When Sandy Sperling and I visited the Cuyama Peak Lookout in
mid-September, I noticed that we were just north of Upper Tinta
Campground, and could see the two firebreaks that started there and
went up the ridge to the south. One of them, I dimly recalled, was
part of the route to Lizard Head. I sure hoped it was the right hand
one, which while longer, looked to be much lower angled. Well, of
course, things seldom work out so nicely. It would be the nasty steep
firebreak we would ascend on September 30th. We were all quite
impressed with ourselves for having done it, when later that day, we
stood on Cuyama looking back at where we'd been.
The meeting place for this hike was the junction of Highway 33 and
Soda Lake Road. The group (Mars Bonfire, Joanne Griego, Brian and
Karen Leverich, Martin Parsons, Ping Pfeffer, and Ingeborg Prochazka)
gathered at the abandoned Union Station there at the top of Grocers
Grade (closed for a decade now but still proudly proclaiming itself
open on its highest sign). We headed south on 33, then west on 166
until we'd crossed the Cuyama River (preferring to do so on a bridge
rather than fording it), thence south and up Santa Barbara Canyon, and
east up Dry Canyon (a bit soggy at the initial ford but easy enough to
cross) to the Lizard Head parking area. The roads were in good shape,
though a bit intimidating to those with only 2WD.
Brian and I had hiked in Tinta Canyon last year, starting at the Lower
Tinta Campground and heading up, although turning back before making
it all the way up to Upper Tinta Campground. The upper and lower
canyons are very different -- the lower portion of the canyon is
steeper, narrower, with dryer rockier terrain. The upper portion,
down which we hiked for maybe a mile, is more open and gentle, almost
a meadow. We appreciated in advance that on the way back out, our
final uphill segment would be so gentle of slope that we might not
Although the trail in Tinta Canyon is a motorcycle trail (Lizard Head
itself is in the Dick Smith Wilderness, but this portion of the trail
is on the wilderness boundary), it doesn't get nearly the level of use
that the motorcycle trails near Tecuya Mountain and Lockwood Point
attract. This made for fairly easy walking, we seldom had to slog
through deep dust, and didn't walk that far along rocky gullies.
Upper Tinta Campground has seen better days -- most of the
improvements that had been made there (whatever those improvements
might have been) have been destroyed by irresponsible visitors. We
stopped there anyhow, and enjoyed the shade (this day was
substantially warmer than the day before when Mars, Ping, Martin and I
had hiked to Caliente) before
leaving the motorcycle trail and (to quote Mars) having to work a bit.
Now there was an understatement. Although it starts out gently
enough, that firebreak just goes up and up and up. Hang on while I
consult the topo. Well, this doesn't sound that awful: maybe 1200' in
just under a mile? I suppose it seemed a struggle because it was so
warm, and so relentless. The discouraging part, though, was that once
we were at the top and asked the inevitable question ("Where's the
peak?"), Mars looked way off in the distance, not to the next ridge,
but the one past it, and pointed to a rocky speck way way out on that
distant ridge. Can anyone tell me why lowly Lizard Head is on the
list, instead of the peak where we stood looking at it (Tinta, 5804',
according to my Dick Smith Wilderness map)? Grumble! Oh, wait, never
mind -- we weren't actually on Tinta Peak. That peak lies west on the
ridge a bit. Still, it would've probably been easier to get there
(maybe on the kinder gentler firebreak?) than Lizard Head.
The other unanswered question from the day is ... whyever is it called
Lizard Head? Those with active imaginations (especially by day's end,
when we were getting a bit punchy from tiredness) could maybe pretend
they saw a lizard's head, the more imaginative even an entire lizard.
Though perhaps if we'd come at it from Route 2 (ascending Rancho Nuevo
Creek), and seen it from the other side? Well, I suppose that's a
research question we can postpone for some other day.
The good news is that for most of the way from the Tinta ridge out to
Lizard Head there was an old firebreak we would follow. The bad news
is that it was an old firebreak, and thus a bit overgrown. The worse
news is that the firebreak doesn't go all the way to Lizard Head -- it
ends maybe a mile away. But an overgrown firebreak is better than no
firebreak at all. Ask Ingeborg, who did this hike in shorts.
The hike from the Tinta ridge to the "peak" (it's hard to take a peak
seriously when you're looking down at it) was a long run along
intersecting ridges, up and down, sometimes tiresomely steep, but
never as long and relentless as that first stretch up out of Tinta
Canyon. The views are awesome. From Ray Ford's "A Hiker's Guide To
The Dick Smith Wilderness": "Though not a land of pristine beauty,
this newly-created wilderness was Dick Smith's kind of country. To
him it was not forbidding, but a world of unsullied grandeur, a land
he thought of as inner wilderness, where beauty came not so much from
an appreciation of its surface features but something that developed
from within, personal growth that evolved in the face of wilderness
challenge." All that, yes, but this land does possess a unique beauty
in its surface features as well: the sandstone outcroppings, the
serrated ridges, even the chaparral (when one is looking at it from
afar rather than pushing through it.) Because of its remoteness and
wildness, this may be one of my favorite HPS peaks to date...
Eventually, we worked our way across all those ridges and all that brush
to arrive on the peak.
Thinking about all the ups and downs we had to do to get back to the
cars, and looking down a gentle-looking (who knows what reserves of
brush it held, however) slope to Rancho Nuevo Creek, I wondered
briefly if Route 2 (hike several miles along a trail following Rancho
Nuevo Creek, then climb some ridge or another to reach Lizard Head)
wouldn't have been an easier hike, even if the miles were longer.
Certainly the drive to the trailhead (although it involves fording the
Cuyama River) would have been much shorter. At least once one reached
the peak, it would have been downhill all the way out. Oh well!
It was almost dusk by the time we hiked (slowly, we were tired) back
out of Tinta Canyon to the cars. But not quite! So after swapping
our boots for sandals, and hydrating a bit, everyone piled into the
two 4WD SUVs and headed up the last three miles of dirt road to our
second peak for the day, Cuyama Peak Lookout.
We looked over at the firebreak we'd climbed, impressed. (It had
seemed long and steep, but that long and steep, wow!) Then we hiked
the last few feet of road
and were done.
Well, almost. There was still the small matter of driving out. The
4WD cars did OK, but for Ingeborg's Jimmy, it was a struggle. The
first two cars out (Ping and Martin in her pickup, Brian and I in the
Cherokee) waited at a vista point in Santa Barbara Canyon until we had
seen Mars' and Ingeborg's cars successfully make it out to the easier
roads. Then we headed out, Martin and Ping for the city, Brian and I
for a wonderful steak dinner in Ventucopa. What a wonderful weekend
this had been!