Ascent of Madulce Peak on 2020-05-17

Climber: Coby King

Date:Sunday, May 17, 2020
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Madulce Peak
    Elevation:6536 ft / 1992 m

Ascent Trip Report

Seventeen years ago, in April of 2003, I had but 34 HPS peaks under my belt. I was ready to take the next leap in peak-bagging and tackle the notorious Big 4. So despite what I learned was relatively primitive equipment, I signed up for a trip led by Kent Schwitkis, Sherry Ross, and Barry Holchin. It was a great experience, except for the fact that we had pretty crummy weather. My first experience in Santa Barbara Canyon, I arrived after dark and had to park short of the trailhead. The next morning I got up and joined the group and off we back-packed up the road to get Samon (on which I suffered a minor knee sprain) and then we headed up to Chokecherry Spring, where we spent the night with our tents strung out along the road.

The next day we hiked in a cloud all the way to Big Pine and West Big Pine, without any views whatsoever. Back at camp the weather continued to worsen and it rained most of the night. In the morning, when we were going to get the 4th of the Big 4, Madulce, the leaders rightly decided that conditions were not suitable and that we needed to head back. There was also some concern about our cars crossing the little creek to get out of Santa Barbara Canyon. That ended up not being a problem but I remember that walk back because it was the first time I had experienced the clumping of mud on my boots making them three times as heavy as they normally would be.

However, this left Madulce as an HPS orphan, and it has been bugging me ever since. Now, with 276 peaks on the 281 list, it was time to get to give that orphan a home on my completed list. I had decided to do it as a bike/hike day trip, and I drove in the night before and camped at the trailhead. The Santa Barbara Canyon road is in fantastic driving shape and there was a Mitsubishi Galant at the trailhead when I got there.

The next morning I prepared my pack and my bike and off I went. Beyond the gate, the Santa Barbara Canyon Road is extremely bikable. The first four miles or so all the way up to the junction of the Sierra Madre Road is in absolutely fantastic shape and despite climbing quite a bit of elevation the switchbacks make it reasonably easy. In the first hour I covered 3.2 miles and 1160 feet of net gain and then was able to make it past the junction before the second hour was up.

Once passing the Sierra Madre junction, the road does start getting a little rockier and even more importantly soon after that junction there is some periodic downward riding, which was fun but which I knew I would have to reverse on the way out. A little past the third hour in I finally reached Chokecherry Spring, where I refilled my reservoir, ate some food and refreshed myself and my memories of this spot from 17 years before.

Back on the bike I knew I had about 2 miles or so to get to the divide, but after about a mile or so my legs told me that they’d had enough biking for a while. While I tried a couple of times to ride, I ended up walking my bike most of the rest of the way to the divide. There’s a little broad area to the left of the road right at the top and I stashed my bike under a manzanita bush. After a short rest, I walked down to the junction with the Madulce trail, which says that it's 3 miles to the peak. In fact, as everyone knows it's actually closer to 4 miles to the peak.

I was quite cheered by the fact that I was already at over 6150 feet and since the peak was 6536 I wouldn't have much elevation to gain to the top. However, as most people doing any amount of research know, this trail drops quite a bit and that there is a 500 foot climb at the very end. More on that later.

The first part of the trail contours around the south facing slope in order to reach the ridge. It's fairly gentle, downward trending through classic 6000-foot chaparral. It's a little brushy at times but not too bad. Some clipping would certainly be helpful in a couple of places, especially since the California lilac aka buckthorn is quite prevalent in this area. I hand-cleared a fair amount of dead chaparral from the trail. On that subject, much of the lilac was in bloom with its very characteristic perfume permeating the air. I quickly made it to the ridge and after a little bit of ridge walking dropped down to the other side.

While the other side of this ridge presents a few minor obstacles, as anyone who has done trail knows, this is an incredibly pleasant area. On the north-facing slopes at this elevation in Santa Barbara County you go from a chaparral-dominated landscape to one with mixed hardwood and lots of conifers including Jeffries, firs, and spruces. Absolutely delightful down to the junction between the peak trail and the Madulce trail proper.

The peak trail continues straight ahead and gets a bit brushy at times and can get a little faint, especially when crossing sandy slopes, and has a fair amount of deadfall. Some of the larger logs have notches cut into them to be able to make them relatively easy to climb over. Some you just have to go around and on steep brushy slopes there were a couple of places where the brush deadfall made it fairly difficult to make it through. Nonetheless, the trail continues on a fairly level but downward trending direction as it contours around the main peak.

For me the toughest and most confusing part of the trail was when you reach a little ridge and there is really no clear direction forward. This is quite close to the start of the switchbacks which lie on the other side of a fairly significant draw. There's quite a bit of brush but eventually after about five minutes of trying different ways I finally found the faint trail, made it across the draw and found the trail that leads to the beginning of the switchbacks.

Unfortunately, I missed where the switchbacks actually start and walked over to the next draw which I realized was definitely not the way I then cut back over to the right and eventually found the switchbacks. From there following the switchbacks is relatively easy. There are quite a few of them and it is pretty steep but the footing is good and eventually I found myself on the ridge.

After all those switch backs, one would hope that you'd be pretty close to the peak but alas, it is still a fair amount of walking along the ridge, which gets a little brushy and confusing at times. Eventually, I reached the top and the views from there on a beautiful day were nothing short of spectacular.

It took me about 7 1/2 hours, from 7:30 to almost 3 pm, to reach the top. After about 45 minutes of eating, signing the register, taking lots of photos, and even answering a few emails, I headed back. As is often the case, the trip back is much easier. It had taken me nearly 3 hours from where I dropped my bike to get to the top. On the way back I was able to reach the road in about 2 hours.

There, I got my bike out, took a short rest and headed down to Chokecherry, where I refilled my reservoir and headed back down the trail. From there it was downhill until I got to the part where there were a few up and down sections of the road until just before the junction of the Sierra Madre road and the Santa Barbara Canyon Road. From there, as I had been promising myself, it was an unbelievably delightful ride in the waning light of the day. I cruised down the road for four miles all the way back to the gate. I never had to stop once, and although I did pedal a few times the road is in great condition and I felt confident doing it. I reached the gate from the summit in about 4 1/2 hours, 3 hours less than it took from the gate to the summit.

Interestingly, beyond the gate I saw the only people I saw on the entire trip, a couple who were getting ready for a trip the following day. I did not see a soul from the time that I reached Santa Barbara Canyon the day before until just then. We chatted a bit, from a safe social distance, and then I packed up my bike, changed my clothes and drove the 3 hours home. A fantastic trip and I would recommend that if you're going to do this peak as a day-hike, use a bike, as I think it’s a better experience.

Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:3108 ft / 947 m
    Route Conditions:
Road Hike, Maintained Trail
    Gear Used:
Bicycle, Ski Poles
Ascent Statistics
    Gain on way in:3108 ft / 947 m
    Distance:30.7 mi / 49.4 km
    Start Trailhead:3428 ft / 1044 m
Descent Statistics
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip

 GPS Waypoints - Hover or click to see name and lat/long
Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by Coby King
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