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, and Mount Mars, the Duke of the South Coast:

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

Cabezo Molera Loop

The Cabezo Molera Loop is a stunning route and among the finest adventure runs in all of the Big Sur Coast and Ventana Wilderness. The loop includes an aesthetic mixture of excellent views atop a rugged ridgeline followed by excellent coastal vistas and a beautiful beach.  The route comes in around 26 miles with 6,700 ft of elevation gain and some off trail travel makes it a challenging marathon route. While the loop can be done in either direction, the preferred direction is as described, which starts with East Molera Ridge and finishes with the coastal section in Andrew Molera State Park.  This direction optimizes photography which includes morning light on East Molera Ridge, midday light on Ventana Double Cone from Mount Manuel, and afternoon light on the coast at Andrew Molera State Park. The route begins at Andrew Molera State Park and ascends up to East Molera Ridge, one of my favorite grassy ridges in Big Sur. The last time I was on East Molera Ridge it was bursting with wildflowers and vibrant green grass. While the meadows were golden this time, it was still an amazing trip up the ridge and to Post Summit with the white limestone apron of Pico Blanco commanding attention the entire way. Strava route here.

Beyond Post Summit the section of the traverse to Mount Manuel was all new terrain for me and it far exceeded expectations. The route sticks to the ridge crest and therefore provides amazing views down to the South Fork Little Sur River on the east side and down the rugged Juan Higuera Creek canyon on the west side. Ascending up to the high point of Cabezo Prieto, the view of Pico Blanco’s limestone face is as striking as anywhere. There were even some Santa Lucia Firs growing on this cliffy slope that proved particularly photogenic with a backdrop of a low marine layer off the coast. Beyond Cabezo Prieto, we found the use path to Mount Manuel reasonably easy to follow through the brush, ultimately emerging at a series of lovely viewpoints on Mount Manuel with stellar views to Ventana Double Cone, the interior Ventana Wilderness, and the Big Sur Coast. Cabezo Molera Route annotatedCabezo Molera altitude

My favorite viewpoint was from a prominent knoll on the way down from Mount Manuel off slightly off the trail, a viewpoint that I call “Manuel Vista.” This point features a remarkable, unobstructed 360 degree view from Ventana Double Cone to the entire Big Sur River drainage to Point Sur. Contuing the descent off Mount Manuel the trail is in pretty rough shape in spots in the upper elevations but becomes better in the last couple miles into Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Descending to the valley bottom by the Big Sur River suddenly transitioned to a completely different ecosystem with redwoods instead of the parched chaparral slopes on Mount Manuel.  After a break at the State Park near the Big Sur River we continued along a couple miles of road on Hwy 1 to a back entrance into Andrew Molera State Park Trails. This back entrance is a little tricky to find.  Just past the River Inn is a gated bridge across the Big Sur River that contains a window for pedestrian passage. Just after the bridge, turn right onto single track for around 0.3 miles before coming to a junction. To the left is the start of the South Boundary Trail (as of January 2014 the trail sign was on the ground). The path ascends through redwoods and oak woodlands to great views of Pico Blanco, Post Summit, Cabezo Prieto and Mount Manuel. Ascending higher up on the Ridge Trail we reached the a point on Pfieffer Ridge with views into the recent devastation caused by the Pfieffer Fire (Andrew Molera State Park and its trails were not impacted by the fire). From the viewpoint, we headed down Panoramic Trail and then Bluffs Trail to Molera Beach with with some awesome afternoon light on the coast. Finishing along the coast with a cool ocean breeze served as a perfect way to finish a great run and complete the loop. Strava route here