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.  

Prewitt Ridge

If Stone Ridge is the most striking, prominent ridge along the Big Sur Coast, and Boronda Ridge is the most elegant, Prewitt Ridge takes the award for the most outstanding views. The route features an unparalleled vantage of the Cone Peak region to the north and Pacific Valley to the south. We started by taking the north end of 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 was 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. At 2,000 ft the route passes by some old sycamores and a spring with a water trough.

The next section is my favorite as 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 coast, rises imperially above the grassy ridges with no ridge more impressive 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 steep 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. On this spectacular winter day there was a group of para gliders and hang gliders taking off from this point. Prewitt Ridge is apparently a legendary spot for para gliding and hang gliding and for good reason with the outrageous scenery and relatively easy access for crews.  It was fun to watch them throughout the hike and we would later see their landing spot at Pacific Valley. After a snack and some exploration at the top, we returned the way we came with plenty more photography and admiration of nature’s beauty. In all, it’s a little over 4 miles from Pacific Valley to the top at the South Coast Ridge Road (8 miles roundtrip).  Sand Dollar Beach and Pacific Valley Bluffs are nearby, both excellent spots to spend an afternoon relaxing after the trip up Prewitt Ridge. It was a magical day on the Big Sur coast with outstanding clarity and deep blue skies to match the azure waters of the Pacific.  The views far exceeded my expectations and I look forward to returning soon.  I have several adventure ideas to link-up various ridges along this southern part of the Big Sur coast so stay tuned!  Strava route here

A 360 panorama from Prewitt Ridge: 

Cone Peak Marathon Loop

California’s spectacular natural landscape ranges from the Pacific coastline to the Sierra crest, each filled with many inspiring destinations and experiences. As the seasons shift into late autumn and winter I gravitate to coastal adventures. This time of year has reliably less fog along the immediate coast and interior locations are comfortably cooler. This is also the time of year when winter rains begin to revitalize the redwood forests.  One of my favorite regions for coastal scenery is the Ventana Wilderness along the Big Sur coastline. The premier destination within this vast wilderness is Cone Peak. Arguably the most aesthetic and complete route on Cone Peak is the “Cone Peak Marathon,” a classic lollipop loop from the ocean to the summit of 5,155 ft Cone Peak and back down via the Gamboa Trail and Stone Ridge Trail. This route thoroughly covers the trail network around Cone Peak and passes through three of the canyons formed by forks of Limekiln Creek. In addition, there are great views down the rugged and wild South Fork Devils Canyon.  The route showcases the wide variety of ecosystems on Cone Peak including coastal scrub, redwood forest, grassy meadows, oak woodland, chaparral, and a unique high elevation forest composed of Santa Lucia Fir and Sugar Pine forest. This is a top notch route in a stellar region! Strava route here.

As of this writing, the Vicente Flat Trail is in excellent condition all the way up to the Cone Peak Road. The route beings with about 1,200 feet of climbing over the first couple miles and then levels off as it rounds a corner into the Hare Canyon. Just before 4 miles from the trailhead, the trail makes a short descent to the bottom of Hare Canyon where the junction with the Stone Ridge Trail is reached after a creek crossing. Shortly after this junction, the Vicente Flat trail gets down to business with the steepest chunk of climbing between miles 5 and 7. Over these two miles, the trail ascends around 1,600 feet. The Vicente Flat trail ends at a gravel road that can be driven from the Nacimiento-Fergusson Road. Turning uphill on the dirt road, the ascent is more gradual than the preceding steep climb out of hare Canyon, but it’s still a bit of a slog. After about a mile on the dirt road, you turn onto the Cone Peak Trail for the final chunk of climbing. The trail first makes a lengthy traverse beneath the summit and then switchbacks up Cone Peak’s South Ridge to a junction with the Summit Trail. The final set of switchbacks on the Summit Trail to the abandoned fire lookout are steeper once again but the spectacular views are a great distraction. The view from the summit is outstanding with a 360 degree panorama including the interior Ventana Wilderness and views for miles up and down the Big Sur coastline.

Back at the junction with the Summit Trail, turn left down the backside of Cone Peak. This section of trail is still called the Cone Peak Trail and passes through a section where trail crews recently cut through enormous Sugar Pine downfall. Descending off the backside of Cone Peak into the South Fork Devils Canyon is a treat with passage through a rare forest of Santa Lucia Fir, the rarest species of fir in the world. These beautiful conical trees are only found in small pockets at high elevations of the Santa Lucia Mountains.  Somewhat counter intuitively, the Santa Lucia Fir is not fire resistant and therefore fares best in areas of fireproof topography (i.e. rocky sheltered locations).  The backside of Cone Peak is a perfect example of this rocky and rugged, fireproof terrain and therefore contains one of the finest Santa Lucia Fir forests in existence. Ultimately, the Cone Peak Trail ends at Trail Spring Camp where it intersects the Gamboa Trail.  From Trail Spring commences a particularly pleasant stretch of single track traverses the hillside below Twin Peak all the way to a small pass along the West Ridge of Twin Peak. It is at this pass that the Gamboa Trail becomes the Strone Ridge Trail and descends into the West Fork of Limekiln Creek canyon. Extensive trail work was completed this year on the Gamboa and Stone Ridge trails removing a lot of brush and downfall. It should be noted that the tread on these trails is narrow and sometimes technical; generally not fast tread or terrain for running but they are runnable. In addition, the descent via the Stone Ridge Trail entails some deceiving climbs, including an ascent up to Stone Ridge and an ascent out of Limekiln Creek. Both of these climbs are not long, but any substantial climbing after the initial climb up Cone Peak can be taxing. All told, there is over 7,000 ft of climbing on this route. Stone Ridge is the most prominent feature in the region and includes an excellent direct route to the summit, the true “Sea to Sky.” A good chunk of the Stone Ridge Direct route is visible from the Stone Ridge Trail as it crosses Stone Ridge at around 2,200 ft and again from the slopes above Limekiln Creek. This winter I hope to visit Cone Peak during a relatively rare winter snow event.  With outstanding scenery, lots of vertical, and engaging trails, I will surely be back for more runs on Cone Peak soon. Strava route here.