Posted by: James Wapotich | February 3, 2014

Trail Quest: Grass Mountain

With its pyramid shape and grassy face, Grass Mountain is one of the more recognizable summits in the San Rafael Mountains. Grass Mountain can be seen from a number of locations throughout the Santa Ynez Valley, including along State Route 154. And although the hike to Grass Mountain is steep, the rewards include exceptional views out across the valley.

The trail to Grass Mountain is part of the network trails associated with Midland School that lead through Birabent Canyon and the foothills of the San Rafael Mountains. These trails offer a variety of riding and hiking opportunities. The hike to the top of Grass Mountain is about five miles roundtrip.

In 2008, with the help of Trust for Public Land and Land Trust for Santa Barbara County, Midland School established a conservation easement covering 2,727 acres of land owned by the school. And it is the land located north of Figueroa Mountain Road within that easement that has been generously opened by Midland School for hiking and equestrian use.

Grass Mountain Midland School Property San Rafael Mountains

Sunset colors paint the face of Grass Mountain

Founded in 1932, Midland School is a co-educational college preparatory boarding school. The school aspires to teach students self-reliance, leadership, and environmental stewardship; and a number of the classes and programs make use of the surrounding land. Each year the entire school also makes a trek to the top of Grass Mountain. For more information about Midland School go to http://www.midland-school.org.

To get to the trailhead, from Los Olivos, follow Figueroa Mountain Road north. The road leads through Alamo Pintado Valley and at about the 6-mile mark the road passes Midland School. Two miles past the school, the road crosses Alamo Pintado Creek, where the trailhead is located. Parking is found in pullouts on both sides of the crossing. From the crossing, Figueroa Mountain Road climbs out of the valley and continues towards Figueroa Mountain Campground.

A one-day hiking permit is required to visit the trails on the Midland Property. Permits can be found in a box outside, at Midland School, as well as at the trailhead. For equestrian access you will need to contact Midland School directly at horseback@midland-school.org. The trails are closed during rainy weather and school events. No camping is allowed on the property.

Grass Mountain Zaca Lake Ridge Midland Trail map hike Los Padres National Forest

Map courtesy Maps.com

A map of the trails is posted along the main trail near the trailhead. The map shows the main routes through the property, however there are also a number of side trails created by grazing cattle over the years that can sometimes be confusing. A portion of the main trails are marked with signs.

For the hike to Grass Mountain continue from the trailhead along the trail that follows Alamo Pintado Creek up Birabent Canyon. Almost immediately the trail branches with Lover’s Loop Trail on the right, and then past that, on the left, a connector trail that crosses the creek and leads over towards the equestrian trailhead.

The trail to Grass Mountain continues up the canyon, along the creek, which is currently flowing. Grass Mountain is visible in the distance much of the way. The trail passes through a mix of riparian plants, chaparral and pine.

At about the half mile mark, the trail crosses the creek arriving at a large sycamore tree. Here, the trail branches again, with the trail to the left connecting over to the trails west of Grass Mountain.

Zaca lake Ridge Peak Trail Santa Barbara hike Midland School Los Padres National Forest

Zaca Peak is seen from the connector trail from Grass Mountain to Zaca Ridge

Stay to the right as the trail continues upstream along the creek. There are several routes mixed together here, one of which leads up to Maple Canyon, however as long as you’re still continuing up Birabent Canyon you’re moving in the right direction.

As you continue up the canyon, be on the lookout for a small side creek on the left, also known as Maple Creek, which usually has at least a trickle of water in it. Just past Maple Creek is the beginning of the trail to Grass Mountain, also on the left. The turnoff for Grass Mountain is not marked, however the trail is distinct and climbs away from Alamo Pintado Creek, while the trail through Birabent Canyon continues upstream and connects with Lover’s Loop Trail.

As the trail to Grass Mountain leaves the creek, it begins its long climb to the top. From here, the trail gains about about 2,250 feet over roughly two miles. The trail is well worn and essentially follows the ridge line between Maple Canyon and the next canyon over to the east.

At about the 1.75-mile mark the trail transitions from chaparral to the the more open grassy hillside that gives Grass Mountain its name. Here, the trail leaves the Midland Property and enters Los Padres National Forest. The trail become noticeably steeper, as it climbs its way up the face of Grass Mountain.

It is from this elevation that one can easily see the sweep of Alamo Pintado Valley and imagine the routes the Chumash might’ve taken through the area.

The Chumash village of Soxtonokmu’ was located near the upper end of Alamo Pintado Valley and was the largest village in the Santa Ynez Valley. A route from Soxtonokmu’ is said to have connected to Kalawashaq’, the second largest village in the valley, which was located along the Santa Ynez River. The route likely led over a small rise to the east of Soxtonokmu’, and down into Lisque Canyon, where Sedgwick Reserve is now located. From there the route likely followed Figueroa Creek downstream to Santa Agueda Creek, which joins the Santa Ynez River near where the intersection of Armour Ranch Road and State Route 154 is now located. The village of Kalawashaq’ was downstream from Santa Agueda Creek along the Santa Ynez River.

From the top of Grass Mountain the views extend out across the valley towards the Santa Ynez Mountains, and along the San Rafael Mountains towards Zaca Peak, Figueroa Mountain, and the other summits along the range.

From Grass Mountain one can extend their hike to take in additional scenery. The trail continues north towards Zaca Ridge. And from Zaca Ridge one can hike to either Zaca Peak or take in views of Zaca Lake.

Continuing north from Grass Mountain the trail transitions into manzanita and follows the ridge line a half mile over to the next summit. The trail is somewhat overgrown, but is still easy enough to follow. Past this unnamed summit, the trail opens up a little bit as it moves through a mix of manzanita and pine, and continues another quarter mile towards Zaca Ridge offering some great views of Zaca Peak.

At about the 4-mile mark from the trailhead, the trail arrives at a sign marking the Zaca Ridge Trail, also known as Zaca Peak Trail. To the left, it’s about a quarter mile west along the trail to a point where one can see the lake. The trail is overgrown in places, but is still easy to follow and the views of the lake are worth the extra effort.

To the right, one can reach Zaca Peak. The hike to Zaca Peak requires more effort and pushing through brush. From the trail juncture it’s about a half mile west along Zaca Ridge Trail to where one would start the quarter mile climb to Zaca Peak. There is no trail to the top of Zaca Peak, but a route can be crafted following the ridge line that intersects Zaca Ridge Trail and climbs the western side of the peak. Because of the topography, one cannot see Zaca Lake from the top.

Regardless of how far you go you’ll get to see some of the rich scenery of Birabent Canyon and the San Rafael Mountains.

This article originally appeared in section A of the February 1st, 2014 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

Zaca Lake Peak Ridge Trail San Rafael Mountains Los Padres National Forest Midland School hike Santa Barbara

Zaca Lake is seen from Zaca Ridge


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