Posted by: James Wapotich | May 22, 2014

Trail Quest: Big Pine Mountain

Located at the eastern end of the San Rafael Mountains, Big Pine Mountain, 6,827 feet, has the distinction of being the highest point in Santa Barbara County. In our local area, the next highest mountains are found along Pine Mountain in Ventura County with Reyes Peak coming in at 7,514 feet, and the mountains associated with Mt. Pinos in Ventura and Kern Counties, with the tallest being Mt. Pinos, 8,831 feet.

However, because of its remoteness, Big Pine Mountain sees far fewer visitors than Reyes Peak or Mt. Pinos.

Two of the more common ways of reaching the summit are from Cachuma Saddle, along the top of the San Rafael Mountains, and from Cuyama Valley by way of Santa Barbara Canyon to Madulce Camp and Buckhorn Road. Both routes are best done as part of a multi-day backpacking trip as Big Pine Mountain is about 25 miles from Cachuma Saddle and about 14 miles from the trailhead in Santa Barbara Canyon.

Big Pine Mountain hike trail Los Padres national forest

Big Pine Mountain is seen from Mission Pine Trail near West Big Pine

The route along the top of the San Rafael Mountains follows McKinley Mountain Road and Mission Pine Trail from Cachuma Saddle to Buckhorn Road, and as part of a larger backpacking trip can make for an interesting way to visit Big Pine Mountain.

Cachuma Saddle is reached from Santa Barbara by taking State Route 154 north, past Lake Cachuma and turning onto Armour Ranch Road. From Armour Ranch Road, turning onto Happy Canyon Road, which climbs out of the Santa Ynez Valley towards Cachuma Saddle.

From Cachuma Saddle it’s roughly 9 miles east along McKinley Mountain Road to McKinley Spring Camp, where water can be found; and another half mile to McKinley Saddle and the beginning of Mission Pine Trail.

map Big Pine Mission Pine Trail Los Padres National Forest

Map courtesy

Mission Pine Trail continues east along the ridge line, passing San Rafael Mountain, and arriving at Mission Pine Spring Camp, where one can find reliable water. Past Mission Pine Spring the trail continues towards Mission Pine Basin and the top of Santa Cruz Trail.

Intermittent water can sometimes be found in the creek just east of the Santa Cruz Trail juncture, but it is not a reliable water source. There is no water along Mission Pine Trail to the east, nor at Buckhorn Road. From Buckhorn Road, the next reliable water is about 4 miles north at Upper Bear Camp, or about 4.5 miles south at Bluff Camp, so careful planning is advised.

Mission Pine Trail from McKinley Saddle to Mission Pine Basin is in generally good shape. However, past Mission Pine Basin, the trail becomes more challenging. As one continues east, the trail threads its way through chaparral and several different side washes, following what, at times, can seem like a convoluted route; fortunately the trail is well-marked with cairns.

About halfway between Mission Pine Basin and West Big Pine, the trail crests one of the rises along the ridge offering views of West Big Pine in the distance. The trail then passes through several badly overgrown sections, including a series of switchbacks, before arriving at a low saddle and making the final climb towards West Big Pine. Here, trail conditions start to improve somewhat.

At about the 5.5-mile mark from Mission Pine Basin, the trail arrives at a signed trail juncture. From here it’s a short hike to the top of West Big Pine.

From West Big Pine the views include San Rafael Mountain to the west, the Santa Ynez Mountains and Channel Islands to the south, Big Pine Mountain, Mt. Pinos and Frazier Mountain to the northeast, and the Sierra Madre Mountains and Caliente Range to the north.

Big Pine Mountain hike trail Santa Barbara Los Padres National Forest

Conifers are seen alon the trail to Big Pine Mountain

At West Big Pine one can also find the cement foundations from the lookout that once stood there. To the left of the foundations, tucked up in the rocks, is the peak register, where you can add your name to the list of other adventurers who made it this far.

Past West Big Pine, Mission Pine Trail follows the old road cut that led to the lookout from Buckhorn Road, and trail conditions improve significantly.

At about the 7-mile mark from Mission Pine Basin, 14.5 miles from McKinley Saddle, Mission Pine Trail arrives at Buckhorn Road; this intersection is sometimes referred to as Windy Gap.

To the north along Buckhorn Road one can reach Big Pine Mountain, as well as craft various loop or shuttle hikes, such as following Sisquoc River Trail towards South Fork Station, and back towards Nira or Cachuma Saddle. To the south along Buckhorn Road one can access Grapevine Trail and connect to Santa Cruz Trail and return to Cachuma Saddle or continue to Upper Oso.

To reach Big Pine Mountain, continue north along Buckhorn Road. About a quarter of a mile later, the road passes the turnoff for Big Pine Camp on the left.

The signed trail leads about .25 miles down to Big Pine Camp, where one can find a spring, boxed in a metal culvert; however the water in the spring isn’t always that appealing. Surprisingly, the camp has six different campsites, each of which at one time had an ice can stove set in a cement foundation, remnants from when Big Pine Camp was a car camping destination.

Prior to World War II, Buckhorn Road was open to the public and provided a route across the backcountry to Cuyama Valley. The road now separates the San Rafael and Dick Smith Wildernesses, but is itself not designated wilderness, and therefore is open to mountain bikes. And while this does make for an alternate way to reach the trail to Big Pine Mountain, it is nonetheless 15 miles from where one can access the road near Santa Barbara Canyon.

Continuing north past the turnoff to Big Pine Camp, it’s roughly another half mile to the unmarked turnoff to Big Pine Mountain. The trail, on the right, follows the old, somewhat overgrown road cut that leads to the top of Big Pine Mountain. The trail is about .75 miles long and leads through mostly pines and cedar.

Big Pine Mountain, like Pine Mountain, Mount Pinos and similar places in our backcountry, can best be described as an island of pines in a sea of chaparral. That is, many of these summits are dominated by conifers, with typically chaparral climbing the southern face and pines extending along the northern face; and each summit often separated from the next by chaparral.

On Big Pine Mountain, the dominant trees are jeffery pine, sugar pine, white fir and cedar. Unfortunately many of these were badly damaged in the 2007 Zaca Fire. In fact, most of the trees on the top of Big Pine Mountain have been burned.

As the old road cut reaches the top it veers to the left, while an informal trail leads to the right and pile of sandstone rocks – the official top of Big Pine Mountain. Here, one can find the peak register. By wandering around the top of the mountain one can take in nearly panoramic views of our backcountry.

An alternate way to reach Big Pine Mountain is from Cuyama Valley; this is the route favored by peak baggers, who make the trek to visit what’s referred to as the “Big Four”, that is, Big Pine Mountain, West Big Pine Mountain, Madulce Peak, and Samon Peak.

The route starts from the trailhead in Santa Barbara Canyon and follows Santa Barbara Canyon Trail to Madulce Camp, and then Madulce Trail to Buckhorn Road, along the way passing the side trail that leads to Madulce Peak. From the Buckhorn Road one can base camp at Upper Bear Camp and visit Big Pine and West Big Pine Mountains to the north, and Samon Peak to the south. Of the four summits, Samon Peak is the most challenging to reach, following an overgrown off-trail route that starts near Chokecherry Spring.

This article originally appeared in section A of the May 17th, 2014 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Big Pine Mountain Los Padres National Forest San Rafael Mountains highest point Santa Barbara County

Burned trees are all that remain from the pines at the top of Big Pine Mountain

Mission Pine Trail conditions summary: past Fall Canyon Trail, Mission Pine Trail is indistinct in places but well marked with cairns. As it climbs out of the basin and traces a ridge line east through the manzanita and chamise the trail becomes more overgrown, but still passable.

The trail then winds its way through chaparral and a number of small washes, here again the cairns are helpful. The trail then transitions, cutting across the south face of the ridge line; here the trail is noticeably overgrown, not dense growth, but with chaparral crowding in and wild grasses growing in the tread.

The trail then somewhat counter-intuitively descends down the south face of the mountain before turning east and eventually climbing a somewhat overgrown ridge line back towards the top of the mountain before continuing east.

As it continues towards a noticeably exposed summit trail conditions improve. Past the summit, as the trail continues along the ridge line, it again becomes more overgrown, with the worst section being a set a switchbacks that descend down towards a small saddle just before the final climb towards West Big Pine. At several points along the switchbacks the trail is actually closed up with chaparral.

As the trail climbs away from the low saddle it is also brushy in a number of places, but eventually starts to improve as it continues towards West Big Pine. Past West Big Pine trail conditions generally improve as the trail follows the old rut cut that led to the lookout from Buckhorn Road.


  1. […] 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 […]

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