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

Big Creek Reserve

Between Julie Pfieffer Burns State Park and Limekiln State Park is a long stretch of amazingly beautiful Big Sur coastline that unfortunately lies on private land precluding exploration beyond the turnouts along Highway 1.  However, on one day of the year a section of this coastline opens to the general public at the Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve. This reserve is part of the University of California Natural Reserve System with a mission to further university-level teaching, research and public service at protected natural areas.  In order to foster the on-site research and education principles, the reserve is closed to the public for all but one day of the year (usually the second Saturday in May). The Big Creek reserve encompasses rugged canyons that drain the region to the north and west of Cone Peak, the King of Big Sur, and is located within arguably the most scenic region in all of Big Sur.  Extremely intrigued, I made sure to circle my calendar for the date of the “open house” and Erica and I maximized the few hours it was open. We found a wonderful network of single track trails showcasing virtually all of the greatness that is Big Sur, from lush redwood-filled canyons to grassy ridges covered in spring wildflowers with outstanding coastal views. Moreover, the reserve contained unique aspects, including one of the most stunning waterfalls in the Santa Lucia Mountains and a large hot spring pool.  The variety of flora is impressive reflecting the diversity and richness of the environments and habitats in the reserve, including chaparral, redwoods, oak woodland, grassland, pine and even a grove of Santa Lucia Firs near Highlands Peak.

Two of the most important streams in the region flow through the reserve, Big Creek and Devils Canyon Creek. The streams meet in the reserve and flow as one stream for the last mile into the Pacific Ocean at Big Creek Cove.  Along Big Creek is a natural hot spring pool, which is many times larger than the popular Sykes Hot Springs along the Big Sur River. Along Devils Canyon creek is perhaps the most striking feature, the remote Canogas Falls, which tumbles over 60 feet in a series of three steps with turquoise pools in between each step. The setting of the falls nestled between rugged cliffs with a lush redwood forest is magical. I couldn’t resist taking a swim in the frigid waters in the lower of two intermediary pools. The reserve also features two prominent grassy ridges with stunning views: Dolan Ridge and Highlands Ridge. Dolan Ridge provides an outstanding vista north up the coast toward Boronda Ridge and also south looking into Devils Canyon with Cone Peak and Twin Peak towering above.  On this day Dolan Ridge was covered in a spectacular lupine bloom, the likes of which have not been seen since 1999.  Highlands Ridge, including Gamboa Point, features excellent views back to Dolan Ridge, the Big Creek Bridge, and the turquoise waters off the coast. Big Creek is a treasure and well-deserving of its protection. It was great to explore a section of the Big Sur coast that I have never seen and I look forward to returning next year.    

East Molera Wildflowers

The meadows on East Molera Ridge burst with color during the spring producing one of the best coastal wildflower displays along the Big Sur Coast. The top of Post Summit provides a logical culminating destination with sweeping views of the coast and the interior Ventana Wilderness from a perch 3,455 ft above sea level. I enjoyed these meadows last year so it was high on my list to return this spring. The wildflower meadows were similar to 2013, except perhaps more poppy this year (a prolific lupine bloom in certain spots of Big Sur would follow in a few weeks). The East Molera Ridge Trail begins either along a dirt road behind a white barn at the main parking area for Andrew Molera State Park or at a newly rehabilitated trailhead a couple hundred meters past the main Andrew Molera entrance along the highway one (there are a couple parking spots in a gravel turnoff). The path starts out as a fire road and narrows to single track at the base of East Molera Ridge. Continuing up, the single track makes a long switchback across the steep slope with views improving with each step.  Ultimately the designated trail ends at a point on top of the ridge with a strip of redwoods and views across the Little Sur Valley to Pico Blanco.

From the end of the official trail, a well-used path continue south along grassy ridges and wonderful meadows for a couple miles. A one point you can either continue to follow the gradual path around a hillside, or take a steep shortcut straight up the hillside. The views of Point Sur, Andrew Molera, the Little Sur Valley, and Pico Blanco are remarkable and improve as you progress up the ridge. Pico Blanco, or “white peak,” is aptly named with a large deposit of exposed white limestone composing its distinctive pyramidal summit.  The peak forms an aesthetic background for the wildflowers on East Molera Ridge. The grassy meadows end at a knoll (2,500 ft) and the final 1,000 feet of ascent to Post Summit is on a steep firebreak that has narrowed to a path through light brush (tame by Ventana standards). Note that there are ticks in this brush so make sure to check your skin and clothing after passage. Soon enough we were on the summit enjoying the views. One can continue along use paths to Manuel Peak and Pfieffer Big Sur State Park via Cabezo Prieto, which I have documented in the Cabezo Molera Loop post and also in photo album from a subsequent tripFull wildflower photo Album; Panoramas.

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.

Stone Ridge Descent

On the last post, I mentioned (many) more Stone Ridge photos were coming so here they are! Despite this being my fifth time travelling the ridge, the views were just as inspiring. Stone Ridge is a spot I could return over and over again; a truly magical place! These photos were taken after an FKT run up Cone Peak via Kirk Creek and Vicente Flat (1h50m). While I have climbed Cone Peak over a dozen times by various routes, I have never really done it for speed, so I figure there is room for some personal improvement. Obviously a race-like effort by talented mountain runners could knock down the time more substantially. Nonetheless, it’s close to 6,000 feet of elevation gain in just over 11 miles to ascend Cone Peak via Vicente Flat (including a couple steep pitches) so it will always be a challenging run. After traveling through a thick fog layer in the upper reaches of Cone Peak, the views opened up near the summit.  It was awesome to see low clouds riding over the ridge between Cone Peak and Twin Peak. These clouds dissipated as I made my way over Twin Peak producing brilliant sunshine and spectacular clarity on the way down Stone Ridge. The turquoise blue water along the coast juxtaposed with the green grass was fantastic.   I was waffling on whether to carry a camera or not, but very happy I wound up carrying it.  I placed the camera in the water resistant pouch of the Ultimate Direction Jurek Essential, I hardly noticed it!  I chose a cool day for the quick run up the mountain so I only needed the Jurek Essential and the Fastdraw 20 for hydration. Prior Stone Ridge Posts:

Cone Peak via Stone Ridge Direct 2014

What’s the most impressive and prominent grassy ridge in all of Big Sur? The answer, without question, is Stone Ridge. I’ve featured this striking ridge on my blog several times so what haven’t I already said about Stone Ridge? Nothing (see links to prior posts below). That being said, here are a few thoughts and many more photos from one of my favorite spots in Big Sur and the Ventana Wilderness.

Stone Ridge is an awesome place to be any time of the year, but the few weeks during spring when the meadows turn verdant are particularly special.  As Stone Ridge is a south-north oriented ridge, I have learned that the setting photographs best in the afternoon and evening as the coast to south gets better light. This year, Erica and I ascended to Twitchell Flat and lower Stone Ridge, and then took the Stone Ridge Trail and Gamboa Trail around Twin Peak to the summit of Cone Peak. From Cone Peak we traversed to Twin Peak and then descended Stone Ridge from top to bottom during evening light. The advantage of going down Stone Ridge as part of this loop was manifold:  (1) it enabled us to catch evening light on the ridge and still return to the car before dark, (2) by descending you’re looking at the incredible view with each and every step, and (3) it’s easier to descend the steep ridge than ascend it. While I obviously put a lot of thought into when and how do this particular loop, the reality is that Stone Ridge is amazing any time of day, as an ascent, descent, or a destination in itself (I can attest since I have done all of the above). Finally, just in case you haven’t had enough Stone Ridge, I’ve got some more photos from Stone Ridge coming soon.

Prior (and future) Stone Ridge posts:

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!