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 highway 101. The exit is Jolon Road, just before King City if you are coming from the Bay Area. If you are coming from the Bay Area, take the Jolon Rd exit, turn right and drive south on Jolon Rd for about 30 kms following signs for the Hunter Liggett Military Reservation. Don't miss the sign and the right turn towards the military zone, i.e. the right turn into Mission Road. Mission Road heads towards the military base but then you are forced to coast it to the left. Note that sometimes in order to drive through the checkpoint of the military base, you need to show ids (driver license, green card or passport), car insurance and car registration. This can be enforced at any time: it is a military base. After coasting most of the base, turn left onto Del Venturi Road (easy to miss this left turn in which case you end up in the alternative route which is much longer). Del Venturi Rd becomes Milpitas Road dead ends at the Santa Lucia Memorial Campground also known as Indians Campground. 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. If you get to the first river crossing and find the sign "Road Closed", continue straight toward San Antonio Mission. When you get almost to the Mission (very visible on your left), continue straight at the four-way intersection (left you'd go to the mission and right you'd go towards military housing). Continue on this unpaved road, which is Mission Creek Rd, that crosses a small metal bridge and then passes through several old military installations. This is a long detour. The road, now called Red Grade Rd, eventually climbs up a few steep switchbacks and finally rejoins the paved Del Venturi Rd having bypassed the creek crossings. Turn right and drive to the dead end. After the second creek crossing (perfectly feasible for low-clearance cars when the road is open), you drive in open country-side on a long straight road until you see the big sign "Los Padres National Forest". A few kms after that sign, there is a "Trail" sign on the right hand-side. Most likely you will miss it and reach the campground. Go back about 300 meters and you will find it. Follow that sign that takes you (not even 100 meters) to the parking lot and trailhead. Start hiking but, almost immediately, make sure to take the left branch of the trail. There is no sign at the very first junction (in the middle of a meadow) but the right branch follows the Santa Lucia creek in a different direction (although a 500 meter detour is recommended to a giant boulder that looks like a tooth). You basically want to head straight towards Junipero Serra Peak which is straigth in front of you. For the record, at the far corner of the giant parking area for the campground there is another "Trail" sign. This is a less well-maintained trailhead and it is infested with poison oak. 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 it is passable only for hikers, horses and mountain bikes because of a massive slides that have washed out the road in multiple places).

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.

The hike is roughly 20 km roundtrip. 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 gets steep. Junipero Serra Peak is clearly visible even from the meadows, if you know which one it is and have binoculars, because of 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 (, a trail that is mostly obliterated), to the right you head for Junipero Serra Peak. Note: in 2017 this sign had been changed and no longer shows the left turn. 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 in the state) one reaches the lookout tower. There are stairs to get to the top. Note: in 2017 all the wood of the lookout tower had burned.

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.

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 old 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. At the beginning this trail is a wide fire road. Anything that looks narrow or impassable is not it. If you are coming from the lookout, simply stay to the right as much as possible and you'll end up into this old fire road. 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 old trail, which 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 serious 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.

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 (originally 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 the "bald" peak, east to another peak and then north to Bear Mountain and Pinyon Peak.


Pinyon Peak seen from Junipero Serra Peak


The route from Junipero Serra Peak to Pinyon 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:

A major attraction of these mountains is the mountain lion. Quoting from this page: "The largest population of mountain lions in America lives in the Santa Lucia Mountains". Quoting from this page: the Ventana Wilderness is home to the world's highest density per square mile of mountain lions. Photo of a mountain lion in the Ventana Wilderness

Los Padres National Forest is the third largest national forest in California. The vegetation is mostly chaparral, oaks and pinyon junipers. Near the summit of Junipero Serra Peak you can see some of the largest pine cones in California. Rare species include the condor, the spotted owl, the kit fox and the leopard lizard, besides several species of snakes.


Other recommended hikes in the Ventana Wilderness:

(Google Earth)


Poison Oak warning: anywhere at low altitude poison oak is a major annoyance. You *will* be touching poison oak. So i recommend long-sleeve shirt, long pants, and wash yourself in cold water after the hike.

Tick warning: ticks are ubiquitous. Another reason to cover your body.

Water warning: there is no water on the trail.

You have to drive through a military reservation. They will check ALL ids, not just the driver. Have a driver license or passport ready.