast asleep not long thereafter.

The next day, I began my drive north to the Bay Area. Up next: San Benito Peak in exciting San Benito County, home of the insane dobermans...

(c) 2000, 2023 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. .