Posted by: James Wapotich | March 20, 2017

Trail Quest: Snowshoeing at Mount Pinos

On a recent visit to Colorado to see family, I went snowshoeing for the first time and noticed that it wasn’t that much harder than hiking. Inspired by the experience, I was reminded that Mount Pinos often has snowpack in the winter, sometimes lasting into the spring, and is also much closer to Santa Barbara than Colorado or even the Sierras.

This year’s strong rains have already delivered the best snow since 2011, adding to Mount Pinos’ appeal as a winter destination.

Feeling like I needed an accomplice for this trip, I invited my friend Casey to come along. Casey is an avid motorcyclist and outdoor enthusiast and so I figured a snowshoeing adventure would likely capture his interest, which it did.

Mount Pinos snowshoe cross-country skiing Inspiration Point Trail Los Padres National Forest southern California

Scenery near Inspiration Point Trail

In researching the idea, I was surprised to discover that there are no snowshoe rental companies anywhere near Mount Pinos. Fortunately Mountain Air Sports in Santa Barbara has them available for just $10 a day. They also rent cross-country skis and other winter sports equipment.

Mount Pinos is roughly two and a half hours from Santa Barbara. Rather than bear all that driving in one day, we opted to head out the evening before and car camp at Reyes Creek Campground.

The quickest route to Mount Pinos from Santa Barbara is to take Highway 101 south to Ventura, and from there take State Route 126 east towards Santa Clarita where it meets Interstate 5. Continue north on Interstate 5 and exit at Frazier Mountain Park Road. Follow Frazier Mountain Park Road to Cuddy Valley Road, which leads towards the top of Mount Pinos and the trailhead.

However, in terms of reaching Reyes Creek Campground, the shorter route is the back way through Ojai along State Route 33.

Snow-covered pines Mount Pinos Snowshoe southern california frazier park los padres national forest

Snow-covered pines at Mount Pinos

After picking up Casey in Carpinteria, we took State Route 150 towards Ojai. While driving along State Route 33 past Ojai, the rain that was supposed to be over starts to become more steady. At Pine Mountain summit there are snow flurries mixed in with the rain. I was already feeling anxious about the roads being icy at Mount Pinos and the rain isn’t helping. The good news, however, is that it’s also probably adding a fresh dusting of snow to the mountains.

Continuing on State Route 33 down the backside of the mountains, we arrive at Lockwood Valley Road and head towards Reyes Creek Campground. Arriving shortly after 8 p.m., we set up camp before heading over to Reyes Creek Bar & Grill for dinner.

An adventure pass is required to camp at Reyes Creek Campground, but it is otherwise free. Campsites are on a first come, first-served basis, and during the off-season such as now most of the sites are available. With all of the vacation homes near Mount Pinos, both in Frazier Park and Pine Mountain Club, another option for overnight accommodations is to check Airbnb.

In the morning, we enjoy a hearty breakfast at the bar and grill and learn that the current owners after nine years are selling the place, which is said to date back to 1891.

From Reyes Creek Campground, we continue along Lockwood Valley Road to Cuddy Valley Road, and from there make the drive towards the top of Mount Pinos and the trailhead.

The road up the mountain is clear and free of ice. We are still required to carry snow chains but don’t need to use them. The two gates along the road are also open. For current road conditions, check with either Fort Tejon California Highway Patrol or Kern County Public Works Department.

As we pass McGill and Mount Pinos Campgrounds, which are currently closed for the winter, we start to see cars parked by the side of the road and people playing in the snow. The road ends in a large parking area near Chula Vista Campground, where we see even more people out for the day enjoying the snow.

During the summer months this same parking area is often filled with telescopes as Mount Pinos is a premier star-gazing destination because of its clear skies and distance from the light of large cities.

At the far end of the parking area is Mount Pinos Nordic Base, which is used by Southern California Nordic Ski Patrol. Started in 1977, the volunteer ski patrol works in partnership with Los Padres National Forest patrolling the mountain most weekends from mid-November through April.

Mount Pinos winter snow shoeing


Radiating out from the base is a network of cross-country ski trails between the different campgrounds and the summit of Mount Pinos. The routes are also open to hiking and snowshoeing and vary in degree of difficulty, depending on whether they’re level and marked. A map of the trails can be purchased at the base.

The main route to the summit of Mount Pinos is west along a 1.5 mile unpaved access road. However, with all the open space provided by the snow cover, we decide to head north, cross-country through the pines. We quickly tie into one of the ski trails and follow it briefly, before cutting west towards Mount Pinos.

The snow pack in places is as much as two to three feet deep. Many of the trees are covered in snow, with some looking like they’ve been in the flocking booth at a Christmas tree lot. While on other trees the accumulated snow has formed a sort of lace-like pattern on the branches.

The day is sunny and much of the snow on the trees is melting. At one point we find several trees covered in icicles from the thawing and refreezing that takes place.

The snow has also made for some good tracking. There are fresh rabbit, squirrel, deer, and fox tracks. At one point we follow a coyote track as it meanders through the trees.

As we continue off-trail through the pines, we tie into the trail to Inspiration Point. The cross-country ski route is marked with metal blue diamonds attached to the trees and proves easy to follow, taking us to an impressive overlook. Here, the views extend northeast towards the snow-covered southern Sierras.

Tumamait Trail Mount Pinos Chumash Wilderness snowshoeing cross-country skill southern california los padres national forest

Scenery along Tumamait Trail

Past Inspiration Point, we follow the unmarked route that leads up to the first large meadow and connects with the unpaved access road that leads to the summit.

Mount Pinos is the tallest mountain in our local area with an elevation of 8,831 feet. From the summit, looking south and southwest it’s possible to see most of the tall mountains and peaks in our area, as well as out to the Channel Islands.

After a late lunch, we continue west along Tumamait Trail. The trail is named for Chumash elder Vincent Tumamait, who helped to revive and preserve Chumash culture by sharing stories and dances through his public lectures and school presentations.

The trail descends from Mount Pinos, following a series of switchbacks down to a small saddle. However, in its snow-covered state, most people have cut more or less straight down the mountain.

From the saddle, the trail continues along the top of the mountains. As the number of tracks in the snow quickly diminishes, the snow-covered trail becomes much harder to find. Guided by the landscape and my memory from the last time I was here, we make our way towards Sawmill Mountain. There are no other tracks at the summit.

Sawmill Mountain Mount Pinos snow shoeing Tumamait Trail winter sports

Snow-covered summit at Sawmill Mountain

Sawmill Mountain is about a mile and three-quarters from Mount Pinos, and is the next tallest mountain with an elevation of 8,818 feet. At the summit is a ten-foot high, artfully arranged pile of stones.

We had hoped to make it as far as Sheep Camp, but while snowshoeing is similar to hiking, our pace has been slowed by the shoes and hiking through snow that would sometimes give way. Rather than attempt to retrace our route entirely in the dark we opt to make Sawmill Mountain our return point.

We arrive back at Mount Pinos just as the sun is setting, with the light on the snow giving the landscape a purple cast. From there, we hike the snow-covered road under the stars. In spite of a full day’s activity, we’re still inspired to talk about returning and exploring the trails we didn’t get to hike.

This article originally appeared in Section A of the February 20th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

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