Basics: This is a loooong (19.4 miles) hike to the top of one of the taller peaks in the San Rafael Wilderness. McKinley Mountain summit, at 6182-ft, is a 3000-ft climb from the trailhead. Most of the hike follows a dirt road. Hell’s Half Acre, an interesting field of boulders and rock outcroppings, is 5 miles from the trailhead and would make a good turnaround place for a shorter trip. There are no crowds – we only saw a handful of hunters, and the views span from the ocean to the Sierras.
Directions to Trailhead: From CA 154, turn north onto Armour Ranch Road. After 1.25 miles, turn right onto Happy Canyon Rd. Follow this road for 14 miles to the intersection with McKinley Fire Road (Forest Road 8N08). There is a large flat area with plenty of parking. The road to the trailhead is dirt in some places, but shouldn’t require 4WD (unless you’re there during some kind of torrential storm). Display your Adventure Pass at the trailhead. [Link to Google Maps parking location]
Trail Description: It was early and cold out when we parked at the trailhead. I think I was still half asleep when we began walking. We headed east along the McKinley Fire Road and quickly began climbing at a steady grade. The road provided nice views towards Figueroa Mountain and the Santa Ynez Valley. We passed some Coulter pines, but most of the trail was surrounded by the chaparral that is typical of the southern Los Padres National Forest.
We passed some hunters resting on the side of the road. It didn’t look like they had caught/hunted/killed anything successfully. I’m not sure what they were hunting, but come to think of it, we did not see any wildlife on this trail.
Eventually we descended slightly, and hiked along a ridge. After 3.8 miles, we stopped at a picnic bench and water tank for our first break. After downing some granola bars, we continued along the ridge to Hell’s Half Acre (5 miles). This huge field of boulders would be fun to explore, but we continued onwards up the suddenly steep and strenuous fire road.
After about 8 miles we passed McKinley Spring Camp – a group of several campsites nestled in the trees below the trail. Finally, after 9 miles, we made it to (McKinley Saddle) the end of the road! From here, the Mission Pine Trail splits off to the left – up San Rafael Mountain and beyond. We turned to the right and headed up a signed trail for McKinley Mountain.
This peak is named after President McKinley, who set aside sections of wilderness that eventually became part of the Los Padres. From the top we could see down to Lake Cachuma, east to San Rafael Mountain, and south towards the ocean, though it was hidden behind haze or fog.
It was a long walk back to the car. We did see a unique flower growing right on the path. Somehow we ignored it on the way up. We snapped some photos and wondered if it was rare. Later we identified it as prickly poppy Argemone munita – maybe not so rare, but interesting.
Despite hiking nearly 20 miles, it feels like we barely brushed the surface of the Los Padres. This is an area that one could easily spend a lot of time trekking through. When we made it to the car, we saw the group of hunters again. They were looking past us, towards the mountains above. Apparently they were ready to go home but they had lost a member of their group. Hope they found him before dark!