Name of hike: Off-trail scramble and hike to La Cumbre Peak (using bike shuttle)
Mileage: 2.5 miles. An arduous half-day (full-day if you do the return scramble back down); various restrictions; bring water!
Suggested time: About 4-5 hours hiking time for fit hikers.
Suggested map: A Hiker’s Guide to the Santa Barbara Front Country by Raymond Ford (2011).
Mighty La Cumbre Peak looms north, high above my puny dwelling on Santa Barbara’s Westside. At 3985 feet, La Cumbre is barely the highest point on our beautiful coastal mountains.
Just east is another gorgeous mountain apex I call “Rocky Ridge," but which Ray Ford has labeled “The Rock Garden."
At 3,800 feet, it’s a sort of twin peak to La Cumbre. Behind The Rock Garden is “White Mountain,” and further east is Montecito Peak, especially visible with its symmetrical Fujiyama-like cone. By studying our glorious ridgeline we can also pick out the very picturesque Arlington and Cathedral peaks, both of which stand massively in front of La Cumbre Peak, our goal. The off-trail scrambler will first have to clamber over Arlington and past Cathedral on his or her way to offering nature prayers on brooding La Cumbre Peak itself.
French poet Charles Baudelaire has written that the loveliest human habitations lie “between the mountains and the sea” — we enjoy this topographic good fortune here in sun-kissed Santa Barbara. Almost all my columns deal with the Santa Barbara back country — on the other side of this coastal range, and also north of Lake Cachuma — but living in the City of Santa Barbara one often looks up and observes the La Cumbre massif beckoning. If you scrutinize the coastal ridgeline very hard, it’s possible to detect the tiny white “fire tower” built atop La Cumbre Peak, and my two hiking cronies and I know full well that there are wooden picnic tables and benches hidden beneath the elegant conifers that await us at the summit.
Another reason to highlight the off-trail hike to La Cumbre Peak is to make the clambering challenges very clear, and to warn off the casual and unprepared hikers who fairly often get into trouble up there and have had to be rescued (e.g., on February 25. Another time, a hiking friend of mine fell a few feet on this off-trail adventure and was pierced through the middle of his right thigh by a sharp yucca spike; it was difficult for his friends to get him back down.
Some important restrictions for first-timers include the necessity for: a guide who has made this scramble up before; readiness to go back if necessary; cellphone/map/compass fit condition; and correct apparel (heavy boots, wide hat, heavy long-sleeved shirt, long pants, gloves, fanny pack with medical stuff and food, and at least two liters of water).
In the '80s and '90s my friends and I would go up La Cumbre Peak and then return the same way, making a very strenuous half-day into a full-day monster. However, with balky knees and in my seventh decade, I’ve scaled this down to an ascent only, using my favorite technique of the “bike-shuttle” to eliminate the return descent on foot (e.g. Figueroa Mountain One-Day Hike/Bike).
The trailhead for this scramble at the dead-end top of Tunnel Road, above Mission Canyon. Here's how I do the hike/bike: I convince hiking buddies Franko and Marcus to meet me with with Franko's truck at the Skofield Park grass parking area at 8:15 a.m. on March 8. Meanwhile, I leave the Westside at 7 a.m. and drive 14 miles to La Cumbre Peak itself, via Gibraltar Road. (At the top of Gibraltar, turn left onto East Camino Cielo, drive two miles, and park in the trees.) Removing my mountain bike from the truckbed, despite the cold, I easily cycle nine miles back down Gibraltar Road to Skofield Park and place the bike in Franko’s truck bed. We drive the truck to the top of Tunnel Road to begin the Tunnel Trail portion of our off-trail scramble. After we reach La Cumbre Peak, we'll get into my truck and drive it back here to Franko's.
(Please park carefully at the top of Tunnel Road, and make sure your vehicle is inside the brightly painted white line — you will be towed if you aren’t inside the line, and we all need to show respect to the neighbors here, who endure a lot of traffic. Children are often present.)
We begin hiking the Tunnel Trail at 9 a.m., and initially it’s paved, for about a half-mile, steeply ascending: We will ascend every step of the entire adventure. At a large flat area, we head left, on the dirt road toward Inspiration Point and Seven Falls (this is now the Jesusita Trail), and this section may have a lot of hikers. Do not take the recently re-worked side trail — this is the continuation of the Tunnel Trail, which passes Mission Crags and goes to Angostura Pass (the sign has been removed) — which is another way to get to La Cumbre Peak but longer and more circuitous. We’ve determined to get there via off-trail crawling, which commences shortly.
Once you get to tiny Mission Creek (virtually dry on March 8) do notcontinue on the Jesusita Trail to Inspiration Point, but cross the creek bed and, above left, angle toward Seven Falls — and within a few yards an unremarkable, narrow dirt trail heads straight up the ridge. Remember: Your motto throughout will be "Ever Upward!" This trail is very steep and crumbly, and after awhile it peters out, and only from time to time will you find traces of trail: The off-trail scramble has begun!
At this point you are climbing up out of Mission Canyon, and within a very strenuous half-mile you are on top of what some people call the “Dragon’s Back” and clambering up Arlington Peak (3,250 feet). You lose sight of La Cumbre Peak. You get to crawl over huge boulders, which is quite an enjoyable activity, requiring upper body strength as well as strong legs, and you simply have to go slowly, avoiding yucca and the fire-hardened manzanita branches from the 2008 Gap Fire. These can stab you and cause injuries. Note Franko’s bloody arm in picture three. He failed to wear a long-sleeved shirt, but he was okay with these cuts.
No matter, we clamber on carefully, and I’m very pleased to have the gloves, which spare the fingers on the rough sandstone megaliths. There is no trail at this point; just stay on the ridge and crawl around the beautiful pink boulders, with an eye out for rattlesnakes.
After about two hours, we top out on Arlington Peak itself, and can see La Cumbre again, but it feels very far away since a large chasm, or arroyo, looms between. We take a 10-minute break on Arlington, about the only flat spot on the entire scramble, gobbling bananas and quaffing water. All three of us are very sweaty, and we are careful to stay hydrated.
Soon we’re on the move again and a few minutes later arrive at the official Cathedral Peak (3,290 feet), which from the east looks like a kind of stony spire. We carefully go around Cathedral Peak on the right, then choose a low, long left as we move east along this ridge, making sure to come back up when the ground permits — you are really off-trail here, and you are sussing out where to go next.
Some scores of yards beyond Cathedral Peak, you see a very steep chute going down from your ridge. After some guesswork, you descend the precipitous slope very carefully, using the thick chaparral for handholds. This either didn’t burn fully in the Gap Fire or, being on the damper north side, has sprung back amazingly. The handholds in the strong chaparral are very helpful, especially if you are wearing your gloves. Remember, if you guess wrong on this, you will have to somehow scramble back up to Cathedral and return the way you came. Many hikers are defeated by this trek and have made two or three attempts to reach La Cumbre before succeeding.
Along the way to Cathedral we see some prickly phlox flowers emerging, mixed with the vicious yuccas and burnt-out manzanitas, but otherwise it is fairly barren.
The view north from near Cathedral (picture 4) doesn’t do justice to how many hundreds of feet you lose going into the deep arroyo before you can ascend again. The photo does show part of an old trail going up to La Cumbre Peak (the fire lookout is east and just out of frame), but that sketchy trail doesn’t go all the way, and you will still have to scramble off-trail often. You have to find it on your own once you are down in the canyon.
While you feel pretty close to La Cumbre Peak, you also lose sight of it once you drop into the chasm. I have spent far too much time roaming around in this thicket searching for the best way up, and there is simply some trial-and-error work here, random bushwhacking, which is exhausting. It’s in this zone, and all the rest of the extremely steep and rocky ascent above, that most people have gotten lost or disoriented. Remember, even getting back up to Cathedral Peak is a major chore, and you should expect to be on your hands and knees part of the time — a very small fanny pack is best here since larger daypacks will keep getting hooked on the vicious vegetation.
We were stumped a few times, after struggling out of the thicket at the bottom of the canyon separating La Cumbre from Cathedral and Arlington peaks. Three is a good number of scramblers since one guy “stays” while the other two fan out right and left searching for a way through — calling out is important and maintaining voice contact is critical. At one position we were really puzzled — we think the fire altered everything so much that the "old" trail is truly gone — and made several blundering attempts. On one effort, pulling myself up desperately, I got stabbed by a yucca, but it hit a rib bone. The slight puncture made me fall back abruptly, but I was being spotted by Franko on this. While this isn’t technical climbing (I don’t do technical climbing), it is very close to it, and experience and judgment become critical: Check yourself and know when to pull out and tell yourself you will make it another day.
This blockage was discouraging, and we all had minor cuts and scrapes; we regrouped, discussed, sipped water, mulled it over ... We finally got through by making a difficult left scramble/crawl, through some yuccas and with rocky handholds. The final 30 minutes were very steep but vestiges of an old trail — or was it an animal trail? — appeared, and finally we got to the top. You don’t see La Cumbre Peak itself until you are within about 300 yards. The first signs are some giant antennae and artificial “dishes” scattered among huge pink boulders — welcome back to the Machine Age. We arrive at 1:15, so the whole clamber has taken almost 4.5 hours.
Aha! The truck with water, assorted cold drinks, fruit, snacks, and a change of clothes. We straggle over to the wooden table with the best view of Santa Barbara (photo 5) and listen to the birds sing and the wind whistle between the Coulter pine limbs. These conifers were planted in the late 1930s at the end of the Great Depression — could the Hunger Games come to our paradise, like it has in Greece? We don’t talk much, and simply cherish an hour of near-solitude without white noise. No cars pass by on the primitive East Camino Cielo Road near us.
This is, I repeat, an off-trail scramble and requires dayhikers to figure out some of the routes for themselves. It isn’t for beginners, and you need to be fairly fit and experienced, carry the appropriate gear, and have someone lead who has completed it before. Cellphones do not always work down in the canyon thicket so don’t count on them. Patience required. We who live between the mountains and the sea should turn our heads inland more often, and take advantage of the quiet in these pines and on Rocky Ridge.
You need more? Don’t do the bike shuttle part, and after a break at the top return the way you came — but now the order is Cathedral, Arlington, Dragon’s Back, Seven Falls, out to Tunnel Road. Be sure to bring extra water since you’ll need twice as much.