Posted by: James Wapotich | February 22, 2013

Trail Quest: McKinley Mountain

Within Santa Barbara County there are three mountain ranges that one can visit, the Santa Ynez, San Rafael and Sierra Madre Mountains. And while each offer compelling views of the surrounding area, somehow because they’re in the middle, the San Rafael Mountains can be the most enticing. The San Rafael Mountains include the tallest mountain in Santa Barbara County, Big Pine Mountain, 6,827’, as well a half dozen other tall peaks or mountains that one can visit.

McKinley Mountain, 6,182’, is third or fourth largest in the range, depending if you count West Big Pine 6,490’, and of those McKinley Mountain is comparatively easier to get to than Big Pine, West Big Pine or even San Rafael Mountain, 6,593’.

McKinley Mountain is reached from Cachuma Saddle by way of McKinley Fire Road, along the top of the San Rafael Mountains. The hike is 20 miles round-trip, and while there are those who start before dawn and can complete the hike in a single day, another option is to backpack in and camp at nearby McKinley Spring.

The route follows McKinley Fire Road most of the way, which offers several benefits. There is no brush or poison oak to contend with, which allows one to make better time than on some our more overgrown trails. The route is suitable for both horseback and mountain bike and offers incredible views of both the Santa Ynez Valley and the backcountry. There are also two separate springs and horse troughs along the road for water.

To get to the trailhead from Santa Barbara take State Route 154 over San Marcos Pass, continue past Cachuma Lake. As State Route 154 crosses the Santa Ynez River look for Armour Ranch Road on your right. You’ll know if you passed it if you arrive at the turn off of State Route 246. Continue along Armour Ranch Road and look for Happy Canyon Road on your right.

Happy Canyon Road is a pleasant drive in and of itself, the route leads past vineyards and then ranch country before climbing out of the valley and making its way to the trailhead at Cachuma Saddle.

As one looks at the San Rafael Mountains from the Santa Ynez Valley, Cachuma Saddle is at a noticeable low point along the ridge line making it a logical place for a pass into the backcountry. At Cachuma Saddle, Happy Canyon Road meets Figueroa Mountain Road, coming over from Los Olivos. The two roads form essentially a four-way intersection, Happy Canyon Road continues north becoming Sunset Valley Road, and Figueroa Mountain Road ending just as McKinley Fire Road begins.

McKinley Fire Road is a gated, unpaved Forest Service road. There is a large dirt parking area at Cachuma Saddle where one begins the hike.

From the trailhead continue east along the road as it winds its way from Cachuma Saddle to the top of the San Rafael Mountains. Here one is greeted with views of Hurricane Deck and the Sierra Madre Mountains to the north. The road passes through mostly chaparral dotted with coulter pines.

At about the 3-mile mark the road passes a cement water tower, on your right. Just past the water tower there is a fire or fuel break that leads to the top of Cachuma Mountain, 4,696’. The social trail that follows the fire break to the top is overgrown and steep in places, but less than a quarter mile in length. From top of Cachuma Mountain one is treated to nearly panoramic views of the area.

McKinley Fire Road continues around Cachuma Mountain and at the 4-mile mark arrives a metal water tank with a faucet and trough. This unnamed spring can make for a nice place to take a break, as one can get water and rest at the picnic table.

From here the road continues east towards Hell’s Half Acre and offers some great views out across the Santa Ynez Valley. Hell’s Half Acre is a large, grassy potrero, or pasture along the top of the mountains. Just past Hell’s Half Acres the road passes through a grove of spruce trees growing along the north side of one of the ridge. And it’s interesting to note how much the plant communities can differ depending on whether or not they have southern or northern exposure.

From here the road continues its climb, and at about the 8-mile mark arrives at the Big Cone Spruce trailhead, where one also finds a picnic table. Big Cone Spruce Trail leads down to Manzana Creek and can make for an alternate backpacking route from the trailhead at Nira, at the end of Sunset Valley Road, to McKinley Spring.

At about the 9-mile mark the trail arrives at McKinley Spring. The campsite has two picnic tables and fire ring with a klamath stove.

A half mile later McKinley Fire Road arrives at McKinley Saddle and at what is essentially a four way intersection. To the left is the half mile social trail that leads to the top of McKinley Mountain. Straight ahead is the Santa Cruz Peak Fire Trail which drops down below the ridge and eventually leads towards Santa Cruz Station in the San Rafael Wilderness. And to the right, continuing eastward along the top of the San Rafael Mountains is Mission Pine Trail.

The trail to the top of McKinley Mountain is overgrown in places, but from top one is treated to great views across the Santa Ynez Valley, the Santa Ynez Mountains and on a clear day out to the Channel Islands. To the west along the Santa Ynez Mountains one can see Gaviota Peak, and along the San Rafael Mountains one can see Ranger Peak, Figueroa Mountain and Zaca Peak. To the north in addition to Hurricane Deck and the Sierra Madre Mountains, one can also see the tops of the Caliente Mountains.

And while one might typically bring a map along with them on a hike anyway, this hike because of all the different places one can see is definitely enhanced by having a good map with which you can start to identify all the mountains and features you are seeing.

At the top of McKinley Mountain one can also find what’s left of McKinley Lookout. The lookout was built in 1935 as part of the Aircraft Warning System (AWS) and was later destroyed in a windstorm and removed by the Forest Service in 1974.

McKinley Mountain is named for President William McKinley. In 1891 an act was passed that allowed the President of the United States to create reserves, the early forerunners to our National Forests. In 1898 President McKinley created the Pine Mountain and Zaca Lake Reserves and a year later Santa Inez Forest Reserve. President Theodore Roosevelt later combined these three into the Santa Barbara Forest Reserves. In 1907 forest reserves became national forests, and over the years the forest reserves in San Luis Obispo and Monterey Counties were added to Santa Barbara National Forest. However, because of the area it then encompassed many people felt that the name Santa Barbara National Forest was no longer appropriate and in 1938 the name was changed to Los Padres National Forest.

From McKinley Saddle one can also continue along Mission Pine Trail to San Rafael Mountain. From the saddle it’s an extra 3.5 miles roundtrip and so this hike is best done as part of backpacking trip. Mission Pine Trail passes near the top of San Rafael Mountain and so there is little additional effort required to reach it. From the top of San Rafael Mountain in addition to views available at McKinley Peak, one is also treated to views looking out across Santa Cruz Creek drainage towards the backside of Little Pine Mountain and expansive views towards the east.

This article originally appeared in section A of the February 22nd, 2012 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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