The Coastal Mountain Range?

or Defining Mountains

Before we go any further in this narrative, I must relate some more perplexities that plagued both topo sculptures. In doing the peaks, some were called mountains, some were called peaks, some were called ridges, and some were unnamed. Why, what, wherefore? What distinguishes hill from peak from mountain from ridge?

I had created two relief maps of mountains that were entirely different. I had created and learned a bit about the San Rafael Wilderness where the Manzana Creek was located. I had also created a slice of the Eastern Sierras. My first mountain building experience had shattered my preconceived notion of individual mountains. But instead of lightening up I had held onto this new conception of mountains as something carved from rocks, which was now shattered by my second mountain building experience, where they were carved from soft dirt. Having been knocked off my feet twice, I decided to lighten up and stay in the middle. My two mountain building experiences had been so totally different that I realized that I didnユt really know mountains at all. I needed to know more. I decided to start with definitions.

What is a mountain?

This relatively simple question leads us into some complex subtleties concerning the relativity of categorization. Many people conceive of a mountain as a conic shaped volume rising to a high peak above the surrounding areas. Encyclopedia Britannica defines it as:

メA natural elevation of the earthユs surface, rising more or less abruptly to a small summit area, attaining an elevation greater than that of a hill, and standing in a single mass or forming part of a series.モ


This definition coincides more or less with our intuitive sense of mountain. An individual mountain is this huge base with a small peak. A range of mountains is a bunch of these peaks connected by a common base. Simple eh. No need to make a mountain out of molehill. End of paper.

But how do you tell the mountain from the molehill? Or how big does a molehill have to be to be considered a mountain? In our definition it says that a mountain ヤattains an elevation greater than that of a hillユ. How high is a hill? How much higher must the mountain be than a hill to be considered a mountain? One inch, one meter, a thousand feet? Obviously there are some unanswered questions.

When does it become a mountain, Daddy?
or Childrenユs vs. Adult Logic

Iユm looking for something officious to tell my daughters when they innocently inevitably ask, メWhatユs the difference between a hill and a mountain?モ

My first pathetic response is: メA mountain is much taller than a hill.モ

Because my eldest daughter has just had a geography class, she asks, メIs the high desert of the Owens Valley considered a mountain because at 4000 feet it is considerably higher than the mountains of Scotland which start at a mere 3000 feet.モ

Realizing that a high valley is not a mountain even though it is higher above sea level than some mountains, I quickly understand that absolute height above sea level will not enable anyone or any computer to determine mountains from hills.

Retreating to our definition, I smugly respond, メA mountain must rise above the surrounding area ヤmore or less abruptly to a small summit areaユ. Because the Owens Valley does not rise to a small summit area we can safely say that it is not a mountain. The Scottish mountains rise some 3000 to 4000 feet above their base. A mountain rises 3000 to 4000 above the surrounding countryside.

My youngest, who has just finished a hike to Montecito Peak in the Santa Barbara foothills, asks, メThen why isnユt Montecito Peak called Montecito Mountain. It is 3214 feet high. Our teacher told us.モ

Stumbling again I point out that the ridge behind it, called the Santa Ynez Mountains, is much higher than Montecito Peak.

Da da da da, メYou have just entered the Twilight Zone of relative versus absolute peaks. The relative peak is local and relegated to hill, peak, or ヤfalse summitユ status, while the absolute peak is general and is allowed to be called a mighty Mountain. It rises to superstar status geographically, from a mere hill to a mighty mountain, whether you be judged as a real summit and claimant to the name Sir Mountain or whether you are only a false summit, a pretender to the throne. Pretending to be the real summit when you are only the false summit. Shame on you. You should be embarrassed for tricking all these hill climbers into thinking that you were the real thing.モ

Going through this in my mind I say haughtily. メMontecito Peak is only a false summit and so canユt be designated Mountain. Only true summits are called mountains.モ

My child, in her simplicity, asks, メWhich are the true summits in the Santa Ynez Mountains?モ

My other child yelps out proudly, メWhich are the real mountains, Daddy?モ

Racking my brain and then scanning a map I realize that there are no mountains in the Santa Ynez Mountain Range.

No mountains in the mountain range? I think to myself, メThat makes as much sense as there are no apples in a basket of apples. How can the singular not be contained in the plural?モ

As my jaw drops, as I nervously giggle and cry, as my legs sink out from under and I seem to be turned inside out, I hem and haw,

And my first child blurts in, メWhich is the highest mountain?モ

Hesitantly, I read off the map that the highest point is 4298 ft.

Miranda immediately asks, メWhich mountain is that?モ

メBroadcast Peak.モ

メI thought you said that peaks are not real mountains.モ

メWhich is the real mountain?モ

I become short of breath, my pupils begin to dilate erratically, I want to run away. But willing to confront inconsistencies in my logical conception of the world, I bravely squelch my fear and state firmly that which is a logical impossibility. メThere are no mountains in the Santa Ynez Mountains.モ

I thought that I said it firmly because I dared to say it at all, but I actually only mumbled it, hoping that they would drop the topic.

But being of the curious type with good ears, they ask, メNo mountains?モ

メIsnユt there something good on TV?モ I say, breaking into a cold sweat.

With the persistence of a hunting dog, one says, メWhich is the real mountain?モ Another says, メWhich is the true summit?モ The first repeats, メWhat do you mean no mountains?モ

Hesitantly I say. メThere are no mountains in the Santa Ynez Mountains.モ

The oldest, skeptically, メStrange.モ The youngest, メWhy?モ

With Dad-like confidence I throw out my chest and jut out my chin in a military response, speaking loudly to overwhelm the response, メBecause there are no true summits. It is only a ridge. Remember our definition. A mountain must rise to a small summit. There are no summits so there is no mountain. Now letユs go have dinner.モ

The youngest pondering seriously, メBut why are they called the Santa Ynez Mountains if there are no mountains in it?モ

My wife in an attempt to help out, メThey qualify to be mountains as a group. Not individually. This shows that if you all work together that you accomplish mountains of work while working by yourselves that you will only accomplish a hill of work. Now I need some help getting the food on the table.モ

The oldest of a philosophical bent, メBut how can a bunch of hills turn into mountains?モ

メThey qualify as a group,モ says mother.

メHow many hills does it take to become a mountain?モ says the youngest.

メHow many mountains are in the Santa Ynez Mountains?モ says their friend.

Dad: メI told you. There are no mountains in the Santa Ynez Mountains.モ

メWell then how many hills or peaks?モ

メI donユt know how many. But I do know that La Cumbre Peak is one of the highest peaks at 3985 ft.モ

メWhy isnユt it called a mountain?モ bleats the youngest.

メBecause it is not a small summit. It is part of the ridge. Remember the road Camino Cielo that we took to see the comet. That is the ridge of the Santa Ynez Mountains.モ

The oldest: メSo youユre telling me that an uncountable bunch of nothings turn into an uncountable number of somethings by some unknown process which we call adult logic.モ

Mother: メIt just goes to show that we can all make a difference if we only try. Now I need some help with dinner. Try making a difference there.モ

Youngest: メWhy canユt we count the number of mountains in the Santa Ynez Mountains. Are there too many?モ

Oldest, sarcastically: メThereユs not enough.モ

Youngest: メNot enough. I can count to 100. Isnユt that enough?モ

My brain is doing back-flips, my ears are blowing out steam and my eyes are rolling around in my head. I take a deep breath and say wisely, メYou will understand when you grow up.モ

Oldest to youngest: メHe always says that when he doesnユt know the answer himself.モ

I throw up my hands in despair, realizing that my oldest is ripping away my veil of Illusion before my youngest - the illusion that I am all-knowing and wise. I easily let go of that veil, retreating to the next veil of integrity and say humbly, メI really donユt understand.モ

My wife says, メIt seems perfectly clear to me. They qualify as a group. Whatユs so complicated about that? Now letユs have dinner.モ

Youngest: メWhat donユt you understand?モ

Me: メI donユt understand how an undetermined amount of peaks make up a plural range of mountains.モ

Wife: メI told you they qualify as a group. Now stop talking and eat. I spent a lot of time on this dinner.モ

Oldest: メThe higher the fewer.モ

Beginning Mountain Criteria or Scottish Munro Mountains

Why arenユt there any mountains in the Santa Ynez Coastal Mountain Range? What is the difference between a peak, a mountain and a hill? We need some criteria.

メIn 1891 Sir Hugh Munro took it upon himself to resolve the problem [of what a mountain is] in Scotland at least by publishing a list of which natural projections counted as bona fide mountains and which were only humble subsidiary tops. Choosing the arbitrary criterion of 3,000 ft in the imperial system of measurement as his cut-off point, he counted 283 ヤseparate mountainsユ and a further 255 ヤtopsユ. Unfortunately he omitted to leave to posterity his reason for choosing the figure 3,000 and the criteria he used to distinguish a mountain from a top. Retrospective study of ヤMunroユs Tablesユ has lead some authorities to suggest rules such as; a separate mountain must be separated from all others by a least half a mile and an intervening drop of at least 500 ft, but Sir Hughユs list contains exceptions to all such rules.モ (The Joy of Hillwalking by Ralph Storer 1994, Luath Press pp. 8-9)

Ralph Storer in this short paragraph identifies many of the problems in determining the difference between mere tops and separate mountains. As he says ヤa separate mountain must be separated from all others by a least half a mile and an intervening drop of at least 500 ftユ. (Note that even some of Munroユs mountains donユt completely meet his standards.),

With this set of criterion, it is easy to see why it is hard to talk about mountains in a ridge. None of these peaks rise dramatically above the others. Additionally, they are not really separated by much distance. Hence the answer to all the intriguing ambiguities of the last discussion is that the Santa Ynez Mountains should have been called the Santa Ynez Ridge instead. It divides the coastal zone from the valley.

Because the tops of our ridge do not rise commandingly over the ridge they are called peaks rather than mountains. ヤCommandinglyユ of course is a somewhat subjective word. A commanding rise for an ant is much different than a commanding rise for the reader. The ridge as a whole rises commandingly from the seashore. Hence it has a mountainous feeling. However when driving along the ridge upon Camino Cielo Road, none of the peaks has a mountainous feeling because they donユt rise very far from the base, which is the top of the ridge itself. Technically it makes no sense. Intuitively it makes perfect sense. メThey all qualify as a group.モ Intuitive logic vs. Intellectual logic.

Under these same criteria, Montecito Peak is only a peak, because the Santa Ynez Ridge rises higher behind it, less than 1/2 mile away. If however the Santa Ynez Ridge didnユt exist then the Montecito Peak would probably be called Montecito Mountain. Hence a mountain is only relative to what surrounds it by some arbitrary distance. Without the Santa Ynez Ridge behind it, the Montecito Peak, fulfills the definition of a Scottish mountain. It rises to a small summit 3000 ft above sea level.

The Coastal Mountain Ridge

メWhat, why, when, and how?モ yells my inner child.

What is this ridge and why was it formed? Why donユt we have regular mountains that can be counted, rather than this mountain range with no mountains?


メFor tens of millions of years, a lithospheric plate of considerable size lay between North America and the Pacific Plate. It is known in geology as the Farallon Plate. By the late Pliocene, this great segment of crust and mantle, possibly at one time a tenth of the shell of the earth, had in large part been consumed. Fragments of it remain; in the north, the Gorda Plate and the Juan de Fuca Plate, whose subduction under North America has produced Lassen Peak, Mt. Shasta, Mt. Rainier, Mt. St. Helens, Glacier Peak and the rest of the volcanoes of the Cascades; in the south the Cocos Plate and the Nazca Plate, whose subduction has created Central America and elevated the Andes. For tens of millions of years, the Farallon Plate went under the western margin of North America, while North America gradually scraped off the Franciscan m四ange of coast range California. To the west, under the ocean, was the spreading center that divided the Farallon Plate from the Pacific Plate. As the Farallon Plate, moving eastward, was consumed, the spreading center came ever closer to California. At Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, the Pacific Plate first touched North America, twenty nine million years before the present. Where it touched, the trench ceased to function, the spreading center ceased to function, and the plate boundary became a transform fault. It was only a few miles long at first, but steadily the great fault propagated from Los Angeles and Santa Barbara to the north and to the south, shutting the trench like a closing zipper. The triple junction of the Farallon Plate, the Pacific Plate, And North American Plate, migrated northward with the northern end of the fault. And so, in the Pliocene, three million years ago, the triple junction was off San Francisco. The volcanoes in the Sierra were the dying embers of Farallon subduction. The volcanoes in the Napa Valley and adjacent coastal ranges were a result of the new fault pulling the earth apart at kinks and bends. ... Now, in the Holocene, the triple junction is still moving north. For the moment, it is at Cape Mendocino, where the San Andreas ends and what is left of the Farallon Trench continues. That is how things appear, anyway, in present theory.モ (Assembling California by John McPhee, Noonday, 1993, p182-3)


Thus the Santa Ynez Ridge is the scrapings off the top of the Farallon Plate as it went under the North American Plate. This ridge separates the Pacific Ocean basin from the Santa Ynez River basin. The San Andreas Fault is the seam made by the Pacific Plate colliding with the North American Plate after the Farallon Plate had been consumed.

This melange of rocks, scraped off the ocean floor over millions of years is named the Franciscan M四ange - after San Francisco where the three plates coincide with the biggest geological diversity

メVolcanics, conglomerates, glaucophane schist, sandstone, serpentine, chert -Franciscan. This is the place it was named for, and this is the tectonic product. The Franciscan is under the city of San Francisco and is the basement of the bay. Franciscan rocks in the Bay Area are from more parts of the subduction complex than you are likely to find in such concentration anywhere else on the coast.モ (McPhee, pp. 229-230)


If you have ever hiked Cold Springs Creek in the foothills of Santa Barbara, the diversity of landforms is striking. It seems as if everything was just rolled up in a ball and shaken up. Going down the Grand Canyon one sees layers upon layers of stratigraphy. In the San Rafael wilderness one sees the deep erosion of sedimentary rocks. There are no layers upon Cold Springs Creek. The sedimentary erosion is erratic, with huge boulders strewn everywhere.

メThe Franciscan m四ange contains rock of such widespread provenance that it is quite literally a collection from the entire Pacific basin or even half of the surface of the planet. As fossils and paleomagnetism indicate, there are sediments from continents (sandstones and so forth) and rocks from scattered marine sources (cherts, graywackes, serpentines, gabbros, pillow lavas, and other volcanics) assembled at random in the matrix clay.モ (McPhee, p.189)


To add to the confusion, the scrapings off the Farallon Plate are topped with a marine sediment - mementos of its long underwater residence.

メAfter the Farallon Trench quit, these marine deposits settled upon the Franciscan m四ange. Throughout the Coast Ranges, the m四ange has an icing of sediment, acquired while it was still underwater.モ (McPhee, p228)


Because of the nature of the random scraping overlaid with marine sediment, no timeline could be derived from the exploration of the sedimentary layers in the rock.

メThat clay is the matrix of the Franciscan, in which blobs of various material are everywhere contained, and that is the guts of the Coast Range story. ... You can see why people who tried to map stratigraphy went crazy. ... It doesnユt fit the stratigraphic rules we all grew up on. It was assumed that you had a stratigraphic sequence here, and for years people tried unsuccessfully to explain these places in terms of eroded and deformed stratigraphies.モ (McPhee, p188)

Our hills or mountain range or coastal ridge are not the up thrust of some huge granite block like we will find in the Sierras. Nor are they built by the erosion of huge ancient mountains as in the San Rafael mountain range. They are merely the scraping of one plate going under another. Chaotically exciting.


Home   Mountain Page   Table of Contents   Next Page