Mount Pinos is the winter gem of the Los Padres National Forest. Standing well above the surrounding mountains, Mount Pinos is the highest peak in the Forest, reaching an elevation of 8,831 feet. The grand mountain was spotted from the California coast by Spanish explorers who named the pine-covered peak. The word pinos is Spanish for “pines.”
The majestic mountain welcomes snowshoers and skiers into its thick pine forests each winter. Snow blankets the highest elevations throughout the winter and well into early spring, guaranteeing a spectacular snowshoeing destination. Mount Pinos is stunning after a winter storm with a fresh blanket of snow covering the ground and lightly coating the mixed forest of Jeffrey pine, pinyon pine and white fir.
The snow is often several feet deep near the summit of Mount Pinos. Snowshoeing conditions are best in the area between McGill Campground (7,500 feet in elevation) and the summit. I’ve explored this area for hours. I like to park in the Chula Vista Campground parking lot where the Southern California Nordic Ski Patrol is stationed. The parking area will be packed on weekends with families picnicking and sledding. If you’re able to drive to the mountains during the week, I strongly suggest you do. The solitude is worth the effort.
Snow is abundant. Don’t feel the need to rush to the mountain right after a storm. In fact, I strongly suggest that you don’t. You won’t be the only one with the urge to run to the snow. The traffic will be frustrating. I once drove two hours just to have to turn around and return home because the Forest Service gated the road due to ice. The Forest Service made the decision to close the road as I arrived. I knew it was for my safety, but it was still disheartening because I had called the Forest Service to check road conditions before I left home.
Winter weather causes treacherous driving conditions on the winding road to the summit. Mount Pinos Highway is guaranteed to be icy and slippery during and following a storm. It is best to wait for the weather and road to clear.
A moderately difficult trail is on the western side of the Chula Vista Campground parking lot. This trail heads toward the summit of Mount Pinos. The peak is less forested than the area east of the parking lot and is more exposed. Expect windy conditions and be prepared for quick changes in weather. Make sure to retrieve a trail map from the ski patrol at the north end of the parking area.
To reach the summit, head up the road from the west side of the lot and pass the gate. Then, turn left: This is Condor Summit Road, a trail that meanders through meadows and pine forests all the way to Condor Point. The trail climbs gradually through a pine forest until it reaches a plateau. Snowshoe west across the meadow into a grove of trees where the trail picks up again. Cross another meadow and head up through more pine forest towards towers on the summit. Return the way you came. The total distance is about 3.5 miles.
Casual snowshoers can stroll on the trails east of the parking lot. Just left of the Ski Patrol facility, head out on the trail toward the Chula Vista Campground to a fork in the trail. Heading right will take you to the easy Knoll Loop, about 1.5 miles. The Knoll Loop is a flat to gently rolling trail. Heading left down the steeper and more difficult Harvest Trail will give you a better workout. I have wandered around the summit area exploring for a few hours enjoying the scenery and receiving a great workout.
The drive to Mount Pinos is worthwhile. Pack a lunch and snowshoes and spend the day enjoying fresh air, pine forests, and spectacular views from the summit on a clear winter afternoon.
Mount Pinos can be approached from the Los Angeles area by driving north on Interstate 5. Exit at Frazier Park and turn left on Frazier Mountain Park Road. Continue for seven miles until you reach Lake of the Woods. Turn right onto Cuddy Valley Road and continue for about five miles until you reach a fork in the road. Veer left onto Mount Pinos Highway. Continue on Mount Pinos Highway until the road dead ends at the Chula Vista Campground parking lot and Ski Patrol facility. Mount Pinos is about two hours from Los Angeles.
A map of the summit area can be obtained from Ski Patrol at the Chula Vista parking area during ski season. A National Forest Adventure Pass is required to park on Los Padres National Forest land.