Posted by: James Wapotich | September 29, 2012

Trail Quest: Little Four

The San Rafael Mountains include the highest point within Santa Barbara County, with its three tallest mountains being Big Pine Mountain (6,827’), San Rafael Mountain (6,593’), and McKinley Mountain (6,182’). However each these typically require a multi-day backpacking trip into order to visit. The next grouping of peaks or mountains, sometimes referred to as the Little Four, are Zaca Peak (4,341’), Ranger Peak (4,528’), Figueroa Mountain (4,633’), and Cachuma Mountain (4,696’) each of which of can be visited in a day.

And while an ambitious person might be able to visit all four in a single day, another option would be to car camp at Figueroa Mountain Campground and break it up over two days and take in the trails and scenery.

Each of the peaks or mountains can be reached from Figueroa Mountain Road. An adventure pass is required to park or camp within the Los Padres National Forest.

Of the four, the furthest west and hardest to get to is Zaca Peak. Appearing almost pyramid shaped from Figueroa Mountain Road, this pine and oak covered peak rises above Birabent Canyon and offers great views of the surrounding area.

To get to the trailhead from Los Olivos take Figueroa Mountain Road to Catway Road, which is about a half mile before the turnoff to Figueroa Mountain, both of which are on the left hand side. Catway Road is an unpaved Forest Service road that is seasonally closed. A high clearance vehicle is recommended as the road is rutted and can be challenging at times. [In August 2015 I drove this road after not having driven it for three years. Conditions through the one long steep section have worsened such that I would now recommend 4-wheel drive.]

Continue along Catway Road as it winds its way westward along the top of the San Rafael Mountains. The road then branches with the road to the right continuing along the San Rafeals, and the road to the left, also know as Zaca Ridge Road, continuing towards Zaca Peak.

Zaca Ridge is a spur off of the San Rafael Mountains and between the two is the valley where Zaca Lake is nestled.

From the trailhead continue west along Zaca Ridge Trail as it traverses the front or south facing side of Zaca Peak through mostly manzanita. Less than a quarter mile in start watching for the ridge on your right that descends from Zaca Peak. There is no official trail, but the most viable route is to follow this ridgeline east, back to the peak.

The route is steep and requires some pushing through brush, but at times looks likes it could almost pass for a social trail. Although it’s a tough hike, it is relatively short, and is grassier and more open at the top. From the peak one can see Figueroa Mountain, and in the distance San Rafael Mountain, as well as the Santa Ynez Valley.

Because of the topography one cannot see Zaca Lake from Zaca Peak, however one can return down to Zaca Ridge Trail and continue west along the trail for some great views of the lake. From the connector ridge it’s about a half mile further along Zaca Ridge Trail to the turn off for Grass Mountain, on your left, from here it’s roughly another quarter mile before Zaca Ridge Trail rounds a bend at which point one can see Zaca Lake. The hike to the peak is roughly one mile round trip and with the lake views about 2.5 miles round trip.

Figueroa Mountain is the next summit continuing eastward, and of the four is the easiest to get to as you can drive directly there. Just past the turnoff for Catway Road and before the turn off for Figueroa Campground is the road to Figueroa Mountain. This road is well maintained and is suitable for most vehicles and is a short drive of 2.5 miles to the top. Along the way the road passes Pino Alto day use area and then branches with the road to the left continuing towards Cumbre picnic area and the road to the right continuing to the top of Figueroa Mountain.

From Figueroa Mountain one is treated to incredible views of the surrounding area, including all three of the other peaks, Hurricane Deck and the Sierra Madre Mountains to the north, as well as views down into Davy Brown Canyon and Sunset Valley. And although fenced off, one can also see Figueroa Lookout.

There is a picnic table and parking at the top of Figueroa Mountain, however not much shade and so nearby alternatives for a day trip are Cumbre Picnic area which is nestled under some oaks and Pino Alto day use area which is surround by pines and oaks.

Pino Alto day use area also includes a half mile interpretative trail that describes the various trees along the trail and is great way to soak in some of the natural history of the area. The trail is also paved making it wheelchair accessible, as are three of the picnic sites. A brochure for the interpretive hike is available from the Forest Service’s administrative office at 6755 Hollister Ave. in Goleta.

Ranger Peak is the next summit as one continues east. From the turn off for Figueroa Mountain continue east along Figueroa Mountain Road. The pullout for the Ranger Peak trailhead is somewhat nondescript, however it is the only large pullout on the right with reddish, rust colored gravel that is near a pine covered hill. You’ll know if you passed it as Figueroa Mountain Road continues around the back of Ranger Peak before descending down towards Cachuma Saddle.

From the trailhead, Ranger Peak Trail continues east about a quarter mile to a small saddle. At this saddle Ranger Peak Trail continues southeast descending down towards Happy Canyon Road, however there is a social trail on your left that climbs to the top of Ranger Peak. The trail leads through a mix of wild grasses and bush lupine that are surrounded by oaks and pines. At the half mile mark the trail arrives at Ranger Peak.

The peak is mostly covered with grass and lupine and one lone oak for dramatic effect, that also provides a shady place to rest and take in the scenery. Here one is treated to nearly panoramic views of the surrounding area including the Santa Ynez Valley, nearby Lion Canyon, as well as Figueroa and Cachuma Mountains. The hike to Ranger Peak from Figueroa Mountain Road is about one mile round trip.

The furthest east of the Little Four is Cachuma Mountain and involves a fairly straightforward hike along a Forest Service road for the first 3 miles, and from the summit offers 360 degree views of the surrounding area.

To get to the trailhead for Cachuma Mountain, from Ranger Peak continue east along Figueroa Mountain Road to Cachuma Saddle. One can also reach Cachuma Saddle from Happy Canyon Road as the two meet at the saddle. This is essentially a four-way intersection, with Happy Canyon Road turning into Sunset Valley Road and continuing north towards Davy Brown and Nira Campgrounds and the gated Forest Service road that continues east towards McKinley Mountain.

At Cachuma Saddle there is a large parking area, from here cross Happy Canyon Road and continue eastward along the unpaved Forest Service Road. At about the 3-mile mark you’ll pass a cement water tower on your right and see what looks like a fire break or social trail climbing the west face of Cachuma Mountain. From here it’s less than a quarter mile to the top of this chaparral covered mountain.

From the top one can enjoy views in all directions including out towards the Channel Islands. As with the three other hikes there is no water available along the trail. However about a mile past the connector trail to Cachuma Mountain, continuing along the road, there is a spring and horse trough.

This article originally appeared in section A of the September 29th, 2012 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.


  1. […] later that year, while working on an article about the Little Four, i.e. Zaca Peak, Figueroa Mountain, Ranger Peak and Cachuma Mountain, I was reminded of the Pino […]

  2. […] Grass Mountain one can extend their hike to the top of Zaca Peak or grab some quick views of Zaca Lake. And although I didn’t mention it in the article, you […]

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