Junipero Serra Peak and Pinyon Peak, Los Padres National Forest, Ventana Wilderness

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The Junipero Serra Peak (also known as Pimkolam), also known as Santa Lucia Peak (at an elevation of 1,786 meters), is reached via the Santa Lucia trail in the Ventana Wilderness. It is the highest point of the Ventana Wilderness.

The trailhead for the Santa Lucia trail is located three hours south of San Jose, off 101. The exit is Jolon Road, just before King City if you are coming from the Bay Area. Drive south on Jolon Rd and follow signs for the Hunter Liggett Military Reservation (about 30 km), then turn right (west) into Mission Road. Turn left on to Del Ventura Road that becomes Milpitas Road.

It is about 20 km and two creek crossings (not a joke) to the Los Padres National Forest.

Note: during the rain season the road is closed if the water is too high. There is an alternate route taking a dirt road that bypasses both crossings. When you get to the left turn to the first river crossing where the sign says Road Closed, continue straight toward San Antonio Mission. When you get to the slight left to the Mission, continue straight. DO NOT veer right toward some militart housing. Continue (north) on this road, Milpitas Rd, you will see the mission grounds on your left. After a short while the road will become dirt (very good sape except for a few potholes) and then you will cross a small metal bridge. Continue on this road, it will make a counter clockwise loop to the northwest. This unpaved road eventually rejoins the paved and very good Del Venturi Rd just above the second river crossing. From the second creek crossing (perfectly feasible for low-clearance cars when the road is open), it is about 15 minutes to the big sign "Los Padres National Forest" and another 15 minutes to the Indians forest station.

After that sign, you will see one "Trail" sign on your right (that's the official trailhead, with a little register to self-register) and immediately afterward you will reach a sign that says "Indians Forest Station" and another one immediately afterwards that says "Memorial Campground" next to a sign that announces that the road will end soon. On the right handside there is another (less well maintained) trailhead for the Santa Lucia trail. See my pictures for more details.

(The paved road is called Indians Rd here. If one continues on it, the road becomes a dirt road that leads to Arroyo Seco Rd and the Arroyo Seco campground and ranger station 35 kms later. This would be a very scenic drive, but is passable only for hikers, horses and mountain bikes because of a massive slide that completely covers the road).

The Del Venturi road up to the Indians Forest Station (Santa Lucia campground) is well paved and the speed limit is high enough, but it still takes about 45 minutes from the 101 freeway to the trailhead. It easily takes 3 hours from the Bay Area to the trailhead.

(After the 2008 fires some of these landmarks are not clearly visible)

The hike is roughly 20 km roundtrip (signs are not to be trusted in the Ventana Wilderness). The beginning is infested with poison oak. After walking through a series of meadows (where mountain lions have been spotted), and after the first sign announcing the wrong distances to the peak, to the Last Chance camp and to the Arroyo Seco Rd, the trail turns northeast through a canyon and then starts going up briskly. Junipero Serra Peak is clearly visible even from the meadows, if you know which one it is and have binoculars, because one can spot the lookout tower. There is a second sign at the fork of the Santa Lucia trail: to the left you head for Last Chance Camp and Arroyo Seco Station, to the right you head for Junipero Serra peak. Shortly after this fork, one reaches the first saddle (with the first great views of the valley). More switchbacks lead to the second saddle. The trail now runs along the north (shady) side of the hills and heads east. A short distance from the second saddle (through pines that drop the largest pine cones) one reaches the lookout tower. There are stairs to get to the top.

The elevation gain is about 1,400 meters. The lookout tower is not the peak though. A 100-meter loop leads (on the left) to a hut with two beds and then to the summit, and (on the right) to the edge of the mountain.

Contrary to what widely advertised, no "adventure pass" is required for the day hike. But you do drive through the checkpoint of a military base, therefore ids, car insurance and car registration are inspected.

The peak to the northeast of Junipero Serra Peak is Pinyon Peak (36.168676, -121.381234), the second highest mountain of the Ventana Wilderness at 1604 meters. The trail to this one is not maintained, so expect a lot of bushwhacking, especially if you lose the trail (50% chance). From the summit of Junipero Serra retrace your steps to the lookout tower and look for a fairly wide trail to the immediate right of the one you came from. This trail heads south. Pinyon Peak is actually northeast, but the trail heads first south for about 30' to another little peak and then east (left) to a peak which has a flat top and great views north of Junipero Serra Peak and east of Pinyon Peak. It is not easy to follow the trail, that used to be a fire road. Try and resist the temptation to head for the clearings of the crest. The trail runs to the left (east) of the crest. There is overgrown vegetation (mostly manzanita shrubs) that can cause scratches, so short pants are not a good idea. But the "trail" is nothing compared with the bushwhacking you have to do if you follow the crest of the ridge. Halfway down this southern trail there is a source of water.

Then the trail/road turns left (east). The ascent of the "bald" mountain is trivial, whichever way you came, as there is very little vegetation. The top of this "mountain" is flat. Then the "trail" (the old road) continues east, zigzagging down into the canyon. There is a low ridge or saddle connecting the "bald" mountain to the Bear Mountain on the other (eastern side). You should be able to see clearly the road that heads up Bear Mountain. If you lose the old road, just head straight down for the saddle where that Bear Mountain road starts and you'll probably intersect the old road several times.

The steep ascent after the saddle takes you to the junction with the unpaved Santa Lucia Rd. Turn left (north) at this junction (marked by a pine tree that burned down in 2008). A short ascent takes you to the top of Bear Mountain. On the other side you are likely to lose the trail/road because the vegetation becomes thick again. Drop down a bit on the western side of the ridge and you may recognize it. Another hour or so of hiking uphill takes you to Pinyon Peak. First you see a structure on your right. There is a helicopter landing and then a couple of concrete blocks. The "register" is there. The trail continues a further 100 meters and dead ends at the real summit. So the overall route really makes a 270-degree quasi-loop from Junipero Serra Peak south to Bear Mountain, east to the next hill and then north to Bear Mountain and Pinyon Peak.

The route from Junipero Serra Peak to Pinyon Peak (Google Earth)
Pinyon Peak seen from Junipero Serra Peak (Google Earth)

I estimated these distances from the Santa Lucia trailhead at Memorial Park (Indians forest station):

  • First sign 3.5 km (1h 15')
  • Second sign (Last Chance on the left, Junipero Serra Peak on the right) 7 km (2h)
  • First saddle 7.5 km (2h 15')
  • Second saddle 9.5 km (3h)
  • Junipero Serra Peak 10 km (3h 30')
  • Bald Mountain (5h 30')
  • Bear Mountain 17 km (6h 30')
  • Pinyon Peak 20 km (7h 30')
Pictures of these hikes
Other recommended hikes in the Ventana Wilderness:
Useful links:
  • Monterey Ranger District (King City) (831) 385-5434
  • Santa Lucia Ranger District (Santa Maria) (805) 925-9538
  • Santa Barbara Ranger District (LosPrietos) (805) 967-3481
  • Ojai Ranger District (Ojai) (805) 646-4348
  • Mt Pinos Ranger District (Frazier Park) (661) 245-3731