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

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.  

Silver Peak Wilderness Loop

After being inspired and captivated by the awesome scenery of the South Big Sur Coast and Silver Peak Wilderness on the South Coast Adventure, I was eager to return for more exploration in the region, this time for a very aesthetic loop that comes in around 25-26 miles. Aside from repeat visits to the incredible Mount Mars and Buckeye Trail, this loop added a lot of new terrain for me, including upper Villa Creek, Lion Peak, the Three Peaks area and Dutra Flats. If a point-to-point is too cumbersome to arrange (this is, after all, the most remote section of the Big Sur coast), than this loop is the perfect way to hit hit the highlights and see a lot of the terrain in the region. I’ll definitely be returning for further exploration in the South Big Sur region. Strava GPS route here.

The loop starts with switchbacks on the Cruikshank Trail on a south facing chaparral slope that can be hot even in the morning. However, the trail soon rounds a corner and enters the lovely Villa Creek Canyon and begins one of the best sections of single track in all of Big Sur. From top to bottom, the Cruikshank Trail packs an incredible amount of biodiversity in its six miles, including redwoods, various pine species, Douglas fir, Santa Lucia Firs, Sargent’s cypress, various oak species, and madrone. Note that there is also plenty of poison oak alongside the trail in its  upper portion.  The trail also has excellent views to the ocean and a rugged section of Villa Creek canyon with reddish rocks characteristic of this region. About 5.75 miles from the start, the Cruikshank Trail crosses a saddle with a young Sargent’s cypress forest where a spur path heads west to Silver Peak while the main trail heads down to the beautiful Lion Den camp.  This camp has to be one of the best in Big Sur, complete with a spring, ample shade under the pines, and a commanding view overlooking Salmon Creek canyon, Silver Peak and the Pacific Ocean. Beyond Lion Den Camp, the Cruickshank heads uphill a short distance to meet the South Coast Ridge Road. A short ways south along the road is an optional side trip to Lion Peak. While the road comes close to the summit, a small bushwhack is still necessary to reach the top. Most of the unpleasantness can be avoided by leaving the road at a small saddle near the peak and entering a dense thicket. While not entirely devoid of bushwhacking, travel is reasonable and the distance is short so it only takes 10-15 minutes. It is well worth the troubles with an excellent 360 degree panorama from the exposed reddish summit block. The vista includes Cone Peak and Junipero Serra Peak to the north, Silver Peak and Lion Den camp, Three Peaks, the Salmon Creek canyon, and interior views to Burro Mountain.

After Lion Peak, more quick running along South Coast Ridge Road leads to the Three Peaks Trail, which is an old firebreak along the ridge with vegetation that has filled in to make it a single track. Overall, the trail is in fairly good condition and largely brush-free save for a couple spots.  It’s an efficient way to go from the South Coast Ridge Road to the Dutra Flats area. The land is mainly covered in chaparral and exposed to sunlight, but there are some pretty stands of coulter pine and gray pine along the way with nice views back to Lion Peak and terrain to the south. Most of the way to Dutra Flats, the Three Peaks trail crosses a prominent ridge and on the other side are awesome views of the meadows in Dutra Flat and County Line Ridge. Dutra Flat is a peaceful meadow area with heritage oaks and pines. A camp is located at the flats under cypress trees and it appears this area is used for cattle grazing. From Dutra Flat, the Murray Mine Track which leads down to Dutra Creek and then steeply up to County Line Ridge. This is a pretty section with straightforward navigation and nice views of Mount Mars and the surrounding region. 

From County Line ridge, take the Mount Mars use path up and over a couple false summits to the summit of Mount Mars, with nice views of Salmon Creek canyon, Lion Peak and Silver Peak. Descend through the vegetation tunnel on Mount Mars and emerge onto the grassy ridge with an outstanding view down the ridge to the Pacific Ocean and Salmon cone. From Kozy Kove meadows at the bottom of the very steep ridge, take the use path to the Salmon Creek Trail which quickly descends to the trailhead along Hwy 1. The Buckeye trail is a short distance away and climbs steeply at first (can be hot) but becomes more reasonable as it enters oak woodland beyond the junction with the Soda Springs Trail. There is typically water in Soda Spring Creek about halfway to Buckeye Camp.  The Buckeye Trail features marvelous coastal vistas back to Mount Mars and Piedras Blancas, and is one of the best coastal trails in Big Sur.  Buckeye Camp is always a treat with its cool fresh spring water and shady heritage oaks in the meadow. Beyond Buckeye Camp, the Buckeye Trail makes one final climb to Buckeye Vista before entering a pine forest that switchbacks down to upper Cruikshank camp. The final downhill portion along the lower Cruikshank Trail bring  you back to the Cruikshank trailhead. 

South Coast Adventure

The South Big Sur Coast stretches from Pacific Valley to Ragged Point. Due to its remote location 1.5+ hours from Monterey Bay, it is the least visited portion of the Big Sur coast, but it is well worth the extra time. The centerpiece of this region is the Silver Peak Wilderness, established in 1992 and containing 31,555 acres, containing a network of amazing trails including the Cruikshank Trail, the Salmon Creek Trail and the Buckeye Trail. Also included in the wilderness is Mount Mars, which is one of the most spectacular and impressive grassy ridges in all of Big Sur. In fact, the incredibly steep west ridge of Mount Mars rises over 2,600 ft in a little over 1.25 miles as the crow flies from the ocean! The Buckeye Trail is arguably the most scenic coastal trail in all of Big Sur with outstanding vistas and enjoyable technical single track. One of the best ways to enjoy the South Coast is via a point-to-point such as the South Coast Adventure route described here.

The South Coast Adventure route starts at Williams Ranch which is a working cattle ranch at the southern tip of the Big Sur coast near Ragged Point. A steep ascent up the grassy slopes leads up toward Bald Top and County Line Ridge with impressive views to the Piedras Blancas coastal plain. Once on County Line Ridge a dirt ranch road leads along the top of the ridge with excellent vistas of the deep blue Pacific on one side and interior views on the other. The ridge is largely grassy meadows with clumps of heritage oaks. As you move north along the ridge, there are more pine trees, including gray pines, Ponderosa pines, and Coulter pines. At the junction with County Line dirt road, stay on the ridge crest and follow the Mount Mars traverse use path 0.6 miles to the summit of Mount Mars. The first part of the path climbs steeply through pine and oak forest and then chaparral to a pair of sub-summits before making the final climb in low manzanita to Mount Mars. From the summit, take a vegetation tunnel that was cut through the tall chaparral down to the grassy west ridge. The view as you emerge from the vegetation tunnel is simply stunning with Salmon Cone and the deep blue Pacific Ocean 2,500 ft below. On the left is Piedras Blancas with the lighthouse visible on clear days and on the right is the rugged Silver Peak. As you head down the beautiful grassy ridge, it is difficult to keep from gazing at the amazing view, but use caution as the slope is extremely steep with loose rocks.  About two-thirds of the way down is lovely Kozy Kove Meadows, a fairly flat spot that is also the turnoff for the use path that leads down to the Salmon Creek Trail and beautiful Salmon Falls, which is set amid large boulders and bay trees. At the Salmon Creek Trailhead run on Hwy 1 for a couple hundred meters to reach the Buckeye Trailhead. The initial climb on Buckeye Trail is quite steep and exposed so it is often very hot. About 1 mile in, the Soda Springs Trail branches off down to another trailhead along Hwy 1 while the Buckeye Trail commences another climb through chaparral and oak woodland for 2.5 miles to Buckeye Camp and Buckeye Springs. The coastal vistas along this stretch are magnificent. Buckeye Camp is located in a peaceful meadow with a colossal oak tree, some pines, and even a few mature eucalyptus that were planted here decades ago when (I’m assuming) a homestead existed in this meadow. A spring near the camp provides refreshing cold water. Buckeye Camp would certainly make for a great nap spot! Beyond Buckeye Camp, the trail descends to Redwood Gulch Creek before making a final ascent to Buckeye Vista, Pt. 2,318, arguably the best view on the entire trail. After Buckeye Vista, the trail enters pine forest as it switchbacks down the hill to Cruikshank Camp. For this route, continue through Upper Cruikshank camp and descend to redwood-filled Villa Creek remaining on the Buckeye Trail. The Buckeye Trail then traverses the ridge on the north side of Villa Creek canyon with excellent views of Villa Creek canyon and then rounds a corner into the Alder Creek drainage which contains alder and Douglas Fir forest, a fascinating contrast to the redwoods in Villa Creek. At Alder Camp take the Alder Creek Road up to San Martin Top Ridge where there is a four way junction. Continue straight onto the Willow Creek Road which leads down through the largest Douglas fir forest on the central coast to the Highway near Cape San Martin. There are some nice views in the bottom portion of Willow Creek road when it emerges from the forest. An excellent 36 mile point-to-point route that I look forward to doing in the future would be to turn right at the four way junction on San Martin Top ridge and connect into South Coast Ridge Road which can be taken all the way to Prewitt Ridge for a spectacular descent into Pacific Valley.  Stay tuned for posts on a couple more routes in this gorgeous section of the Big Sur Coast!  Strava track for this route here

 

Buckeye Loop

For our first visit to the Silver Peak Wilderness we did a great 13 mile loop out of Salmon Cove including the Cruickshank Trail, the Buckeye Trail, the Soda Springs Trail and a couple miles along Hwy 1. The Silver Peak Wilderness is located along the Southern big Sur Coast.  It encompasses 31,555 acres and was established in 1992, making it the little brother of the Ventana Wilderness which spans 240,026 acres and was designated in 1969.  Within this wilderness lies the southernmost stand of coastal redwood at Redwood Creek. Our route traversed above these redwoods and also through the nearby redwood groves along Villa Creek. 

Our route began with a steep climb up the Buckeye Trail to gain a small saddle. From the saddle, the trail traverses a coastal chaparral hillside to the Soda Springs Trail junction with great views of the Pacific Ocean and Mount Mars. The Soda Springs Trail descends through oak woodland back to Highway 1. A fire crew has recently brushed out the stretch from Salmon Cove to the Soda Springs turnout on Highway 1 so this section of trail is in great shape. From Soda Springs trailhead we ran along Hwy 1 which began with a slight ascent, but was largely downhill for a couple miles to the Cruickshank Trailhead. This stretch of Highway 1 is narrow in spots, but we found minimal traffic in the morning. The Cruickshank Trail ascends an exposed hillside (note: hot in summer) in coastal chaparral with numerous switchbacks. Eventually, the trail rounds a corner into Villa Creek Canyon, thereby entering a new forested ecosystem with a pleasant mix of oak woodland, pines and redwoods. Lower and Upper Cruickshank camps are situated in pretty spots within this forest. Beyond these camps, the Buckeye Trail branches off the Cruickshank Trail and heads uphill through more oak and pine forest.

Unlike the Ventana Wilderness, which was largely burned in the 2008 Basin Complex Fire, the Silver Peak Wilderness has been spared major fires for a couple decades. The result is a mature forest of oaks and pines. After ~1,000 ft of climbing on the Buckeye Trail, the path reaches a pass. A short diversion from the pass leads to a magnificent viewpoint spanning a good chunk of the Southern Big Sur Coast. We enjoyed a snack here with a great view above the fog. Back on the Buckeye Trail, it begins a traverse across steep slopes and multiple small drainages. The tread is often in poor condition with a lot of erosion along the trail but there are excellent views down Redwood Creek to distract from the relatively slow progress. We next reached lovely Buckeye Camp which is at the south side of expansive meadows and near a natural spring with cool, pure and refreshing waters. On a very dry year, the spring was still flowing nicely. A few heritage coastal live oaks of colossal proportions play host to the camp making this a great place for a shady break. Beyond Buckeye Camp, we found some forested sections that were in reasonably good condition while some other spots were quite eroded and needing re-alignment. Ending up at the Soda Creek Junction, we were back on familiar ground for the last mile back to Salmon Cove. Overall, the entire Buckeye Trail from Cuickshank to Soda Springs is in decent shape and and an excellent choice for coastal views.  The trail has minimal encroaching brush, but there are sections that traverse steep slopes that are badly eroded which will slow you down. My impression of the Silver Peak Wilderness after my first visit was very positive. This is extremely beautiful terrain and well deserving of its wilderness designation. I look forward to future explorations on the Southern Big Sur Coast!  Strava route here