High Point

Exploring Mount Pinos, Ventura County’s highest peak and snow-sport playground.

By Chuck Graham

Photo by Chuck Graham

On a clear day, the summit of Mount Pinos provides a view of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in one direction, the Channel Islands in another.


s I hiked through a towering forest of Jeffrey pines, I reached a clearing on the lofty summit of Mount Pinos. Looking west toward the expanse of the Chumash Wilderness, I spotted a California condor soaring across huge swaths of the Los Padres National Forest, taking advantage of afternoon thermal updrafts. Hiking in the forest is certainly a popular activity on Mount Pinos, but Ventura County’s highest peak is also a unique winter sports destination.  

Who would think that, come winter, those chaparral-choked mountains deep in this remote forest transform into a backcountry Mecca ideal for snow-sports enthusiasts. At 8,847 feet, Mount Pinos is considered to be one of the best places in all of Southern California for backcountry and cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

“The tops of many of the mountains in Southern California are, in effect, fairly narrow ridges,” said Tod Fitch, patrol representative for Mount Pinos Nordic Ski Patrol. “For cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, this means that many routes are limited to out and back. Once above 7,500 feet, Mount Pinos is more of a table with rolling terrain. This means that you can make a number of loop tours of varying difficulty.”

Fitch is part of Nordic Base, its facility located in the parking lot near the summit on Mount Pinos since 1988. Before that, the ski patrol worked out of a series of campground host travel trailers. Construction of Nordic Base was a joint effort between ski patrol and the U.S. Forest Service. The facility is maintained by volunteer labor, courtesy of members and friends of the ski patrol.

The base is equipped with a patient treatment room, an “ops center” with radio base station and situation maps and a bunk room. The “ops center” is used by the patrol each weekend. Nordic Base is also in service for coordinating patrollers and for search and rescue, serving as the incident command post for missing-person searches on the mountain. Every season a number of rescues occur on the mountain, although much depends on varying snow surface conditions.

“Last year the snow never got very icy and we had few injuries,” said Fitch. “In other recent seasons we’ve typically worked between one to six incidents per weekend day.”

Fitch said there were good skiing conditions throughout the drought but snow conditions were far better in 2016-17 than in the previous season. Last year, snow conditions were good from late December through mid-March, with 2 to 3 feet of snow on the ground during much of the season. A few storms even brought snow down to Interstate 5.

“More often, the snow level was around what we call ‘the Y,’ the intersection of Cuddy Valley Road, Mount Pinos Road and Mil Potrero Highway,” said Fitch. “Mount Pinos is a bit further north and west of the other tall mountains in Southern California. Because of that, Mount Pinos usually gets a bit more snow from a typical winter storm.”

There are a few items winter travelers to Mount Pinos shouldn’t leave home without. The most important one is knowledge. The recent fires in Ventura County have affected parts of the Los Padres National Forest, resulting in some closures. Visitors should check forest closure status, traffic conditions and road closures before embarking on a trip.

Another necessary item: tire chains. In fact, during winters of heavy snowfall, it might be impossible to drive to the summit. Many bound for Mount Pinos have been turned away because they were without chains. 

Lastly, all visitors need an Adventure Pass, to ensure unfettered access.

“Starting last year, the various agencies that provide law enforcement and safety services changed how Adventure Passes and chain control are enforced,” said Fitch. “With these changes, if the snow is good, you are unlikely to be able to get up the mountain without tire chains and an Adventure Pass. A number of local businesses sell Adventure Passes and the Forest Service makes an effort, aided by members of the ski patrol, to make Adventure Passes available at the ‘Y.’ ”

Fitch didn’t want to reveal his favorite backcountry routes on Mount Pinos, and understandably so. Local knowledge is everything when chasing those outdoor pursuits. Some of the mountain’s most popular excursions, however, include trips to nearby Sheep Camp on Sawmill Mountain, and, if snow conditions allow, there is a fun descent all the way to Pine Mountain Club.

“The trail map published by the ski patrol has a number of routes suitable for different skill levels,” said Fitch. “A very popular route for most is the 500-foot gain, a mile-and-a-half route to the top of the mountain. On a clear day, from there you can see the Channel Islands in one direction and the Sierra Nevada in the other.”


Mount Pinos is an easy drive from most points in Ventura County, but traffic during the best snow conditions can be excessive. “Last year, when we saw 100,000-plus visitors per day, it took five hours to drive 10 miles,” recalls Rachel Unell, president of the Mountain Communities Chamber of Commerce. The parking lot at Mount Pinos has a 1,000-car capacity, and snow play areas near Frazier Mountain have even fewer parking spots. Road closures are also possible.

“We truly love visitors and encourage people to come enjoy the winter beauty,” Unell says. “It is highly recommended that folks plan ahead for a mini-vacation, rather than driving out for a quick day trip. We want people to enjoy their visit!” She notes that cabins for rent (some on beautiful tracts of privately owned land) and nearby hotels make for a delightful way to experience Ventura County’s own winter wonderland.

A condor soars over the Chumash Wilderness.
Photo by Chuck Graham

SNOW COUNTRY: Mount Pinos is the only snow-sport destination in Ventura County, offering exceptional cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, sledding and just plain wintertime fun.
Photos courtesy of Mount Pinos Nordic Ski Patrol.



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