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 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.
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.
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 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 hereon Strava.
Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve is tucked into the northern California coastal range a couple miles outside the town of Guerneville and the Russian River. Located an hour and a half from San Francisco, Armstrong is one of the best displays of old growth redwoods within a day trip of the City. Seasonal Fife Creek runs through the grove at an alluvial flat, the hallmark of many of the most impressive stands of old growth redwoods. Having recently visited the best redwoods in the world along California’s far north coast, I had limited expectations but was pleasantly surprised. While Armstrong is not as impressive as the groves to the north, the character of the forest more closely resembles the giant forests in Humboldt than redwood parks to the south like Muir Woods or Big Basin. Moreover, Armstrong sees a tiny fraction of the number of visitors that swarm Muir Woods National Monument on any given day. In addition to not being a tourist fiasco, the grove at Armstrong is objectively more impressive with larger trees and greater concentration of big trees when compared with Muir Woods. However, unlike Big Basin Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the grove at Armstrong is relatively small and one is hard pressed to find more than a couple miles of trail underneath redwoods in this park. Within a couple hundred vertical feet above the canyon floor, the forest landscape at Armstrong quickly changes to oak woodland and Douglas fir. By comparison, Big Basin features dozens of miles of trails to explore underneath redwoods and one can find solitude in the redwoods. For a bona fide redwood trail run, Armstrong will likely not satisfy, but the very pleasant grove serves as a great starting point for the trails connecting into the beautiful backcountry of Austin Creek Recreation Area (covered in the next blog post).
As always, I have many great ideas for adventure runs in the Sierra. Listed below are twenty potential trips organized from South to North. Most of these ideas are rather obscure, but the high Sierra is filled with hidden gems and I expect all of these will not be lacking in outstanding scenery and route quality. Hopefully I’ll get to several ideas this summer! All photos by me from last year’s adventures.
Triple Divide & Glacier Ridge Loop via Wolverton:I’ve scoped out a big loop with big views. The route starts with the Pear Lake Trail up to the Tablelands and Big Bird Peak followed by a high traverse to Coal Mine Pass and across granite slabs to Glacier Ridge. From Glacier Ridge, another crossing of the granite slabs leads to Lion Lake Pass and a scamble of Triple Divide Peak. The descent is through Lion Lake and Tamarack Lake, ultimately down to the High Sierra Trail. I described the loop in one direction although it might make more sense to do the run reverse with the High Sierra Trail portion first thing pre-dawn.
Tyndall & Williamson: Double the fun for these two fourteeners via Shepherd’s Pass and Williamson Bowl.
Mount Rixford, Dragon Peak & University Peak:These all look like fun peaks to ascend. Mount Rixford, with its position west of the crest, is a particularly good viewpoint. Dragon Peak looks impressively rugged from the Rae lakes Basin.
Arrow Peak and Bench Lake: An adventure via Taboose Pass that has been on the list for many years, but I haven’t made it out yet to see the classic Sierra view of Arrow Peak from Bench Lake.
Observation Peak and Amphitheater Lake: A remote part of the range also accessed via Taboose Pass. Observation Peak is apparently aptly named as it is a great spot to observe the Palisades.
Josephine Lake:Rarely visited lake tucked in below Glacier Ridge with views to Mount Brewer, South Guard, and North Guard entailing a steep scramble from Cloud Canyon.
Split Mountain: Another fourteener on the list.
Palisade Circumnavigation & Palisade Basin:A great route around the most rugged and alpine region of the High Sierra with lots of arduous talus travel.
Sky Haven & Cloudripper: Just for the tremendous views of Palisades and hopefully an overnight stay for sunrise. Access via South Lake.
Mount Reinstein, Lake 10,232 and Goddard Creek Valley:This loop comes in around 50 miles and looks stunning, passing through some of the most remote and wild terrain in the Sierra.
Ionian Basin, Scylla & Hansen: Accessed via Sabrina Basin, this region is near Muir Pass and the JMT, but far away from the beaten path and features spectacular peaks and many high lakes amid one of the most rugged and strikingly desolate settings in the High Sierra.
Charybdis & Black Giant:Two more peak in the Ionian Basin. Perhaps I will combine climbs of these peaks with objectives described immediately above and make it a single night fastpacking outing.
Bench Valley:Another western approach to the LeConte Divide, featuring a string of remote high alpine lakes off-trail.
Evolution Loop: In order to lower the FKT on this 55 mile horseshoe loop, it looks I’m going to have to curtail my photography substantially from the 300+ photos I took last time. Last time I did the horseshoe loop from north to south, but I’m wondering if south to north is actually faster. The argument for south to north is that most of the steep climbing is completed earlier rather than later, which may work better for me as I’ll be able to attack the long and at times steep climb out Pate Valley to Muir Pass early in the route. Despite it being a long uphill slog from the JMT junction to Piute Pass, it’s fairly gradual and I think most of it is runnable for me if I’m feeling good at that point in the run, whereas the climb from Pate Valley to Bishop Pass is too steep for any running late in the run. I also like the idea of running down through Evolution Basin and Valley. Finally, the South Lake trailhead is also marginally higher by about 500 feet. I guess I’ll have to find out if south to north is faster!
Volcanic Ridge: Easily the best view of the Minarets and another candidate for an overnight bivy to view sunrise and early morning light. Access via Devils Postpile and fantastic scenery including Minaret Lake, Cecile Lake, and Iceberg Lake.
Rodgers Peak: Accessed via Silver Lake, this is a fairly remote major peak in the region and looks awesome from many of the surrounding mountains, therefore spurring interest.
Northern Yosemite 50:Classic loop route all on trails from Twin Lakes, including the Benson Lake riviera, a close view of Matterhorn Peak and Sawtooth Ridge, glacially sculpted Matterhorn Canyon, and the lovely Peeler Lake and Smedberg Lake. I first ran this route in 2011, documented here. The complete loop is close to 50 miles, although a short cut via Ice Lakes Pass (off-trail) would shave off some miles and elevation gain to Mule Pass.
Stubblefield Canyon and Stubblefield Lake: Remote spot in Northern Yosemite for some fun explorations.
Cherry Canyon and Boundary Lake: In Emigrant Wilderness, this area is characterized by smooth granite and clear lakes. A good route for earlier in the season when snow covers higher terrain.
Desolation Seven Summits:The same trip as last year, with the exception of taking the trail to Gilmore Lake from Dick’s Pass (instead of the off-trail segment on the ridge) and including Mount Ralston on the way out. With proper hydration and route knowledge I imagine this loop can be done in under 10 hours without too much trouble.
The focus of the recent north coast trip was the redwood parks in far northwest California, but it was hard to resist visiting a couple famous redwood groves in Humboldt Redwoods State Park on the way back to the Bay. The groves we visited included the Rockefeller Forest, and perhaps one of the most famous and visited redwood groves in existence, the Founders Grove. The two groves are quite different in character with the Rockefeller Forest a bit darker, both in terms of overall light and the darker reddish tone of the bark on the redwood trunks. A high overcast layer provided filtered sunshine that made for decent photography.
Humboldt Redwoods State Park in general is a fantastic location for trail running objectives. The park encompasses over 53,000 acres, and 17,000 acres of those acres are pristine old growth redwood forest. There are over 100 miles of trails to explore passing through various habitats. For flatter trail runs, the Bull Creek Trail (both south and north), Big Tree Trail, Homestead Trail and the River Trail are great options. You can literally run near the banks of Bull Creek or the South Fork of the Eel River for dozens of miles, all under old growth redwoods. Note that accessibility to the River Trail and South Bull Creek Trail is very limited in the winter and spring months when seasonal bridges across Bull Creek are removed. For some vertical, the Peavine Ridge-Thornton-Look Prairie Loop is a great option with varied terrain and foliage as the forest shifts from redwood to primarily douglas fir woodland. The Johnson Camp Trail and Grasshopper Trail provide access to the summit of 3,379 foot Grasshopper Peak with panoramic views of the Humboldt basin. As to be expected, the redwoods are primarily in the lower lying areas near the rivers and streams so any trails with substantial ascent will transition to a non-redwood forest. I look forward to returning to Humboldt Redwoods and exploring more of its awesome trails.
Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park is the northernmost of the primary redwood parks. Located just outside Crescent City, it is relatively undeveloped and contains a fraction of the trail mileage of Prairie Creek or Humboldt. However, what it lacks in trail infrastructure is outweighed by arguably the most scenic display of old growth redwoods in existence making it well worth a visit. Considered by many to be among the best old growth hikes, the Boy Scout Tree Trail was our destination for a run. As an out-and-back ending at a fern waterfall that is nice but not extraordinary, the value in this run was not the destination, but the process of getting there.
The trailhead for the Boy Scout Tree Trail head is midway along Howland Hill Road, which is a spectacular drive along a narrow dirt road lined with giant redwoods the entire way. Once on the trail, the impressive redwoods keep coming. The understory is almost exclusively low lying ferns providing unusually good visibility through the forest and the layers of giant trees are reminiscent of pillars in a cathedral. I tried to capture the setting as best as I could with a camera, but the sheer size and grandeur of these trees is impossible to truly comprehend without visiting in person. All told, the round trip for the Boy Scout Tree Trail is only about 5.3 miles, but several miles of extensions can be peiced together along the Mill Creek Trail, Hiouchi Trail, and Hatton Trail, most of which is under old growth redwood forest. I look forward to running these trails next time!
After enjoying the Boy Scout Tree Trail, we continued down Howland Hill Road to the beautiful Stout Grove, where we toured more awesome redwoods. Back at Crescent City, we made a few side trips to the coast, including the photogenic Battery Point Lighthouse and the scenic beach at False Klamath Cove. On the way back south, we merely passed through Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park. So much to see, so little time. I’ll definitely be returning to Del Norte to explore the Damnation Creek Trail and other sections of the rugged Coastal Trail that I did not have time to visit on this occasion.
Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is simply amazing. Miles of ancient old growth redwoods, Roosevelt elk grazing in meadows, and unfettered sandy beaches create a primeval setting. Nowhere else can one find such an extensive and continuous stand of old growth redwoods in pristine condition. This park offers a glimpse of what the entire north coast of California once looked like before logging. I’m glad conservationists existed in an era of extraction and destruction with the foresight and wherewithal to set aside such a glorious forest from ax and saw. Perhaps the most unique aspect of this park is a fern canyon with seven types of ferns draped over 50 foot walls creating a lush hanging garden. With 75 miles of trails to explore, Prairie Creek is a paradise for trail runners. The trails range from well groomed paths such as the Prairie Creek Trail and James Irvine Trail, to very technical and arduous single track including the Rhododendron Trail and West Ridge Trail. What all of the trails share is spectacular scenery, most of which is under towering old growth redwoods with a remarkably lush understory. I found it interesting that the Sequoia sempervirens along the far north coast appear to have a grayish bark versus the reddish brown bark common among the subspecies further south.
During our visit to the north coast, I was able to do three runs through the park and in the process I covered a good chunk of the trail network, which is split fairly evenly by the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway that runs the length of the park from south to north along Prairie Creek. Perhaps the best loop in the park, and arguably the best redwood hike in the world, is the Miner’s Ridge and James Irvine Loop, which passes through all facets of the park – prairies, old growth redwoods, beach, and the fern canyon. The loop is about 12 miles long and it’s a very runnable and enjoyable trail run (route on Strava) with under 1,700 ft of elevation gain, no steep climbs, and relatively non-technical compared to many of the other narrow and root-strewn trails in the park. Just before leaving the coastal area to enter fern canyon, we spotted a group of elk grazing on the prairie with ideal afternoon lighting. Fern Canyon is simply awesome and we were lucky to have the canyon all to ourselves. I look forward to returning in late spring when the ferns in the canyon are at their peak of green vibrancy.
The second run I did was around a 20 mile loop and included some of the trails on the eastern side of the parkway (route on Strava). Foothill Trail and Brown Creek Trail were both moderate while Rhodedendron Trail was challenging with narrow, technical single track and steep climbs. Next time I would like to run the entire length of the Rhododendron Trail, hopefully coinciding with peak Rhody blossoms. Crossing over the parkway to the westside, I ascended up to the West Ridge Trail and then down to the coast for a nice run along the coastal prairie with more elk sightings and two surprise waterfalls tumbling off the coastal bluffs in a very lush setting of moss and ferns. I finished the loop with another walk through fern canyon (this time with different lighting) and then the awesome James Irvine Trail back to the campground area in Elk Meadow. The third and final run in Prairie Creek included a run up and along West Ridge with a return via Prairie Creek (route on Strava). The West Ridge trail is technical and will keep your focus down on the trail instead of up at the redwoods, but nonetheless an amazing tour along the ridge and super fun for technical single track aficionados. The upper part of the Prairie Creek trail is more singletrack before opening up onto an improved gravel trail for the final couple miles back to the park headquarters. As a big fan of redwoods, it was a real treat to spend a couple days in Prairie Creek and I look forward to returning here for further explorations!