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:

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

Big Sur to Bottcher’s Gap via Ventana Double Cone

While it’s now June and most likely the days of comfortable travel in the interior Ventana Wilderness have passed until fall (most summer days are oppressively hot with copious flies), this post recaps an awesome point-to-point adventure with David Frank back in early May from Pfieffer Big Sur to Bottcher’s Gap via Ventana Double Cone. From 6 miles of wading through a lush canyon to classic Ventana bushwhaking to precarious scrambling, this was quite the adventure!  The route started at Big Sur Station. After some trail miles on the Pine Ridge Trail we descended to Ventana Camp. Shortly thereafter, an amazing creek walk began in Ventana Creek up narrow gorges with small waterfalls and rapids in a setting of lush redwoods, ferns and moss. The creek wading is not optional; the walls of the canyon come right down to the water course and this is not an advisable place to be in higher volume creek flow.  It was fairly slow going wading in the creek with innumerable step overs, log jams, pools, waterfalls and other obstacles to climb through, up and under, but I enjoyed every minute in this mystical and captivating canyon. Walking up Ventana Creek the sense of remoteness is strong as few have traveled up this unspoiled waterway.  At one point the forest canopy parted and we caught a glimpse of Ventana Double Cone, the Queen of the Ventana, presiding over a rugged region that is unmatched in the coastal mountain ranges of the west coast of the United States. After several miles of walking and wading in Ventana Creek, we turned off onto the East Fork of Ventana Creek where dense vegetation closed in creating a claustrophobic situation at times. After 6 miles of total creek wading, the creek bed dried out and travel became easier over talus, but not without copious poison oak and the usual chaparral vegetation of the interior Ventana. After some time in the dry creekbed, we ascended steep slopes into the extremely remote south cirque of Ventana Double Cone and then scrambled rock to the south arete. This area is wild with a sheer ruggedness that is more customary of the Sierra Nevada.

Everything was going well for this part of the scramble, but things quickly turned serious as the rock became steeper and dangerously loose as we approached the south arete. The final part to gain the south arete and then traversing the first part along the spine of the ridge involved some very loose rock; not just small rocks but entire blocks were deeply fractured and ready to tumble upon a touch. We quickly discovered that the south face of Ventana Double Cone is incredibly crumbly and no step or hold can be taken for granted. We took pause of the potentially dangerous situation that lay ahead where we would have to commit to climbing extremely loose rock on steep terrain with considerable exposure over cliffs. Ultimately, we decided to forgo these risks, a decision that was aided by the fact that a fortuitous talus gully allowed us to drop off the arete and traverse over to the easy east ridge without much delay. The improvised alternative route was brushy, but we did not have to backtrack on the route and we gained the summit of Ventana Double Cone safely, therefore enabling us to continue our point to point to Bottcher’s Gap. The summit views were marvelous as usual and it was a treat to explore the wild upper reaches of the East Fork Ventana Creek.  An added surprise was the marvelous wildflower meadows on the way to Bottcher’s Gap near Big Pines and Devils Peak. There were literally millions of lupine and poppy carpeting the hillsides; a spectacular patchwork of color! We arrived at Bottcher’s Gap just under 12 hours after starting; another amazing adventure in the Ventana! Looking back at this adventure, the most endearing part was the creek walk up the mystical and wild canyon of Ventana Creek. I look forward to returning there for a point to point to Bottchers Gap, except via the Drain, which I feel is the premier route up Ventana Double Cone for both scenery and aesthetics. The following photographs are in chronological order as the day adventure unfolded. GPS route here.

Kandlbinder & Ventana Double Cone via “The Drain”

Intro:  Building on our La Ventana Loop adventure, Joey Cassidy and I descended into the extremely rugged headwaters of Ventana Creek to climb Ventana Double Cone via “The Drain,” a prominent rocky gully that funnels all of the water in the wild cirque that stretches from Ventana Double Cone to Kandlbinder. From within this chiseled canyon, we gazed up at the ridge that separates the Little Sur River drainage from the Big Sur River drainage, a formidable rampart with massive cliffs and buttresses along its entire length. We walked among old growth Santa Lucia Firs that stand proud in quintessential columnar fashion and have seen few, if any, humans beneath their shadows. A picturesque waterfall part of the way up the Drain blocks easy progress, but this obstacle is surmounted with a couple class 4 moves. Additional scrambling in the Drain and the final chute was mostly solid and enjoyable. Note: Advanced navigation skills and comfort on very steep, rugged terrain with sustained scrambling are essential for any explorations into Ventana Creek Cirque. Prior experience with off-trail travel in the Ventana Wilderness is extremely helpful before attempting this route since the Ventana backcountry posses its own unique set of challenges.

To set the stage for this climb, we ascended Jackson Creek, with its lovely waterfalls and old growth redwoods, and then climbed Kandlbinder via its direct north face talus gully. With prior experience traveling up Jackson Creek, we were able to reach the summit of Kandlbinder 3h59m after leaving the Bottchers Gap Trailhead. On the way back from Ventana Double Cone to Bottchers Gap we were treated to a spectacular display of wildflowers in the meadows near Pat Springs and Devils Peak. The Ventana Double Cone Trail is heavily overgrown south of Puerto Suello, but recent trail work to Puerto Suello (we met some of the trail crew) has greatly improved the condition of the trail from Pat Springs to Puerto Suello – thank you! With much photography along the way, we were still able to complete the loop in 10h49m confirming my suspicion that this route would be a more efficient way to connect Kandlbinder and Ventana Double Cone without any of the hideous brush present on the ridge crest.  This is easily one of the most aesthetic, spectacular routes I have done anywhere.  The Ventana Creek cirque provides a real sense of adventure in a truly wild canyon that is rugged and unspoiled. GPS route here.

Concept:  Back in January we completed the La Ventana Loop, becoming the first individuals to tag Kandlbinder, La Venana (aka the Window), and Ventana Double Cone all in the same day. On that 13 hour outing, our route stuck to the ridge crest (or near it) resulting in some atrocious Ventana bushwhacking, particularly between La Ventana and Ventana Double Cone. There had to be another way.  The talus gully route up Kandlbinder was brush-free and beautiful so I knew that I wanted to return for that excellent climb. From the summit of VDC and Kandlbinder, I also had my eye on the prominent drainage of Ventana Creek wrapping around the west ridge of Ventana Double Cone.  This drainage seemed to provide a non-technical and brush-free route up VDC but questions remained regarding the descent into this drainage from Kandlbinder. These questions were answered when Toshi Hosaka an Sachin Sawant successfully descended into the Ventana Creek cirque from Kandlbinder on the way to their awesome scramble route (likely a first ascent) up the west ridge of VDC.  With further satellite inspection, I identified a gully that would provide an excellent descent route from Kandlbinder directly to Ventana Creek that avoids both brush and sketchy loose rock, and efficiently deposit us into Ventana cirque. We would then ascend the upper reaches of Ventana Creek all the way to VDC via the prominent gully I call “the Drain” since a complex network of chutes and gullies from La Ventana all the way to VDC funnel into the main gully. See below for a detailed route description. GPS route here.

Route Description: The Drain route is identical to the La Ventana Loop with the exception of the portion between Kandlbinder and VDC, so that is the section I will focus on in the following route description: From the summit of Kandlbinder, descend the east ridge a short distance until you are below white cliffs that compose the southern aspect of the summit block. From here descend straight down on loose talus or rock ribs aiming for a large patch of red talus below. Before reaching the red talus field, begin traversing left, utilizing user friendly dirt patches for quick plunge steps. At ~4,000 ft, traverse over to a sub-ridge where the terrain drops off steeply to the east. Descend this sub-ridge to ~3,700 ft and drop into a gully. While the terrain is steep the ground is generally stable. The main section of the gully has a nice section of plunge stepping underneath oaks and Santa Lucia Firs. At one point the gully reaches a constriction that may require downclimbing. We trended skiers right a short distance and then traversed back into the gully below the constriction. The balance of the route down to Ventana Creek and the start of the Drain is a straightforward trip down a dry streambed. At the junction with Ventana Creek (~2,850 ft), the water flows underneath large talus blocks, but just around the corner from this point the water is exposed over solid rock. This section of accessible water is fairly short before the stream disappears under the rocks once again, only to reappear before a series of cascades and a small waterfall. The scrambling is easy before this waterfall, but surmounting the falls involves a couple class 4 moves. Shortly after this waterfall, the water disappears for good leaving a dry streambed of fairly stable talus.  At around 4,200 feet, the gully appears to reach a headwall, but turn climbers right and cross a loose rock rib to reach more solid talus blocks underneath an old growth forest of Santa Lucia Firs.  This section of talus is littered with rusting parts of the structure that once existed atop Ventana Double Cone. It seems as if the at least part of the structure was simply thrown off the summit cliffs.  At ~4,400 feet, the final chute appears providing non-technical access to the summit ridge a few feet from the summit. This final chute has some loose sections of class 3 scrambling so care must be taken. From VDC, the remainder of the route is all on trails back to Bottchers Gap. If done correctly, the Drain route avoids much of the infamous Ventana brush, and in fact, the worst brush is on the Ventana Double Cone Trail in the miles south of Puerto Suello Pass. Despite being a “trail” this stretch of brush is not trivial. GPS route here

Gear: The La Sportiva Bushido handled the scrambling, creek walking and trail miles masterfully. In particular the sticky rubber provided confidence on the rocks. The Ultimate Direction PB Adventure Vest provided more than enough capacity and was comfortable all day (Joey used the SJ Ultra Vest). These lightweight vests are essential pieces of equipment for these long adventures, but note that sharp Ventana brush can wreak havoc on the light material so be careful!   

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.

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: