Rocky Ridge Off-Trail Scramble

Not Recommended

Rocky Ridge
Dan McCaslin

Name of hike: Rocky Ridge Off-trail Day Hike (uses car shuttle)

Mileage: 3.8 ascending miles, strenuous; trail ends above Tunnel Connector Trail. Very rugged terrain.

Suggested time: 3.5 – 7 hours. The trail simply disappears, so be willing to scramble around looking for any way up, and also willing to return the way you came without achieving the summit. This hike is not recommended but anybody attempting it should bring water, safety gear, and experience.

Map: Raymond Ford, A Hiker’s Guide to the Santa Barbara Frontcountry (2011)

Poet Gary Snyder once divided the California ecosystems into six branches, and our local region won his fragrant term, “oak-grass-pine mountains.” Even though we’re so close to this golden littoral south of Point Conception, as often noted in earlier columns, I see Santa Barbarans wholly obsessed by our gloriously seductive sea while seldom glancing up north or east to our nearly 4,000-foot-tall local mountain range. And another way to appreciate our fabulous shore is by viewing it from atop local peaks, savoring the symbolic “look back down” on green and red Santa Barbara town. Would you rather surf, or dayhike the frontcountry and look homeward like an angel from on high?

Dan McCaslin

Standing proudly just east of 3,985-foot La Cumbre Peak is what I have for years dubbed “Rocky Ridge,” and Ray Ford has called the Rock Garden. Observing our exciting mountains and noting the highest point, La Cumbre Peak, your gaze is immediately drawn to Rocky Ridge. After clambering up La Cumbre Peak in March, which turned into a very difficult endeavor, the hiker in me wanted to clamber off-trail again to bag the second-highest local peak. A sort of “bookend” off-trail bushwhacking up 3,600 ft. Rocky Ridge.

The appellations Rocky Ridge and Rock Garden come about because, viewed from Santa Barbara, this more rounded “peak” has a chaotic jumble of large pink and tan boulders with a few gorgeous conifers mixed in. The megalith field also contains weirdly-sculpted wind caves and rock shelters one could honestly sleep inside (folks have done this). The third photograph in the album embedded in this column shows Rocky Ridge from the east, with La Cumbre Peak and its white tower in the lower left frame, and on westward.

In terms of distance, hiking and scrambling up to Rocky Ridge is shorter than the La Cumbre off-trail clambering, since it lacks the very deep chasm behind Cathedral Peak (described in detail in the March column linked above), but it turned out to have its own severe challenges.

Most readers know how to get to Skofield Park (still in the City of Santa Barbara) by driving up past the Santa Barbara Mission. Park at Skofield, then hike along the road to the beautiful, stone-built Las Canoas Road Bridge (crafted in 1919, also called the Stanwood Bridge) and drop suddenly into Rattlesnake Canyon. The creek is gushing and spring bursts out in color and growth. Although this was already a beautiful and very popular trail, Ray Ford and others have recently reconfigured the path’s first several hundred yards, making it much more accessible to the elderly, disabled, and young children, as well as horses and the supposedly banned mountain bikes. While it’s not a true “wilderness” area, contrary to the bold proclamation of the city’s wooden signage, my friend Chris and I decide to take a swift hike through this section, walking the Eastern Loop side trail heading directly to Tin Shack Meadow. From the Eastern Loop Trail in Rattlesnake Canyon you occasionally catch spectacular views of your goal, the Rocky Ridge.

At the top of Tin Shack Meadow you spy an old iron trail sign nailed to a tree reading Tunnel Trail and, below that, “Gibralter Rd” (sic): Follow the Tunnel Trail arrow west and ascend the steep Tunnel Connector Trail, hiking the whole .8-mile length of talus (talus refers to terrain made up of pieces of rock) until you strike Tunnel Trail itself. So far, you’ve hiked 2.9 miles on well-marked trails.

At this signed junction, return back up the Tunnel Connector Trail less than 20 yards, and with a keen eye you will see a very small trail breaking left up the ridge in heavy head-high chaparral. Here you soon begin the rugged off-trail portion – although there is a faint path, fairly soon even this very sketchy trail may disappear, and you’re on your own, bushwhacking up the rock-strewn ridge. Chris and I both hiked here years ago, but we want to see how much damage the intense Jesusita Fire has inflicted on the already vague “trail” to the top.

We also want to see how the area and chaparral have recovered in the three years since the destructive Jesusita Fire scorched it in 2009. More deeply, I look at this rock garden, with its massive sandstone boulders scattered about and its fringe of pints every day from the Westside: The landscape calls out to an urban denizen. And by going there, perhaps I can understand more about what’s happening here on the coastal littoral, and in town, and beyond. Should we vote for the Mayor Schneider’s tax and pension-reform plan? Mitt or Barack?

In The Long Shore – A Psychological Experience of the Wilderness, Jungian analysts Jane Hollister Wheelwright and her daughter Lynda write about the intense impact of the land on them while growing up on remote Hollister Ranch. Lynda Wheelwright Schmidt writes, “Looking back, we see the wilderness as it was and can apply our conscious thought to it as we could not when we were struggling for life in it [Hollister Ranch]. Looking backward permits an objectivity impossible to the present or future. Objectivity permits evaluation. We are in a position now to discover just how the wilderness is valuable to us.”

Pure wildernesses in America slowly diminish in number and size, even as the condors lose their ancestral range. We feel an urgency to explore and protect these remaining oases of wildness. If we never visit them, hauling our kids along, we’re taking our richest natural resource for granted.

While hiking, scrambling, bushwhacking, and finally crawling up parts of the stony slope to Rocky Ridge – your back to the sea and the emerald-green town below – whenever you turn around you behold the gleaming sea and white coastline, and the long undulating shore reveals itself in fresh ways. Looking seaward and backward allows an objectivity impossible to attain while down in town.

You begin to realize how this lithic wilderness has always loomed above your busy urban life, over your kids and family, and how little heed you’ve given it. The skyline forms a northern geologic and symbolic boundary, as the sea does to the south. And once you reach the Rocky Ridge summit, with its jumble of magic rocks, you can also capture four Channel Islands’ black silhouettes, and reflect that they’ve always been there, off the coast, though you can’t see them from town (at least not from the Westside).

Philosopher Charles Taylor writes eloquently about theories of “our dark genesis,” in which European Romantic Age thinkers react against the extreme materialism of the Enlightenment. Taylor talks about the “buffered identity” in our machine civilization, and our struggle to find deep meaning without the comfortable shibboleths of that old dead Christianity that the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called out. The new atheists like Dawkins and Sam Harris remain enmeshed in the either/or, and still can’t get Beyond Good and Evil in their reactions.

In Romantic Age writers like Coleridge and Wordsworth, and painters like Carl David Friedrich, Taylor says we can see “the struggle to articulate the new moral meanings in nature.” Indeed, the inevitable “romantic reaction” leads straight to the 1960s, via the Beatniks. Modern unbelief leads to an interesting sports mania in America, to people listening to concerts “with an almost religious intensity” (try the Santa Barbara Bowl on a Saturday night), and to urban-dwelling hikers plunging into the wilderness, even clambering up to La Cumbre Peak and Rocky Ridge.

After the green chaos of riparian wildflowers lining Rattlesnake Canyon; the yellow canyon sunflowers, the lavender-and-white shooting stars, and the golden poppies along the Connector Trail; we feel like we’re entering another sort of dark genesis heading up the ridge with heavy chaparral towering over our heads. We know the Jesusita Fire damage will soon intensify, and we’ll be out on the boulder-studded slope in full sun – I don’t recommend trying this scramble in summertime, and do advise aspirants to begin the clamber very early in other seasons, by 7 a.m. at the latest. All the safety advice I’ve given for the La Cumbre Off-Trail Scramble pertains here, too.

This final .8 mile portion up from the Tunnel Connector is almost entirely scrambling around, and after an hour it becomes pretty frustrating. The fire has obliterated any semblance of “trail” and it’s even charred some of the boulders so they are unexpectedly grainy and slippery, another clambering challenge. I tell myself we haven’t “lost” the trail. Rather, it’s been effaced: There’s simply no path at all.

We’re constantly on the lookout for wildlife, especially rattlesnakes. We encountered a thick one, and the photo shows exactly how it lay across the rudimentary bit of trail. It wasn’t aggressive, but when it slithered away I caught a glimpse of the tail showing four or five rattles. Seeing such a deadly beauty adds depth to this long, hot, exhilarating, and enraging final section – we spent more time on this part than the preceding 2.9 miles! Lost on a boulder-strewn field, aimlessly bushwhacking around.

The trail simply disappears and everything then gets quite baffling as the heat slowly rises. No cairns. While we had plenty of water, nonetheless we were out in the growing heat for over five hours. We were stumped several times – the sixth photograph clearly shows the burnt-manzanita sticks eager to poke you in the face or eye. I become actually rather trapped in this horrid rocky section. The next photo shows how the right sleeve on my tough denim white shirt has been literally torn off, and I’m irritated since I know that not only do I have to crawl and bumble my way through more of this stony maze, but I’ll need to buy another $4 white shirt at Alpha Thrift Store next week.

We almost give it up a couple of times, and seriously discuss turning back, but unlike the La Cumbre Peak scramble we can occasionally see the Rocky Ridge itself, and we know pretty much the direction we have to go. No need for GPS or map or compass, it’s just extraordinary physical exertion. I’m working very hard not to get hurt, or scraped-up too much. Physical movement is extremely sluggish, literally crawling over some boulders and occasionally breaking-off the branches that are in our faces: This incredibly tortoise-like gait helps “slow down” us hasty urban types. There is time for plenty of reflection, even under this kind of duress and challenge – and not all of it is of the “what the heck am I doing here?” type.

After almost five hours we finally straggle up to the beautiful jumbled boulders and pines scattered on Rocky Ridge’s rather rounded summit. Many of the Coulter pines have burned, but a few are still healthy — the one shown in the photograph has had its base burned black under the huge boulder, but amazingly it still lives and is a healthy green above. While you feel like you’re at the summit here in this rock garden, if you keep on hiking north out of the maze you go up to a higher summit, not visible from town. This is White Mountain (3,800 feet); and if you keep going beyond that, you shortly reach East Camino Cielo Road.

After a respite in the rock garden, eating bananas and finishing our water in the coniferous eyrie, we bushwhack toward White Mountain for ten minutes – but then take a tiny, barely discernible trail east and drop down a ridge to the upper part of Gibraltar Road, and locate our pre-parked car there (near where the hang gliders take off). This has been a planned shuttle hike: Much earlier, we’d driven to this spot on Gibraltar Road in two cars, leaving one, then returned to Skofield Park to commence our scramble. (This also works as a bicycle shuttle, e.g. as I did on the La Cumbre Peak Scramble.)

This is the first column in which I recommend readers not undertake the hike. One of our exploration’s goals was to determine how bad the off-trail conditions had became after the 2009 Jesusita Fire. Ray Ford’s much longer, “hard-core” jaunt (12 miles) took place in 2008, before the terrain-altering Jesusita Fire. The fire damage effaced any semblance of a path. The last half mile in particular was extremely slow and difficult going – full of slips and scrapes and discouragement. Repeat: The Rocky Ridge scramble is totally off-trail and although shorter than the La Cumbre scramble it is much harder. I also learned that returning back down on the boulders would have meant landing on some of these fire-hardened Manzanita spikes, and thus the return would be more dangerous than the ascent. Since cell phones don’t seem to work reliably up there, a serious injury or snake bite would have nasty consequences.

Still, on this scramble we enjoyed riparian splendor in Rattlesnake Canyon and poet Snyder’s oaks, warmed ourselves at the Tin Shack Meadow’s grasses, then clambered up the ridge’s rugged terrain to the pine-crowned apex at the picturesque Rocky Ridge. While we were not in the city, we always had beautiful Santa Barbara town behind us to confirm the presence of home, with the flat-blue sea behind town reaching toward the horizon.

Lynda Wheelwright Schmidt, the Hollister Ranch heir, also writes that, “…owning land is not the best way to merge with nature and the Self. Far more valuable are the great wilderness areas of the world… The spirit can expand forever in a place without fences, roads, or people.”

Ease your nature-deficit syndrome and look to our primitive interior: Local federal wildernesses like Matilija, Dick Smith, Sespe, San Rafael, and Chumash are all there for venturesome readers to explore. We are the people. We own these public lands.


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