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

Boronda Ridge & Marble Peak

Back in January I explored the Boronda-De Angulo Loop and thought it would be fitting to return to Boronda Ridge during the short spring period of green.  Boronda Ridge rises steeply from the ocean with magnificent vistas of the Pacific Ocean and surrounding terrain. It’s one of the most amazing spots in all of Big Sur. The trail is also provides an efficient access point to the central part of the Coast Ridge Road and Marble Peak, with its suburb views of the interior Ventana. I view Boronda Ridge as Stone Ridge’s little sister. While Stone Ridge tops out at over 4,800 ft at the summit of Twin Peak, Boronda ridge reaches just over 3,000 feet at the summit of Timber Top.  Despite its lower vertical, Boronda Ridge rises more steeply immediately from the ocean with truly impressive relief on the lower part of the ridge. From a vista at 1,500 feet above sea level, the topography is so steep that it’s almost as if you could dive into the ocean! The amazing views on Boronda are virtually non-stop owing to the fact that the ridge crest is almost entirely devoid of vegetation other than grass.  The ridge culminates in an elegant arm at the upper part of the ridge. This photogenic rounded arm is separated by deep canyons of oak and redwood with the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean shimmering below. It’s truly a remarkable spot and one of my favorite spots along the Big Sur Coast. The top of Boronda Ridge is a peaklet known as Timber Top, with a camping area (no water) and more phenomenal views. Boronda Ridge also provides efficient access to the middle section of the Coast Ridge Road (a gravel road closed to public vehicles).  Boronda Ridge also provides efficient access to the middle section of the Coast Ridge Road (a gravel road closed to public vehicles).  Heading north from Timber Top, the road passes through more grassy meadows as it gradually descends to the Ventana Inn at Big Sur. To the south, the road gradually gains elevation in a predominantly chaparral and pine forest environment with plenty of interior and coastal vistas along the way. The road skirts Michael’s Hill and then has a dip, followed by an ascent and another dip before the final climb to near the broad summit of Anderson Peak. Anderson Peak itself is property of the federal government and contains some buildings, aviation equipment and weather sensors. The summit area is surrounded by fencing and is closed, but fortunately Marble Peak (of nearly the same height) is only a half mile beyond. In fact, Marble Peak arguably has the better 360 degree view because it is more of a pinnacle. Running down the road from Anderson Peak, turn off just past a sign that says “Marble Peak” and briefly take a trail cuts through a brush tunnel. Near the crest of the ridge, leave the trail and take use paths traversing grass on the west side of Marble Peak until you’re almost beneath the summit. From here, a virtually brush free route to the summit presents itself. Marble Peak has excellent views of the interior Ventana Wilderness. Looking north is an excellent view of the rugged ridge from Kandlbinder to La Ventana to Ventana Double Cone. To the south is Cone Peak, Twin Peak, Mining Ridge, and the Lost Valley. To the east is Junipero Serra Peak, Black Cone and the upper drainage of the South Fork Big Sur River. All told, it’s about 7.5 miles each way from the Timber Top to the summit of Marble Peak for a 15 mile roundtrip. Combined with the 6 miles round trip to Timber Top up Boronda Ridge, the route becomes a 21 miles total. The extension to Marble Peak is an excellent way to tack on some miles on relatively fast runnable road, but still enjoy grand views along the way.  

 

Cone Peak’s North Ridge & Lost Valley

This was an excellent route linking the spectacular North Ridge of Cone Peak and the remote Lost Valley.  I have been wanting to visit Lost Valley for some time so it was great to finally make it out there and also incorporate the excellent scenery of Cone Peak and South Fork Devils Canyon. We started from Memorial Park campground and went up the Arroyo Seco Trail. There is quite a bit of new downfall from a winter storm in February with one particularly cumbersome tree, but the canyon forest of incense cedar and Santa Lucia Fir was as beautiful as I remembered from the Santa Lucia Three Peaks adventure. Once on the North Coast Ridge, we made good progress to Cone Peak’s amazing north ridge where we left the trail.  The ridge has awesome views in all directions, including the rugged South Fork Devils Canyon and the upper reaches of the San Antonio River. It’s also great to climb amid sugar pines and Santa Lucia Firs. After summiting Cone, we took the Cone Peak Trail back to Trail Springs and then up the Gamboa Trail to complete the small lollipop loop. We then took the North Coast Ridge Trail all the way to the junction with the Rodeo Flats Trail where Erica turned off to head back down to Memorial Park while I continued along the ridge to the Lost Valley Connector Trail. Continued below… The Lost Valley Connector is marked by a stake where the old road bed of the North Coast Ridge Trail emerges onto the firebreak. The first part is single track with some encroaching brush and the next part is on an old firebreak that is quickly narrowing into single track as brush fills in. It is important to carry and study a map for the Lost Valley Connector as I saw a backpacking group heading down a wayward ridge and experiencing difficulties in thick brush. As long as you stay on the route, the trail is in fair condition and an efficient way to get form the coast ridge to Lost Valley. Lost Valley is a beautiful, peaceful spot with grassy meadows, pines, and chaparral covered hillsides. The best meadows are beyond the Lost Valley camp and a crossings of both Lost Valley Creek and Higgins Creek. This stretch of meadows is nearly a mile long and picturesque.  While the meadows are beautiful, it is prime tick territory and I removed a number of them from my socks. After my out-and-back through Lost Valley I returned via the Lost Valley Trail which was recently brushed and cleared by a crew. The trail is in good shape except for a few new downfalls from the February storm. From 1,800 ft in Lost Valley, the trail climbs over 1,000 feet to a pass at ~2,900 ft that provides access back to the main stem Arroyo Seco drainage. Part of the way up to this pass is a pretty waterfall known as Pothole Slide Falls. The waterfall is a series of two slides down a smooth rock face with a pool in between, the “pothole.”  Beyond the pass is a steep descent to the Arroyo Seco River. After crossing the river an 500+ ft vertical ascent leads to Escondido Camp where the trail concludes. From Escondido Camp it was a run along the Indian Rd. dirt track back to Memorial Camp. Stava route here, but note that actual mileage is 33+ miles.

 

Little Sur Circular Pools

The trek to the Circular Pools entails an adventure up the wild and trail-less Little Sur River to an otherworldly scene of clear pools, delicate waterfalls, and precipitous cliffs deep in a lush, redwood filled canyon. The most straightforward access to the pools begins from Bottcher’s Gap (notice a lot of excellent terrain for adventures begin at this trailhead) where it’s 3.5 miles downhill on the dirt road to the Pico Blanco Boy Scout Camp. Just beyond the Scout Camp, the Jackson Camp Trail continues 1.5 miles to Jackson Camp. The Jackson Camp Trail is in good shape and generally traverses on the slopes a couple hundred vertical feet above the Little Sur River. The trail passes through a shallow gully with a stream that is particularly lush with a carpet of redwood sorrel and a nice grove of redwoods.   The Jackson Camp Trail reaches False Jackson Camp where the first crossing of many Little Sur River crossings is located. The real Jackson Camp is only one more river crossing away (0.2 miles), but from Jackson Camp to Fox Usecamp there are numerous more crossings of the Little Sur River (a total of 12 by one count). These crossings can be rock hops in low flow or thigh deep crossings after heavy rains. In general, it does not seem prudent to travel along the Little Sur River in rainy period. The official trail ends at Jackson Camp, but the use path to Fox Camp 1.3 miles upsteam is fairly easy to follow with the numerous river crossings either obvious or marked with orange tape. This section features some truly immense redwoods that a treat to pass underneath. These colossal trees have thrived deep in this canyon for centuries and the forest looks healthy considering the fire that roared through these mountains in 2008.

Beyond Fox camp, the use path becomes more faint as it seems less people venture further upsteam. However, the general idea is the same: follow the river upstream and the use path virtually always coincides with the path of least resistance. The scenery is spectacular the entire way with smooth white river rocks littering the stream bed and alders, bay trees, and redwoods alongside the river. Soon after Fox camp, the canyon narrows considerably with precipitous cliffs closing in on the waterway. Usually the cliffs are only on one side of the river allowing fairly easy access on the opposite side, but in one section the Little Sur enters a small gorge with steep rock walls on both sides. After this narrow portion, the canyon opens a bit before narrowing once again just before reaching the primary Circular Pool. At first only the sound of a waterfall can be heard, but as you round a bend around some rocks a paradisaical scene presents itself with a large, nearly-circular pool virtually completely surrounded by cliffs. This rock amphitheater contains an assortment of lush hanging vegetation including five finger ferns and moss. The first circular pool and waterfall is the most impressive, but more adventure lies upstream. A few feet downstream of the main pool a weakness in the cliffs on the north side of the Circular Pool allows for passage upsateam. The next section of the Little Sur River features a series of small pools and cascades culminating in the second circular pool, which is significantly smaller, both in size of the pool and the waterfall plunging into it. This pool does not have an easy walk-around and a small rock step must be surmounted to proceed. A nylon rope aids in this climbing which is particularly helpful as the rock is slick, especially when downclimbing. After the second pool there is a sweet area of rock formations known as the bathtubs. Beyond the bathtubs there is apparently a third circular pool and one of the most remote camps in the Ventana Wilderness (the North Fork Camp) located at the confluence of Puerto Suello Creek and the Little Sur River. On this day, I did not have time for additional exploration beyond the bathtubs so I look forward to returning soon to reach the remote upper reaches of the Little Sur River near North Fork Camp.  I’m also excited to see the Little Sur River in the spring when the lushness of the environs will be at its maximum and a swim in the Circular Pools will refreshing as opposed to frigid! Stava route here

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.