Big Sur Adventure Running

The Big Sur region is an adventure running playground. The Ventana Wilderness, Silver Peak Wilderness and a handful of state parks form a network of protected public land over the northern half of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range that is one of the greatest coastal wilderness regions anywhere. The steep degree of relief from the ocean to the mountaintops is unmatched in the contiguous United States providing dramatic vistas throughout the coast. Perhaps one of the most magical Big Sur experiences is a clear day when the ridgetop views include a backdrop of the deep blue Pacific Ocean transitioning to turquoise near the coastline. However, a foggy day along the coast can be equally fascinating as the marine layer interacts with the terrain. In the interior of the wilderness, deep, shady canyons slice through the Santa Lucia Mountains and are filled with ancient redwoods, waterfalls, gorges and mystique. The higher reaches of the wilderness are characterized by rugged, rocky summits with rare groves of the stately Santa Lucia Fir, endemic to these mountains and one of my favorite tree species. Iconic spots like Bixby Bridge and McWay Falls draw millions of visitors to the Big Sur Coast, but with the exception of Sykes Hot Springs, a minuscule fraction travel far from the highway leaving a vast wilderness where solitude, intrigue, and a substantial amount of brush can be found.

Adventuring in Big Sur and the Ventana Wilderness is certainly possible in the summer months if travel is restricted to the immediate coast and the cool canyons, but the higher terrain can be extremely hot resulting in copious sweat, biting black flies, and active rattlesnakes. Therefore, the ideal time for exploration is from late fall through late spring when the air temperature is cooler, bugs are minimal, and the snakes are dormant. Furthermore, the winter months can provide a special treat when the occasional storm drops several inches of snow on the summits providing a unique experience of coastal views combined with snow. These same storms bring downpours to the lower elevations, enlivening the vegetation and numerous waterfalls. I have done several adventures in Big Sur over the years, but it took until last winter for me to become captivated by the phenomenal beauty of this region and gain a desire to explore the land in-depth. The result has been a bevy of awesome explorations and much inspiration for future adventures. This post compiles all of my Big Sur outings separated by sub-region categories that I came up with that made sense to me, generally organized from north to south. Most of the trips link to a dedicated blog post with many photos and a description of the adventure, but some only link to photo albums. This post also includes an array of some of my favorite photos from the region. The best resource to use when planning your adventure is Big Sur Trail Map, which includes wilderness trail conditions, donwloadable topographic trail maps and a route metrics generator. The Ventana Wliderness Aliance Forum also includes trip reports where the most recent conditions can be found. Feel free to ask me for any additional tips or information.  As there is still a lot for me to explore in Big Sur I will continue to update this post. 

North Big Sur Coast:

North Interior Ventana:

  • Carmel River (October 2009)
  • Other: Church Creek, Miller Canyon, Arroyo Seco

Cabezo-Molera, Coast to Ridge:

Little Sur featuring Pico Blanco, Prince of the Ventana:  

Ventana Double Cone, Queen of the Ventana:  

Big Sur River, Wild & Scenic:

Coast Ridge including Marble Peak and Mining Ridge:

Memorial Park featuring Junipero Serra Peak – Grandfather of the Ventana: 

Central Big Sur Coast, Big Views:

Cone Peak, King of Big Sur:

South Coast – Pacific Valley:

South Coast – Silver Peak Wilderness featuring Silver Peak, Princess of Big Sur:

Après-Adventure: 

  • Point Lobos: Located at the northern end of the Big Sur Coast, Point Lobos State Reserve is very popular, especially on sunny weekends. The park features numerous rocky promontories, picturesque coves and a pretty Monterey pine forest. There are many trails in the reserve that are good for a shorter run or a post-adventure stroll.
  • Bixby Bridge: An essential photograph spot for tourists, this famous historic bridge is indeed very photogenic
  • Soberanes Point: Rugged scenery at Garrapata State Park
  • Point Sur: Historic site
  • Pfieffer Beach – purple sand from manganese garnet deposits
  • McWay Falls: Iconic Big Sur location and another must-photo location for tourists, located just off Hwy 1 at Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park
  • Pacific Valley Bluff: Spectacular sea stacks with Cone Peak & Stone Ridge as a backdrop.
  • Sand Dollar Beach: Largest beach in Big Sur with beautiful sand and scenery

Stone Ridge Descent

On the last post, I mentioned (many) more Stone Ridge photos were coming so here they are! Despite this being my fifth time travelling the ridge, the views were just as inspiring. Stone Ridge is a spot I could return over and over again; a truly magical place! These photos were taken after an FKT run up Cone Peak via Kirk Creek and Vicente Flat (1h50m). While I have climbed Cone Peak over a dozen times by various routes, I have never really done it for speed, so I figure there is room for some personal improvement. Obviously a race-like effort by talented mountain runners could knock down the time more substantially. Nonetheless, it’s close to 6,000 feet of elevation gain in just over 11 miles to ascend Cone Peak via Vicente Flat (including a couple steep pitches) so it will always be a challenging run. After traveling through a thick fog layer in the upper reaches of Cone Peak, the views opened up near the summit.  It was awesome to see low clouds riding over the ridge between Cone Peak and Twin Peak. These clouds dissipated as I made my way over Twin Peak producing brilliant sunshine and spectacular clarity on the way down Stone Ridge. The turquoise blue water along the coast juxtaposed with the green grass was fantastic.   I was waffling on whether to carry a camera or not, but very happy I wound up carrying it.  I placed the camera in the water resistant pouch of the Ultimate Direction Jurek Essential, I hardly noticed it!  I chose a cool day for the quick run up the mountain so I only needed the Jurek Essential and the Fastdraw 20 for hydration. Prior Stone Ridge Posts:

Cone Peak via Stone Ridge Direct 2014

What’s the most impressive and prominent grassy ridge in all of Big Sur? The answer, without question, is Stone Ridge. I’ve featured this striking ridge on my blog several times so what haven’t I already said about Stone Ridge? Nothing (see links to prior posts below). That being said, here are a few thoughts and many more photos from one of my favorite spots in Big Sur and the Ventana Wilderness.

Stone Ridge is an awesome place to be any time of the year, but the few weeks during spring when the meadows turn verdant are particularly special.  As Stone Ridge is a south-north oriented ridge, I have learned that the setting photographs best in the afternoon and evening as the coast to south gets better light. This year, Erica and I ascended to Twitchell Flat and lower Stone Ridge, and then took the Stone Ridge Trail and Gamboa Trail around Twin Peak to the summit of Cone Peak. From Cone Peak we traversed to Twin Peak and then descended Stone Ridge from top to bottom during evening light. The advantage of going down Stone Ridge as part of this loop was manifold:  (1) it enabled us to catch evening light on the ridge and still return to the car before dark, (2) by descending you’re looking at the incredible view with each and every step, and (3) it’s easier to descend the steep ridge than ascend it. While I obviously put a lot of thought into when and how do this particular loop, the reality is that Stone Ridge is amazing any time of day, as an ascent, descent, or a destination in itself (I can attest since I have done all of the above). Finally, just in case you haven’t had enough Stone Ridge, I’ve got some more photos from Stone Ridge coming soon.

Prior (and future) Stone Ridge posts:

Prewitt Ridge & South Coast Ridge

Prewitt Ridge is another striking ridge that I visited over the winter and it was nice to return in the spring as flowers were starting to come out and the grass was turning green. As I mentioned in the prior post, Prewitt Ridge takes the award for the most outstanding views along the Big Sur Coast. The route features an unparalleled vantage of the Cone Peak region to the north and Pacific Valley to the south. The easiest way to reach the ridge is to take the Prewitt Loop Trail for around 1 mile up a series of switchbacks to a junction with the Prewitt Ridge use path. This first mile has great views of the sea stacks at Pacific Valley Bluff and is fairly brush-free. The use path starts by ascending in low coastal chaparral with vistas back to Sand Dollar Beach, Jade Cove and down the southern Big Sur coast.  The route emerges from the chaparral onto gorgeous grassy slopes and at a small knoll at around ~1,500 ft Cone Peak reveals itself for the first time. The views continue to improve as the path climbs with another classic vista from a rock outcropping at ~1,800 ft (aka “Prewitt Stonehenge”). At 2,000 ft the route passes by some old sycamores and a spring with a water trough.

The next section is the highlight you’re right on top of a grassy ridge with numerous heritage oaks and views in all directions, including deep into the north and south canyons of Prewitt Creek. Cone Peak, the King of the Big Sur coast, rises imperially above the grassy ridges with no ridge more regal than Stone Ridge, which can be viewed from top to bottom in all its glory. After passing through a small forest section, the final portion becomes steeper once again through grassland and patches of pine trees. The route tops out at ~3,100 ft at a magnificent vista point on the South Coast Ridge Road. In all, it’s a little over 4 miles from Pacific Valley to the top at the South Coast Ridge Road vista (8 miles roundtrip).  On this day I continued beyond the vista for an out-and-back run along the South Coast Ridge Road. Unlike the Coast Ridge Road to the north, which is well-graded, the South Coast Ridge Road is rolling with a fair amount of cumulative elevation gain. The road generally ascends to a junction with Plaskett Ridge Road and afterwards descends to a broad saddle at the headwaters of Willow Creek. I ran to a point just beyond this broad saddle, which had great views looking into the enormous Willow Creek drainage, but you can continue on for several more miles around the shoulder of Alder Peak and beyond to Lion Peak and Three Peaks. The first part of the road from Prewitt Ridge to Plaskett Ridge Road has many pine trees but the road becomes increasingly devoid of trees and exposed to the sun beyond. There is also no easily accessible water along the road so make sure to carry plenty of water. Upon your return to the trailhead, Sand Dollar Beach and Pacific Valley Bluffs are both nearby; excellent spots to spend an afternoon relaxing after the trip up Prewitt Ridge and beyond.  Stay tuned for an additional post in a few weeks with photos of Prewitt Ridge and Boronda Ridge at the height of the lupine bloom, the most prolific display since 1999. GPS route here.  

Cone Peak’s North Ridge & Lost Valley

This was an excellent route linking the spectacular North Ridge of Cone Peak and the remote Lost Valley.  I have been wanting to visit Lost Valley for some time so it was great to finally make it out there and also incorporate the excellent scenery of Cone Peak and South Fork Devils Canyon. We started from Memorial Park campground and went up the Arroyo Seco Trail. There is quite a bit of new downfall from a winter storm in February with one particularly cumbersome tree, but the canyon forest of incense cedar and Santa Lucia Fir was as beautiful as I remembered from the Santa Lucia Three Peaks adventure. Once on the North Coast Ridge, we made good progress to Cone Peak’s amazing north ridge where we left the trail.  The ridge has awesome views in all directions, including the rugged South Fork Devils Canyon and the upper reaches of the San Antonio River. It’s also great to climb amid sugar pines and Santa Lucia Firs. After summiting Cone, we took the Cone Peak Trail back to Trail Springs and then up the Gamboa Trail to complete the small lollipop loop. We then took the North Coast Ridge Trail all the way to the junction with the Rodeo Flats Trail where Erica turned off to head back down to Memorial Park while I continued along the ridge to the Lost Valley Connector Trail. Continued below… The Lost Valley Connector is marked by a stake where the old road bed of the North Coast Ridge Trail emerges onto the firebreak. The first part is single track with some encroaching brush and the next part is on an old firebreak that is quickly narrowing into single track as brush fills in. It is important to carry and study a map for the Lost Valley Connector as I saw a backpacking group heading down a wayward ridge and experiencing difficulties in thick brush. As long as you stay on the route, the trail is in fair condition and an efficient way to get form the coast ridge to Lost Valley. Lost Valley is a beautiful, peaceful spot with grassy meadows, pines, and chaparral covered hillsides. The best meadows are beyond the Lost Valley camp and a crossings of both Lost Valley Creek and Higgins Creek. This stretch of meadows is nearly a mile long and picturesque.  While the meadows are beautiful, it is prime tick territory and I removed a number of them from my socks. After my out-and-back through Lost Valley I returned via the Lost Valley Trail which was recently brushed and cleared by a crew. The trail is in good shape except for a few new downfalls from the February storm. From 1,800 ft in Lost Valley, the trail climbs over 1,000 feet to a pass at ~2,900 ft that provides access back to the main stem Arroyo Seco drainage. Part of the way up to this pass is a pretty waterfall known as Pothole Slide Falls. The waterfall is a series of two slides down a smooth rock face with a pool in between, the “pothole.”  Beyond the pass is a steep descent to the Arroyo Seco River. After crossing the river an 500+ ft vertical ascent leads to Escondido Camp where the trail concludes. From Escondido Camp it was a run along the Indian Rd. dirt track back to Memorial Camp. Stava route here, but note that actual mileage is 33+ miles.

 

An Evening on Stone Ridge

An ascent of Cone Peak via Stone Ridge Direct is a tremendous route and worthy of the title “Sea to Sky.” Stone Ridge is easily the most impressive and prominent ridge along the entire Big Sur Coast. While there are a bevy of tremendous grassy ridges near the ocean that I have explored (Boronda, Prewitt, Shouey, East Molera, Kirk Creek, Mount Mars to name a few), each with its own charm and inspiration, none compare to Stone Ridge in terms of height (4,800 ft), length (4 miles) and sheer topography in all directions. In 5.25 miles, one can go from the Pacific Ocean to the 5,155 ft summit of Cone Peak, the King of the Big Sur Coast.  Suffice it to say, Stone Ridge is one-of-a-kind.  

The Stone Ridge Sea to Sky route is extremely aesthetic remaining on the ridge crest virtually the entire way and features outstanding and uninterrupted scenery with a panorama that broadens with each ascending step. Fortunately, the non-stop views distract from the difficult nature of the steep use path. A section between 2,600 ft and 4,000 ft is particularly steep and relentless, a section I like to call “The Escalator” since there are tiny flat spots between the steep flights. This route features amazing diversity of ecosystems including redwoods, expansive grassland, oak woodland, chaparral, Coulter Pines and a rare forest of Santa Lucia Fir and Sugar Pine on the north side of Twin Peak and Cone Peak in the South Fork Devils Canyon.  For my third time up Stone Ridge, I decided to visit in the afternoon to capture evening light after doing the Shouey-Plaskett loop in the morning.

A picture is worth a thousand words and the only thing better is more pictures so this post contains around a hundred photos from the evening trip up Stone Ridge. Despite taking over 500 shots (from which I made this selection), I still managed to reach Cone Peak less than 2h10m after starting and I was back at the car before dusk for a roundtrip of 4h18m. I would be interested to see what I could do on this route sometime if I took speed seriously (i.e. left the camera in the car). Despite being half the distance of the all-trail Kirk Creek-Vicente Flat route, times appear fairly similar. I suspect a dialed-in Stone Ridge attempt would ultimately be faster. Regardless of speed, Stone Ridge Direct is definitely a route I look forward to doing many times in the future with hundreds more photos. Hopefully I’ll also be on the route when the mythical winter snow event turns Stone Ridge to a striking white. Strava GPS route here.  

Shouey-Plaskett Loop

The Shouey-Plaskett Loop is one of the best short loops (<15 miles) on the Big Sur Coast with excellent variety including a lush redwood forest, expansive coastal vistas, picturesque grassy ridges, and oceanside views of rugged beaches and sea stacks. In fact, I enjoyed this loop so much that I returned here a couple weeks later with Erica (stay tuned for photos from that outing). The loop originates in Pacific Valley, one of my favorite spots on the coast, and comes in around 12 miles with nearly 4,000 feet of gain.

The route starts at the South Prewitt Trailhead behind the Pacific Valley Fire Station. The South Prewitt begins with some climbing on an old road and less than a mile up the trail, the Prewitt Loop veers to the left while the Willett Trail (here an old road) continues straight. The Willett Trail (aka Mansfield Ravine Trail) soon narrows into single track and switchbacks up a steep hillside amid a lush setting of redwoods with sustained elevation gain. There is some encroaching poison oak and brush in spots, but otherwise the trail is in good condition. At ~1,800 feet it is best to leave the trail and ascend a spur of Shouey Ridge. This is open forest at first and after a few minutes of climbing you pop out into grassland with marvelous views of Pacific Valley below. Continuing up the spur ridge, the views open up further, including the familiar craggy face of Cone Peak, the King of the Big Sur Coast. The spur ridge joins Shouey Ridge proper at ~2,200 ft, where a more defined use path can be found heading uphill along Shouey Ridge.Before heading up the ridge, I recommend first going down to a spectacular vista at 1,700 ft. The trail peters out on this lower portion of the ridge, but travel is easy through the grassy meadows.  The vista at 1,700 ft is perched over Pacific Valley with a breathtaking panorama from Cape San Martin all the way to Lopez Point, including Sand Dollar Beach, Pacific Valley Bluffs, Limekiln, Stone Ridge, Prewitt Ridge, Cone Peak and Twin Peak.

Heading back up Shouey Ridge, the amazing views never abate on the exposed ridge crest. There are some particularly photogenic Coulter and Ponderosa pines lining the ridge. After a short steeper section between 2,400-2,800 ft, the use path begins to traverse the hillside at ~2,800 ft below private property with excellent views of Plaskett Creek canyon. The use path ends at Plaskett Ridge Road, which seems to only be used by the two residents who live up there. Head downhill along the road and find more amazing views along the way; one of the prettiest roads I have ever been on! There are numerous side paths along the road that can be taken to viewpoints. Of particular interest is a series of paths that head down a spur of Plaskett Ridge to a great view of the Willow Creek drainage (we explored this area two weeks later). After a bend in the road at 2,400 feet, take another use path that follows the spine of lower Plaskett Ridge. This use path provides more stellar views before entering a pine forest and ultimately popping out on Plaskett Ridge Road for the last 1.5 miles back to Hwy 1. The views keep coming with excellent views to Sand Dollar Beach on the run down the dirt road. After a couple hundred meters on the highway, enter the Sand Dollar recreation area. A short diversion down a staircase leads to the beautiful Sand Dollar Beach (surfing, swimming, beach walking), otherwise a use trail heads north along Pacific Valley Bluffs. Exploration abounds as there are numerous interesting rock formations and beaches tucked into the seascape. Find an inspirational spot and enjoy the beautiful setting before heading back to the parking area at the Pacific Valley Fire Station. Strava GPS route here