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Cuyama Peak

23 March 2002

By: Laura Joseph

They Said It Couldn't Be Done!
A Pioneering Hike to Cuyama Peak
Laura Joseph and Jim Kalember
A Private Hike

This story begins in January 2001 when, on one of my earlier HPS hikes, I happily scaled Lizard Head and was prepared for the second hike of the day -- Cuyama -- when I go the news: one does not hike up Cuyama; one drove. In response to my indignant protest, I was informed by a seasoned leader (in the words of Maggie Thatcher), "There is no alternative." It was, he assured me, too brushy on all sides. I became obsessed: I was determined to prove the mighty Cuyama could be hiked.

I began my research in earnest about a year later when, approaching my list finish (which I am doing without driving up any peak), it was time to confront Cuyama. My queries of HPS gurus Joe Young and Carleton Shay yielded the information that Charlie Knapke had hiked it from the east (route 33) years ago. Before contacting Charlie, I studied the topo to see how this might have been done. I could see two possible approaches: from the Tinta road or from Brubaker Cyn. The latter looked much more straightforward. My eye was caught by a particularly lovely ridge that begins where the "road" from the Canyon meets the Tinta "road" and runs northeast directly to the peak.

Next, I began an email correspondence with Charlie. Turned out that, although he had once planned to do the hike from the east, a barricaded road prevented him from carrying out the plan. As far as I could determine, no one had actually hiked Cuyama. My determination grew. Next problem was finding a courageous companion for the journey. This brings me to the present.

On March 23, Jim Kalember (a new HPS member and a great hiker) and I planned to do Monte Arido and Old Man by the (infamous) gated Potrero Seco Road. We figured we would decide what else to do after we finished that short hike. Just in case, I stashed my topo map of Cuyama in my pack. After picking up the permit with lock combinations at the Ojai Ranger Station, we proceeded up route 33 to Potrero Seco road where Jim, armed with George Wysup's technique for releasing the padlock, commenced his attack. Just the week before, Karen Isaacson and her merry band had failed to open the lock; nonetheless, I was confident that Jim, who once spent a good half hour trying to repair one of my trekking poles, would be successful. Wrong. (There is something wrong with this lock. I will take this matter to the highest levels of the Forest Service if necessary to get the darn thing replaced.)

So, I innocently suggested, why don't we go down the road a bit and try a new route to Cuyama. Jim was game and off we went, headed for a road on the map that leads into Brubaker Canyon. We found the road but turned around after 100 yards or so when we observed that we were apparently on private property. Jim calculated that we could down 33 a bit further, turn in at the next little road and cut around and back to Brubaker Canyon. This we did but found that the cutting back part was not as clear as it had seemed from a distance. We stopped at some agricultural type facility and inquired of the workers there if they could direct us to Brubaker Cyn. In Spanish, we were directed back to the road we had just rejected. Is it possible, we asked in broken Spanish, to reach it by continuing the way we were headed? What followed was apparently an affirmative with considerable qualifications which we didn't fully understand.

On we went, winding around a huge orchard of some unfamiliar tree and ending up, finally, on the same road we had rejected. This time, we decided to take our chances with the proprietary natives and went bravely forward. We waved in a friendly fashion at one native who stood at the side of the road and, since he didn't pull a shotgun, we stopped to chat with him. Ron (as he identified himself) confirmed that we were in fact headed right into Brubaker Cyn. We asked whether the dirt road that we were on continued and he allowed as how it did but, he said, due to the negligence of the Forest Service (which had promised to maintain the road in exchange for being given a right of way by the residents) the road was washed out not too far ahead.

We went about a mile through some nasty brush that did a number on Jim's new red Jeep before reaching the wash out. Here we parked and began to hike. We went up the road about 3/4 of a mile where it makes a sharp left turn. Consulting my map, I observed that this was exactly what it is supposed to do! The road -- really more like a trail it was so overgrown -- then begins to climb fairly steeply along the south side of "my" ridge. After about 1/4 mile, it meets the Tinta Road and turns sharply right. At this point, we began to look for a likely place to mount the ridge. We went, I think, a bit too far before starting up to the ridge line but the spot, while steep, was free of brush.

Upon reaching the ridge, we were pleased to find that the route was straightforward -- literally. This lovely ridge proceeds at 300° almost without deviation. It's a narrow ridge, hence easy to follow as it goes up to the Cuyama peak. There are four or five bumps along the way: the kind of thing that drops slightly on the other side before the ridge begins going up again. Yes, there is brush but most of it is easy to avoid and the few places where we plowed through were brief and pliant. There are places where the spine of the ridge is rocky and here one can either brave it (as we did mostly) or cut down a bit to get around what Mars would call a "rock problem".

Coors cans, plastic bags and other detritus of hunters (hikers never do this!) gave evidence that we were not the first two legged creatures ever to visit this ridge and the route boasts the odd telephone pole as well. For communication among the deer?

Although it rained for most of our journey (we were prepared; I got to wear my new rain pants), we could appreciate that this route, besides being an interesting ridge hike, is very pretty -- a surprise to those who have only seen the road side of the peak. The lookout was not visible until we were within a half mile or so and it disappeared again several times before we reached it. Congratulating ourselves on a true pioneering effort, we made ourselves comfortable in the lookout while our clothes dried in the wind. Leaving the lookout, we proudly signed the visitor log. (On viewing my email the next day, I spotted a note from the "Peak Police" congratulating us on our feat. Turns out that Karen and Sandy Sperling had driven (thumbs down!) up Cuyama after hiking the Lizard and seen our self-congratulatory sign-in.)

On the way down, Jim suggested trying another ridge that forked to the east of the ridge we had come up and ended up at the head of Brubaker Canyon where the road makes its sharp left. This ridge turned out to be steep and soft -- lovely for a descent but I would not recommend going up this way -- and is quite brushy at the bottom.

I recommend the new route to Cuyama, not just for those who dislike doing drive-ups, but for any hiker who likes a challenging, but not difficult, cross country romp. The relevant details are: the turn off to Brubaker Canyon is a dirt road on the left about 43.6 miles from the junction of the 150 and 33 in Ojai. There is a mailbox with the number 146 at the turnoff. A gate announcing that the road is private is a few hundred yards from the 33; it appears to stay open. If you see Ron, say hi for us. The hike took us 5 hours including a long stop at the lookout and several pauses for consultation with the map (before it got erased by the rain).

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