Caliente Mtn is the highest peak in the Caliente Range and the highpoint of San Luis Obispo County. Located 50 miles east of San Luis Obispo, the range lies in the remote southeast corner of the county, in one of the more sparsely populated areas of the state. Lying on BLM land, the peak forms the western boundary of the Carrizo Plains National Monument and the eastern boundary of the Cuyama Valley and the Los Padres National Forest.
The mountain top is crowned by a dilapidated lookout tower built during WWII and manned to watch for incoming Japanese planes with ill-designs on the nearby strategic oil fields. Exactly what holds it up is a matter of conjecture, and it seems unlikely to survive another 60 years.
Inside the structure is a register placed by the HPS of the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club - this is the only San Luis Obispo County peak in the HPS peak list, which consists of 200+ prominent peaks in Southern California over 5,000ft.
Heading south on US101 (from the Bay Area):
Take SR58 east at Santa Margarita for 40mi to California Valley. Head southeast on Soda Lake Rd for 13.3mi, looking for a brown BLM sign indicating the turnoff for the Caliente Ridge Parking Area. This dirt road heads south over flat, washboard terrain for almost 4mi to an abandonned ranch (a side spur here goes to the Shelby parking area). The road climbs up to the ridge, twisty and rutted, but passable by even passenger cars (my miata with poor clearance made it). Drive 3mi to the marked parking area, a short distance from the ridgetop.
Heading north on US101 (from Santa Barbara):
Head east on SR166 at Santa Maria for 70mi, a few miles past the Kern Co. border. Turn left on Soda Lake Rd, heading northwest for 29mi on the mostly dirt road to the turnoff marked by the above mentioned BLM sign.
Coming from I5 (from Sacramento or Los Angeles):
Head west on SR166, the turnoff located a few miles north of I5's junction with US99. Reach Maricopa after 25mi, turn south and continue on the common SR166/SR33. 8mi later turn right onto Soda Lake Rd and proceed northwest for 29mi as described above.
Located on BLM land, there are no fees or permits required for climbing the peak. Winter rains make the recommended trailhead inaccessible.
The peak is best climbed during spring when wildflowers are in abundance on the Carrizo Plains and the surrounding hillsides. Fall offers similarly cooler temperatures, but without the colorful displays. During the summer this area often sees temperatures exceeding 100F, so watch the weather reports or plan to climb early or late in the day. In winter heavy rains can make the access road impassable. The BLM opens the access road described above from April to November. Other trailheads must be used if planning to climb November to April, though it is not clear if any legal options are available. The BLM site mentions an access trail that has 2.5mi usable, another 4.5mi not open as of 1998. The website has not been updated pertaining to this as of 2009.
Camping in the area is primative - no fees, but little or no water available, no services. The closest place is near the Shelby Parking area, but most of the year there is no water.
BLM Bakersfield Field Office
Open 7:30 am - 4:15 pm Monday - Friday
Closed Weekends & Holidays
Telephone: (661) 391-6000
More on the Carrizo Plain National Monument - from The Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club
"The name, meaning 'hot', does not refer to the temperature of the mountains. It has its origin in the Ojo Caliente, recorded on the Parke-Custer map of 1855 in the Cuyama Valley, south of the mountain, and refers obviously to the hot springs."
- Erwin Gudde, California Place Names