Posted by: James Wapotich | November 30, 2015

Trail Quest: McPherson Peak

Although we can’t see them, there are actually three sets of mountains behind Santa Barbara. These mountains are part of the Transverse Range. Along the coast are the Santa Ynez Mountains, which we can see from downtown. Inland, to the north, are the San Rafael Mountains and beyond that are the Sierra Madre Mountains, the most distant of the three from Santa Barbara.

The Sierra Madre Mountains overlook the San Rafael Wilderness and Cuyama Valley, and on a clear day can even offers views of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the distance. Its two tallest peaks are Peak Mountain (5,843’), and McPherson Peak (5,749’).

A loop hike can be made from Aliso Park Campground, in the Cuyama Valley, to the top of McPherson Peak. The hike is about 10 miles roundtrip and offers a chance to take in the views and scenery of these unique mountains.

McPherson Peak Trail Lookout hike Aliso Park Campground Los Padres national forest sierra madre mountains

Mt. Pinos is seen from McPherson Peak Trail

There are two routes from Santa Barbara that one can take to reach the trailhead and, in this rare instance, both are roughly the same distance and take about two hours to drive.

The first route is to head north along Highway 101 to Santa Maria. Just past Santa Maria, look for the exit for State Route 166 East. The road travels through ranch land towards Twitchell Reservoir and from there follows the Cuyama River east through the mountains towards New Cuyama.

The second route is to head over to Ojai, and take State Route 33 north through the mountains to State Route 166. Turn west onto State Route 166 and continue past New Cuyama.

The little town of New Cuyama, population 661, is something of an oasis in this remote part of Santa Barbara County. The town features a gas station, several restaurants, a grocery store, and even a motel.

Aliso Canyon Road is two miles west of New Cuyama along State Route 166. The paved leads south towards the Sierra Madre Mountains and ends at Aliso Park Campground.

Map McPherson Peak Trail Aliso Canyon Park Sierra Madres Mountains San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres national forest

Map courtesy

The campground is located in a grove of coast live oaks along Aliso Creek and has seven camp sites, each with a picnic table and metal fire ring. An adventure pass is required to camp at the campground, but not to park at the trailhead.

There are two trails from the campground with confusingly similar names, McPherson Trial and McPherson Peak Trail. McPherson Trail follows the unpaved continuation of Aliso Canyon Road and leads up the canyon to Hog Pen Spring before then turning into a single track trail. McPherson Peak Trail starts across the creek from the last campsite on the right. Neither trail is marked with a sign.

For the loop hike, take McPherson Peak Trail. The trail climbs out of Aliso Canyon and makes its way along the ridge line that traces the western edge of the Aliso Canyon drainage. The trail starts off in generally good condition and leads through a mix of canyon live oak and chaparral.

McPherson Peak Trail hike Aliso Canyon Park Campground Sierra Madre Mountains Los Padres National Forest Cuyama

Aliso Canyon is seen from McPherson Peak Trail

As the trail makes its way along the ridge line it offers views out across Aliso Canyon to the east, and Messenger Canyon to the west. But the most impressive views are those out across the Cuyama Valley towards the Caliente Range, which is the next set of mountains to the north. Not covered in dense chaparral, the Caliente Range with its rich colors and desert hues is a captivating sight.

As the trail continues its climb towards McPherson Peak it becomes less distinct at times, but still generally follows the ridge line.

At the 4-mile mark, the trail arrives at McPherson Peak and the communications array that is housed there. The peak and other features were named for the McPherson family, who homesteaded in the Cuyama Valley during the late 1800s.

Just east of the communications tower is the cement water tower and foundations for McPherson Peak Lookout. The lookout was built in 1934, and was somewhat unique in that the commanding view from the peak didn’t require the cabin be placed on top of a lookout tower. The structure was removed in 1987.

Caliente Range McPherson Peak Trail hike Cuyama Sierra Madre Mountain Los Padres National Forest

The Caliente Range frames a view of the Cuyama Valley from McPherson Peak Trail

Views from the peak include Mt. Pinos and the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the northeast, and to the south extend out across the San Rafael Wilderness.

For the loop hike, from the peak continue down along the unpaved access road that leads to the peak and look for the beginning of what looks like an old road cut or fuel break on your left. The route traverses the south side of the mountains eastward roughly three-quarters of a mile before arriving at an open flat area.

It’s here, that McPherson Camp was once located and one can still find one of the old campsite stoves. Past the camp the route becomes less distinct but essentially continues east along the fuel break and drops down towards a large metal corral where it meets Sierra Madre Road and arrives at a locked forest service gate.

From here, continue east another half-mile on Sierra Madre Road to the signed beginning of McPherson Trail, which drops down into Aliso Canyon. The trail follows a series of long, gentle switchbacks and offers some nice views of the canyon before arriving at the canyon floor, where it meets the unpaved road coming up from Aliso Park Campground.

At this intersection, the road continues a short ways to the left up to Hog Pen Spring, where one can find a cattle trough filled with water and the shade of several large maple trees. The spring was named by the McPherson family, who used to run hogs and cattle in the canyon.

From Hog Pen Spring, the unpaved road continues down the canyon towards Aliso Park Campground to complete the loop.

While one can extend their hike west along the top of the Sierra Madre Mountains to reach Peak Mountain, an additional eight miles roundtrip, an alternate approach is to drive there. The road is somewhat bumpy and requires a high-clearance vehicle, but it does provide a way to visit both peaks.

Aliso Park Campground Sierra Madre Mountains Cuyama hike trail los padres national forest

Sierra Madre Mountains are seen from Aliso Canyon Road

From Aliso Canyon Road, continue west along State Route 166 to Cottonwood Canyon Road, which leads to Bates Campground. The road is paved until the last mile or so before the turnoff to the campground. The campground is shaded by canyon live oak, and features six camp sites, each with a picnic table and metal fire ring.

Past the campground, Bates Canyon Road continues unpaved to the top of the Sierra Madre Mountains. The road is narrow and at times rough, but the climb itself is spread out along a somewhat reasonable grade. The road is easily affected by storm damage and so it’s best to check with the forest service regarding current conditions and access.

At the top of the mountains, Bates Canyon Road meets Sierra Madre Road, which is also unpaved. To the right, Sierra Madre Road continues northwest along the top of the mountains and eventually connects over to State Route 166. To the left, the road continues east and ends at the locked forest service gate just past the turnoff to McPherson Peak.

Peak Mountain is about halfway between Bates Canyon Road and McPherson Peak. To access the peak continue east along Sierra Madre Road until you round a corner that gives you the first views of McPherson Peak and continue to where the ridge line meets the road. Park alongside the road and hike west following the fuel break along the ridge. About halfway up, look for the beginning of an old road cut, on the left, that leaves the steep fuel break and more gently takes you to the top of Peak Mountain. The hike is about a mile round trip.

Regardless of how far you go you’ll get to see some of the rich scenery of the Cuyama Valley and Sierra Madre Mountains.

This article originally appeared in the November 22nd, 2015 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

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