Posted by: James Wapotich | September 4, 2018

Trail Quest: McGill Trail and the Perseids

Mount Pinos is the tallest mountain in our local area, with an elevation of 8,831 feet. During the summer, the higher elevation can offer some relief from the heat with cooler evenings and somewhat lower daytime temperatures.

But perhaps the real attraction of Mount Pinos is the pines and potential for stargazing. The higher elevation and cooler overall temperatures allow conifers to thrive; and the often clear skies at night, combined with low light pollution, makes Mount Pinos one of the best stargazing destinations in southern California.

There are three campgrounds near Mount Pinos for overnight camping and a couple of nearby trails to explore.

McGill Trail starts from McGill Campground and is about seven miles roundtrip. The trail leads from the eastern slope of Mount Pinos down to the edge of Cuddy Valley and offers some great views of the surrounding area.

To get to Mount Pinos from Santa Barbara, take Highway 101 south towards Ventura. From Ventura, 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 and continue to Mount Pinos Highway, which leads towards the top of Mount Pinos. The road passes the lower trailhead for McGill Trail, and, as it climbs up the mountain, passes both McGill and Mount Pinos Campgrounds. The road ends at the parking area for the Mount Pinos trailhead and the nearby walk-in campground of Chula Vista.

McGill Campground has 73 sites, of which 75 percent are reservable. Mount Pinos Campground has 19 sites, of which 79 percent are reservable. The balance of the sites, including all 12 at Chula Vista Campground are on a first come, first-served basis.

Campsites can be reserved by going to McGill and Mount Pinos Campgrounds are $20 per night while Chula Vista Campground is free. All of the campsites have picnic tables and fire rings. All three campgrounds have restrooms. There is no water available at any of the campgrounds.

McGill Trail starts from McGill Campground. There is a $10 day use fee if not camping there, which can be avoided by starting from the lower trailhead.

From the signed trailhead, the trail heads north, tracing the western edge of the campground before intersecting a cross-country skiing trail coming in from the west. McGill Trail is a popular mountain biking route and so some alertness is required when hiking it. Mountain bikers can extend the route by starting at the parking area for the Mount Pinos trailhead and utilizing cross-country skiing trails to connect over to McGill Trail, doubling the length of the ride.

McGill Trail is relatively easy to follow. The well-worn path leads through mostly pines, with not a lot of brush.

At about the half-mile mark from the trailhead, McGill Trail meets Whitethorn Nature Trail. The quarter of a mile long interpretive trail starts near Group Site 1 in McGill Campground and leads to an overlook visible from McGill Trail. The trail is paved and wheelchair accessible.

At the beginning of the trail are brochures for the interpretive hike that describe the natural history of Jeffrey pines over the course of six numbered stops.

Jeffrey pines are named for botanist John Jeffrey, who first identified and described the tree in 1852, while traveling through Shasta Valley. The conifer is closely related to ponderosa pine and was originally listed as a subspecies.

In fact, it is often hard to tell the two apart, both have three needles per fascicle and similar looking bark and cones. Fortunately, the texture of the cones provides a reliable means of differentiation. Both types of cones have barbs on the end on their scales, however, the barbs on Jeffrey pine point inward, while those on ponderosa pine point outward. The difference is noticeable to the touch when handling the cones, giving rise to the phrases “gentle Jeffrey” and “prickly ponderosa” as a way to remember which is which.

Growing sporadically amongst the pines along McGill Trail is a mixed understory of snowberry and whitethorn ceanothus. Also along the trail is elderberry, gooseberry, and Great Basin sagebrush.

There’s also a fair amount of bird activity with Steller’s jays being the most vocal, followed by ravens. Other birds that can be seen along the trail include mountain bluebirds, nuthatches, flickers, and Clark’s nutrcracker.

As the trail continues, the views open up east, out across Cuddy Valley towards Frazier Mountain. Cuddy Valley is named after John Cuddy, who homesteaded there in the mid-1800s. His son, Joseph “Don” Cuddy served as the area’s first forest ranger.

The trail then starts to wrap westward around the mountain offering some great views of Tecuya Ridge and the San Emigdio Mountains, and beyond them the San Joaquin Valley and southernmost Sierra Nevada.

Here, the trail starts to descend, although with a reasonable enough grade to make the return hike generally bearable. At the lower elevation, black oak starts to appear in the mix, with a good example of the tree right next to the sign at the lower trailhead.

From here, the trail continues an additional half-mile to another, lower trailhead near the old San Emigdio Pines Plantation.

Another nearby hike is to the top of Mount Pinos. From the parking area at the end of Mount Pinos Highway, it’s roughly three miles round trip the summit. The trail follows an unpaved access road through a mix of Jeffrey pine and white fir that alternates with several open meadows covered largely in rabbitbrush.

From the overlook at the end of the access road, the views extend south out across the Ventura and Santa Barbara backcountry. Nearby, is the beginning of Tumamait Trail, which traverses the top of the mountains, through the Chumash Wilderness, towards Cerro Noroeste for a longer hike.

At night, in the clear mountain air, one of the main attractions is stargazing. The parking area for the Mount Pinos trailhead is a popular destination for amateur astronomers and is often filled with cars.

There are a dozen different meteor showers that happen annually throughout the year, with one of the best being the Perseids in August.

Meteors are caused when a piece of rocky or iron debris enters the atmosphere. These fast-moving objects, generally ranging in size from of a grain of sand to a small boulder, can reach speeds between 20-45 miles per second. Moving through the atmosphere, they compress and heat the air in front of them, creating a glowing streak in the sky.

Meteor showers, such as the Perseids, often occur when the earth passes through the dust and debris left by a comet on its sojourn around the sun. The comet that provides material for the Perseid shower, is Swift-Tuttle which orbits the sun every 133 years and was last seen in 1992. At its peak, the Perseids can display on a meteor or more per minute.

The point in the sky where the meteor shower appears to originate is called the radiant, and in general meteor showers are named for the constellation where their radiant is located, in this case, the constellation Perseus.

The best time to view a meteor shower is when the debris from its comet is densest and the radiant is high in the sky, typically from midnight to just before dawn on the peak day.

The ideal viewing conditions are away from light pollution, on a moonless night, with a clear view of as much of the evening sky as possible. Having a lawn chair or blanket makes its easy to lay back and watch the show once your eyes adjust; and bringing a sleeping bag or extra layer can help keep you warm.

When viewing the stars at the Mount Pinos parking area, please consider turning off your headlights when you arrive and leave, when it’s safe to do so, as well as back into your parking spot to minimize the amount of light disturbance. Another alternative, is to hike out towards Mount Pinos, where there are no cars and fewer people.

The next promising meteor shower is the Geminids, which can sometimes offer close to a 100 meteors per hour. The shower will peak this year on Friday, December 14, at 4:30 a.m., with good viewing Thursday night starting after midnight when the moon sets.

There are a number of online resources for stargazing. Sky and Telescope Magazine on their website,, has a feature called, “This Week’s Sky at a Glance”, which offers a quick summary of any interesting astronomical sights that may be happening, as well as an annual summary of the year’s upcoming meteor showers. has a free downloadable chart of the evening sky each month that shows the location of the visible stars and any planets for that month.

This article originally appeared in section A of the September 3rd, 2018 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press

McGill Trail hike San Emigdio Mountains Tecuya Ridge Mount Pinos Los Padres National Foreest

The San Emigdio Mountains frame a view from McGill Trail

Jeffrey pines McGill Trail hike San Emigdio Mountains Tecuya Ridge Mount Pinos Los Padres National Foreest

Jeffrey pines are seen along McGill Trail

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