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,
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
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
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...