Posted by: James Wapotich | January 9, 2017

Trail Quest: The Big Three

Many of the tallest mountains in Santa Barbara County are located in the San Rafael Mountains. Big Pine Mountain is the highest with an elevation of 6,827 feet. In the vicinity of Big Pine Mountain are Madulce Peak (6,536’), West Big Pine (6,490’), and Samon Peak (6,227’). These four mountains are referred to as the Big Four by peak baggers.

San Rafael Mountain is the second highest mountain in Santa Barbara County with an elevation of 6,593 feet; nearby are McKinley Mountain (6,182’) and Santa Cruz Peak (5,570’). These three summits are collectively referred to as the Big Three.

The hike visiting all three summits from Cachuma Saddle is about 31.5 miles round trip and is best done as part of backpacking trip.

San Rafael Mountain 100 peaks hike trail wilderness Mission Pine Los Padres National Forest snow

The top of San Rafael Mountain is seen from Mission Pine Trail

To get to the trailhead Santa Barbara, take State Route 154 north and continue past Lake Cachuma to Armour Ranch Road. Take Armour Ranch Road to Happy Canyon Road, and follow Happy Canyon Road to Cachuma Saddle.

At Cachuma Saddle, there is a four-way intersection, to the left is Figueroa Mountain Road. To the right is McKinley Mountain Road, and straight ahead Happy Canyon Road turns into Sunset Valley Road, which continues towards Nira Campground.

It is already raining when I arrive at the large parking area at Cachuma Saddle. The rain is predicted to continue into the next morning. However, nighttime temperatures are supposed to drop below freezing at the higher elevations, which means the rain will likely turn to snow. So for a little bit of hardship I might get to enjoy snow-covered mountains.

McKinley Mountain Mission Pine Trail 100 peaks hike backpacking Los Padres National forest snow

McKinley Mountain is seen from Mission Pine Trail

From Cachuma Saddle, I set out along McKinley Mountain Road. The unpaved, gated forest service road follows the top of the San Rafael Mountains all the way to McKinley Saddle, which is the jumping off point for the three different summits.

After about four miles, the road arrives at metal water tank; next to it is a trough and picnic table. The water tank makes a natural windbreak and so I pause here for a moment to get out of the rain. I try the faucet on the spring-fed tank that fills the horse trough. It’s dry – another victim of the drought.

The road is fairly level for the next couple of miles, arriving at an impressive stand of big cone spruce. From here, the road becomes much more serious about gaining elevation as it continues towards the juncture with Big Cone Spruce Trail, which leads down to Manzana Creek.

Santa Cruz Peak Fire Trail hike 100 peaks Los Padres National forest

Santa Cruz Peak is seen from McKinley Mountain

I eventually arrive at McKinley Spring Camp, which is about 8.5 miles from the trailhead. The camp is situated in a grove of canyon live oak and has a grated stove, fire ring, and two picnic tables, as well as a generally reliable water source.

Rather than start a fire or cook in the rain, I just set up my tent, savor the rest of my sandwich from lunch, and settle in for the night.

In the morning, good fortune prevails. The camp is covered with one to two inches of freshly fallen snow. Breakfast proves easy to make, and I set out for McKinley Saddle.

The first tracks I see in the snow are from a grey fox who visited camp. From the road, I can see several deer paths through the chaparral, and am surprised by just how many rabbits there are in the backcountry, their tracks being the most numerous.

Mission Pine Trail hike San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest snow

Snow covered pines are seen from Mission Pine Trail

McKinley Saddle is about a half-mile from camp. At the saddle is a three-way intersection, with each route leading to a different peak. To the right is the half-mile trail up to McKinley Mountain; to the left is the beginning of Mission Pine Trail, which leads towards San Rafael Mountain; and in the middle, dropping down from the saddle, is Santa Cruz Peak Fire Trail, which leads towards Santa Cruz Peak.

I decide to visit Santa Cruz Peak first, since it’s the furthest from the saddle, about 8.5 miles round trip. The peak is not on the main ridge of the mountains, but instead on a spur ridge running off it to the south.

From the saddle, Santa Cruz Peak Fire Trail drops down into a small basin, before climbing back up to the ridge that connects over to Santa Cruz Peak. The trail looks like an old bulldozer line that was used for fire suppression or as a fuel break. It is overgrown in places, but generally easy to follow.

The trail levels out some as it approaches the unnamed peak next to Santa Cruz Peak. The trail wraps around it as it heads down towards Romo Potrero and Santa Cruz Trail. I follow the trail briefly, arriving at the fuel break I saw from the saddle that climbs over the peak.

About half-way up the fuel break, I notice that it branches and follow a second fuel break that cuts sideways towards Santa Cruz Peak. The route leads over to a mini saddle between the two peaks.

From the mini saddle, I follow the use trail that leads up Santa Cruz Peak. The trail threads through canyon live oak, before transitioning into chaparral, where it becomes more overgrown and harder to follow. As I push through the brush, I spot a cairn, which leads to another, and then another marking a route along the southeastern side of the peak that leads to the top.

At the summit, amongst the sandstone rocks, is the peak register – two tin cans painted red and nested together with a little notepad inside to record one’s name.

From the peak, the panoramic views include West Big Pine, the backside of Little Pine Mountain, the Santa Ynez Mountains, and Channel Islands. I add my name to the register and return to camp.

While the idea of peak bagging has probably around as long as there has been mountains to climb, the first official list of peaks over 5,000 feet in Southern California dates back to 1946. That was the year Weldon Heald climbed his 100th peak and resolved to encourage other Sierra Club members to participate in his 100 Peaks Game. In 1955, the Los Angeles Chapter of Sierra Club added it as an official activity. The original list included 188 peaks.

Over the years the list has grown and changed, as some peaks have been delisted, while others have been added. Currently, there are 281 peaks on the list, with 15 of them in Santa Barbara County. The list can be seen at

The next morning, I return to McKinley Saddle and make my way towards San Rafael Mountain, which is about 3.5 miles roundtrip from the saddle. I follow Mission Pine Trail east as it enter San Rafael Wilderness. The trail is still covered in snow and climbs along the backside of the mountains, briefly joining the ridge, before continuing along the back San Rafael Mountain.

The trail then crests the ridge and from here it’s a very short side hike to the top of San Rafael Mountain. The views to the south are similar to Santa Cruz Peak, but to the east stretch out past Big Pine Mountain towards Mount Pinos. To the north, I can see snow-dusted Peak Mountain, the highest peak in the Sierra Madre Mountains.

On the hike back to McKinley Saddle, the snow is already starting to disappear along the more exposed sections of the ridge.

From the saddle, I follow the fuel-break which serves as a trail to the top of McKinley Mountain. Here, the views also extend out across the backcountry and towards the islands, but McKinely Mountain offers the best views out across Lake Cachuma and the Santa Ynez Valley.

At the summit are a few remains from McKinley Mountain Lookout. The lookout was built in 1935, and was later destroyed in a windstorm and removed by the forest service in 1974. The mountain is named for President William McKinley.

From McKinley Mountain, I begin my return back to Santa Barbara. On the hike out I find myself wondering about the other peaks over 5,000 feet hidden away in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties.

This article originally appeared in Section A of the January 9th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

MIssion Pine Trail hike snow San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Snow covered ridge is seen from Mission Pine Trail


  1. Beautiful, and what a treat to have the snow!

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