The Tehachapi area is defined and delineated by its mountains. Valleys in the Tehachapi Mountains tend to be bowl valleys, ringed by mountain ridges on all sides, rather than open ended V-shaped notch valleys. Our mountains surround us, they help determine our weather, and they are a perpetual and comforting backdrop to our lives.
It can be confusing to visitors or newer arrivals to know the names of the larger, more distinctive peaks in our area, so I've profiled a few of the more notable ones. This is only an introduction — chapters could be written about each of these sturdy, familiar mountains.
Interestingly, I can’t give you summit elevations that are guaranteed to be universally accepted as accurate. Why? Because the U.S. Geological Survey, the sole science department and measuring service of the Department of the Interior, doesn’t have official summit elevations for most mountains — even for world-famous peaks. Mt. Rainier in Washington, for example, is listed by the Land Surveyors Association of Washington as having an elevation of 14,411 feet, by the USGS at 14,410, and by the Smithsonian Institution at 14,409 feet.
It turns out that the USGS isn’t particularly concerned with determining the exact elevation for mountains — this figure doesn’t have much impact on surveying. Most USGS elevation measurements have a margin of error that’s plus or minus five feet, so there’s a potential 10-foot swing right there. Topographical maps issued by the USGS have contours at 40-foot intervals, so unless peaks happen to be exactly on a line, the topo map will only indicate that the summit is within a 40-foot band.
And small hand-held GPS units aren’t much use — they tend to have accuracy only within 30 meters or about 100 feet, which is even less precise. Highly accurate GPS units have receivers the size of a suitcase and aren’t going to be found in anyone’s pocket. Typical altimeters aren’t very reliable either, because they are based on barometric pressure and are also affected by humidity and temperature, so they can give a different reading each day at the exact same spot.
And even the baseline from which elevation is calculated – sea level – is a subjective, moving target, because the ocean’s surface rises and falls depending upon gravitational pull. When you couple these ocean variations with seasonal temperatures, which can cause the mountains themselves to expand or contract, adding or subtracting a foot or two to the elevation, you can see that establishing a precise elevation for the summit of a mountain is a difficult and sometimes controversial task. No wonder the USGS isn’t particularly interested in establishing official heights for mountains. At some distant future date there will no doubt be small but accurate sensors imbedded at the top of most mountains, providing a continuous elevation reading wirelessly. But that day is still far off at this point.
I would love to be able to say that there is a public access hiking trail leading to the top of each of our local mountains, but that isn’t the case. I hope that public access can one day be negotiated or purchased from landowners, but for now most of these summits are largely on private land with limited access.
Remember, the elevations given are subject to debate and you may encounter substantially different totals when researching these comely mountains. If someone attempts to correct you and insists on a different elevation than one you’ve heard, just smile and nod knowingly.
Tehachapi Peak – 7,988 feet
The top of this peak is considered by most people to be the tallest point in the range, and it is sometimes confusingly referred to by non-residents as “Tehachapi Mountain.” Others consider Double Mountain to be the highest point in the Tehachapis. On topographical maps, Tehachapi Peak is within the 40-foot contour band just below 8,000 feet, meaning it is between 7,960 feet and 7,999 feet. Viewed from many places in the Tehachapi Valley, it does have a nicely pointed, symmetrical peak.
How to see it: Tehachapi Peak rises up above town to the south. If you are driving south on Tucker Road approaching the intersection with Valley Boulevard (Highway 202), look up — the shapely mountaintop in the distance is Tehachapi Peak.
Double Mountain – 7,981 feet
This twin peak is only about a mile south of Tehachapi Peak, and isn’t very prominent from the Tehachapi Valley — it is one of the least visible of the major mountains in our area. It is approximately seven air miles south of the City of Tehachapi. The USGS first “monumented” the peak in 1926, cementing a USGS bronze disk in a drill hole in bedrock on the most westerly of the two knobs on the summit. There are several communications towers on the easterly summit. The reported elevation of this mountain, like many others, varies: some records list it as 7,993 feet, which would make it the tallest point in the Tehachapis. Double Mountain, Tehachapi Peak and a third peak slightly farther south called Covington Mountain are the three high points of a crest along the backbone of the Tehachapi Mountains.
How to see it: Double Mountain is actually more visible as you approach Tehachapi from the desert on Tehachapi-Willow Spring Road than it is from within the Tehachapi Valley. It is slightly south of Tehachapi Peak, with just a forested saddle separating them.
Cummings Mountain – 7,760 feet
This big round-shouldered mountain is the main peak overlooking Cummings Valley, and it looms southeast of Stallion Springs. Snow often remains for weeks on its largely bare summit. It was named for area pioneer George Cummings, and like most of the taller mountains in the area, it was logged in the 1860s and 1870s and occasionally since then. It is tallest on its eastern side, and then slopes evenly down to the west in a long steady incline. The mountain and surroundings slopes have been used for cattle ranching and hunting, and are home to California Mule Deer and wild pigs.
How to see it: From the City of Tehachapi, look southwest and you can’t miss the big ramp-shaped mountain with a mostly bare, rounded top. From Cummings Valley and Stallion Springs, look southeast — it is the dominant geographical feature.
It is these peaks that drew some of us to make the Tehachapi Mountains our home, and they are an important reason that many of us stay.
Have a good week.
Jon Hammond has written for Tehachapi News for more than 30 years. You can find his weekly Pen in Hand and Natural Sightings columns in Tehachapi News. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.