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

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

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

Ventana Double Cone

If Cone Peak is the King of the Big Sur Coast, Ventana Double Cone is the Queen of the Ventana Wilderness. Rising 4,853 ft above sea level, no other peak in the Ventana Wilderness possesses such a rugged face as Ventana Double Cone’s west and south aspects. Aptly named, the mountain features twin summits of nearly identical height, but it’s the southern summit that contains an astounding 360 degree view of the surrounding wilderness and Big Sur coastline. The peak serves as the divide for three major drainages in the northern Ventana Wilderess: the Little Sur River, the Big Sur River and the Carmel River. On a clear day, one can look north to Monterey Bay, Santa Cruz, the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Diablo Range. To the south lies the wild and scenic Big Sur River drainage, the Coast Ridge, Junipero Serra Peak and Cone Peak. To the east is Pine Valley, Chews Ridge, Ventana Cone, Pine Ridge, and South Ventana Cone.  Immediately below is the immensely rugged and wild cirque that forms the headwaters of Ventana Creek. Across this impressive cirque and close at hand is La Ventana (aka the Window) and Kandlbinder Peak with Pico Blanco’s unmistakable white apron rising directly above La Ventana notch. Strava route here.

Adding to the allure of Ventana Double Cone is its remote position. The mountain is viewable from the trailhead at Bottcher’s Gap, but it requires nearly 15 miles on trail each direction (nearly 30 miles total) to reach. Moreover, there is quite a bit of undulating up and down en route which means lots of elevation gain can be expected in both directions (nearly 9,000 feet in all).  Finally, the trail (particularly after Little Pines) can become brushy with sharp and scratchy chaparral so it’s advisable to cover the legs as much as possible for a more pleasant experience. While it’s a long way to Ventana Double Cone, the route is immensely scenic the entire distance. Largely following the ridge crest that forms the rim of the Little Sur River drainage, the scenery is spectacular and the forested sections are very pleasant. The first miles are in a madrone and oak forest up Skinner Ridge and then up to Devils Peak, which provides the first panoramic views from the route. From Devils Peak to Pat Springs, there are plenty of gorgeous grassy meadows with spectacular vistas to Pico Blanco, Ventana Double Cone and Kandlbinder Peak. Approaching Pat Springs, the vegetation transitions to ponderosa pine with a magnificent stand of old growth trees near the springs that survived the 2008 Basin Complex Fire. Pat Springs features cool, pure spring waters and it’s a must stop for any traveler continuing beyond to Ventana Double Cone. While there may be water in the springs beyond, none are as easy to access and as reliable as Pat Springs.

Beyond Pat Springs, the trail ascends through ponderosa pine forest to Little Pines and then gradually descends around the west side of Uncle Sam Mountain to Puerto Suello Pass. At this point the trail becomes more brushy with the worst brush located in the miles immediately south of Puerto Suello. Eventually the trail emerges from the brush on the final ridge leading to Ventana Double Cone. As one nears the summit, Coulter pines and Santa Lucia Firs grow strong next to the trail with increasingly broader views into the valleys and canyons below. The culmination of the journey is an amazing summit panorama where one feels like they’re on top of the world, or at least the Ventana! A fire lookout once stood at the summit, but has long been dismantled (I recommend similarly dismantling the ugly lookout atop Cone Peak which only serves to get in the way of the views).  From Ventana Double Cone, it’s hard to not spend a lot of time soaking in the spectacular summit views, staring down into the rugged cirque of Ventana Creek, and admiring the tenacity of the Santa Lucia Firs clinging to the steep and rocky mountainsides. The following photos and route map are from a trip Ventana Double Cone on a clear day in late December, but we have since returned to the region to complete an off-trail traverse from Kandlbinder to La Ventana to Ventana Double Cone, which formed a large loop including the Jackson Creek route and the Ventana Double Cone Trail described above. We have called this route the “La Ventana Loop.”  Stay tuned to this blog for details and many more photos from the La Ventana Loop and other Big Sur adventures!  Strava route here.

For a 360 annotated panorama from the summit of Ventana Double Cone click here or the image below: 

Andrew Molera State Park

Andrew Molera State Park has some fantastic trail running and scnery. In the spring I did a hike up East Molera Ridge to Post Summit. The East Molera Ridge route has spectacular views with a gorgeous display of wildflowers and green grass in the spring. A use path continues beyond Post Summit along Cabezo Prieto to Mount Manuel and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, a loop that I look forward to completing soon.  On this day I explored the trails on the west side of Hwy 1 with Erica where a great loop can be designed including Ridge Trail, Panorama Trail and Bluffs Trail. I did this loop back in 2009 so it’s been awhile. This route has classic Big Sur coastal scenery with steep hillsides plunging into the turquoise waters of the Pacific Ocean including rugged sea stacks and hidden beaches. While there trails are largely in exposed coastal scrub and chaparral, there are sections of beautiful oak woodland even some patches of pretty redwoods.

The run started out foggy along the coast but as we descended the Panorama Trail, the fog retreated from the coast dramatically revealing the amazing coastal scenery.  The trails in Andrew Molera State Park are very runnable and moderate in elevation gain, especially when compared with most other trails in the Big Sur region. On this run we also checked out the Headlands Trail to Point Molera which is an awesome viewpoint including the Pico Blanco towering above. The great view from this promontory was an unexpected surprise which made it all the more sweeter. There was a group of guided horseback riders on the beach across the lagoon that produced a particularly photogenic scene. For history buffs, there is a very old cabin on the way to the Point Molera known as the Cooper Cabin. Strava Route here