A day trip to Hi Mountain Lookout

The Trib’s intrepid traveling twosome take in the sights east of Santa Margarita in search of the elusive condor

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comAugust 23, 2010 

With a wingspan of up to 10 feet, the California condor is the largest flying bird in North America.

The red-headed scavenger can live 60 years, fly at an altitude of 15,000 feet and communicate with a combination of hisses, growls and grunts.

So when photographer Joe Johnston and I learned there was a condor lookout station in our county, we decided it would make an ideal destination for our local road trip series. Retracing some of the route that cross-country mail carriers once took by stagecoach, we traveled from Santa Margarita to Lopez Lake in Arroyo Grande, at times traversing roads that are only marginally better than during stagecoach times. And while we did see some interesting things along the way, those rugged conditions reminded us that restraint can be a good thing for car suspension systems.

We arrived in Santa Margarita, via Highway 58, a little after 10 a.m. Knowing food options would be limited ahead, we stopped for sandwiches at The Porch, a quaint little coffeehouse and deli on the main drag, then headed down West Pozo Road.

A little while later, we stopped at the Rinconada General Store, which is a good place for drinks, bait and photos. Behind the store, there’s a fun courtyard, with a wishing well, dinner bell (a huge triangle, actually), a church and a schoolhouse. The buildings were brought here by George Bell from a local military camp in the 1950s, said Andrea Whiteford, who is married to Bell’s grandson, Mike Whiteford.

While the courtyard is typically closed during the week, it’s open for church service on Sundays. The congregation is small — maybe 10 to 15 people show up — but loyal.

“It’s mostly a lot of the local families that have been out here a long time,” Whiteford said of the church, which has been open for service since the ’70s.

She couldn’t say exactly why there are several rusted safes in front of the store, suggesting that it was probably something Bell thought would look interesting.

We left the store and took the winding, oak-lined road to Pozo, driving past ranches and barely missing numerous daredevil squirrels that darted in front of Joe’s Honda Element. Pozo was somewhat of a hopping town after gold was discovered in nearby La Panza in the 1880s. As the population soared to 850, Pozo became a bustling Wild West town with a general stores, blacksmith shops and saloons.

But once the gold rush died down — and quicker mail routes were established — the town’s relevance diminished. Still, the Pozo Saloon, built more than 150 years ago, stands, a living relic. Once a wild and crazy place known for its share of fistfights, it has become a hip place for concerts (there’s a modern stage in the saloon’s back yard), where acts like Snoop Dogg, the Black Crowes and Willie Nelson have performed.

The saloon — which Bruce Springsteen sax player Clarence Clemons recently wrote about in his book “Big Man” — is only open Friday through Sunday, but if you happen to be there on the weekend, stop in and check out the cool mahogany bar. Near the saloon, we found Hi Mountain Road, which quickly becomes a gravel thoroughfare, foreshadowing the rough way ahead. While you don’t need a 4-wheel drive to do the rest of this trip, it’s probably not recommended for your mid-life crisis sports car — especially if you want to keep it clean.

Luckily, the road has recently been graded to make transportation easier for fire trucks. But even then, we didn’t drive more than 15 mph much of the way. That slow speed did help us spot a bobcat running along the road near the Hi Mountain Campground. Wildlife in this stretch of the Los Padres National Forest includes mountain lions, bears, deer and tarantulas. As we climbed above the campground, I was hoping we’d soon see some condors.

And when I say climbed, I’m serious. To get to the nearly 3,200-peak, you have to do some fairly steep driving. It’ll leave your car even dustier, but the views are pretty amazing. Roughly a mile after that campground, we reached a “T.” After taking a left, we were on our way to the Hi Mountain Lookout. Originally built as a fire lookout for the U.S. Fire Service in 1961, it is now used by the Hi Mountain Condor Lookout Project, a collaboration that tracks the giant birds.

If you want to see the visitor center, be sure to call ahead (748-3199). Much of the time, you’ll run into Cal Poly interns doing research here. But sometimes they’re out in the field.

Unfortunately, your chances of actually seeing a condor are pretty slim. While they have been spotted here, they tend to live elsewhere. Still, this place — with its high location — is a good spot to perform condor telemetry, tracking the birds from afar.

Cal Poly intern Trevor Pell, a biology major with a wildlife concentration, showed us how this is done, using an antenna that can spot condors over 100 miles away. (All condors have been tagged, making it possible to track them and record movements.)

On this day, he said, they had tracked two.

“There’s over 100 we’re trying to track,” Pell said.

If that doesn’t seem like a lot, that’s because there aren’t that many out there.

“It got to the point where there were like 34,” said Jeremy Pohlman, another Cal Poly biology major working the lookout.

Efforts to protect the endangered birds have worked, but there are still only around 350 condors, with fewer than 200 in the wild.

There weren’t any in the area on this day, but the panoramic views were picture perfect. At night, the interns said, you can see lights from Santa Maria to Paso Robles, and the skies are a sight to see.

“You can see millions of stars,” Pell said.

From the lookout, we set out to see Big Falls, located at the end of Hi Mountain Road. Joe’s Element survived the 40 minutes of bumpy back road that took us to near the falls, but the road to the falls was preceded with two ominous warnings: One strongly recommended 4-wheel drives and the other warned of dips in the road for the entire 3-mile trip. The first two dips were immersed in water. And after barely making it through the first, we decided Big Falls would wait.

So we returned to Hi Mountain Road, which eventually became a gravel road again, offering views of windmills and barns. As Joe was telling me about a black bear he had seen along the road in this area two years ago, a couple of deer darted out in front of us.

Eventually, the road ended near Lopez Lake, and we felt like we’d returned to civilization. But high on the mountain, several miles away and 3,200 feet up, we could see the tiny lookout station, which gave us perspective on how far we’d come. Meanwhile, the nicely paved road gave us perspective on how far transportation had come since the stagecoach days.

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