The Big Sur coast is a national treasure. Mountains rise from the oceanside to heights of over 5,000 feet within a matter of miles creating a rugged seascape that inspires with spectacular beaches, picturesque rock formations, and paradisaical turquoise water on sunny afternoons. The diversity on land is truly remarkable ranging from lush redwood-filled canyons and coastal oak woodlands to grassy meadows and chaparral. Sometimes the contrast in foliage can be found within a few foot proximity. The day after the Stone Ridge climb to Cone Peak, we toured some favorite spots along the coast:
Cone Peak via Stone Ridge Direct is a tremendous off-trail hike and worthy of the title “Sea to Sky.” Stone Ridge is arguably the most prominent ridge in all of the Big Sur coast rising nearly 5,000 ft from the Pacific Ocean at Limekiln canyon to the summit of Twin Peak. It’s an extremely aesthetic route remaining on the ridge crest virtually the entire route and featuring outstanding and uninterrupted scenery with a panorama that broadens with each step. Total mileage from the Pacific Ocean to the summit of Cone Peak at 5,155 ft is only 7 miles via this route, but entails over 6,000 ft of gain (route on Strava). Fortunately, the non-stop views from the ocean at Limekiln Beach to the summit of Cone Peak distract from the difficult nature of this cross-country route. This route features amazing diversity of ecosystems including redwoods, grassland, oak woodland, chaparral, Coulter Pines and a rare forest of Santa Lucia Fir and Sugar Pine on the north side of Cone Peak. Wildflowers were out in force with fields of lupine and California poppy. This is a route I look forward to doing many times in the future, and especially after a winter snow event when I imagine Stone Ridge becomes even more striking.
The route begins with a touch of the ocean at Limekiln Beach. A short walk along Hwy 1 brought us to the start of the route on an old road which has become an overgrown single track trail. The path gradually ascends and enters Limekiln canyon, passing through a redwood grove with a marvelous carpet of redwood sorrel. Evidence of the 2008 fires remains on the trunks, but the forest has largely regenerated. Beyond the cool and lush redwoods, the track ascends into the chaparral with the foot of Stone Ridge coming into view. The first climbs pass through steep meadows up to a crossing of the Stone Ridge Trail, which travels perpendicular to the ridge crest. From this point, the remainder of the route up the ridge and over from Twin Peak to Cone Peak was fully in view. This section along the grassy ridge was spectacular with some very steep and sometimes loose “steps.” Ultimately, the meadows ended and we entered into a brushy section for the last push up Twin Peak. This portion also contained a rare and unique pine species, the Coulter Pine, which produces the largest pine cones in the world that can weigh up to 10 pounds. After a quick stop on Twin Peak, we headed down the ridgeline connecting Twin Peak and Cone Peak. The easiest way to connect Twin Peak to Cone Peak is to follow the crest of the ridge between the summits beyond the low point between the peaks and then up the ridge towards Cone Peak. Just before the spine of the ridge becomes cliffy, take a steep and open dirt slope on the north side of the ridge down a hundred feet or so to the Gamboa Trail. While the trail is close to the ridge further back, there are lots of down trees and festering poison oak worth avoiding. We ascended the final half mile up to Cone Peak’s summit via the Gamboa and Cone Peak Trails and enjoyed the 360 degree panorama from the top. We descended via the Gamboa Trail and Stone Ridge Trail to the lower portion of the Stone Ridge route. The Gamboa Trail and Stone Ridge Trail are in relatively good shape with trail work actively occurring on the Gamboa Trail. The Gamboa Trail contains a fascinating forest of Santa Lucia Firs and Sugar Pines. The Santa Lucia Fir is the rarest fir in the United States, endemic only to mountaintops of the Santa Lucia Mountains. The firs have a distinctive conical shape and deep green color. While not rare, the Sugar Pine contains the longest pine cone of any pine tree, sometimes over a foot long! It’s amazing to find the largest pine cones (Coulter Pines) and the longest pine cones (Sugar Pines) within close proximity high on the mountain slopes of Cones Peak. Unlike most of my posts, the following photos are in chronological order.
Rocky Ridge is located in Garrapata State Park on the northern end of the Big Sur Coastline. The terrain of the park is characterized by a rugged and rocky coastline with steep mountain slopes rising to over 2,000 ft. The vegetation is predominantly chaparral and coastal scrub with the exception of a pocket of redwoods at the bottom of Soberanes Canyon and some grassy meadows on top of Rocky Ridge to Doud Peak. The aforesaid meadows come to life in the spring with a palette of beautiful wildflowers. Owing to its close proximity to Monterey and Carmel, the Rocky Ridge hike is very popular, especially on weekends. Two routes lead to the ridge crest allowing for a logical loop, but both are quite steep with some loose sections. The grade is so steep in spots that it’s more efficient to power hike than run. The trail heading up to the ridge from Soberanes Canyon is technically closed, although it seems as if people ignore the signs en masse. However, the more scenic route in my opinion is the sanctioned route that follows the ridge from its base and provides continuous sweeping views of the coastline below. Near the top of the ridge there are several rock outcroppings with excellent views to soak in. Once on top of Rocky Ridge, virtually all hikers either turnaround or complete the loop, but few continue on a faint path to Doud Peak. This stretch of trail is particularly pleasant with little elevation gain and wonderful meadows. The panoramic views from Doud Peak are also excellent and look into a redwood canyon and beautiful hillsides along the Malpaso Creek canyon. One can continue beyond Doud Peak on yet fainter paths to the park border where more colorful meadows and great views are found along the way. See my hike route for the day on Strava.
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!
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!