Santa Lucia Wilderness Bragging Rights: Atop the pasture

Bragging Rights: Santa Lucia Wilderness trip – May 6, 2017

Jeff and I did it! We now have bragging rights for the Santa Lucia Wilderness, which is due northeast of San Luis Obispo where I live. The wilderness is located in a lush region of the Cuesta Ridge which is roughly midway in the Santa Lucia Mountain Range which has a full extent in the three counties of Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Monterey. Big Sur is located in the northern portions of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range. Before I go too far, this trip report requires a little background information first.

For some years now I have been hiking and getting to know the Santa Lucia Wilderness with only rudimentary mapping. Unlike Big Sur, there are few people who have documented all the various trails and GPS’d them and provided resources online. The USGS maps are insufficient because they are not detailed enough and actually are wrong in some places. Getting to know the land for me has been a little delayed because I haven’t had the resources like I have with Big Sur to get acquainted with the land before I hike. I’ve made acquaintances with some horse-back riders over the past few years who have provided some input for me to chase down, and thanks to an encounter with one of them I learned about some of the history of the Upper Lopez Ridge Trail which I had bushwhacked up to a point, last year.

Indeed I not only bushwhacked but I brought loppers with me on two separate trips so that I could get through the thick jungle. The horse-back riders who shared with me the history of the trail told me that they used to travel it often before the wilderness was a wilderness and you could drive up to the trail head on the East Cuesta side of Highway 101. Some decades ago is when they frequented that part. These days you must park right on the 101 freeway actually (very strange setup, on the very top of Cuesta Grade between San Luis Obispo and Santa Margarita, you pull over on the freeway and park). Anyway, back then this trail was accessible even on a jeep but as you may expect, no jeeps are allowed in wilderness areas now. Though, I would say that a jeep would be impossible at this point without re-grading the entire distance upstairs. The trail as a foot path has also degraded quite a great deal, but due mostly to foliage. I spent hours last year doing that work to get in only so far before I got lost and turned around. On that trip where I got lost and turned around I didn’t have enough time left in the day to continue exploring so I put this work on hold until we had cooler weather. My memory is I was out on that trail last in June or July, 2016.

I told Jeff about these trips I took solo last year and he was interested in going there so this last Saturday, May 6th 2017, we decided to make a trip out there. Given that I’d have my buddy with me I thought nothing of the fact that we had never been on a fair distance of this route, the parts on the Upper Lopez Ridge and then down to upper Lopez Creek namely. I knew there was a long stretch I had not done any trail work on and didn’t expect it to be easily passable. I knew going in this was going to be a difficult trip. We had initially planned for an overnighter, and in retrospect I would do an overnighter next time.

We started out, got past the first 4.5 miles to the north side Big Falls trail head on Hi Mountain Road very swiftly. Then we started on the Upper Lopez Ridge Trail.

Santa Lucia Wilderness Bragging Rights: Atop Upper Lopez Ridge just west of Big Falls Trailhead
Atop Upper Lopez Ridge just west of Big Falls Trailhead

We quickly passed through the first few miles, where we saw all my cuttings from last year’s trail work I did. In a strange way I showed Jeff how I got lost last year simply by thinking I was heading in the right direction (again). Jeff pointed out that I missed the trail and sure enough I did. And it was hiding in the chaparral in such a manner that I thought it wasn’t the route.  Good thing I had Jeff with me this time so I could get another opinion.  This wound up happening several times actually. (It’s a really good idea to go bushwhacking with a friend.)  Then we got to a section where we needed to pause and consider where to go. Jeff checked his GPS to see how far we were off the trail only to find we were on it.

Santa Lucia Wilderness Bragging Rights: Checking our current location
Checking our current location

There were whole sections of say a hundred feet or so where you could not tell there was any trail at all, unless you laid down on the ground and looked at the ground underneath the bushes. I had to do that several times to find the old track because the bushes were hiding the way. We wound up literally crashing through a great deal of this stuff. To the point that I thought we might need to turn around and try to finish the hike another day.

Santa Lucia Wilderness Bragging Rights: Most of the Upper Lopez Ridge Trail looks like this
Most of the Upper Lopez Ridge Trail looks like this
Santa Lucia Wilderness Bragging Rights: Jeff pops out of one of the serious bushwacking sections
Jeff pops out of one of the serious bushwacking sections
Santa Lucia Wilderness Bragging Rights: A grassy area between bushwhacks
A grassy area between bushwhacks

We kept our “noses to the grindstone” though and although late, we made it to this very large pasture crossing over the top of the ridge that has some high power lines running down through the canyon. I turned around and looked back at this time.

Santa Lucia Wilderness Bragging Rights: Looking back from where we came
Looking back from where we came

There is an ancient road there that appears hasn’t been traveled on in decades that its purpose was there to access the high power line towers. I guess the government is happy with the towers and not doing any maintenance because there’s no way they would ever get a truck in there now without some serious road crew work that would take weeks, I’m sure.

This large pasture area was the trophy for me. I had wanted to see it up close for years. I’ve looked at it on Google Earth for quite some time. And this last Saturday I was blessed with the following views.

Santa Lucia Wilderness Bragging Rights: Finally made it to the large pasture
Finally made it to the large pasture
Santa Lucia Wilderness Bragging Rights: Atop the pasture
Atop the pasture
Santa Lucia Wilderness Bragging Rights: Atop the pasture
Atop the pasture
Santa Lucia Wilderness Bragging Rights: Atop the pasture
Atop the pasture
Santa Lucia Wilderness Bragging Rights: Atop the pasture
Atop the pasture
Santa Lucia Wilderness Bragging Rights: Atop the pasture, our lunch spot
Our lunch spot

We ate lunch, late at 1:30 to 1:45, if I remember correctly. Wet from sweat, it was cold (high 40’s low 50’s) and windy and wet. I could see my breath. It was at this time that I wondered if we should continue or turn back. What lay ahead was unknown until the Lopez Creek over 1000 feet below this point. I didn’t want to go down all the way to turn around and come all the way back, so I paused and considered and figured basically I was with my buddy and that made everything okay. If we got lost, we get lost together!

We started heading down to Lopez Creek, a place we’ve been many times before. What we didn’t realize was the incredible length remaining. Along the way down though we encountered some very beautiful scenes. I want so much to go back and take it all in, at leisure next time.

Santa Lucia Wilderness Bragging Rights: Heading down the pasture towards upper Lopez Creek
Heading down the pasture towards upper Lopez Creek
Santa Lucia Wilderness Bragging Rights: Vibrant bright and olive greens mix with forest and chaparral
Vibrant bright and olive greens mix with forest and chaparral
Santa Lucia Wilderness Bragging Rights: Walking on a road no vehicles have been on in decades
Walking on a road no vehicles have been on in decades
Santa Lucia Wilderness Bragging Rights: A volcano-like shaped peak on our way down
A volcano-like shaped peak on our way down
Santa Lucia Wilderness Bragging Rights: Another view of the volcano-like shaped peak on our way down
Another view of the volcano-like shaped peak on our way down
Santa Lucia Wilderness Bragging Rights: Looking back up the pasture we descended
Looking back up the pasture we descended
Santa Lucia Wilderness Bragging Rights: Signs of the dozer-cut are slowly disappearing
Signs of the dozer-cut are slowly disappearing
Santa Lucia Wilderness Bragging Rights: Road completely gone in sections with mature 10-20+ year old Madrone trees in the middle
Road completely gone in sections with mature 10-20+ year old Madrone trees in the middle
Santa Lucia Wilderness Bragging Rights: A section of the road goes through some very large Live Oak groves
A section of the road goes through some very large Live Oak groves
Santa Lucia Wilderness Bragging Rights: The road is gone
The road is gone
Santa Lucia Wilderness Bragging Rights: After checking GPS we shortcut through this gully to the bottom -photo credits Jeff Berkman
After checking GPS we shortcut through this gully to the bottom -photo credits Jeff Berkman

Then we got down to the creek. The exit point of this road placed us very close to Upper Lopez Campground, but in my mind I thought we were going to be very close to Sulphur Pot, which wound up being a long hike to get to.

Santa Lucia Wilderness Bragging Rights: One of many crossings of upper Lopez Creek
One of many crossings of upper Lopez Creek

A short movie of Jeff demonstrating one of our simple creek crossings.
Santa Lucia Wilderness Bragging Rights: At times, solid Poison Oak
At times, solid Poison Oak
Santa Lucia Wilderness Bragging Rights: Someone's lost Nike shoe perched on a tree
Someone’s lost Nike shoe perched on a tree
Santa Lucia Wilderness Bragging Rights: I gave Jeff my camera
I gave Jeff my camera
Santa Lucia Wilderness Bragging Rights: One of the waterfalls
One of the waterfalls
Santa Lucia Wilderness Bragging Rights: One of the waterfalls
One of the waterfalls
Santa Lucia Wilderness Bragging Rights: Deep crossing here
Deep crossing here
Santa Lucia Wilderness Bragging Rights: A use-camp
A use-camp
Santa Lucia Wilderness Bragging Rights: Me crossing upper Lopez Creek -photo credits Jeff Berkman
Me crossing upper Lopez Creek -photo credits Jeff Berkman
Santa Lucia Wilderness Bragging Rights: Me trying very hard not to get wet -photo credits Jeff Berkman
Me trying very hard not to get wet -photo credits Jeff Berkman
Santa Lucia Wilderness Bragging Rights: Me, hauling a long heavy log to place over the creek -photo credits Jeff Berkman
Me, hauling a long heavy log to place over the creek -photo credits Jeff Berkman

We got to the bottom of Big Falls Trail around 6:30 to 6:45 If I remember correctly. We had about 7-8 miles remaining and I needed to take a rest and eat and drink up again along the way. It was getting dark and we knew we’d have to use headlamps to finish our hike but I didn’t have any idea it would be that late. The trip back up Big Falls Trail and then along Hi Mountain Road to Rinconada trail head was slow for me because I had been cramping in my hip and buttocks. I had been trying to limit my motion to endure this hike but in the process of doing that I made matters worse for my left knee and foot as well. I darn near hobbled back the last 2 miles down the mountain to Jeff’s car. We were done, and we had bragging rights, but Jeff did mention he thought hikes like this were damaging to the body more than good. And I agree. We will go back again, but not the same way. First, we are going to fix up that Upper Lopez Ridge Trail so that it doesn’t take forever to transit through the solid bushes. Next we are going to overnight there so we can enjoy our stay much longer.

Here are some maps I made to show our hike’s route. This first one shows the route we went on (in red), combined with a well known loop called the Big Falls – Little Falls Loop that I know already is 13.5 miles according to a book I have on SLO County Hikes (in blue).

Santa Lucia Wilderness Bragging Rights: The route we took (24+ miles) compared with Big Falls-Little Falls Loop (13.5 miles)
The route we took (24+ miles) compared with Big Falls-Little Falls Loop (13.5 miles)

This next one shows only our track, allowing for better details.

Santa Lucia Wilderness Bragging Rights: The route we took - 24+ miles
The route we took – 24+ miles

This trip as a day trip was very taxing on my body. I had a difficult time finishing the last few miles due to cramps in my hips/buttocks that compounded into a left knee and foot problem as I tried to avoid much weight on that side.