Tuesday, November 13 , 2018, 8:02 pm | Fair 58º


Dan McCaslin: La Cumbre Peak Day-Use Area Reveals Alarming Loss of Pine Trees

However you get there, fragrant conifer and cedar copses are a treasure but they won’t be there forever

Many of the magnificent pine trees in the La Cumbre Peak Day-Use Area were planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. And the view out to the Channel Islands isn’t bad either. Click to view larger
Many of the magnificent pine trees in the La Cumbre Peak Day-Use Area were planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. And the view out to the Channel Islands isn’t bad either. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

The La Cumbre Peak Day-Use Area is a hidden gem with enchanting views out to the Channel Islands as well as stunning northern vistas into our glorious backcountry.

One reason the rocky playland atop our highest nearby peak — 3,900-foot La Cumbre Peak — commands less attention from the public is the way the public picnic tables are tucked into the small copse of mixed conifers and maple trees well off East Camino Cielo.

The white “Lookout” structure you can spot from outside Chaucer’s Bookstore at Loreto Plaza in Santa Barbara was built in 1945 to serve as a fire lookout, but has been unused for decades.

The interesting rocky scramble zone there is marred by the presence of scattered antennae from an extensive broadcast array.

Sometime around 1938, Civilian Conservation Corps workers planted the magnificent pine trees scattered throughout the day-use area where I’m recommending you take the kids and enjoy a half-day scrambling around and picnicking at one of the tables.

From Skofield Park on Las Canoas Road, it’s a five-hour hike to La Cumbre Peak. I’ve made this strenuous scramble a few times: straight up the front side from Inspiration Point and the dragon’s back to Arlington Peak, then Cathedral Peak, and finally to La Cumbre Peak.

It is indeed a gnarly ascent, and I chose not to do it solo this time, and simply drove there. When the days are even shorter and cooler, around the winter solstice, I will climb it again and report here.

Whether by trail or by road, La Cumbre Peak is an enticing Santa Barbara front-country destination. Click to view larger
Whether by trail or by road, La Cumbre Peak is an enticing Santa Barbara front-country destination. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

Scientists and forest users alike feel great concern about the long-term health of the small and scattered conifer forests crowning some of California’s local mountains during this severe five-year drought.

The U.S. Forest Service recently estimated that about 12.5 million trees have died recently in California, and while a 1.5 percent annual death rate for trees is “natural,” now that we’ve entered the punishing Age of the Anthropocene, and add human pollution and impacts to the intensified aridity, we will see a lot more trees dying in the southern Los Padres National Forest.

Biologist Greg Asner, a forest researcher, believes that our backcountry and “wild” California landscape is on the verge of a pivotal transformation, starting with the loss of vast swathes of trees. As reported by Thomas Curwen in the Los Angeles Times, Asner’s research leads him to think we may lose up to 20 percent of our trees (perhaps 120 million trees).

These ginormous tracts of trees control erosion, retain water, contribute oxygen to our lungs while converting CO2, provide habitat for a myriad of critters, and offer desperately needed recreation and family fun opportunities to humans.

Rocky Ridge, east of La Cumbre Peak. Click to view larger
Rocky Ridge, east of La Cumbre Peak. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

Asner notes that the lower-altitude pine and oak forests are the trees most at risk during this and ensuing droughts. There are tree-ring records of hundred-year droughts in the past. Today, global climate change has come, and while the number of droughts may not rise, their intensity and duration certainly have increased.

The gray pine, ponderosa pine and incense cedars on local mountaintop forests are therefore in very real danger of disappearing, and in fact are fading away before our eyes.

My own repetitive day hikes into these “forested copses” of big trees since 1971 show me that arboreal conditions are more severe than reported in the Times article, or at least in our extremely dry area.

This visual evidence includes wooded refuges like the Pino Alto at Figueroa Mountain, Little Pine Mountain (already fire-ravaged), Pine Mountain (behind Ojai) and Reyes Peak, Mount Pinos (specifically mentioned in the Times article), and our nearby La Cumbre Peak and the adjacent “Rocky Ridge” apex.

Some of the conifers on Rocky Ridge. Click to view larger
Some of the conifers on Rocky Ridge. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

While taking the eight-mile drive up picturesque and tricky Gibraltar Road to La Cumbre Peak, you can see this other main peak, also visible from Santa Barbara, the unofficially named Rocky Ridge, which Ray Ford has called the “rock garden” (east of La Cumbre Peak).

The scramble up to Rocky Ridge via Rattlesnake Canyon and the Tunnel Connector is also quite challenging, but in my several times up there clambering among the boulders I’ve also detected a similar loss of trees.

Yes, recent fires have also taken their toll there: but these fires are exactly the natural process leading to permanent deforestation. Asner is most concerned about this sort of ecological transformation, and permanent loss of these big trees as the hardier, more drought-tolerant chaparral and other plants migrate upward and replace the lower-elevation conifers and the oaks.

And let’s not forget direct human intervention in this Anthropocenic madness: how many thousands of oaks have the rapidly expanding vineyards obliterated over in the Santa Ynez Valley with its 10,000-plus acres of plantings? Would there be any California condors left without direct and artificial human intervention?

Distressed and dying trees on the north side of La Cumbre Peak in a photograph taken on Oct. 24. Click to view larger
Distressed and dying trees on the north side of La Cumbre Peak in a photograph taken on Oct. 24. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

We see some tree damage at La Cumbre Peak (northside) in this photograph snapped on Oct. 24.

Imagine the future for our grandkids when there aren’t any of the fragrant conifer and cedar copses left on Santa Barbara’s higher elevations, and those listed above. The big trees are visibly disappearing from La Cumbre Peak, Rocky Ridge, and Little Pine Mountain.

Time to put down your screens and dazzling tech devices, entice your children with food and promises, get in the car and drive to La Cumbre Peak, or even out to Figueroa Mountain (an hour drive on Highway 154), and hike around, enjoy lunch, retell family stories and sing songs together.

You can even point out Gibraltar Dam with its puny reserves of stored water.

Your kids won’t live at your house forever, right? Hopefully, they’ll go off to college and leave your home someday, and these forested copses will also likely disappear in some decades of this troubled Anthropocene period.

Gibraltar Dam and its reservoir are distant landmarks from La Cumbre Peak. Click to view larger
Gibraltar Dam and its reservoir are distant landmarks from La Cumbre Peak. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

Seize the day, be here now: rush out there while these rock gardens still boast some pines, cedars and mighty oaks; gambol and play among the pines and massive boulders.

Dismiss your electronic minders, and enjoy the breeze among big trees and the music of your family’s voices.

4-1-1 on La Cumbre Peak Day-Use Area

» Distance: 8.6-mile drive up Gibraltar Road to La Cumbre Peak. Or bike it!

» Driving directions: From Santa Barbara’s Skofield Park, drive back toward town a bit on El Cielito Road over to Gibraltar Road, and drive directly up to La Cumbre Peak and the day-use area at the very top right below the Lookout structure. Be wary of cyclists powering down this favorite bicycle workout. Or, bicycle to the Lookout: an 8.6-mile workout from Skofield Park.

» Map: Ray Ford’s A Hiker’s Guide to the Santa Barbara Front Country

— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity, and has written extensively about the local backcountry. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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