At 7,450 feet in height, Reyes Peak is the highest point between Santa Barbara County’s Big Pine Mountain (6,750 feet) and lofty 9,000-foot Mount Iwihinmu (Pinos).
Reyes Peak on the Pine Mountain massif marks the beginning of the majestic Sespe Wilderness as it slopes into the Cuyama Valley. During the summer heat, 7,000-foot Reyes Peak Campground often has sufficiently cool air and the bracing breezes like the British enjoyed at their garden-like “hill stations” in southern India during the Raj. (For example, Ooty in Kerala State’s famously refreshing Nilgiri Hills.)
Some of the seven campsites at Reyes Peak Campground were unoccupied during my three days car-camping at favored site No. 3. The haunting sounds of machine-free silence “filled” the brisk air, while light winds rushed through the densely packed conifers high above. I managed to identify white fir (Douglas fir), Jeffrey, ponderosa and sugar pines, among other conifers in this rare old-growth conifer “sky island.”
Hiking to the top of nearby Reyes Peak itself on July 28 — 1.5 miles from the campground — my friends and I noticed that we didn’t detect any of the famous and threatened sugar pines until we reached higher elevation nearer the apex. Sugar pines have always been heavily logged for human purposes since they grow tall and straight, often ranging more than 200 feet high. The largest ones can stretch 10 feet across at the base. What a wonderful and useful wood, eh?
Sugar pines have distinctively long, cylindrical pine cones nearly 20 inches long, and they seem to hang and dangle on the tree for months and months, as I have verified by studying them on Reyes Peak. With a mass second only among conifers to the giant sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum) themselves, John Muir aptly named them “King of the conifers,” and they can live up to 500 years. Thus, their shapely but massive outlines have graced the California forests for millennia, and given pleasure to observant human minds (and very useful old-growth lumber!).
Sugar pines are much rarer these days since logging and atmospheric pollution have killed off huge tracts. The 450 to 700 acres of old-growth conifers on Pine Mountain, especially around Reyes Peak itself, are now on the chopping block under the guise of “thinning” the undergrowth vs. wildfires. (This specifically includes cutting down “young” conifers with less than a 24-inch diameter.)
In a recent column, I argued against the U.S. Forest Service thinning proposal (see the Reyes Peak Forest Health and Fuels Reduction Project proposal). It’s doubly ironic because this sky island, old-growth pine tree stand that has survived for centuries without major fires (which have burned lower down) won’t be protected if a Thomas-level or Zaca-level wildfire surges up the slopes.
A second irony is that production of oxygen and the offset of net oxygen back into the atmosphere are two different things. Old-growth conifers do not offset net oxygen back into the atmosphere. Rather, for a tree to add oxygen into the atmosphere, it has to be growing or adding in mass. This adds to the arguement to save all of the younger pines on Reyes Peak as well as leaving the elders alone.
My own theory about the unlikely survival of this relatively small stand of old-growth pines is that these higher ridges of Pine Mountain, which Reyes Peak crowns, present such extremely steep slopes that commercial logging was obviously too difficult.
Also, the rain runoff and snow-pack rushes down an already arid mountain ridge, and it thus retains even less water. Eliminating the ladder story underbrush and clearing out “dead” old giants and chopping young pines (less than 24 inches in diameter, they claim) will further desertify the fragile eco-system.
What some Forest Service scientists deem “fuel” for potential fires ignores the salient fact that these giant dead trunks become the soil for young conifers. Do we want to analyze this fragile ecosystem through a narrowly anthropocentric “human exceptionalism” lens? Or do we prefer to observe the whole ecosystem and step back, marvel at these ancient trees and leave them alone? (Even the presence of a road, built originally by Shell Oil Co., is a massive human intrusion.)
In the photograph of a dead tree between other trees, the point isn’t that this is a sugar pine, but that you can decide if: A) these dead monsters offer ideal fuel in the time of a massive forest fire like 2017’s Thomas Fire, or B) leaving them in place as soil-builder is essential for this exceptional mini-forest’s future.
In the achingly-arid conditions at July’s conclusion, the few sources of water on the massif become triply sacred to all the plants, animals and humans in the area. These old-growth sugar pines and other conifers did not reveal abundant numbers of squirrels and lizards and birds that we could see — it’s this dry! We decided to assess the two major springs near the campground, Chorro Grande and Raspberry Spring. (In earlier years, I checked out McGuire and Boulder Springs.)
Raspberry Spring is in a steep cleft about a mile down the Cuyama side (“backside”), just below the makeshift Raspberry Camp, starting from campsite No. 1. Shaded by these huge trees, there is ample firewood and an iron grill at the tiny camp, but open campfires are properly illegal under current fire conditions.
At the end of July, I wondered whether Raspberry Spring would even be flowing, but if you study the photograph carefully, you should see the steady trickle flowing from the pipe on the left. Wild Pete and Mr. C seem dumbfounded by this magic elixir flowing right out of the hillside, but I immediately quaffed a full liter (do not do this!) — ice-cold tincture direct from the breast of Mother Hutash.
On our third day on the mountain, we descended the “frontside” heading to cheery Chorro Grande Spring, and I assured my trail pals it would be running. Wrong! After almost missing the concealed side trail on the right of the picturesque campsite, we loved the sacred grove and boulders there. The upper camp is especially sweet, but Chorro Spring was not grande at all. Indeed, we encountered only some mud and plenty of biting flies. At 6,400 feet, it’s a great site if the spring runs and if you arrive in October or May.
Reyes Peak Campground remains fairly cool in late July and August. Reserve a campsite, drive there with the family, hike around and admire this remnant stand of old-growth pines before the thinning starts!
» Driving to Reyes Peak: Take Highway 101 south to Ventura, then take Highway 33 past Ojai, past Wheeler Gorge and Rose Valley, to the Pine Mountain Road. It covers 67 miles and requires about two hours.
— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity and has written extensively about the local backcountry. His latest book, Autobiography in the Anthropocene, is available at Lulu.com. He serves as an archaeological site steward for the U.S. Forest Service in the Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at email@example.com. Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.