Uncovered Route: The Window & Kandlbinder via Cabezo Prieto

Stunning vistas on along the south ridge of Kandlbinder
Ventana Double Cone from Kandlbinder

Kandlbinder Peak and the Window are two of the more remote spots in the Ventana Wilderness.  For extensive background on these spectacular locations see a prior post here.  Prior to the Soberanes Fire the standard route to both Kandlbinder and the Window was via the Pico Scout Camp up the Little Sur River and then Jackson Creek.  While beautiful in its own right, that route is mostly under the redwood forest canopy until emerging on the rocky slopes high on the Window and Kandlbinder.  The other routes were either very long or needlessly tortuous due to thick brush. The Soberanes Fire changed this calculus by clearing out the brush along a connecting ridge from Cabezo Prieto to Kandlbinder Peak.  From the fire break on Cabezo to Kandlbinder is almost exactly 3 miles. These 3 miles used to require many hours of toiling in thick brush but have now been transformed into a manageable cross-country route. As with most things in the Ventana, the brush will grow back and the efficiency of this route will degrade with time, but for now it’s likely the most efficient and scenic route to Kandlbinder and the Window, especially considering the fact that Bottchers Gap requires an additional few miles on foot to reach, and the condition of the Jackson Creek route has likely degraded due to the fire and subsequent winter storms. GPS route here.

Evening view of Pico Blanco

Reach the summit of Cabezo Prieto from either the Mount Manuel Trail in Pfieffer Big Sur State Park or the East Molera Trail in Andrew Molera State Park.  Both options are about the same distance although East Molera includes more elevation gain and is not as well graded as the Mount Manuel Trail. However, it is the author’s opinion that the East Molera route is much more scenic as it includes one of the most spectacular grassy ridges in Big Sur with views to Point Sur and Pico Blanco.  Both options involved well-trodden trails for the first few miles before transitioning to a fire break that was cleared and widened in the Soberanes Fire operations. With time brush will likely reestablish itself on this firebreak but maybe the forest service will do a better job of maintaining it? At any rate, the route is currently obvious and efficient from both direction to reach the high point of Cabezo Prieto, which is actually composed of two humps of almost equal height.

Fantastic view of Pico Blanco from Kandlbinder

From the southern “hump” high point, descend steeply off the ridge in oak forest before traversing skier’s left to the east ridge of Cabezo Prieto. Gain the crest of this ridge and descend further in oak woodland staying generally along the crest or just south of it. A patch of unburned brush is reached at the end of the oak woodland. Instead of fighting the brush, drop off the south side of the ridge in continued oak forest and then traverse through burned brush skeletons on the south side of the ridge to get around the unburned section of brush. A short sliver of unburned brush must be passed through to regain the ridge crest. This is probably the most annoying section of the route, but the cumbersome brush skeletons and side-hilling surely beat the thick brush that existed here before. Back on the ridge crest things turn easier before one must traverse the south slopes once again. The side-hilling can be cumbersome but game paths on these traverses are remarkably helpful. Ultimately this second traverse deposits one at the first of several grassy meadows. Make an ascending traverse of these grassy meadows staying near or just to the south of the ridge crest. The efficient travel through these grassy sections is welcome. Another unburned patch is reached along the ridge requiring a work-around to the south before regaining the ridge near point 3179 on the USGS map. Another efficient grassy oakland stretch ensues before emerging onto a landscape that was nearly burned to the ground.  Just prior to this section one can descend to the north of the ridge for 500 feet (200 vertical feet) to reach the headwaters stream of the South Fork Little Sur River.  Water here is fairly reliable as evidenced by the copious ferns and riparian vegetation near the stream. This is the last and only water en route so take note of this opportunity.

Mulberger Dome in the foreground and Manuel Peak in the background

Back on the route, one can easily bypass point 3412 on its north side ending up a saddle between point 3412 and a limestone rock outcropping to the north.  One can easily climb this limestone rock outcropping or bypass it as well on its east side. At this point one is at the foot of the biggest climb of the off-trail portion the route and Mulberger Dome (aka Ventana Dome) looms above. Fortunately, this steep climb is relatively easy along a grassy ridge. I suggest crossing a small gully and taking the north option of the two prominent ridges, which ends up just to the north of Mulberger Dome. Mulberger Dome sits at the end of the south ridge of Kandlbinder and provides a stunning vantage of the most rugged coastal cirque in the contiguous United States stretching from Kandlbinder to the Window to Ventana Double Cone. A rugged masterpiece of cliffs, rock and buttresses is at one’s feet. Coulter Pines and Santa Lucia Firs cling to the extremely steep slopes, withstanding tough growing conditions in return for protection from wildfires that ravage these lands periodically.

View of the Drain and Ventana Double Cone from pinnacle above The Window (aka La Ventana)

From Mulberger Dome to Kandlbinder is one of the greatest ridgeline traverses in the Ventana. To the west one gazes back to Cabezo Prieto, Post Summit, Pico Blanco and the Pacific Ocean while on the other side a couple thousand feet of cliffs descend to the headwaters of Ventana Creek while Ventana Double Cone towers above on the other side of the cirque. The shale on the upper slopes of Kandlbinder has a distinctive reddish color that contrasts sharply with the white limestone rocks that make up Ventana Double Cone. Aside from one small section of brush, this final ridge is mostly clear of brush thanks to the fire and it’s fairly efficient to reach the summit of Kandlbinder, which features a tremendous 360 view taking in everything from the Big Sur coastline to the Ventana Double Cone’s impressive west face.  The excellent ridge traverse continues from Kandlbinder to the Window. For the first half, it’s generally best to stay right on the ridge crest. At a low point along the ridge, move to the south side to avoid thick brush skeletons before regaining the ridge. For the final part of the traverse to the Window it’s best to leave the ridge crest and traverse on the north side. A must-see vista is the pinnacle on the southwest side of the Window which has arguably the most dramatic view of Ventana Double Cone anywhere.  By comparison, the base of the Window (where the register is located) is largely covered in forest canopy and does not have a great view.  At this point, the adventure may be just getting going or one may chose to return the way they came. Either way, one will have already experienced some of the finest vistas and scenery the Ventana Wilderness has to offer.

Traversing between Kandlbinder Peak and The Window with Pico Blanco and Bixby Mountain in the background
Coulter Pines cling to the red shale on Kandlbinder Peak with Ventana Double Cone in the background
Pico Blanco puts on a show from all directions
Traversing meadows with Cabezo Prieto and Manuel Peak in the background
On the stunning ridge to Kandlbinder Peak
Cliffs above The Window
Evening view to Post Summit and Pico Blanco from Cabezo Prieto
Evening view to Kandlbinder Peak (left) and Cabezo Prieto (right) from near Post Summit
Another Kandlbinder summit for Flyin’ Brian
Kandlbinder distinctively red and remarkably loose shale slopes
Mulberger Dome
Some scrambling along the ridge from Kandlbinder to the Window
Along the 3 mile ridge traverse from Cabezo Prieto to Kandlbinder which is now relatively straightforward
View down Ventana Creek
Ventana Double Cone from Mulberger Dome
Grassy meadow section along the traverse
Emerging from a sliver of unburned brush; most brush is avoidable on the route
Near the Window
Mulberger Dome looks impressive from below
Steep view to the ocean
Sunset over Pico Blanco
Another sunset shot moments later
Evening view of Point Sur
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