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Caliente Mountain

29 September and 3 October 2001

By: Karen Isaacson Leverich

Brian had intended to hike Caliente on Saturday, September 29th, along with Mars, Ping Pfeffer, Martin Parsons, and me, but the computers insisted on some last minute care and feeding (hard drives never choose a convenient time to fail), so he and I ended up hiking the ridge (me for the second time) on October 3rd. At the risk of driving everyone including myself nuts, I'm going to attempt to combine my impressions from those two hikes into a single report. The photographs are all from the second trip.

If there's good weather (maybe even if there's not?), this is one of those hikes that you'll either love, or hate. I don't think it admits much in the way of middle ground. It's a long slog along a ridge,

lots of moderate ups and downs, following a dirt road. The vistas are distant, dry, dramatic, but not green and pretty and inviting.

The woods are either non-existent or scrubby oak and juniper.

Caliente Mountain is the high point of not only San Luis Obispo County, but also the recently created Carrizo Plain National Monument. To quote the BLM Web site at

"The Carrizo Plain is the largest remaining remnant of the original San Joaquin Valley habitat. It is home to 13 species of plants and animals which are federally or state listed as threatened or endangered. Rich in Native American cultural values, the Carrizo was once an important area where the Chumash and Yokuts peoples traded, gathered food and held ceremonies. [...] The landscape still holds remnants of a past when dryland farming and ranching were predominant ways of life on the Plain. The Carrizo Plain is a narrow, valley grassland bordered on the east side by the Temblor Range and the San Andreas Fault. The west side is bordered by the Caliente Range which gives the Carrizo Plain its highest elevation point of 5,106 feet. [...] With direct influence from the San Andreas fault, the Carrizo Plain contains a 3,000 acre seasonal alkali lake, along with numerous vernal pools and sag ponds."

You maybe get the notion. If you're looking for Bambi and an evergreen forest, this is not the peak for you. Although Brian and I saw multiple deer, and on an earlier visit Mars even saw a herd of wild pigs. There were also some jack rabbits, hurrah. There is a lot of wildlife to see, if you watch carefully, and some good fossils in the rocks of the road once you near the summit. Not to mention a fair bit of litter -- the trail gets a reasonable amount of use, both by hikers and mountain bikers, and not all of them are very tidy.

Anyhow, I loved this hike. Else, how could I have done it twice in a week? But then, I've loved the Carrizo Plain every time I've visited it over the past two decades. There's a harsh beauty to it unlike anywhere else I've ever been. And to clean out all of Section 5 of the HPS List in a single go, hey, now that's efficient!

There seems to be some confusion about how long of a hike this is. The oldest Carrizo Plain literature I have lying about the house (from maybe 10 years ago) indicates it to be 10 miles round trip to the summit of Caliente Mountain. The climbing guide I printed out when I first stumbled onto HPS listed it as 15 miles. The current climbing guide says 19 miles. My take on this (admittedly unscientific) is that due to its proximity to the San Andreas fault, the peak is gradually (or not so gradually) moving away from the trailhead. If you're intending to finish the list and don't want to do this as a backpack, you'd better hurry up before it moves even further away! (Seriously, I'd guess 15 or 16 miles to be closer to correct -- including breaks, and hiking at a very mellow pace, it took us eight to eight and a half hours to do this trip.)

The weather on Saturday for this hike was fabulous -- the temperatures remained in the 60's and 70's for most of the day, with a pleasant breeze. The weather for my Return to Caliente visit the next Wednesday was less pleasant -- at the trailhead, the thermometer in the Jeep read 95F. Oh well, it's never very steep, we just loaded up a lot of water and kept to a moderate pace. Either we got used to it, or the Jeep was wrong, or the temperature dipped as we climbed higher. Who is to say?

Mars, trying to set expectations, told us the hike would be a tad monotonous, but that pre-peak we'd see three interesting landmarks: an antenna, a corral, and a wildlife watering station. Pretty exciting stuff to look forward to, no? I'd propose a fourth: ones first view of the peak. Although with all the ups and downs along the route, I was never sure if we were seeing the peak or not (usually, I think, not) until suddenly at the top of a long uphill segment there it was, unmistakable.

The antenna is about an hour in, and compared to some of the antenna farms I've seen in the context of doing HPS peaks, is a bit of an underachievement. (Er, that's OK, it's not necessary to dude the peak up with more antennae...) The corral, maybe half an hour further in, was a better treat than anticipated. Besides the corral, there's an old fence using natural sticks for fence posts, an ancient trailer house complete with ancient refrigerator, and a nice if unstable picnic table shaded by a huge juniper. The wildlife guzzler was another hour in, and hosted birds, yellowjackets, and (on Wednesday) a deer.

But it was the view of the peak

that really got us interested. By the time we finally saw it, it looked close enough to reach out and touch. Ping immediately started walking faster. (Dunno if she realized it or not. Though with this peak out of the way, she'd only have five left. That would be enough to get anyone walking faster.) There were a couple of saddles between us and the peak, which looked potentially deep, but proved to be reasonably shallow and not too annoying on the return trips.

The California Department of Water Resources has a benchmark on top of the peak.

Why the Water Resources people? I have no clue. Also at the summit is an old lookout

left over from WWII, when folk were worried that Japan might invade California. It's a bit rustic nowadays, though I don't suppose it ever was all that luxurious. Martin dubbed it the Caliente Hilton. Inside, on a rickety table in a rickety corner, with a pot for a cover, is the register. Although we encountered no other hikers on either trip, it's apparently a reasonably popular peak (well, given its remoteness), even in summer, with a handful of folk signing in most weeks. It was clear on our second visit that there had been visitors after our first -- more trash, sigh.

When Mars, Martin, Ping and I made it back to the cars after the first hike, it was time for me to head for home. I didn't want to go: the three of them were going to car camp, and Ping had prepared a wonderful dinner. Much better than I was intending to fix. But we would all get together the next morning, anyhow, and would head off to get two more peaks for Ping. Watch this space, details on that second trip coming up soon...

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