Little Big Loop – Santa Lucia Wilderness

The Santa Lucia Wilderness is a little-known 20,412 acre wilderness at the southern end of the Santa Lucia Range near San Luis Obispo. Only a few trails traverse the relatively small wilderness, including Lopez Canyon Trail, Big Falls Trail and Little Falls Trail. The Little Falls and Big Falls Trails can be connected using dirt roads to form an attractive loop. The dirt road on the ridge is a fire road (closed to vehicles) with stellar views of the surrounding ridges while the dirt road at the bottom is the access road for a surprising number of homeowners holed up in lower Lopez Canyon. While the road in Lopez Canyon is publicly accessible, high clearance is required, especially if there is any kind of flow in the waterfalls since the road crosses Lopez Creek many times (and often quite deep). There is therefore little vehicle traffic on the road. For most folks it makes much more sense to park on the other side of the ridge at Rinconada Trailhead.  From Rinconada, a great 13+ mile lasso loop includes the Big Falls and Little Falls Trails which feature three waterfalls, excellent views of the surrounding mountains and great diversity of flora. Moreover, the out-and-back trail from Rinconada to the ridge is not very long (~1.5 miles) and enjoyable in its own right.    

My last visit to this area was in autumn when the falls were mostly dry so it was a completely different experience with the falls and streams gushing at high flow after recent heavy rain. The centerpiece waterfall feature is Big Falls at around 80 ft in height with a beautiful rock amphitheater surrounding the falls. Lower down the Big Falls Trail is a smaller “slide” falls that plunges into a deep pool that makes for a lovely swimming and diving hole on warm summer days. The third falls is “Little Falls”  which is about half the height of Big Falls but has very charming setting and pretty plunge pool. Little Falls is not visible from the Little Falls Trail; instead one must take a usepath that departs the main trail at the last crossing of Little Falls Creek before it embarks on a lengthy ascent up the Little Falls canyon. If there is flow in the creeks expect dozens of creek crossings, both on the trails and the Lopez Canyon road with guaranteed wet feet.

Silver Peak Traverse

Silver Peak rises steeply from the south coast of Big Sur to a lofty perch at 3,590 ft. The summit sits at the center of the 31,555 acre namesake Silver Peak Wilderness, which encompasses some of the most spectacular terrain and scenery in all of Big Sur. Silver Peak is a broad massif with relatively gradual topography at its uppermost elevations becoming progressively steeper as one descends toward the canyons of Salmon Creek and Villa Creek. One of my favorite aspects of the Silver Peak Wilderness is the amazing biological diversity. The upper elevations are generally a mix of chaparral, Gray Pine and Coulter Pine. The eastern end of the Silver Peak massif includes a rare grove of Sargent Cypress. Middle elevations, especially in riparian corridors, tend to feature oak woodland and bay laurel trees. The upper Villa Creek Canyon includes a rare grove of Santa Lucia Firs and the middle and lower sections of Villa Creek Canyon feature one of the southernmost stands of old growth redwood. Meanwhile, Salmon Creek Canyon has a nice stand of Douglas Fir.  Silver Peak stands apart from the south coast ridge crest so the 360 degree panorama from its summit is tremendous. To the north is an excellent view of Cone Peak, Twin Peak and Junipero Serra. Close at hand is San Martin Top, Alder Peak and Lion Peak. To the south is a commanding view of the Dutra Flats area, Mount Mars, County Line Ridge, Bald Top, Piedras Blancas and the mountains of Hearst Ranch in San Luis Obispo County. The steep topographical relief results in immense orographic enhancement of precipitation in winter storms. This results in a number of impressive waterfalls and beautiful streams flowing over bedrock that drain Silver Peak. The Silver Peak Wilderness includes a lovely network of trails. A loop around Silver Peak can be made utilizing the Cruickshank, Salmon Creek and Buckeye Trails and is a wonderful way to enjoy the many facets of this wilderness, but it does not reach the summit of Silver Peak. In order to reach the summit of Silver Peak, a use path on a narrowed old fire road starts at the divide between Villa Creek and Salmon Creek along the Cruickshank Trail. The old fire road has narrowed to single track in spots as it passes thorugh Sargent Cypress, a stand of Coulter Pines and chaparral. The old fire road passes within a few feet of the summit, at which point a short path cuts through the brush to the summit rocks, which includes a summit register. One may continue along the old fireroad west of the summit to complete the traverse of the Silver Peak massif. The old fire road terminates near Silver Peak usecamp. From the Silver Peak usecamp, “Soda Wildtrail” cuts through the chaparral to prominent point 2,866 (aka “Soda Peak”) which sits near the headwaters of Soda Gulch. “Soda Peak” has one of the best views of the south Big Sur coastline looking south to Piedras Blancas and Mount Mars. The final portion of the Silver Peak traverse continues down from Soda Peak toward the Buckeye Trail and features lovely meadows interspersed with pines and oak trees with spectacular vistas the entire way.  

The Lost Grove

I’ve written in great detail about Santa Lucia Firs recently so I won’t repeat myself and describe the awesomeness of this tree again. The highest concentration of Santa Lucias (by far) is in the Carmel River drainage where the rocky, rugged terrain provides an ideal fire-proof habitat for the trees to thrive. The second greatest concentration stretches from Devils Canyon up to Cone Peak, also very rugged and rocky. South of Cone Peak there are only a few isolated groves in existence, perhaps fewer than a half dozen, making each of these groves especially unique. The most accessible of these groves is located in the upper part of Villa Creek in the Silver Peak Wilderness. The Cruickshank Trail passes among the firs with good views into the canyon bottom where the firs are highly concentrated.  As I’m a Santa Lucia Fir aficionado, I decided to visit a more remote stand that has piqued my interest ever since I saw the familiar narrow conical crowns of the Santa Lucia Firs from a nearby ridge. Since the grove is tucked away in a hanging valley with no easy access I decided to name it the Lost Grove. Unlike the larger stands in the Carmel River drainage and Cone Peak, the growing habitat in the Lost Grove is restricted to a narrow mile-long strip along a rocky stream.  The vast majority of the trees reside on the cooler northeast facing slope and the density of firs is some of the greatest I have seen; it’s almost as if the trees are huddling together to keep cool. There is a sharp gradient between the Santa Lucia Firs and the hot chaparral slopes with only a few Coulter and gray pines mixed in. It appears destructive fire has largely avoided this grove for many years and the result is some amazing old growth trees with impressively tall spire-like crowns that epitomize the Santa Lucia Fir. A few of the firs appeared drought stressed or have already succumbed to drought so hopefully this winter’s rain will be sufficient to help these trees survive the next summer. This grove resides in a relatively hotter and drier location than most Santa Lucias so it did not come as a surprise that the effects of the drought were visible, but the vast majority of trees still appeared healthy and there were hundreds of new saplings on the shady forest floor poised to become the next generation. I also suspect that the lifespan of the Santa Lucia Fir is not all the great as every grove I have visited includes several old snags. Access to the grove entails either a moderately brushy approach from a nearby ridge with excellent views to the Pacific Ocean or a creek walk with an extended stretch of beautiful bedrock and boulder cascades. 

Ventana Cone & Lion Rock

I enjoyed last year’s Ventana (single) Cone Adventure so much that I came back to explore a new ascent route up Ventana Cone and a new descent route from Lion Rock. I climbed both peaks on the Ventana Triple Crown route last year, but in my opinion climbing Ventana Cone and Lion Rock from the Carmel River is more aesthetic as it includes some amazing creek walking, waterfalls and Santa Lucia Fir groves. Both routes went as planned and proved to be efficient ways to climb both Ventana Cone and Lion Rock with relatively light brush in a trail-less region where bushwhacking is notoriously arduous. Ventana Cone is not visited very often (I was the first entry of 2016) and Lion Rock is visited even less frequently with only on a few parties known to have stood on its rocky summit in the last several decades. The stretch from Kandlbinder to Ventana Cone is the most rugged and wild region in all of the Ventana (and arguably the coastal ranges of the West Coast) so it is always a pleasure to visit this area.  As with last year, the first part of the morning entailed running the Carmel River Trail from Los Padres Dam traveling nearly 10 miles deep into the canyon to Hiding Canyon Camp, a nice camp with Santa Lucia Firs and a tall ponderosa pine. Another 1.5 miles leads to Round Rock Camp. The trail to Round Rock Camp has some brush and blowdowns but still seems faster than walking in the river. Beyond Round Rock Camp is all off-trail, mostly creek-walking through a stunningly beautiful canyon of turqoise pools, slick rock, cascades, house-sized boulders, ferns, and moss. The amazing lushness of this deep canyon with several different varieties of ferns, and moss covering virtually everything creates a scene fit for Jurassic Park. Almost everything is photogenic. However, unlike last year, I took the first creek that enters the main tributary instead of continuing to the head of the canyon (my return route would include the entire canyon). This small creek does not produce enough flow to clear out the riparian brush so it is difficult in its lower reaches and I found much progress on the slopes above the stream bed. Eventually the stream opens up into a long talus field, at first under oak trees but increasingly a Santa Lucia Fir forest as one ascends the steepening slopes. The old growth Santa Lucia firs in the upper part of this drainage are simply amazing. The talus staircase is fairly stable and therefore an efficient route all the way up to a high notch where one must traverse into another drainage for the final climb up to Ventana Cone. This traverse includes some light brush with the burnt vegetation being the greater impediment. A final talus slope provides efficient access to the ridge near the summit of Ventana Cone. The view from Ventana Cone was just as I had remembered it from prior visits with a 360 degree panorama taking in the entire northern part of the Santa Lucia Mountains. Close at hand are the Ventana Spires, Ventana Double Cone, Kandlbinder and Lion Rock. From Ventana Cone to Lion Rock I used the same route as I did on the Triple Crown, generally staying on the east side of the ridge in talus slopes with Santa Lucia Firs. Lion Rock is an unofficial name I gave this majrestic peak that sits at the head of Lion Creek. Lion Rock is rugged and steep on all sides and an attractive peak from every direction. In fact, it’s one of my favorites in all of the Ventana. An old scrap register was left by legendary Ventana pioneer Ward Allison and Toshi Hosaka placed a new mini-register last year (no other signatures after his visit). From Lion Rock I descended the class 3 rock face and worked north to the top of a long and steep talus slope. Unlike the earlier talus slope, this one had much smaller, looser rock and the descent was rather tedious, but still much more efficient and pleasant than a bushwhack. This talus slope continued virtually unabated for over a thousand vertical feet before I reached more more mixed terrain. As the creek picked up flow I found myself increasingly in the stream descending into the lovely canyon with bedrock cascades, fern gardens and moss covered rocks. There are several beautiful waterfalls in this drainage including Spire Falls, Lion Rock Falls, Ventana Cone Falls, Carmel Falls and the Carmel Gorge.

Vicente Falls & Limekiln Falls

While the average annual number of rainy days on the central coast is not particularly notable, the terrain on Big Sur is capable of immense orographic enhancement and staggering rainfall totals when Pacific moisture and jet stream energy align with the terrain. Rises steeply from the ocean to its 5,164 ft summit, Cone Peak is particularly adept at squeezing out the moisture from clouds and when combined with its rugged and extremely steep topography you get some impressive waterfalls on the mountain’s flanks. Two such waterfalls are Vicente Falls and Limekiln Falls.

  Limkiln Falls is a relatively accessible 90 ft drop at the bottom of Middle Fork Limekiln Creek. The short hike to reach the falls from the Limekiln State Park day use and camping area passes through an attractive redwood grove with a carpet of redwood sorrel and pretty cascades along Limekiln Creek. After taking the main trail along Limekiln Creek, turn right at a junction and head up the Middle Fork Limekiln Canyon to the falls, crossing the creek four times along the way. These crossings are usually dry but will be wet in higher flow with no bridges in place. The main drop is measured at 90 ft and that is all that is visible from below, but there are additional drops upstream. The falls has two distinct prongs separated by a massive mineral apron. The prongs spreading outward from the top are reminiscent of the tusks of a mammoth. In the very highest flows, this apron is entirely covered in water, but the general character of the falls is the two prongs with moss and vegetation growing on the mineral accumulation in between. Due to high visitation, vegetation at the base of the falls has been largely trampled to dirt. The falls only features a small, shallow plunge pool.

When in flow, Vicente Falls is a very pretty falls spanning 190 ft from top to bottom. The falls drains the region immediately below the southeast face of Cone Peak, which is the drier, hotter side of the mountain. Thus, appreciable flow is not the norm for this falls (especially in the last few years of drought) and the falls is light at best or more accurately a drip most of the year. However, after a heavy rain, the falls transforms into a beautiful cataract over the immense cliffs tumbling over at least four distinct drops into the redwood forest. From below, the uppermost drops are not visible, but around 120 vertical feet of the falls is visible. Similar to Limekiln Falls, the plunge pool at the base of Vicente Falls is shallow and small. Vicente Falls is located upstream of Vicente Flat in a side canyon of the main Hare Canyon. The trek up to the falls includes some photogenic cascades and small pools in a narrow canyon along with some poison oak and blowdown debris. It is interesting to note that for most of the year the main stem of Hare Canyon has higher flow but after heavy rain the side canyon containing Vicente Falls greatly exceeds the main stem. This is indicative of some large springs in the canyon along the main stem while the Vicente Falls side canyon is largely runoff based flow. Visiting Limekiln Falls, Vicente Falls, or both gives an excuse to spend some time on lovely Cone Peak, one of the centerpiece features of Big Sur with amazing vistas and scenery, some of which I’ve highlighted here.  For additional waterfalls in Big Sur, see the Waterfall Project

Miller Santa Lucia Fir Grove

I’ll admit it: I’m enamored with the majestic Santa Lucia Fir, Abies bracteata. The species is the rarest fir on the earth and can only be found on the rocky peaks or canyon bottoms in the Santa Lucia mountain range. Even within the mountain range it’s not a common tree and is limited to around two dozen groves sprinkled throughout the mountains. It’s a proud tree with a tall, narrow crown that is spire-like and sharply pointed, reminiscent of the subalpine fir in the mountainous regions of the Pacific Northwest but much larger, taller (up to 100 ft) and well adapted to survive in a region where severe drought, heavy winter rains, and fire are a regular occurrence.

  • How does a non-fire resistant conifer survive in the coastal mountains of California where fire is a regular occurrence? The answer is in the topography. The location of the Santa Lucia Firs groves is largely dictated by fire. Unlike the redwoods with fire resistant bark, the Santa Lucia Fir has thin bark and keeps its lower branches making it non-resistant to fire and susceptible to fire injury. However, the tree is remarkably adapted to the reality of periodic fires through these mountains. Virtually all of the groves are found in “fire-proof” locations, either on precipitous cliffs or at the bottom of steep, rocky canyons that preclude the accumulation of plant litter and the growth of grass and brush that fuel fires. Thus, fire embers are limited in their penetration into the groves. The result is that most fires skip over the Santa Lucia Fir groves and they have survived in these mountains despite numerous fire episodes that have engulfed surrounding terrain.
  • But how does a conifer that looks like it belongs in a cold weather climate survive the droughts and hot summers of the Santa Lucia Mountains? The answer is also in the topography. Stands of Santa Lucia Firs located on high peaks are typically found on north or northeast facing slopes that are sheltered from the rays of the sizzling summer sun. Similarly, canyon-bottom groves are situated in locations that provide ample shade, cool air flow and a source of moisture during the hot and dry summer months.
  • Why is the Santa Lucia Fir endemic to the Santa Lucia Mountains?  Did it once have a wider range? From my research, the history of the Santa Lucia Fir and how it arrived to the Santa Lucia Mountains is somewhat of a mystery, but the reason why it does not have a wider range is, you guessed it, also the result of topography. The following quote sums it up nicely: “As to why [the Santa Lucia Fir] is not found elsewhere in the West today we can ask ourselves: Where else can high equability, heavy winter rains with long dry summers, and large areas of fireproof topography be found. The answer is nowhere but the Santa Lucia Mountains for all of western North America” (Talley, Steven N. 1972.06.08. Notes concerning the status of ecological studies on Santa Lucia fir, Abies bracteata. http://www.conifers.org/pi/Abies_bracteata.php). The Santa Lucia Mountains are indeed unique and special, and the Santa Lucia Fir is but one of the many magical aspects of these mountains. Note that “high equability” refers to the close range of temperatures throughout the year that is characteristic of Mediterranean climate.
  • Most agree the Santa Lucia Fir is a majestic tree and it’s now widely distributed in botanical and private gardens, but why is the narrow, spire-like crown not present in these plantings? The spire-like crown is immediately recognizable in the wild groves and it’s what makes the Santa Lucia Fir so magical. Age of the tree is almost certainly a factor as ornamental plantings are still generally young trees and the narrow crowns are almost exclusive to old-growth trees. Even in the wild, the young trees do not have the narrow crown and only the older trees take on the quintessential spire-like shape. However, even some older plantings of Santa Lucia Fir fail to take on the spire-like shape. For this reason I suspect topography is also a factor.  The wild Santa Lucia Fir groves are located on precipitously steep slopes or deep, shady canyons which cause adaptations in the growth patterns, often forcing the firs to lean over and reach for the sky in search of sunlight.

One of the first things noticed when standing by a Santa Lucia Fir is its persistent lower branches which help to give the fir its beautiful conical shape. Moving closer to a branch, one must be careful not to touch the needles carelessly since they are unusually large (2 inches) and sharp-tipped. In fact, the tips are so sharp they can pierce the skin. The Santa Lucia Fir groves have a diverse set of neighboring trees and each grove seems to have different set of cohabitants making them even more unique and special. For instance, groves in the Big Sur River drainage often grow among redwoods while the groves on Cone Peak share the rocky slopes with Sugar Pines and Coulter Pines. In a few locations the fir can be found alongside incense cedars. In the Carmel River watershed, heritage oaks, sycamores and big leaf maples are common next to the firs and sometimes there are ponderosa pines.

Over the course of my travels in the Ventana and Silver Peak Wilderness I’ve seen many of the existing groves, but an expansive grove tucked into a rugged canyon of the Miller Fork is perhaps the finest of all. It’s my understanding that a larger grove once covered the flanks of Ventana Double Cone, but many of the trees were taken out in the Basin Fire of 2008. While large portions of the Ventana Double Cone grove were untouched in the fire (the especially fire-proof spots), the surface area of the grove was substantially reduced. Meanwhile, it appears the Miller grove was largely untouched by the fire. This deep, rocky canyon provides ideal conditions for the trees to thrive with moisture, shade and protection from fires. The result is a fantastic display of elegant old growth Santa Lucias with density that is rivaled by few other places in the range. It came as no surprise that the rugged, deep canyon where the Santa Lucias Firs thrive contains a pretty gorge  where the canyon walls come in to the watercourse. This narrows feature is worthy of the trip in itself, but when combined with the old growth Santa Lucia Firs soaring above the canyon it makes for a magical experience.  All photos are from Miller Canyon except photo 2 (Ventana Double Cone), photo 3 (Cone Peak) and photo 5 (Kandlbinder). Complete photo album here

On FKTs

The Fastest Known Time concept has gained some popularity recently. I’ve been an enthusiastic participant for many years setting a few FKTs of my own, some of which have since been eclipsed and others remain as of this writing.  As the sport grows and FKTs become more competitive I’d like to share some of my thoughts on FKTs. I likely haven’t made my last serious attempt at an FKT, but it may come as a surprise that achieving maximum speed in wild and rugged places has never been my priority and likely won’t become my style moving forward. My mentality has always been to enjoy the scenery as much as possible and I wouldn’t have it any other way. For me this means I’m achieving times that are substantially slower than if I were actually racing, and this trade off is fine with me. The volume of experiences I’ve had in rugged and wild places in the mountains far surpasses the temporary satisfaction I get from setting a fast time. In virtually all cases I’ve eschewed focusing on the granular details of splits and time goals, and instead focused on things like where is the most dramatic angle or when and where will the best light be for photography. Aside from one FKT, I’ve always carried a camera and used it liberally. Anybody who follows my adventures understands that photography is a huge part of my enjoyment in the mountains and good photography takes time. For example, on the High Sierra Trail and Rae Lakes Loop FKTs I took hundreds of photos. If I wanted to go much faster I would start be leaving my camera at home. However, when it comes to making that decision, I’ve always chosen to spend my time adventuring to new places with my camera and spending the time to take good (in my biased opinion) photos.  In other words, I would rather spend my time designing new routes than follow in somebody else’s footsteps. “Beating” a time, whether it be my own or somebody else’s, has never really been a great motivator for me and it’s something I spend less and less time thinking about the more I’m inspired by visiting places that are off the beaten path.  Make no mistake, moving fast in the mountains is an essential part of my style. It enables me to experience as much wild and rugged scenery as possible. However, the journey itself is my award and if I were to pass through each adventure with my head down only seeking a time at the end, the visceral experience between me and nature would be lost. Turning wilderness routes into hyper competitive exploits runs counter to most of the reasons why I go to the mountains in the first place. If I were into beating other people for the sake of athletic competition, it seems the appropriate place is always going to be an organized race competing against peers in an environment where the variables for each participant are the same. I’ve raced extensively in the past but in recent years I’ve chosen to pursue the adventures with all of my free time (when I’m not working full time as an attorney). It took me awhile to discover that my competitive fire does not match my fire to explore and adventure to remote and wild places. They likely never matched, but once I understood this about myself, the races started to feel predictable and domesticated. After taking time to prepare for a race I needed to get back to the wilderness to experience the kind of personal inspiration that racing could not provide. For me, battling brush, creek walking and scrambling up peaks, all of which contain little actual running, are not ideal preparation for a trail or ultra race, but it’s what I wanted to do. To perform to my capabilities I knew that I needed to train specifically by running on trails. However, this type of preparation for a race and the race itself started to feel like a sacrifice when my heart wanted to be out exploring remote and wild corners. If I wanted to travel, it wouldn’t be to a new race venue, but instead to a new corner of the Sierra or the Ventana. Eventually the realization was that I should do what makes me most happy with my free time, which in my case is exploring and adventuring in the mountains. 

My journey continues and I’m sure it will evolve and manifest in different ways which is exciting. For instance, I’ve taken great enjoyment in a recent project to explore and catalog the hidden waterfalls of Big Sur. In many ways this project is an ideal expression of my desire to explore as many of these falls are undiscovered or have not been visited by humans in decades. Everybody has different reasons for racing or attempting FKTs and I’m not judging anybody’s reasons or decisions, only sharing my own personal perspective and what motivates me to get out into the mountains. If I were to give any advice, it would be to care less about the affirmation of others and what they think you should be doing and instead follow where your heart leads you.