Martin Parsons and I had an ambitious plan: We would drive to Santa Barbara, hike Hildreth from Agua Caliente, stay overnight and hike Chief and Hines the next day. We set off at what (for me) was an early hour, 6:30am. By shortly after 8, we were exiting the 101 on our way to Hildreth. The peak guide warns that it takes 2 hours to reach the trail head from the 101 but we were unwilling to believe that any 30 mile trip could take that long. As it turned out, the trip -- and I am an expert on this having done it four times over two days -- takes 1 hour 16 minutes in Martin's 4WD Explorer with Martin driving.
One begins by going up the hills behind Santa Barbara on this really windy road, past where the rich people live, past where the poor people live, to where all that's left is a few odd souls living in vehicles at the side of the road. Do not eat a large meal before making this trip and do whatever is necessary to avoid sitting in the back seat. After achieving the top of the hill, the route turns right and goes fairly straight for a while along the ridge with beautiful views on the west of Santa Barbara and the ocean and on the east of row after row of mountains. The bliss is short-lived; soon the route descends down the other side, where someone decided paving was not really important. So you bounce around on the windy road for 11 grueling miles before reaching the trailhead.
It's worth it. Agua Caliente canyon is spectacular -- meadows, hills, cliffs, babbling stream, woods, little waterfalls, constantly changing vistas -- they're all there under a warm sun.
We set off on the trail at about 10am with the optimistic assumption that, if the peak guide says it will take 9-11 hours, WE can make it in 7. After all, it's only 16 miles RT, right?
The trail begins following the stream northwest for a short distance past a hot spring before making a hairpin turn to ascend a ridge on the opposite side of the stream going southeast. This makes no sense. We quickly figured out that there were multiple opportunities to hop across the stream and up the opposite bank (a bit steep but that just adds to the fun) to, in effect, cut the hairpin. Once on the other side, we followed the stream as it meanders north up the canyon. There is a labyrinth of trails for the first mile or so due to the area's popularity for recreational purposes (i.e. bathing naked in the hot spring). Exercising common sense and trial and error, we made our way upstream through a wooded area -- where the trail deviates from the stream briefly -- crossing back and forth over the stream.
The peak guide advises to count the crossings as a tool for gauging where one is. We tried this at first, using the Ping Pebble Method, quickly exceeding the number of crossings indicated. The reality is that the number of times one crosses the stream will vary depending on the path one takes. Don't worry about it: don't stray too far from the stream, go basically north, and you'll be all right.
Once out of the wooded area, we followed the trail up a bank on the east side of the stream, crossed a few more time, and after about 1.5 miles emerged into a lovely broad meadow, where we came upon a fork with a duck sitting right in the middle of the right (as opposed to the left) option. Ambiguous, we thought. Does it mean take that direction or don't go that way? On the principle of "when in doubt, go left," we took the left fork. Another 1/4 mile found us at a beautiful little green-blue pool fed by a small waterfall bracketed by low cliffs. Martin, a wise trekker than I, was unwilling to chance taking a dip in the frigid water by climbing over the waterfall to reach the other side and urged me to back track to a point where we could cross the stream to the east side where a trail mounted through a meadow and over the tempting waterfall portal.
Having passed (or negotiated) the waterfall, if you take the appropriate stream crossings (as Martin discovered later) you will discover a charming little campsite, complete with picnic table, firebox (with a bench for sitting by the fire), and a beautiful sheltering tree. If you take a different series of stream crossings, you'll get where you're going but miss the campsite.
In any case, we continued on through the meadow beyond the waterfall, past the narrowest point in the canyon and into another meadow from which we had our first view of Hildreth -- the highest point in sight. After about 3 miles, we found ourselves in the widest part of the canyon where other canyons came down from either side, the west side dominated by a ridge with a formidable rock face. The ridge we sought was just in front of us at this point, running all the way down to the stream's edge. After a false start up what appeared to be a use trail (one learns that use trails, like ducks, aren't always going where one wants to go), we settled on the straight line rule to reach the crest of the ridge. (That's my personal First Rule of Navigation: if you can see where you're going, head there in as straight a line as terrain permits. This works well for those of us who don't mind rocks, brush, scree, vertical slopes and similar challenges.)
Upon reaching the ridge line, we stopped to consider our situation. It was noon and, by our calculation, under the best possible scenario, it would take us three hours to reach the summit. Ergo, we would be returning after dark. Neither one of us thought it would be fun to try to find our way through the mile or so of woodsy section with multiple stream crossings by the light of our headlamps. We therefore agreed on a brave strategy: we would turn back and tackle the peak again on the next day starting three hours earlier.
This strategy also offered the opportunity of taking our time returning to the trailhead and enjoying the beautiful countryside. We stopped for lunch at the pretty little pool and what an unusual pleasure not feeling hurried! As we made our way back, we thought of future generations of hikers and engaged in creative duck construction. Each place where Martin and I think the stream should be crossed is now marked by ducks on either side. And very pretty ducks, too.
The next day, making the 1 hour 16 minute drive for the third time, we set off on the trail at 7:30, gained the ridge by 9 and figured we had it in the bag. Wrong, wrong, wrong. The peak guide makes passing reference to a "brushy plateau" but, once again, we did not take it seriously. It had, after all, been written in 1968 and, besides, one person's brush is another person's lawn. Here I'm going to let Martin take over the narrative.
"It [the brushy area] had to be the size of a football field and really brought home to us what is meant by impenetrable brush; the most godawful stuff I've ever hiked in. [This is a man who hasn't done Santa Cruz yet.] The area consists of manzanitas, some other hearty prickly green brush and a lacing of cactus [yucca]. We lost at least 30 minutes there, if not more, but we plowed through it like a couple of rabid pit bulls and came out bloodied on the other side."
My opinion is that, if one has to plow through thick brush over 6 feet tall, Martin is a great companion to have along. Not only does he plow through like a pit bull, he also figured out that the best route was along the southwest edge of the "brushy plateau," where the brush is a bit shorter and thinner. Finally, we emerged at a point with a 10 foot drop to the jeep road. "Do a fanny slide," says I. "It's straight down," says Martin. But we did it.
From this point, there is a long rather steep trek north up the jeep road (look out for one hairpin that can be cut) to the point where the road turns east. This last stretch to the peak includes two lengthy downhills which you can look forward to climbing back up on the return. To reach the peak, you stay on the road as it winds south and then east to the first point where there is a fairly obvious use trail going west. The trail winds up and down a bit, avoiding brushy areas, and quickly reaches the rocky summit where we congratulated ourselves and enjoyed a brief respite before undertaking the return journey at about 1:30.
We made it back in four hours -- thanks to taking a more informed route through the brushy football field and Martin's incredible memory for stream crossings -- experiencing only two injuries: Martin got severe leg cramps while climbing up the bank from one of the stream crossings and I reopened a wound from a previous hike that gushed like a geyser but was otherwise innocuous. While I'm recounting injuries, let me add the loss of my compass to the brushy plateau. This item had great sentimental value for me and joins countless other items I have lost on our Peaks: 5 trekking poles, a neck warmer, one glove, three hats, and at least half a dozen bandanas. (If you find any of this stuff, let me know.)