The Black Cone Trail bisects one of the most remote regions of the Ventana Wilderness from Pine Ridge to Strawberry Valley with outstanding views of the seldom-seen North Fork Big Sur River drainage and Ventana Double Cone. The trail has a reputation for being rugged and difficult with sloping tread, brush and lack of reliable water sources. Despite the Soberanes Fire naturally clearing a majority of the brush, there remains extended unburned sections with difficult interlocking brush and uneven, sloping tread for many miles. Trail work before the fire on the southern end has held up well with good tread and brush skeletons not impacting the trail corridor, but it appears most of the middle section has not seen trail maintenance in years. Overall, the Black Cone Trail is in better condition than it has been in a long time so now is a great opportunity to enjoy this trail, but it is still a difficult outing where one will find a true Ventana adventure with a mix of challenges related to both post-fire conditions and unburned brush growth. One of the most important things to consider on this trail is the lack of water as the two springs (White Cone Spring and Woodwardia Spring) are not reliable and can be dry in the summer or during a dry winter (they are currently both dry and will likely stay dry throughout summer and fall 2018 unless we get major rains in March). It is therefore imperative that one carry adequate water from the Pine Ridge spring or Carmel River headwaters on the north end, or from the Zigzag Creek headwaters on the south end, because the trail is likely going to be dry. When combined with the relentless exposure to sun on this trail, water needs are going to be high. Getting to the Black Cone Trail entails many miles on either the Pine Ridge Trail (from the north) or the Marble Peak Trail (from the south) so it’s a long outing just to reach the Black Cone Trail where the challenges begin. However, despite the arduous nature of the trail, the exceptional scenery more than make for any difficulties and it’s a classic route of the Ventana Wilderness. GPX route here. Photo album here.
On this outing, we may made a loop by starting at Pine Ridge Trailhead and running down the road to the Tassajara Zen Center. Pass through the Zen Center quietly on the user easement to access the Tony Trail which provides an efficient route up and over to the Marble Peak Trail. The Tony Trail is in great shape on the north side up the steep climb to the ridge and the south side has some brush but passable. At the bottom of the Tony Trail take the Marble Peak Trail to Strawberry Valley. The Marble Peak Trail travels alongside Willow Creek which did not burn in the Soberanes Fire but near the Willow-Zigzag divide one enters a burned portion and the scenery drastically changes. The upper Zigzag watershed had already taken a hit in the 2008 Basin Complex fire and now it is almost entirely decimated. Few live trees remain and the regrowth after a wet winter was immense. Hopefully this land will be given a chance to heal.
The Black Cone Trail starts in Strawberry Valley where it follows Zigzag Creek in a riparian zone (can be very brushy) before switchbacking out of the drainage and onto an old fire road bed. The fire road climbs the hillside at an even grade to crest at a divide between Zigzag Creek and the North Fork Big Sur River. As one crests this divide one is treated to a magnificent view of the North Fork Big Sur River drainage that reveals itself for the first time. At the end of the canyon the most rugged corner of the Vetana rises prominently including Ventana Double Cone, the Window and Kandlbinder. At this divide, one can make a side trip to climb Black Cone at 4,472 ft, which is just under 1,000 feet above the trail at this location. This climb is undoubtedly easier after the fire cleared the brush and while steep in portions, it’s a relatively efficient route. The views only improve as one ascends the slope to the summit. While Black Cone is not a relatively high peak of the Ventana, especially with respect to higher terrain along the ridge to it’s north, Black Cone’s central position and prominence at the south end of the ridge result in stellar 360 degree views. To the north one can look down the North Fork Big Sur River drainage to Ventana Double Cone. To the west Coast Ridge looks tantalizing close, but in reality it’s a long ways away on rugged trails. To the south is Cone Peak rising above the south coast and to the southeast is Santa Lucia Peak, the highest peak in the Ventana.
Back on the Black Cone Trail, the trail traverses the hillside beneath Black Cone. The tread and corridor through the brush skeletons remains excellent for about another mile before transitioning to the sloped tread characteristic of the middle section. This landscape was severely burned leaving only brush skeletons and regrowth of grasses and yerba santa. The brush skeletons are generally short and do not impede progress except where the trail traverses into northern aspects where taller brush burned and the skeletons fell into the trail. At about the half point of the trail, one can make another side trip to the 4,725 ft summit of White Cone which is even more remote than Black Cone. Also known as the Elephant Hump, White Cone has large summit plateau that looks like a hump when viewed from other high points in the Ventana. It is aptly named with distinctive white limestone rocks on its west face. After the Soberanes Fire burned the low lying brush on this face, it is even more strikingly white. On the summit plateau of White Cone is a remote rain gauge sensor for advanced flood control. Interestingly, this gauge is named “Black Cone” but it is actually positioned on White Cone. The flat summit of White Cone enables the gauge to be serviced by helicopter. The view from White Cone is distinctly different from Black Cone and worthy of the additional side trip. In particular, the angle from White Cone down the main stem of the Big Sur River all the way to the Big Sur Valley and Pacific Ocean is outstanding. In addition, White Cone has an excellent vantage into the trail-less upper Tassajara Creek drainage. Of course, Ventana Double Cone and the cirque including the Window and Kandlbinder remain prominent, as they do for virtually the entire duration of the Black Cone Trail.
The northern section of the Black Cone Trail is arguably the most difficult in current conditions. At Venturi Usecamp, the trail reaches the crest of the ridge for the first time. Just north of the usecamp is a short section of unburned brush before the trail emerges for the first of several sections that are right on the ridge crest with stellar views on both sides. About a mile north of Venturi Usecamp the trail enters an extended unburned section that includes the most difficult interlocking brush of the entire trail. While the tread is well-defined, there is a lot of pushing through the brush. The trail emerges from the brush for one last burned section near point 4703 before returning into the brush for good all the way to the junction of Pine Ridge Trail. The brush in this final section is easier than the brush in the prior section though I was amazed to see how much it had filled in just a couple years since my last visit to this section, particularly manzanita growing in the trail. On the final section of the trail on the ridge crest, make sure to look into the Upper Tassajara Creek on the east side to see an expansive grove Santa Lucia Firs.