Cone Peak & Beyond

Cone Peak is the King of the Big Sur Coast and a visit to the region is always awesome. Rising 5,155 ft above the Pacific Ocean in around 3 miles as the crow flies, the summit has a commanding view of the region with stunning coastal vistas. The rugged topography is simply spectacular with a background of deep blue ocean a constant. The diversity of vegetation on the mountain is fascinating, including redwood, grassland, oak, and Santa Lucia alpine forest with the rare Santa Lucia Fir, Coulter Pines, and Sugar Pines. This time, I joined Brian Robinson for a repeat of the Stone Ridge Direct “Sea to Sky” route that I did last Spring. We also added on a very worthwhile extension from Trail Spring to Tin Can Camp. Iinstead of taking the Twitchell Flat use trail from Hwy 1, we took a more aesthetic route from Limekiln Beach and through Limekiln Park to a new trail (currently under construction) that links up with the Twitchell Flat use path in the West Fork Limekiln Creek drainage. Stone Ridge was every bit as amazing the second time around with mesmerizing ocean views with each step; perhaps my favorite route in all of the Big Sur coast. From the top of Twin Peak we traversed the rocky ridge all the way to the Cone Peak Trail which included a couple rock moves on the spine of the ridge. After visiting the Cone Peak lookout, we descended the trail on the north side which was an extremely treacherous ice skating rink of snow and ice. We gingerly walked through this section utilizing any kind of traction we could find. We arrived at Trail Spring happy to be done with that stretch.

After filing up water bottles at Trail Spring we continued along the Gamboa Trail north. This section was brand new to me and I enjoyed the views down the South Fork Devils Canyon and the beautiful alpine forest of Santa Lucia Firs and Sugar Pines. After a climb, we reached the junction with the North Coast Ridge Trail and continued north along North Coast Ridge Trail, entering a lovely Sugar Pine forest near Cook Camp. Beyond Cook Camp, the North Coast Ridge Trail emerges from the forest along a high ridgecrest with amazing views down the wild and rugged Middle Fork Devils Canyon on one side and Junipero Serra Peak (Pimkolam Summit in Native American) on the other side. We made Tin Can Camp the logical turnaround spot and enjoyed the spectacular views from a rocky outcropping. From this point, we talked about continuing along the North Coast Ridge Trail and then Coast Ridge Road all the way to Big Sur, a future project we were eager to tackle. After retracing our steps to Trail Springs and filling up water one last time, we continued along the Gamboa Trail west, one of my favorite stretches of single track in the Santa Lucia Fir forest. We took the Stone Ridge Trail back to the rocky knoll and ~2,100 ft and then the Stone Ridge use path down into Limekiln Park. After the adventure run, I drove out to Pacific Valley Bluff and snapped some great sunset photos of Stone Ridge and Cone Peak.  It was another great day Cone Peak and I’m already planning future adventures on the mountain!  Strava route here.

Junipero Serra Peak

It’s fairly rare for a modified arctic cold front to sweep into central California. However, in early December a cold, dry continental airmass overspread the region. With the cold air in place, attention turned to the possibility of low elevation snow on local mountains. All we needed was moisture. It seemed like wishes would come true with a system coming in from the north late in the week. In fact, the National Weather Service office in Monterey issued a winter weather advisory two days out from the event, specifically calling out the Santa Lucia Mountains for up to 6 inches of snow. Stoke level was high for a snow day on Cone Peak’s Stone Ridge. Well, things didn’t turn out as initially forecasted and the winter weather advisory did not verify. Snow levels wound up being much higher and only the highest peaks in the Santa Lucia Mountains received snowfall (>4,500 ft). Why?  The low pressure tracked from near Crescent City, California to Lake Tahoe placing the central coast on the south side of the low. In this sector, onshore winds brought in relatively mild air off the Pacific Ocean just as the heaviest precipitation arrived. In fact, temperatures increased as the event unfolded despite it being in the middle of the night. Once the cold front passed, snow levels plummeted once again, but by then very little moisture was left. All things considered, it seemed highly unlikely snow accumulated on Stone Ridge between 2,500-3,800 ft (we were right).  At this time Joey came up with a plan B – Junipero Serra Peak. As the highest point in the Santa Lucia Mountians at 5,862 ft, Junipero Serra Peak stood the best chance of having some snow accumulation. The route would be only 12.4 miles roundtrip but feature over 4,000 ft of climbing.  It turned out to be a great idea!   Strava route here

The group for this adventure included Joey Cassidy, Flyin’ Brian Robinson and Brian Rowlett. From the trailhead we could see some snow accumulation on the summit, but we were not prepared for how remarkably awesome the wintry scene would become on the last thousand feet of vertical on the mountain.  As we ascended above the snow line, we found a unique combination of snow, rime ice, and glaze ice (from freezing rain).  It felt as if we were entering an ice box as everything was glazed in ice, sometimes approaching over an inch thick.  I have never seen so much ice accumulation!  After ascending to the summit ridge, we traversed to the north side where we hiked through a coniferous forest which had become a winter wonderland with snow and ice covered Coulter Pines (largest pine cones in the world, weighing up to 8 pounds!) and Sugar Pines (the longest pine cones in the world, growing up to 24 inches long).  The entire mountain was burned in the Basin Complex Fire in 2008, but it’s good to see a large portion of the conifer grove survived the fire. In fact, Coulter Pine saplings were thick in spots. The chaparral slopes on the mountain did not fare as well with virtually all of the older woody chaparral charred. Five years later new chaparral vegetation is growing back aggressively, but the old burned snags remain making for an interesting sight when glazed with ice.

The flora and fauna of the Santa Lucia Mountains is often rare and fascinating. The pine forest of Coulter Pines and Sugar Pines atop Junipero Serro was so striking I decided to do a little research. It turns out Sugar Pines are not common in the Santa Lucia Mountains and can only be found on a few of the tallest peaks in the range, including Cone Peak and Junipero Serra Peak. The grove at Junipero Serra is particularly large with several tall old-growth trees.  Interestingly, the Sugar Pines in the Santa Lucias are genetically distinct from other populations of Sugar Pine due to large geographic separation. The two populations cannot mix. I wonder how these trees got the summit area of Junipero Serra in the first place as everything surrounding the grove is either chamise or montane chaparral. 

Another favorite topic of mine is meteorology. What caused such an impressive accumulation of glaze ice on Junipero Serra? As mentioned above, the weather system that pulled in some relatively warmer air off the Pacific in the middle and upper levels of the atmosphere, but colder air lingered at the lower levels of the atmosphere. Rain droplets formed in the warmer clouds but then became supercooled when they descended into the colder air below and froze upon contact with any object on the upper part of the mountain. This is freezing rain. The resulting ice from freezing rain is aptly named glaze ice and was at least an inch thick in spots. After the cold front passed on Saturday night, the entire atmosphere became cold enough to support snowfall on the highest elevations of Junipero Serra. This phase of the storm dropped 3+ inches of snow to complete the unique winter wonderland scene.  

While I’m a big fan of winter sports in general, seeing places snowcovered that don’t typically receive much snow is always a special experience. After this adventure I’m even more pumped for the winter season and the potential for a few more chances to see local mountains snowcovered. You can bet I’ll be chasing the snow!   

Cone Peak Marathon Loop

California’s spectacular natural landscape ranges from the Pacific coastline to the Sierra crest, each filled with many inspiring destinations and experiences. As the seasons shift into late autumn and winter I gravitate to coastal adventures. This time of year has reliably less fog along the immediate coast and interior locations are comfortably cooler. This is also the time of year when winter rains begin to revitalize the redwood forests.  One of my favorite regions for coastal scenery is the Ventana Wilderness along the Big Sur coastline. The premier destination within this vast wilderness is Cone Peak. Arguably the most aesthetic and complete route on Cone Peak is the “Cone Peak Marathon,” a classic lollipop loop from the ocean to the summit of 5,155 ft Cone Peak and back down via the Gamboa Trail and Stone Ridge Trail. This route thoroughly covers the trail network around Cone Peak and passes through three of the canyons formed by forks of Limekiln Creek. In addition, there are great views down the rugged and wild South Fork Devils Canyon.  The route showcases the wide variety of ecosystems on Cone Peak including coastal scrub, redwood forest, grassy meadows, oak woodland, chaparral, and a unique high elevation forest composed of Santa Lucia Fir and Sugar Pine forest. This is a top notch route in a stellar region! Strava route here.

As of this writing, the Vicente Flat Trail is in excellent condition all the way up to the Cone Peak Road. The route beings with about 1,200 feet of climbing over the first couple miles and then levels off as it rounds a corner into the Hare Canyon. Just before 4 miles from the trailhead, the trail makes a short descent to the bottom of Hare Canyon where the junction with the Stone Ridge Trail is reached after a creek crossing. Shortly after this junction, the Vicente Flat trail gets down to business with the steepest chunk of climbing between miles 5 and 7. Over these two miles, the trail ascends around 1,600 feet. The Vicente Flat trail ends at a gravel road that can be driven from the Nacimiento-Fergusson Road. Turning uphill on the dirt road, the ascent is more gradual than the preceding steep climb out of hare Canyon, but it’s still a bit of a slog. After about a mile on the dirt road, you turn onto the Cone Peak Trail for the final chunk of climbing. The trail first makes a lengthy traverse beneath the summit and then switchbacks up Cone Peak’s South Ridge to a junction with the Summit Trail. The final set of switchbacks on the Summit Trail to the abandoned fire lookout are steeper once again but the spectacular views are a great distraction. The view from the summit is outstanding with a 360 degree panorama including the interior Ventana Wilderness and views for miles up and down the Big Sur coastline.

Back at the junction with the Summit Trail, turn left down the backside of Cone Peak. This section of trail is still called the Cone Peak Trail and passes through a section where trail crews recently cut through enormous Sugar Pine downfall. Descending off the backside of Cone Peak into the South Fork Devils Canyon is a treat with passage through a rare forest of Santa Lucia Fir, the rarest species of fir in the world. These beautiful conical trees are only found in small pockets at high elevations of the Santa Lucia Mountains.  Somewhat counter intuitively, the Santa Lucia Fir is not fire resistant and therefore fares best in areas of fireproof topography (i.e. rocky sheltered locations).  The backside of Cone Peak is a perfect example of this rocky and rugged, fireproof terrain and therefore contains one of the finest Santa Lucia Fir forests in existence. Ultimately, the Cone Peak Trail ends at Trail Spring Camp where it intersects the Gamboa Trail.  From Trail Spring commences a particularly pleasant stretch of single track traverses the hillside below Twin Peak all the way to a small pass along the West Ridge of Twin Peak. It is at this pass that the Gamboa Trail becomes the Strone Ridge Trail and descends into the West Fork of Limekiln Creek canyon. Extensive trail work was completed this year on the Gamboa and Stone Ridge trails removing a lot of brush and downfall. It should be noted that the tread on these trails is narrow and sometimes technical; generally not fast tread or terrain for running but they are runnable. In addition, the descent via the Stone Ridge Trail entails some deceiving climbs, including an ascent up to Stone Ridge and an ascent out of Limekiln Creek. Both of these climbs are not long, but any substantial climbing after the initial climb up Cone Peak can be taxing. All told, there is over 7,000 ft of climbing on this route. Stone Ridge is the most prominent feature in the region and includes an excellent direct route to the summit, the true “Sea to Sky.” A good chunk of the Stone Ridge Direct route is visible from the Stone Ridge Trail as it crosses Stone Ridge at around 2,200 ft and again from the slopes above Limekiln Creek. This winter I hope to visit Cone Peak during a relatively rare winter snow event.  With outstanding scenery, lots of vertical, and engaging trails, I will surely be back for more runs on Cone Peak soon. Strava route here.