The Carrizo Trail and North Ridge Route is the inland version of the classic and well-known Stone Ridge Sea to Sky route on Cone Peak’s south face (of which there are many posts on this blog). In less than 7 miles the route travels from the Milpitas Special Interest Area at the North Fork San Antonio River (~1550 ft) to the summit of Cone Peak at 5,164 ft. With a cumulative elevation gain of nearly 5,000 feet, it packs nearly as much punch as the route from sea to sky but is remarkably well graded, and while it is still a big climb, it never gets nearly as steep. The route passes through numerous different ecosystems in a gradient of plant communities including (1) oak grassland, (2) chaparral, (3) young Coulter Pine forest amid mud stone rock formations, (4) to Sugar Pine forest, and finally, (5) the alpine environment on the north ridge with Santa Lucia Firs. Along the way one enjoys views of both the drier inland area of the Ventana, including Santa Lucia Peak and the rock formations and grasslands of the Milpitas Special Interest Area, and the more lush coastal side with forests and ocean vistas. The whole package makes this one of the most interesting and scenic routes in the Ventana Wilderness and a worthy complement to the Sea to Sky route on the coastal side of Cone Peak. Full photo album here. Route display here (from Big Sur Trail Map, the best mapping resource of trails in the Ventana and Silver Peak Wilderness Areas).
The early miles of the Carrizo Trail are largely exposed and can get quite hot while the old growth Sugar Pine forest in the upper reaches is one of the cooler places in the Ventana Wilderness where towering pines provide constant shade. This Sugar Pine forest is the largest and healthiest stand of Sugar Pines in the Ventana, with some rare (for the Ventana) incense cedars sprinkled in. Unlike Sea to Sky, which features ocean views nearly the entire way, here one has to gain quite a bit of elevation to see the ocean. In fact, the first clear view of the ocean is around 5.5 miles in as one reaches a divide between the headwaters of San Antonio River and Devils Canyon. However, from this point to the summit the ocean vistas along the north ridge are some of the best the Ventana has to offer. This route is largely dry except for Carrizo Camp Spring so make sure to carry enough water, especially on warm days. A side trip can be made to Cook Spring which is fairly reliable, even with a seep in dry times.
Both the Carrizo Trail and the North Ridge are historic routes. The Carrizo Trail was used by homesteaders in the 1800s as a route from the coast over the crest of the Santa Lucia Mountains. The North Ridge was used to deliver a telegraph wire up to the summit of Cone Peak when the lookout at the summit was still operational. This wire is still visible in spots along the north ridge. However, despite the lengthy history, the Carrizo Trail was becoming quite brushy. The good news is that recent trail work has opened the Carrizo Trail back up! As of this writing, the worst section, known as the “Brush Bowl” between miles 3 and 4 on the Carrizo Trail, was recently brushed to “passable,” meaning that a clear path is evident but it is still narrow in spots. The remainder of the Carrizo Trail is clear! The North Ridge route was never a spot conducive to fast brush growth, but it to had become brushy in spots. After recent work on the North Ridge, it is also clear of brush, but it must be emphasized that this is a “route” and not a “trail” – there is some rock scrambling and a traverse of steep slopes. Instead of the typical blog post format where I’ve had some text near the top followed by a long series of photos in no particular order, the following series of photos are organized in chronological order based on what you would see on the route from trailhead to the summit of Cone Peak. In that sense, this post is a pictorial guide to the Carrizo Trail and North Ridge. The captions to each photos provide relevant details.
Full photo album here. Route display here (from Big Sur Trail Map, the best mapping resource of trails in the Ventana and Silver Peak Wilderness Areas).