Hiking Stats as of 11/11/2019
Total Trips:
Total Distance:
Total Elevation Gain:
 3,891.68 miles
 1,060,050 feet

Jun 7, 2014 - Junipero Serra Peak


Partners: Kyle Breen

Distance: 12.88 miles

Elevation Gain: 4,112 feet

Trip Time: 7:06

Maps and Stats:
I've had my eye on Junipero Serra Peak now for quite some time, mainly because at over 5,800 feet it is the high point of Monterey County. It is also on the CC list, meaning a successful ascent would net me my 12th county highpoint and 35th CC peak. Being that the peak is in Monterey County one might think that it would offer pleasant summer weather conditions and views of the Pacific Ocean. One would be wrong on both counts. The peak lies to the east of the 5,000+ ft Cone Peak, blocking all views to the ocean. And it lies far enough east to where the summertime temperatures regularly hit the 90's. So the timing wasn't great, but Kyle's wife had an event in Monterey so he was committed to being in the area. Neither one of us had ever hiked in the Ventana before, so if we were going to do something it had to be big.

We met up at a local grocery store in Salinas and set off for the nearly 1 1/2 hour drive to the TH. The drive is circuitous, as we had to head south of the peak, then west through the Fort Hunter Liggett Army Base. I was quite cautious with my speed in this area, as it would likely be a Federal matter if I were pulled over by one of the many tanks driving around. We finally arrived at the TH a few minutes before noon, although we later discovered the a better tail was available about 750 feet before the lot where we parked.

It was warm right from the start, with temps in the mid to upper 80's. I took a total of 5 liters of Powerade with me, and we hit the faded use trail. From the start we could see Junipero Serra well off in the distance, and any illusions we had that the Monterey County highpoint would be cooled off by a marine layer were quickly dashed. Our trail was difficult to follow in several places which was surprising considering the stature of the peak. After a half hour we came across a much wider and more defined trail, and realized that we had now found the main trail. We came across a long abandoned bulldozer near the trail junction which was a bit odd but we could understand why someone would need it in these brushy hills. We followed the main trail for another half hour or so, coming across a lone hiker who was also on his way up (with his dog). He said he was down to 1 liter of water (having already consumed 1 liter), and we told him to turn around now. He didn't seem to want to do so, but we didn't see him after this point so we are fairly certain he did turn around in short order after our meeting.

As the trail went up it once again became a bit hard to follow in places, and we would up losing the trail and crossing over a dry creek and completely engulfed in brush once on the other side. This was by far the worst part of the day, as we kept going forward as best we could, thinking we had to find the trail again if we just kept going up. But that wasn't working, and we were repeatedly poked and stabbed by the mess of trees and shrubs which blocked our path every direction we would turn. I got a few cuts, and then noticed that I had large black streaks on my hands and shirt. It turns out that this area burned some years ago, and we were being covered in the burnt portions of the branches that rubbed off on us. Yuck. We decided to split up, thinking that if we both looked for the trail maybe one would find it and call over to the other one. This didn't work, as there was little opportunity to go different directions - we could only go where the brush was the least dense. During this time I dropped a nearly full Powerade which rolled down perhaps 15 feet but with the brush it might as well have been 15 miles. I had no chance to get it, so I just left it. After nearly a half hour of this we decided we needed to recross the creek and just head up toward the ridgeline. We HAD to come across the trail that way, although it would cost us some elevation to go back down to the creek.

This strategy worked, and after emerging from the creek we found the trail, complete with a burnt signpost. We were able to follow the trail from here basically all the way to the top. It was tiring work in the heat, as there is essentially no shade to be had. The views back down started opening up but the summit was still a long, hot, ways away. We (or rather I) decided that we needed to stop and rest for every 400 - 500 feet of elevation gained. I was feeling overheated, and now I was going through my Powerade much too quickly. By 3 PM I was down to only 2 liters left, with still an hour up to the summit and then the 6 mile return still to complete. We would stop wherever we would find a large enough tree to get some shade, which as it turns out was about every 500 feet. During one of our rests I paused to look back at our off-trail route, where we had crossed the drainage from right to left in the picture. From here it was obvious we would have had a very difficult time summitting given the steep slopes.

As we got closer the trail wound through very tall brush, somewhat overgrown but not enough to give more than fleeting moments of shade. It wasn't until 4 PM when we were only a few hundred feet below the summit that the slope leveled and massive trees took hold. At 4:15 we finally arrived at the lookout tower just off the summit, over 4 hours from the start of our hike. Kyle climbed the tower but I first wanted to tag the summit so I kept going. It was only a few minutes later that I found the top. The views were a bit lacking due to the tall trees, although by hunting for angles some nice views could be had. Kyle came over and we signed the summit register, Kyle voicing his annoyance at the heat and the number of flies encountered on the upper slopes. Kyle located the benchmark, and we took summit photos of each other before starting back down toward the fort. The evidence of the fire could be seen everywhere, from the trees to the various burnt remains of previous summit structures. I climbed the lookout tower and found the views to be best from up here. But we wanted to descend, given the late hour and after 20 minutes on top we started down.

We went back through the overgrown brush, Kyle disappearing despite being only a few feet in front of me. Now that we were going down, it was much easier to enjoy the surroundings and the fantastic views that were available now that we were again out of the tree zone. I was down to a half liter, and took a few gulps every mile to try to make it last. I was quite thirsty, and mad at the fates that had cost me my nearly full liter several hours earlier. Fortunately, the sun was lower in the sky, and falling behind the ridgeline as we got lower, offering us some much appreciated shade. We had no trouble staying on trail, and were careful to stay on this trail rather than veer off to the use trail that we first took. We knew we would have to walk the road back for a few minutes at the end, but that was a small price to pay for a well defined trail. It look us a little over 2 hours to arrive back to the correct parking area and only a few minutes of road walking to get back to the car, for a total hike time of 7 hours to cover the 13 miles. I quickly turned on the AC in the car and the outside temperature registered 93 degrees, even though it was now past 7 PM. On our return drive back through the base we wound up stuck behind an Army Convoy, and I didn't dare try to pass when the center line broke. They wound up turning off the main road just before the Highway, and we were able to drive back to Salinas without any further excitement.

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