Post Summit & East Molera Ridge

The meadows on East Molera Ridge burst with color during the spring producing one of the best coastal wildflower displays along the Big Sur Coast. The top of Post Summit provides a logical culminating destination with sweeping views of the coast and the interior Ventana Wilderness from a perch 3,455 ft above sea level. The East Molera Ridge Trail begins along a dirt road behind a white barn at the main parking area for Andrew Molera State Park. The trail goes under Highway 1 through a tunnel and then heads uphill, soon joining a wider trail that heads up through oak woodland and then chaparral. The path narrows to single track at the base of the ridge. On this day there was a stunning display of California poppy in incredibly dense patches. The density and vibrant orange color of these flowers was simply amazing. Continuing up, the single track makes a long switchback across the steep slope with views improving with each step.  Ultimately the designated trail ends at a point on top of the ridge with a strip of redwoods and views across the Little Sur Valley to Pico Blanco.

From the end of the official trail, an informal use path continue south along grassy ridges and wonderful meadows for a couple miles. The views of Point Sur, Andrew Molera, the LIttle Sur Valley, and Pico Blanco are remarkable and improve as you progress up the ridge. Pico Blanco, or “white peak,” is aptly named with a large deposit of exposed white limestone composing its distinctive pyramidal summit.  The peak forms an aesthetic background for the wildflowers on East Molera Ridge and begs to be climbed! The grassy meadows end at a knoll (2,500 ft) and the final 1,000 feet of ascent to Post Summit is on a steep path through brush (fairly tame by Ventana standards). Note that there are ticks in this brush so make sure to check your skin and clothing after passage. Soon enough we were on the summit and enjoying the views. One can continue along the use paths via a route to Manuel Peak and Pfieffer Big Sur State Park via Cabezo Preito. This route along the ridge crest was obvious, but a continuation of the tick-infested brush is inevitable. On this day, we decided to forgo the ticks and bushwhacking and returned the way we came, enjoying even better light for photography while coming down through the wildflower meadows. The aesthetic loop to Manuel Peak, down to Big Sur Valley, and back to Andrew Molera is definitely on my list for the future, although the best views and scenery are on the grassy meadows of the East Molera Ridge portion.

Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles National Park is an amazing display of geology reflecting millions of years of volcanic and tectonic activity that has sculpted the rock into sheer spires, fascinating formations and intricate talus caves. The park has a prehistoric ambiance complete with California condors and stately gray pines.  Pinnacles was elevated from National Monument to National Park status on January 10, 2013 and this was my first visit to the park since its National Park designation. While the inspiring terrain and rock features are the same and park infrastructure is unchanged,  it seems as if the public has taken notice as the park was fairly busy. In fact, on the east side of the park, a shuttle was in operation transporting visitors from a large overflow lot behind the main information center to the trailhead at Bear Gulch. A ranger I spoke to mentioned that this is a particularly busy time of the year at Pinnacles with spring break at the schools and generally favorable weather conditions (the Pinnacles can get unbearably hot in the summer months). Nonetheless, it seems like it’s now a good idea to arrive early at the Pinnacles if you visit during the weekends.

It was early April when I visited, but on the drive down I noticed the south facing hillsides were already golden. The “green” period was unusually short this year due to meager rainfall. In fact, I heard that only 4 inches of rain fell over Pinnacles during the winter months. The result was a virtually bone dry park with streams dried up and limited wildflowers. I have heard the wildflowers can be gorgeous at Pinnacles and hopefully next year will be a more typical winter in this region providing lush greenery and wildflowers more typical of Spring. I started at Bear Gulch and did a hike of the High Peaks Trail, a marquee attraction with sections of the steep and narrow trail chiseled into the hillsides with rock steps and hand rails. The views form the High Peaks trail are breathtaking and on this day Condors were constantly hovering overhead. After the High Peaks Trail I headed down through Tunnel Trail to the Chaparral area on the west side and then a visit to the Balconies Cave. The sheer Machete Ridge is always inspiring, and it was great to follow a pair of climbers attacking a route on the formation’s steepest pitch. After the Balconies I headed back to the Chaparral area and back up towards the High Peaks, finishing out the hike with the Condor Gulch Trail.  Pinnacles National Park is a gem and well deserving of the National Park designation. I look forward to returning there for further exploration, including the North Wilderness Trail and the Chalone Peaks.  

Ohlone Bluffs at Wilder Ranch

The Ohlone Bluffs trail in Wilder Ranch State Park provides access to a gorgeous stretch of coastline just outside of Santa Cruz along Highway 1. The bluffs feature unique sandstone terraces sculpted by powerful ocean forces and sandy beaches. From the park headquarters, the trail stretches around 6.5 miles to the other end of the park, although a mile can be cut at lower tides with a direct crossing of Sand Plant Beach. The trail begins wide and well-trodden but progressively narrows and becomes grassy as you progress away from the park headquarters toward four mile beach. The sections toward Four Mile Beach can become muddy after rains.

Numerous beaches are visible along the way including Wilder Ranch Beach, Strawberry Beach, Sand Plant Beach, Three Mile Beach, and Four Mile Beach.  Great vistas abound at virtually every corner and there are many opportunities for exploration of the terraces and rock formations on the beaches.  Moreover, as an essentially flat trail, you don’t have to work very hard for the views! The Ohlone Bluffs trail is far from a wilderness experience with Hwy 1 nearby and agriculture coming right up to the bluffs, but the intricate coastline and rugged coastal scenery make this a great destination. Here are some photos from a recent run of the Ohlone Bluffs Trail.

Central Point Reyes

A spectacular meeting of land and ocean, Point Reyes National Seashore is one of my favorite places anywhere.  Point Reyes has incredible variety from rugged beaches to waterfalls to lush forests. With nearly 150 miles of trails  to explore, there always seems to be something new to experience on each visit.  Most of the trail miles are within the Phillip Burton Wilderness, the only federally designated wilderness along California’s coast aside from the King Range Wilderness at Humboldt County’s Lost Coast. Covering 33,373 acres of wilderness and “potential’ wilderness, the road-less land encompasses nearly half of the total 71,070 acres of Point Reyes. 

On this day I did a 27 mile run through central Point Reyes (route on Strava here).  The first 8 miles was entirely on new trails (for me) within the estuary zone characterized by open grasslands, coastal scrub shallow tidal estuaries. I had previously overlooked this network of paths, preferring the forests and rugged coast further south, but these trails are great fun. From the estuary zone I headed up to Inverness Ridge via the Bayview Trail, a relatively moderate climb (compared to Drakes View or Bucklin Trails) with some nice bishop pine tunnels. The pine tunnels are the result of the Vision Fire in 1995 that turned these hillsides into ash. I imagine there were more views along these trails in the years following the fire, but since then the bishop pine forest has regenerated. The forest is extremely dense, even impenetrable, and is characteristic of bishop pine forests aged 10-20 years after a fire.  In fact, bishop pine regeneration is largely dependent on fire as the cones typically remain closed without extreme heat. It’s fascinating to watch the “stand replacement regime” in progress and walk through these amazing vegetation tunnels. Once on the Sky Trail I continued along the ridge through Douglas fir forest and occasional views to the ocean. I ultimately made my way down Old Pine Trail to Bear Valley Trail, which is easily the most popular trail in Point Reyes. I finished the run along the coast taking the Coastal Trail between Arch Rock and Limantour Beach with many stops to explore the gorgeous coastal scenery including Kelham Beach, Sculptured Beach and Santa Maria Beach. I’m already looking forward to the next opportunity to visit Point Reyes!

Austin Creek

Austin Creek State Recreation Area is an awesome wilderness next to Armstrong Redwoods. The park features extremely limited facilities, including a camping area at Bullfrog Pond and a few picnic tables. Access to the park is limited to a narrow and winding mountain road that first passes through Armstrong Redwoods. The park’s terrain includes a lovely variety of oak woodland, coniferous forest of mainly Douglas fir, pockets of redwoods, and grassy meadows. The East Fork of Austin Creek and tributary Gilliam Creek are the primary geographical features that cuts across the park. The best single track in the park is the Gilliam Creek Trail which is a real adventure. The trail starts on Pool Ridge at the Gilliam Trailhead and traverse the hillside before plunging down to Schoolhouse Creek on a technical and weathered trail. Once in the canyon, bay trees and lush ferns abound all the way down to Gilliam Creek and on to the East Fork of Austin Creek. There are numerous creek crossings and after winter storms, many of these crossings become wet or even impassable. The trail is also slightly overgrown with low lying poison oak encroaching in some spots. On my run through the Gilliam Creek canyon I spotted numerous newts and deer.

At the conclusion of the Gilliam Creek Trail, one must cross the East Fork of Austin Creek which was still a wet crossing for me despite the lack of winter rains the past few months. The trip back to Pool Ridge utilizes the East Austin Creek Fire Road which traverses the hillsides and provides fantastic views of the backcountry.  Another crossing of the East Fork of Austin Creek is also required (likely wet). The two other single track trails worth checking out at Austin Creek are the East Ridge Trail and Pool Ridge Trail which can be run in combination to make a nice loop down Armstrong Redwoods and back up Austin Creek at the Pool Ridge or Gilliam Creek Trailheads. Both trails entail fairly steep portions. The campground at Bullfrog Pond is pleasant with redwoods and nice sites. Near the campground is a Vista Point with spectacular views of the coastal range. The grassy meadows of the upper portion of the park are also known for fantastic wildflower displays in the spring. Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, a local nonprofit organization, works in partnership with the Russian River sector of California State Parks to keep the campground open. Many thanks to the volunteers of this organization for a their great work. My route through Armstrong Redwoods and Austin Creek is here on Strava.