Big Sur to Bottcher’s Gap via Ventana Double Cone

While it’s now June and most likely the days of comfortable travel in the interior Ventana Wilderness have passed until fall (most summer days are oppressively hot with copious flies), this post recaps an awesome point-to-point adventure with David Frank back in early May from Pfieffer Big Sur to Bottcher’s Gap via Ventana Double Cone. From 6 miles of wading through a lush canyon to classic Ventana bushwhaking to precarious scrambling, this was quite the adventure!  The route started at Big Sur Station. After some trail miles on the Pine Ridge Trail we descended to Ventana Camp. Shortly thereafter, an amazing creek walk began in Ventana Creek up narrow gorges with small waterfalls and rapids in a setting of lush redwoods, ferns and moss. The creek wading is not optional; the walls of the canyon come right down to the water course and this is not an advisable place to be in higher volume creek flow.  It was fairly slow going wading in the creek with innumerable step overs, log jams, pools, waterfalls and other obstacles to climb through, up and under, but I enjoyed every minute in this mystical and captivating canyon. Walking up Ventana Creek the sense of remoteness is strong as few have traveled up this unspoiled waterway.  At one point the forest canopy parted and we caught a glimpse of Ventana Double Cone, the Queen of the Ventana, presiding over a rugged region that is unmatched in the coastal mountain ranges of the west coast of the United States. After several miles of walking and wading in Ventana Creek, we turned off onto the East Fork of Ventana Creek where dense vegetation closed in creating a claustrophobic situation at times. After 6 miles of total creek wading, the creek bed dried out and travel became easier over talus, but not without copious poison oak and the usual chaparral vegetation of the interior Ventana. After some time in the dry creekbed, we ascended steep slopes into the extremely remote south cirque of Ventana Double Cone and then scrambled rock to the south arete. This area is wild with a sheer ruggedness that is more customary of the Sierra Nevada.

Everything was going well for this part of the scramble, but things quickly turned serious as the rock became steeper and dangerously loose as we approached the south arete. The final part to gain the south arete and then traversing the first part along the spine of the ridge involved some very loose rock; not just small rocks but entire blocks were deeply fractured and ready to tumble upon a touch. We quickly discovered that the south face of Ventana Double Cone is incredibly crumbly and no step or hold can be taken for granted. We took pause of the potentially dangerous situation that lay ahead where we would have to commit to climbing extremely loose rock on steep terrain with considerable exposure over cliffs. Ultimately, we decided to forgo these risks, a decision that was aided by the fact that a fortuitous talus gully allowed us to drop off the arete and traverse over to the easy east ridge without much delay. The improvised alternative route was brushy, but we did not have to backtrack on the route and we gained the summit of Ventana Double Cone safely, therefore enabling us to continue our point to point to Bottcher’s Gap. The summit views were marvelous as usual and it was a treat to explore the wild upper reaches of the East Fork Ventana Creek.  An added surprise was the marvelous wildflower meadows on the way to Bottcher’s Gap near Big Pines and Devils Peak. There were literally millions of lupine and poppy carpeting the hillsides; a spectacular patchwork of color! We arrived at Bottcher’s Gap just under 12 hours after starting; another amazing adventure in the Ventana! Looking back at this adventure, the most endearing part was the creek walk up the mystical and wild canyon of Ventana Creek. I look forward to returning there for a point to point to Bottchers Gap, except via the Drain, which I feel is the premier route up Ventana Double Cone for both scenery and aesthetics. The following photographs are in chronological order as the day adventure unfolded. GPS route here.

Pico-Little Sur Loop

If Cone Peak is the King of the Big Sur Coast and Ventana Double Cone is the Queen of the Ventana Wilderness, then Pico Blanco is the Prince of the Little Sur. The mountain rises steeply between deep, redwood filled canyons which contain the two major forks of the Little Sur River. Pico assumes a regal position above East Molera Ridge and its coastal plain with phenomenal views of the entire Little Sur drainage and the rugged ridge from Kandlbinder to Ventana Double Cone. While Pico Blanco has relatively modest altitude at 3,709 ft, its unmistakable cone shape visible from most Ventana highpoints and along Hwy 1, along with its blazing white shield of limestone that covers its entire south face, gives the mountain gravitas and significance. It’s no wonder this peak was sacred to the Essalen Native American people who lived in this region. A service road reaches high on Pico Blanco’s slopes but a much more interesting and rewarding route is a scramble of the north ridge accessed via Bottchers Gap, the trailhead for many excellent adventures. Folded into this aesthetic loop is the beautiful Pico Blanco Camp Falls on the South Fork Little Sur River. 

From Bottchers Gap run down the dirt road to the Pico Blanco Scout Camp and then take the Little Sur Trial to a pass between the South Fork Little Sur River and the Little Sur River (this pass is also a low point on Launtz Ridge). From this pass, head cross country WNW through beautiful oak and madrone forest staying on the ridge crest. Eventually the ridge crest opens up into a face with some brush amid white limestone rocks which leads to the north ridge. Once on the north ridge, peer into the chiseled, redwood filled canyon of the Little Sur River. Look ahead to the north ridge route with white limestone cliffs and forested Dani Ridge in the distance . From here, it is easiest to initially stay on the south side of the crest of the north ridge to avoid brushy sections. However, make sure to regain the crest for the second half of the north ridge for some enjoyable scrambling on sticky white limestone. The scrambling is never difficult with little exposure, but the impressive relief on both sides and the outstanding views in all directions make this a highly enjoyable scramble. In fact, it’s so good that you’ll wish it kept going for much longer!

At the summit, some equipment was recently removed which enhances the view as it is now unobstructed (this equipment, including a weather station, were moved about 400 feet down the mountain at the end of the service road). From the summit enjoy the excellent views of Point Sur, East Molera Ridge and coastal plain, Post Summit, Kandlbinder, Ventana Double Cone and the entire Little Sur River drainage. Perhaps the most impressive view looks northwest down Dani Ridge which separates the deep, redwood-filled canyons of the South Fork Little Sur River and the (main stem) Little Sur River.  On the south side of the mountain, the service road comes within a few hundred vertical feet of the Little Sur Trail. A short and easy cross country section connects to the Little Sur Trail which can be taken to lovely Pico Blanco Camp Falls. The falls is set in amid old growth redwoods, a lush carpet of redwood sorrel, five finger ferns and smooth river rocks. The pool beneath the falls has a turquoise color and would make for an excellent swimming destination on a warm summer afternoon. Beyond the falls, take the Little Sur Trail back to the Pico Blanco Scout Camp (with an intermediary climb up to the pass between Little Sur forks) and then ascend the dirt road back to Bottchers Gap.  Future aspirations in this region include a grand point-to-point from Bottchers Gap all the way to Pfiefffer Big Sur State Park including Pico Blanco, East Molera Ridge, Post Summit, Cabezo Prieto and Mount Manuel. Strava route here

Little Sur Circular Pools

The trek to the Circular Pools entails an adventure up the wild and trail-less Little Sur River to an otherworldly scene of clear pools, delicate waterfalls, and precipitous cliffs deep in a lush, redwood filled canyon. The most straightforward access to the pools begins from Bottcher’s Gap (notice a lot of excellent terrain for adventures begin at this trailhead) where it’s 3.5 miles downhill on the dirt road to the Pico Blanco Boy Scout Camp. Just beyond the Scout Camp, the Jackson Camp Trail continues 1.5 miles to Jackson Camp. The Jackson Camp Trail is in good shape and generally traverses on the slopes a couple hundred vertical feet above the Little Sur River. The trail passes through a shallow gully with a stream that is particularly lush with a carpet of redwood sorrel and a nice grove of redwoods.   The Jackson Camp Trail reaches False Jackson Camp where the first crossing of many Little Sur River crossings is located. The real Jackson Camp is only one more river crossing away (0.2 miles), but from Jackson Camp to Fox Usecamp there are numerous more crossings of the Little Sur River (a total of 12 by one count). These crossings can be rock hops in low flow or thigh deep crossings after heavy rains. In general, it does not seem prudent to travel along the Little Sur River in rainy period. The official trail ends at Jackson Camp, but the use path to Fox Camp 1.3 miles upsteam is fairly easy to follow with the numerous river crossings either obvious or marked with orange tape. This section features some truly immense redwoods that a treat to pass underneath. These colossal trees have thrived deep in this canyon for centuries and the forest looks healthy considering the fire that roared through these mountains in 2008.

Beyond Fox camp, the use path becomes more faint as it seems less people venture further upsteam. However, the general idea is the same: follow the river upstream and the use path virtually always coincides with the path of least resistance. The scenery is spectacular the entire way with smooth white river rocks littering the stream bed and alders, bay trees, and redwoods alongside the river. Soon after Fox camp, the canyon narrows considerably with precipitous cliffs closing in on the waterway. Usually the cliffs are only on one side of the river allowing fairly easy access on the opposite side, but in one section the Little Sur enters a small gorge with steep rock walls on both sides. After this narrow portion, the canyon opens a bit before narrowing once again just before reaching the primary Circular Pool. At first only the sound of a waterfall can be heard, but as you round a bend around some rocks a paradisaical scene presents itself with a large, nearly-circular pool virtually completely surrounded by cliffs. This rock amphitheater contains an assortment of lush hanging vegetation including five finger ferns and moss. The first circular pool and waterfall is the most impressive, but more adventure lies upstream. A few feet downstream of the main pool a weakness in the cliffs on the north side of the Circular Pool allows for passage upsateam. The next section of the Little Sur River features a series of small pools and cascades culminating in the second circular pool, which is significantly smaller, both in size of the pool and the waterfall plunging into it. This pool does not have an easy walk-around and a small rock step must be surmounted to proceed. A nylon rope aids in this climbing which is particularly helpful as the rock is slick, especially when downclimbing. After the second pool there is a sweet area of rock formations known as the bathtubs. Beyond the bathtubs there is apparently a third circular pool and one of the most remote camps in the Ventana Wilderness (the North Fork Camp) located at the confluence of Puerto Suello Creek and the Little Sur River. On this day, I did not have time for additional exploration beyond the bathtubs so I look forward to returning soon to reach the remote upper reaches of the Little Sur River near North Fork Camp.  I’m also excited to see the Little Sur River in the spring when the lushness of the environs will be at its maximum and a swim in the Circular Pools will refreshing as opposed to frigid! Stava route here