Sunday, November 27, 2016

Cachuma Mountain

Hiked: 11/27/2016
Distance: 7.7 miles round trip on dirt road and use trail
Summit Elevation: 4696'
Prominence: 536'
Elevation Gain: 1650'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 1.32
Round trip time: 2 hours 50 minutes
Recommended water: 48 oz.
Parking/Fees: Adventure Pass
Difficulty: Moderate

Cachuma Mountain comes in at #6 on the Lower Peaks list, one of the few in Los Padres National Forest. The hike starts from Cachuma Saddle, a pretty remote location. To get there, take the 101 north out of LA, then go north on highway 154 just north of Santa Barbara. After 11 miles, turn right on Armour Ranch Road, go 1.3 miles, then right again on Happy Canyon Road. Continue on Happy Canyon Road about 37 miles to Cachuma Saddle. You might find cows along one section of the road and there are warning signs. There is also a short stretch of easy dirt road before it becomes paved again. It is a remote trailhead, and I remember thinking I didn't want to get a flat tire or have car trouble this far out. The lack of cell service would have left me to fix any problem myself. Fortunately, I didn't have any car trouble and ended up being the only car at the trailhead.

There was a light rain falling when I parked and it didn't let up while I was on the mountain. I put on my waterproof shell, and got ready for a cold shower. Low clouds limited visibility. I took off at a steady pace, following Cachuma road. It had rained the day before so the road was muddy. I tried to stay just off the road in the grass, sacrificing wet pants to keep mud from building up on my boots. About a mile up the road, I found a string of bear prints. One larger set and one smaller set. Both looked fresh. The prints kept me company for another couple of miles, fading away near the end. When I got to the last saddle, there was some residual snow along the edge of the road. I could finally make out the top of Cachuma through the clouds.

Starting at Cachuma Saddle

Bear print

Looking back at the road

Use trail to the summit

My fingers and toes starting going numb so I stopped for my first break. I put on gloves and cracked a chemical warmer for my hands. I knew I could get my toes warmed by jogging downhill after returning from the summit. I dropped my pack at the saddle and started unsteadily up the muddy use trail. One slip buried my knee in the mud, but I was a drowned rat by then so it didn't make much difference. At the summit, I had a completely worthless view due to the clouds. I took a few blurry photos with my dying camera and signed the register. I really didn't feel like flipping through it, in part to protect it from the rain. I beat a hasty retreat from the summit, gathered my pack and started jogging down the road where it was firm enough. In two places, I followed the bear prints to side canyons where they left the road to see if I could spot the beasts. No luck either time. As I got near the bottom of the road, I was totally shocked to see someone else starting up. It was a friendly gentleman named Glen from San Luis Obispo, who also appeared to be heading up to Cachuma. We talked for a few minutes, then wished each other luck. Despite being cold, wet, and muddy, I was still up for a bonus hike to Castle Peak on the way back.

Blurry benchmark with elevation stamp, but no name

Blurry summit with small register ammo box below

Blurry register

Cachuma on descent, some of the clouds clearing

Descending to the start


  1. Man, that's nice lookin' country. Too bad you didn't get to see much of it. Lol.

    In drier conditions, could you attack the summit from the north and chop off some of that road walk around to the east side?

    1. Madison,

      Very beautiful and lush country, the parts I saw. There are two firebreak shortcuts you can take, potentially cutting the distance in half. I thought about trying one on the way down, but decided to stick to the road.