The Santa Ynez Valley would be a very different place without its two surrounding mountain ranges. We enjoy awe-inspiring views of the Santa Ynez Mountains to our south and the San Rafael Mountains to our northeast. Both ranges provide nearby wild and scenic areas. But their most vital purpose—that which makes life pleasant and farming possible—is the abundant and continuous flow of water these mountains provide for much of our area.
This important watershed is why the federal government in the early 1900s established the forest reserve system for the San Rafael and Santa Ynez mountains. The watershed is today called the Los Padres National Forest.
Local residents frequently pass over, or through, the Santa Ynez Mountain range on highways leading south, but no highways or roads pass into or over the San Rafael Mountains, so most locals are much less familiar with these multi-crested mountains. Here, range after range of almost perpendicular mountains fan their way north to northeast. This massive gathering of rugged mountains is the highest southernmost range of the California Coast Ranges.
The width of the San Rafael Mountain range, which was first named the Sierra de San Rafael in the 1800s, extends southeast around 50 miles from the Cuyama River to near Ojai. There the crests of these mountains fold into and merge with two other mountain ranges, the single-crested Santa Ynez and Sierra Madre mountains, making it impossible for geologists to identify boundaries of the different ranges there.
Anyone who has hiked the backcountry can attest to the seemingly endless series of mountain ranges that lay behind the first crest of mountains that we see from the Valley. It’s this feature in particular that has kept the area mostly roadless and uninhabited.
The earliest known residents of the San Rafael Mountains were the Chumash Indians. Evidence of their habitation can still be found in rock art paintings and pictoglyphs in remote areas. The Chumash visited these mountains mostly to harvest different varieties of acorns, to hunt more abundant game and for ceremonial reasons.
Early historians referred to the San Rafael Mountains as “a wild and impossibly steep series of uninhabitable mountains.” For the most part, even today, these mountains house a sparse number of permanent residents on patches of private property.
A winding, partly-paved road crosses over the crest of ranges in the San Rafael Mountains facing the Valley, connecting in a 30-mile loop from Figueroa Mountain Road to Happy Canyon Road. The road twists its way up from the Valley floor, across narrow ridges and peaks and back into the Valley. From the highest points in the loop road there are clear views of the backcountry, and the other San Rafael Mountain ranges.
Because of its unique characteristics and inaccessibility, most of this mountain range was designated as the protected San Rafael Wilderness Area in the early 1960s. When it was later discovered that every remaining California Condor was holed up in the San Rafael Wilderness Area, an additional, more strictly protected area of land was established as a Condor Sanctuary along the wild Sisquoc River in hopes of aiding the rare birds in warding off extinction.
Although most of the high peaks in the San Rafael range are within the Valley’s viewshed—Big Pine Mountain at 6,828 feet and San Rafael Mountain at 6,593 feet are the two tallest—it is in the western end of the San Rafael Mountains that Grass Mountain, Zaca Peak, Figueroa Mountain and Cachuma Peak form the most prominent skyline.
Figueroa Mountain is well known throughout Santa Barbara County, mostly because of scenic Figueroa Mountain Road. City-dwellers venture onto Figueroa Mountain Road to “see the mountains,” birdwatch and enjoy spring wildflowers. Tourists still seek out Figueroa Mountain Road so they can locate Michael Jackson’s famed Neverland Ranch.
Well known as its name is, many cannot identify Figueroa Mountain from the Valley floor. Most eyes seem to glide right over Figueroa’s broad, rolling, two-knobbed summit.
Often Grass Mountain is incorrectly identified as Figueroa Mountain, possibly because its prominent peak rises in a grassy pyramid shape near the edge of Figueroa Mountain Road and is easily spotted from almost everywhere in the Valley.
Though it’s not officially identified on maps, every long-time local knows the peak as Grass Mountain.
The “real” Figueroa Mountain lies mid-way across the ridge, but Grass Mountain is the favorite inspirational location for poets, artists and photographers, particularly in spring when wildflowers carpet its grassy slopes.