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Make your way to the top

The Tribune, 14 April 2007

R.W. Battles

“Mountain biker ahead,” I shouted to my hiking companions just below me.

The helmet-less cyclist was walking his bike downhill; an obvious mechanical problem had him out of the saddle. Our group of seven paused to let him pass. He grinned as he said hello, then showed me his flat tire. The irony was that I was carrying my usual backpack but sans bike repair tools — I’d left them at home to save weight on this outing.

It was a clear, cool Februar y morning and a slight breeze had us dressed in layers. We were near 3,000 feet, about halfway up the Santa Cruz Trail, heading for the summit of Little Pine Mountain, 1,500 feet higher. We’d left San Luis Obispo three hours earlier and parked at Upper Osos Campground, by the Pine Mountain jeep road gate.

Too early for spring wildflowers, we were still buoyed by the fresh carpet of grass and new foliage in the chaparral. Pausing for a snack, we gazed at Little Pine’s summit directly above.

“The overhanging switchbacks are just ahead,” I mentioned to the gang, recalling how a Santa Barbara trails club had built several wood and metal platforms to hold back the dirt of the continuously eroding trail.

Several years earlier I had watched in fascination as my friend Steve Hauser floated his bike across the platforms, oblivious to the cliff on his right. That day I’d gingerly walked my bike over those same sections, but today, with trekking poles in hand, we all hiked comfortably across.

Above the hanging switchbacks the trail crossed a steeply sloping meadow, the peak now out of sight above. The gentle breeze grew colder, but our exertion kept us comfortable under light jackets. The Channel Islands were gradually coming into view over the coastal ridge southwest of us. Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa were gracing the horizon; in the distance we could just make out San Miguel. Lake Cachuma was to the west and far off we could pick out the village of Solvang.

The trail now edged along a steep chaparral slope, which became a cliff several hundred yards farther. I recalled riding down it on my mountain bike, always tense, uncomfortable with the exposure and the obvious danger it presented. But today on foot, it was just an interesting diversion.

At a rusty old hitching post, located on a small headland along the cliff, our trail veered north and up a steep hill. Trail crews had recently revised its route — a series of tight but well-graded switchbacks brought our gang to the junction just below Little Pine’s summit. Taking the right fork, the left would have led us to the jeep road, a five-minute trudge brought us to our goal.

What a spot for a picnic. Four Channel Islands, including Anacapa, stood out at arm’s length; Point Mugu was visible to the southeast; and snowcapped Reyes Peak framed the northeast horizon. We enjoyed a leisurely but chilly half-hour on the peak. Refreshed, my friends and I began the downhill stroll back to Upper Osos Campground. And I had learned a valuable lesson: To view scenery and wildlife, it’s more enjoyable to hike a trail than to ride it.