Cone Peak is a spectacular summit along the rugged Big Sur coast. At 5,155 feet, it is the second highest mountain in the Santa Lucia Mountain range, but it’s the highest mountain to offer a view of the ocean. The mountain rises nearly a vertical mile in less than three miles from the coastline as the crow flies. This is one of the steepest gradients from ocean to summit in the contiguous United States, hence the name “Sea to Sky.” In fact, the average gradient from sea level to summit is around 33%, which is steeper than the average gradient from Owens Valley to the summit of Mount Whitney. The three canyons that descend from Cone Peak to the ocean are impressively steep with thick stands of redwoods and cascading streams. The ridgelines contain oak woodland and chaparral transitioning to a pine forest higher up and even some firs near the top.
Video on Vimeo.
A rugged dirt road reaches the 3,800 ft level on the mountain leaving a 2.25 mile hike to the summit, but a far more aesthetic approach is to climb the mountain from Hwy 1 near the ocean. There are two possible routes – the Stone Ridge/Gamboa Trail and the Vicente Flat Trail. The Stone Ridge/Gamboa option is the shortest route, but it’s largely unmaintained and entails eroded trail along steep hillsides, brush, bountiful poison oak, ticks, and rattle snakes so it almost certainly takes longer. The Vicente Flat Trail is well maintained all the way up to the Coast Ridge Road and the Cone Peak Trail. The Vicente Flat option is also more scenic with great views of the coastline and passage through Hare Canyon, including redwoods, streams, and views of the canyon. This is the route we chose as an out-and-back. In all, the trip was over 22 miles and included over 6,000 feet of total elevation gain. Complete trip report with many photos here.
Winter and spring are good times to hike and run Cone Peak. The coast is fog-free and the temperatures are pleasant from top to bottom. In the summer, the upper part of the mountain is almost always above the marine layer leaving it brutally hot with swarming black flies. It’s the persistent summer marine layer that allows the canyons to remain cool and sustain a redwood forest. In the winter and spring the streams are also flowing with greater volume, the redwood forest is lush, and wildflowers are in bloom – I was amazed at how many wildflowers were out in January!
This entire area was burned in the fires of 2008 by varying degrees. These fires were largely beneficial and fire suppression had artificially prevented a wide ranging wildfire for many decades. Most of the redwoods survived and rehabilitation is well under way. Other species which can only germinate after a fire are finally getting a chance.