Los Padres National Forest, California
Distance: 4.6 miles
Traveled: Grass Mountain Trail
“The moment one gives close attention to any thing, even a blade of grass it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.”
– Henry Miller
Admittedly, its been nice to escape the soggy Rocky Mountains for a brief weekend to head back home to Santa Barbara to see my Mom for Mothers Day and catch up with friends.
I come back here to California quite frequently – every few months for a quick trip (thanks Frontier Airlines for the remarkable $58 round-trip tickets I’m always able to score!), and I always try to squeeze in at least one decent hike while visiting my old stomping grounds. When I was here a few months ago I didn’t have a chance to get a hike in, so this time it was mandatory.
Due to the Stage 3 drought conditions, I’m not allowed to bitch about the rain that was in the forecast for most all of this trip – but still, I was admittedly a little bummed. Since the mountains of my home are currently muddy, and just now rising to the occasion of early spring, I was looking forward to a summer-like, dry, hike surrounded by Southern California’s familiar wildflowers. The rain was looking apt to ruin those plans.
Yet, I wouldn’t let the rain stop me. I packed my rain gear and gore-tex Inov8 trail runners, and decided it was definitely still worth a shot.
Fortunately the chance of rain was slim when I headed out in the morning. Originally, I had hoped to do a long 14 miles day back to the Manzana Narrows in the San Rafael Wilderness, but with all of the rain the day before I didn’t trust the creek crossings with my car, so instead I decided to hike up Grass Mountain and traverse over to Zaca Peak. The traverse to Zaca Peak adds an additional 3 miles round-trip, and isn’t nearly a strenuous traverse, so I figure while I’m up there – why not bag another peak?
Grass Mountain is famous for it’s poppy fields in the spring. The mountain, blanketed in orange, is visible for miles. If I had been here a few weeks ago I would have seen it looking like this:
Alas, the poppies are mostly gone back there by now. But, regardless, Grass Mountain is still a worthy climb any time of year. It’s also undeniably a serious climb – which translates it into being a great training hike for the soon-to-be-arriving summer summit pushes at home. At one point the trail gains almost 2,000 feet of elevation in 1.5 miles.
The trail starts out on the property of the Midland School on Figueroa Mountain Road. Starting out, the trail passes under the cover of oaks and follows Alamo Pintado Creek for a bit before beginning the ascent. The trail was a bit muddy, the creek was looking healthy and alive with it’s fresh influx of rainwater from the day before, the air smelled crisp, and the sky was overcast enough that the normal sweltering heat of this time of year was being kept at bay.
Starting the climb, I was thrilled to see a bit of green still lingering in the meadows. For the past several years it has been so horribly dry that the grasses barely left their state of dormancy.
The clouds ahead looked heavy with the possibility of rain and occasionally shrouded the summit.
Leaving the creek behind, the climb began to ramble uphill quite reasonably – winding up hills smothered in blooming sage bushes and the towering stalks of yucca flowers. Occasionally, still-blooming California Poppies poked their way out of the undergrowth, along with Indian Paintbrush, Mariposa Lillies, and Lupine. Though it wasn’t quite nearly up to par with the ridiculous wildflower displays of April, I was still satisfied.
The view back in the other direction was opening up and starting to look so beautiful with the ocean horizon peeking over the mountains of Gaviota in the distance.
The trail entered one last relatively flat meadow where the trail up to the summit was obvious ahead, and there was definitely a steep climb ahead of me.
Now, normally, I always hike with trekking poles. I love them, I rely on them, they are fabulous for fast and safe ascents and descents – but on the one hike where I would truly, truly, truly, benefit from them they were far away at home in Colorado. I didn’t feel like dealing with packing them, and looking at the ridiculous trail ahead I was beginning to regret that decision.
Criminy, this trail was a hot mess. Not only was it super-duper steep (several stretches at an angle I would consider verging on unsafe), but the trail was a wreck and largely washed out. I turned around at points, and the trail was so steep behind me that I couldn’t even see it. I was beginning to dread the downhill.
The wind picked up, the temperature dropped as I neared the summit. On and off the clouds released a few short-lived sprinkles. I pushed to the summit, scrambling up some super-sketchy patches of small scree and loose-rock.
The view was well-worth the climb.
I wanted to sit down for lunch, but before doing-so I walked over the summit to check out the view of Zaca Peak and the San Rafael Mountains on the other side. The mountains behind me were totally socked-in by the clouds. At that point I felt a few more sprinkles and I decided to abandon the idea of traversing to Zaca Peak. Though I knew thunderstorms weren’t a threat, and I had my rain gear with me, I really didn’t like the idea of potentially descending Grass Mountain on that mess-of-a-trail in the rain. Trying to navigate that trail with any water would be incredibly unsafe – especially without my trusty trekking poles.
I decided to play it safe and give my legs a short rest, fuel up, soak in the view and then start heading down.
On the summit is a small Chumash site. Though I don’t know the significance of the poles, I know there were a few Chumash villages in the area in the past, and it’s likely they stand on the summit to mark a place held sacred by the Chumash. At the base of the poles were abalone and other shells which were historically used by the Chumash to make beads .
Heading down it was truly obvious how steep the face of this mountain is.
I had to side-step down most all of the trail near the top of the mountain, as it was way too steep to walk normally.
The views were breathtaking the whole way though, and I stopped way too often to take photos.
Arriving safely down from the super steep section the sun came out long enough to light up the meadows around me again.
The rest of the hike out was quick, and I really took the time to slow down and take it all in before getting back in my car and heading back to civilization. Though I didn’t make it to Zaca Peak, I still felt pretty damn good about the hike. As what it lacked in miles, it definitely made up for in the climb!
Next April I will definitely be back to see Grass Mountain in bloom!