By: Alan Coles
Leaders: Alan Coles, Carleton Shay
About a month before this trip was to take place I received a phone call from Frank Goodykoontz. He had recently tried to do the peak when the landowner of the Shelby Ranch confronted him and his small group. He made it clear to Frank that no one was allowed to cross his land.
Actually, no one recently has ever had permission to cross the Shelby Ranch. The private land issue has been with this peak for many years. Since the landowner has seldom been around to chase off hikers, groups have continued to use this traditional route up the peak from the Cuyama Valley. John Backus justified the continued use of this route in the peak guides because according to the state trespassing laws, one could legally cross private land if signs not stating so to the contrary were not posted at regular intervals.
The peak and most of the rest of the range is BLM (Bureau of Land Management) public land. But to get to it, one has to cross private land from either the Cuyama Valley to the south or the Carrizo Plain to the north. A few years ago, the BLM built an easement trail into the public land through adjacent private land some 12 miles to the west of New Cuyama. Evan Samuels contacted the BLM regarding public access to the Caliente Range and was told of this route. However, it is 13 miles one way to the summit. In the meantime the much shorter route through the Shelby Ranch continued to be the primary route on the peak guide.
Martin and I have both done the peak from the BLM easement route and were both willing to do it again. Martin preferred to do it as a backpack so I offered participants a choice of either a single long dayhike of 26 miles, 4000- gain starting at 5 am or a more moderate backpack led by Martin. Most participants opted for the long day hike especially when a winter storm was forecast for Sunday.
Seventeen people met in total darkness on Saturday morning. It was cold but the air was incredibly still and quiet as we quickly got everyone signed in. At 5:20 am we started off with flashlights up the trail in the eerie darkness almost totally unable to recognize our surroundings. Carleton Shay, who had volunteered a week before to be co-leader, quickly took up the rear. Here and there birds fluttered out of bushes upon our arrival, it being the only sound besides that of our steps. A string of lights like that of an electric serpent seemed to crawl up and around the lunar landscape.
Two miles and one hour later the first sign of dawn arrived as the outline of juniper bushes and distant ridgelines became visible. We had arrived at the end of the trail which marked our entry into public land. At this spot is a map with a familiar sign, "You are here" (in case you weren't aware). The trail and its numerous guidepost along the way only takes you here. After that, you're on your own. Where we wanted to go was still another 11 miles away.
From the end of the trail, there is a fairly good use trail that more or less follows a ridge to the east then north to meet the main road on top of the Caliente Range. There is a large telephone pole that is your navigational beacon. Once there, the steepest and most difficult part of the hike is over. We reached the road around 7:40 and sat down for a belated breakfast. From this spot you can see the peak which is still 9 miles away. What you also see is that you have to walk in the opposite direction for a few miles first to go around the big horseshoe that makes up this unusual mountain.
After the break our spirits and pace picked up as the warming sun came out. It was a clear day with some high cloudiness and we could see all the way to the high Sierra. As we came around the big bend the Carrizo Plain with Soda Lake (nearly dry) came into view. Much of this land is being purchased by the Nature Conservancy and the BLM as a wildlife refuge. The Carrizo Plain is similar to the San Joaquin Valley before it was altered by agriculture. Many of the native plants and animals that had been more prevalent throughout the state are found here with few elsewhere.
After 6 miles we came to a newly installed gate placed by the BLM. It stated that no motor vehicles were allowed beyond that point. In the other direction was a new sign stating that there was no vehicle access to highway 166. On it was a phone number to call for information (see below). There seemed evidence that people had been driving up to that point from the Soda Lake side and as we continued I watched a truck drive down the road into the Carrizo Plain without having to open any gates. Obviously there was some access to this area other than the way we came.
All was going well for a while when suddenly we came into mud. It wasn't something you could walk around because everywhere you went, it caked up on your boots. No matter how hard we tried, the damage was done. It was impossible to sustain an even pace and we were all wearing leg weights on the bottom of our feet. on and off it went for miles. in some shady places on the north side there was enough snow to walk on which was a small relief. Gradually we gained the false summit where more rocky conditions made the tread easier. Finally the old cabin on the summit came into view. I noticed immediately that the old distinctive cupola that had served as a lookout for Japanese invaders during WWII was gone, a victim of age and vandalism.
The first group reached the summit before noon, nearly 6 1/2 hours after starting. Within 15 minutes everyone was on top enjoying lunch. Not much remains inside the old building- just a few broken pieces of furniture. The building itself is leaning to one side and looks like it will soon topple over during the next big storm. What I find most fascinating about the top is that almost every rock there contains old fragments of sea shells.
A strong cold wind came up prompting everyone to move into the leeward side of the structure. No warning about leaving time was necessary as everyone began putting on their packs. Before Carleton and I were done discussing who would lead on the way down, the anxious group started off on their own. This was the last I saw of them until we were back at the cars. Only Ruth and Frank Dobos and Janet remained in the back.
The trip back was otherwise uneventful. The mud had dried a bit making walking much easier. We ran into Martin Feather and Cristy Bird and their single charge about 3 miles from the summit at a flat spot where they had begun to set up camp. The wind continued cold but bearable and we managed to arrive back at the spot where we met the road on the way up at 4:45, 15 minutes ahead of my targeted time. We were back on the trail before dark and walked the last mile out under moon light arriving back at the cars around 6:30 pm (Carleton's group got there before 6).
About half the participants went over to the Cuyama Buckhorn for dinner. I think most everyone was so tired that they hardly noticed what they ate. Anyway it was warm and nice and we were all glad we made it out. Later that night it began to rain and I thought about Martin and his group....
Thanks to Carleton for helping to lead a very difficult trip. Participants: Frank and Ruth Dobos, Rocky Morton, Matt McBride, Pete Daggett, Roy Stewart, Charlie Knapke, Evan Samuels, Mitch Helbrech, Leslie Metcalf, Jim Kilberg, Jim Fujimoto, Gary Murta, Barbara Cohen and Janet Phun.
I called up the BLM a few days later and obtained some information from them over the phone. I requested and received a few weeks later brochures on the Carrizo Plain. The road up to the Caliente ridge from Soda Lake is open from early spring (when the wet season is over) until the next heavy rains or until the last Sat in Nov. Call them at (805)861-4236 M-F 7:30 am - 4:00 pm or write to them at BLM, 4301 Rosedale Hwy, Bakersfield, CA 93306. If the road is open here is how to do Caliente: Take Hwy 166 to Maricopa. From Maricopa, continue west on 166 for 9 miles, then turn right onto Soda Lake Road. Go 29 miles on this oiled/dirt road then turn left onto another dirt road just before coming to Soda Lake. Follow this road (not shown on the auto club map but it connects around where Richard Ck is shown on both Kern and San Luis Obispo maps) for about 7 miles to where it connects with the main Caliente Ridge Rd (keep south at junctions and bear right when approaching the Shelby Cow Camp, now being converted into a BLM campground). Just before this junction is a large parking area built as a trailhead for hikers and riders. From this spot it is about 7 miles and 1500, gain due east to the summit. The Los Padres National Forest map shows this road.
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