Santa Lucia Three Peaks

The Santa Lucia Three Peaks is classic route that includes the summits of three major peaks in the Ventana Wilderness – Cone Peak, Twin Peak and Junipero Serra Peak. Along the way there are great views of both the Big Sur Coast and the interior Ventana Wilderness. While mostly utilizing trails, the route does feature three prominent cross-country ridges, the North Ridge of Cone Peak, the traverse between Cone Peak and Twin Peak, and the West Ridge of Twin Peak.  These prominent off-trail ridges are probably the highlight of the route and make it an adventure.  With the exception of redwoods, the route contains the entire array of Ventana vegetation, including perhaps the best Santa Lucia fir forest in existence, the most extensive stand of old growth Sugar Pines in the Santa Lucia Mountains, and rare grove of incense cedars in the Arroyo Seco river canyon. It’s a big route coming in over 32 miles with nearly 10,000 feet of elevation gain and the off-trail portions are fairly arduous and slow compared to the trails.  Strava route here.

The route starts at Santa Lucia Memorial Park Campground after a drive through Fort Hunter Liggett (note: Del Venturi Road is closed after heavy rain). From Memorial Park, the Arroyo Seco Trail provides quick access to the North Coast Ridge Trail on a great single track.  This upper section of the Arroyo Seco canyon is surprisingly lush and enchanting with madrone, oak, Santa Lucia Firs and a rare grove of Incense Cedars. Climbing out of the canyon, the vegetation turns more chaparral with a young forest of knobcone pine. On the north coast ridge, the trail climbs to Tin Can Camp with a great view looking back to Junipero Serra Peak and an awesome stretch through Sugar Pine and Coulter Pine forest.  At the junction with the Gamboa Trail, veer left to continue on the North Coast Ridge Trail. Cross a rocky slope and then begin descending on the east side of Cone Peak before finding an easy gap to gain the crest of the north ridge of Cone Peak. The first part of the north ridge is easy open terrain with a use path in sections. The second part of the north ridge becomes more rugged with bits of scrambling in spots and a couple places where you must come off the ridge to the west side to avoid loose rock formations on the ridge crest proper. This second part of the north ridge has phenomenal views and an airy feeling with lots of relief on both sides of the serrated rocky ridge, especially on the east side where cliffs plunge several hundred feet. Old growth Santa Lucia Firs and Sugar Pines are at home in this environment clinging to the cliffy slopes and thereby avoiding the periodic wildfires that sweep through these mountains. The scrambling is very enjoyable on the north ridge, but it doesn’t last long before the familiar fire lookout atop 5,155 ft Cone Peak comes into view. Cone Peak is the King of the Big Sur Coast and third highest point in the Santa Lucia Mountains. It features the most dramatic relief from the ocean in the contiguous United States as only 3 miles separate its summit from the sands. After enjoying the marvelous views from Cone Peak, descend the Cone Summit Trail for a short distance and take the ridge connecting Cone Peak to Twin Peak. This cross country route features a couple scrambling moves but is largely a use path along the ridge.  

After summiting Twin Peak, continue down the West Ridge of Twin. At first, it is best to stay on the north side of the ridge in old growth Sugar Pine forest with an open understory. Some large downfalls slow travel but ultimately you reach the grassy slopes of the lower part of the ridge. The only paths on this ridge are made by game and their feet are much narrow than humans. The result is steep sidehilling than can become tiring but the views more than compensate. Eventually the grassy ridge terminates at the Stone Ridge Trail-Gamboa Trail junction at Ojito Pass. From Ojito Pass take the Gamboa Trail as it traverses through the headwaters of the South Fork Devils Canyon passing through arguably the most complete Santa Lucia forest in existence. A reliable spring is located at Trail Spings (can be a seep in late summer and fall). Continue along the Gamboa Trail past Trail Springs and climb to the junction with the North Coast Ridge Trail. From this junction retrace steps back to Santa Lucia Memorial Park Campground.

From Memorial Park, head south down the road a short distance and find the Santa Lucia Trail/Junipero Serra Peak Trailhead. For the first couple miles, the Santa Lucia Trail is very runnable as it undulates through grassland and oak woodland. However, the final four miles to the summit of Junipero Serra Peak become steep rising over 3,500 feet over that distance. This climb is a real challenge after the preceding climbs of Cone Peak and Twin Peak. It is not advisable on a warm day, especially in the afternoon since most of the climb is exposed south-facing chaparral. The vegetation changes in the last mile to the summit when the trail rounds a corner onto the north side of the peak where there is a pleasant forest of Sugar Pine and Coulter Pine. The broad summit of Junipero Serra Peak (aka Pimkolam by the Native Americans) is the highest point in the Santa Lucia Mountains at 5,862 feet. The summit has a nice vista looking west to Cone Peak, the Silver Peak Wilderness region, and also north to Ventana Double Cone. If Cone Peak is the King of Big Sur and Ventana Double Cone is the Queen of the Ventana, Junipero Serra is the grandfather of the Santa Lucias (Pico Blanco is the prince of Big Sur and Silver Peak is the princess of the South Coast). There is a summit a register on the east side of the ridge located on a cement foundation. The old dilapidated fire lookout on the west side of the ridge has virtually nothing left but its steel frame. There are also some old artifacts on the ridge, including an old cot frame. Enjoy the descent, which is virtually all downhill to the finish at Memorial Park; you will have earned it!  Strava route here.

La Ventana Loop: Kandlbinder – La Ventana – Ventana Double Cone

The La Ventana Loop is a tremendous route that was as difficult as it was beautiful. To my knowledge Kandlbinder, La Ventana (aka The Window), and Ventana Double Cone have never been climbed together as a day trip. It took Brian Robinson, Whit Rambach, Joey Cassidy and me a little over 13 hours to complete the loop (start at 6:40 a.m. and finish at 7:50 p.m.).  The route had a little bit of everything: spectacular scenery (including coastal Big Sur and interior Ventana), remoteness, ruggedness, hideous brush, stream crossings by the dozen, waterfalls, old growth redwood groves, old growth Santa Lucia Firs, exposure, commitment, rock scrambling, treacherously loose rock, and a beautiful sunset. In all, the La Ventana Loop is around 30 miles with 9,500 ft of elevation gain, but the stats belie the difficulty of the 3 mile traverse between Kandlbinder and Ventana Double Cone. Garmin Connect Data: http://connect.garmin.com/activity/430728534

Back in December on the Ventana Double Cone trip, I was captivated as I gazed across the immensely rugged cirque to La Ventana and Kandlbinder and hoped to one day stand on those points. I recalled hearing about a route up Jackson Creek that provided direct access to La Ventana and wondered if a giant loop could be made that would include the summits of Kandlbinder and Ventana Double, essentially encircling the Little Sur drainage. In order to make the loop a reality, one must traverse between La Ventana and Ventana Double Cone, a stretch that has virtually no recent information and looked like brush hell on satellite. For a couple weeks I focused more on ascending Kandlbinder as an out-and-back via the Jackson Creek Route which has some recent route beta, but discussion with Joey reignited my interest in tackling the La Ventana Loop sooner rather than later. In a matter of days I was ready to tackle the challenge after discussion and careful satellite analysis. With a great weather forecast, the team of four was assembled at Bottcher’s Gap in the pre-dawn hours and pumped to give the La Ventana adventure a go.

Click for a full-size annotated view from Kandlbinder PeakLa Ventana Altitude

There is little information on this wild and rugged area of the Ventana Wilderness and virtually no information about the traverse between La Ventana and Ventana Double Cone. It’s a committing route that is extremely arduous, requiring advanced navigational skills and wherewithal to persevere through extremely difficult terrain and hideous brush. That being said, here are my thoughts on the segments of the La Ventana Loop:

  1. The Little Sur River: After a 3.5 mile run down the dirt road to the Pico Blanco Boy Scout Camp from Bottcher’s Gap, we took the Jackson Camp Trail to Jackson Camp. This trail is in good condition and a pleasant run through lush redwoods. Beyond Jackson Camp there are numerous crossings of the Little Sur River and we walked right through the water in the interest of time (although rock-hopping is possible in low flow). The use path is fairly easy to follow between crossings and most of the crossings are flagged. 1.3 miles from Jackson Camp is Fox Usecamp, a nice flat spot amid redwoods where Jackson Creek flows into the Little Sur River. At Fox Usecamp, we turned up Jackson Creek and soon came across a pretty waterfall known as Firehose falls.
  2. Jackson Creek:  The Jackson Creek route proved highly enjoyable. The old growth redwoods in the canyon were amazing and the stream was pretty with small cascades and pools. By taking the path of least resistance we were able to make decent progress. There are lots of down trees to go under, over and across. Beyond Happy Fork Camp, we traversed a little above the stream before heading up grassy slopes in oak woodland to a small saddle above Jackson Creek. A quick descent from the saddle brought us to a dry streambed that drains the slopes of La Ventana and Kandlbinder in periods of heavy rain.  This area had plentiful poison oak but travel through the brush was reasonable.
  3. Kandlbinder Direct:  We took a talus gully up ~1,400 feet from the bottom of the canyon below La Ventana directly to the summit of Kandlbinder. The climbing was sustained and sometimes loose, but brush-free. This is a phenomenal route amid old growth Santa Lucia Firs and the view from Kandlbinder is amazing, perhaps the best in all of the Ventana Wilderness. We arrived at Kandlbinder in under 5 hours from Bottchers Gap. This turned out to be the easy part.
  4. Kandlbinder to La Ventana: From Kandlbinder, we stayed below the ridge crest to avoid copious deadfall from the Basin Complex fire immediately on top of the ridge. While the terrain is mostly brush-free, it is very steep with cliff bands and the rock is treacherously loose requiring care and extreme caution.
  5. La Ventana:  We traversed around some cliffs and ascended the final slopes (much poison oak) to the famous notch known as La Ventana (aka the Window) for which the Ventana Wilderness is named. La Ventana is a fascinating spot, although it’s largely filled with brush these days. 
  6. The Impasse: The cliffs on the east side of the La Ventana notch are a formidable obstacle to continuing the traverse to VDC. Such an impasse is something I would expect in the High Sierra, not the Santa Lucias. We couldn’t find any safe ledges (without technical gear) in the vicinity of the notch and descended several hundred feet where we found a safe passage with some class 3 moves. 
  7. The Crux: Once we got through the cliff band, we encountered fairly thick brush as we made an ascending traverse back to the ridge crest. From here to the next high point on the ridge had truly hideous, atrocious brush. The dead manzanita and other spiny vegetation combined with the flourishing new brush growth made travel extremely arduous and slow. The brush was worst right on the ridge crest where deadfall was abundant. After careful investigation of satellite imagery before and after the trip, I’ve concluded that this section is a slog no matter which way you cut it.  
  8. The Ridge Traverse: From an intermediate high point along the ridge, the next section was rocky with little brush and we made good progress for awhile and enjoyed the exposure on both sides of the ridge.  However, we soon encountered another wall of brush and deadfall. We descended off the ridge a couple hundred feet down extremely steep and loose slopes to traverse around this brush. We ascended back to the ridge via another talus gully that was brush-free. Now back on the ridge, we enjoyed another nice rocky section with amazing views into Ventana Creek and VDC. After this point we made a direct line across the basin to the Ventana Double Cone trail. The brush in this final portion is much more manageable.
  9. Ventana Double Cone: Elated to be back on the trail, we ran up to the top of VDC and enjoyed the late afternoon views from this awesome summit. In all, it took over 3.5 hours to complete the traverse from Kandlbinder to La Ventana to VDC. 
  10. Completing the Loop: From VDC we took the trail back to Pat Springs and Bottchers Gap. We had a spectacular sunset from Little Pines overlooking Pico Blanco and drank up the cool, fresh waters in Pat Springs. A full moon and warm evening temps made the last 7 miles from Pat Springs a pleasant night run. The trail is getting some more work and is in decent shape, or maybe it just felt like a highway compared to the brush we endured on the traverse. 

Note: The following photos are in chronological order from the Little Sur River at daybreak to the group shot at Bottcher’s Gap after finishing in the dark.

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

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

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: 

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: 

Partington Cove to McWay Falls

The Big Sur/Ventana Wilderness area has captured my attention recently. Nowhere in the lower 48 does the meeting of land and ocean occur with such impressive, rugged relief. Add to that the pristine wilderness, much of which is remote and difficult to access, and you get a paradise for adventure running. I’ve already posted on several routes that I believe are classics and expect many more to come. Perhaps at some point I will create a summary post that will function as an online guide to my favorite Big Sur adventures. For this post I describe an aesthetic way to cover virtually all of the trails in Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park by running from Partington Cove to McWay Falls and back. The route includes the famous Ewoldson Loop, which is widely considered one of the best hikes in all of Big Sur. The praise for the Ewoldson Loop is for good reason: the trail features the most impressive stand of old growth redwoods in the Santa Lucia Mountains and spectacular coastal views. The sharp transitions between lush redwood forest and coastal chaparral are spectacular. A trip up the Ewoldson trail starts near the iconic McWay Falls, which plunges 80 feet over cliffs onto white sands and a turquoise cove. The loop gives a taste of virtually everything Big Sur has to offer. The 2008 Basin Complex fire closed the trail for over five years with heavy damage reported, but it has recently been reopened for the public’s enjoyment. On my recent visit I was happy to see that the redwood forest has made a vigorous comeback. Most redwoods appear to have survived the fire and new limbs and saplings are sprouting with vigor – a testament to the resiliency of redwoods. I imagine in 10 yeas it will be difficult to notice the fire that once roared through this forest. Work crews have also built a series a magnificent new hand-made bridges over McWay Creek, constructed with fallen redwoods on location. By doing an out-and-back from Partington Cove one can run down the Canyon side of the Ewoldson Loop on the way out and the Ocean side on the way back, thus covering the entire loop.

The turnaround point for the Partington to McWay is the iconic McWay Falls. It’s a special experience to follow McWay Creek through its journey down a steep canyon with lush redwoods forest and then to exit the forest at McWay Cove with surreal coastal scenery. If you do the loop in the early morning you will even be able to enjoy McWay Falls without the tourists. The other highlight of the route in my opinion is Alta Vista, an old homestead that burned in the 2008 fire.  This destination is off the main route and unsigned.  All that remains of the homestead is its foundation, a wine cellar carved into the mountains and a few burned artifacts. A plaque has been placed on the site to memorialize the history of the location and the property has been transferred to the State Parks. The best part of Alta Vista in my opinion, and the reason why I recommend making the side trip, is the incredible view across McWay Canyon and south along the Big Sur Coast. While the use trail to Alta Vista is not marked, it’s an obvious junction located at the high point of the Tanbark Trail before it descends to meet the fire road.  The other portions of the Partington to McWay route are equally impressive. The Water Trail, which connects the Ewoldson Trail in McWay Canyon with the Tanbark Trail in Partington Canyon, is a narrow single track on a steep hillside that parallels the ocean with spectacular vistas en-route. There is a grassy section that is particularly scenic with views to sea stacks and turquoise waters below. The Tanbark Trail starts with a lush redwood forest in Partington Canyon and then ascends up to the ridge with great views across Partington Canyon to Partington Ridge and Boronda Ridge. On the other side of Hwy 1, a dirt road descends 0.5 miles to Partington Cove and Partington Beach. An old tunnel provides access to the Cove with rich history and the scenic beach features towering bluffs and ocean smoothed rocks. These coastal destinations are well worth the short extension to complete the tour of the Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park. These trails are phenomenal trail running and provide an excellent mix of all that Big Sur offers. Strava route here