This post covers the first in a series of routes in the Ventana Double Cone region which features arguably the most rugged and wild coastal terrain in the contiguous United States. This first route is a repeat of “The Drain” route I did last year with Joey Cassidy with a mini-loop addition to visit the “Ventana Spires” which are stunning rocky pinnacles situated on a narrow ridge across from Ventana Double Cone with the headwaters of Ventana Mesa Creek in between. The next two posts will detail (1) the Ventana Triple Crown which is a spectacular high ridge traverse from South Ventana Cone to Ventana Cone to Ventana Double Cone and (2) a point-to-point route up beautiful Ventana Creek past 50 ft Ventana Falls to The Window (aka La Ventana) and Kandblinder carrying over into the Little Sur drainage to finish at Bottcher’s Gap. Strava GPS route for the Drain and Ventana Spires here. My route on this day was a repeat of the Drain Route from April 2014 plus a mini-loop to visit the awesome Ventana Spires. The Drain became one of my favorite routes that I’ve done when I did it in April 2014 so I knew it was amazing, but I was still in awe of the sheer ruggedness and beauty of the cirque between Kandlbinder and Ventana Double Cone on the second time. In fact, this time may have been more enjoyable knowing that the route would go without issue. The Ventana Creek cirque provides a real sense of adventure in a truly wild canyon that is rugged and unspoiled and it was a pleasure to revisit. A route description and more details on the Drain route between Kandlbinder and Ventana Double Cone can be found here, but I’ve included a whole bunch of photos in this post from this year’s trip through the drain. After completing the Drain route and topping out on Ventana Double Cone, I descended into the headwaters of Ventana Mesa Creek via an efficient gully through Santa Lucia Fir groves and talus. From the creek I took another steep talus gully with some rock scramblingn up to the Ventana Spires, which have remarkably rugged and precipitous SE faces. “Ventana Spires” is an unofficial name for these rocky pinnacles, but seems very fitting. Their position in the most remote region of the wilderness makes them particularly special. Few people have have stood atop the spires. There are three prominent points along the ridge make up the Ventana Spires and I’ve chosen to call them the north, middle and south Ventana Spires. The spires increase in height from north to south. From the north spire the ridge continues north gradually losing elevation on terrain that looks fairly brush free; a potential future project to explore down the ridge. The middle spire has an impressive view of the south spire with the wild east fork of Ventana Creek in the background. The south spire has perhaps the most dramatic view looking back to the middle spire and its sheer SE cliffs. All of the spires have amazing views across the expanse of wilderness and Santa Lucia Firs to Ventana Cone including the intermediary summits I dubbed “Lion Rock” and “Ventana Knob.” I traversed the two highest spires (Middle and South) and then descended to the saddle between the Ventana Spires and Ventana Double Cone (VDC). Last time I experienced some thick brush in this section, but this time I was able to avoid most of the brush by staying on the south side of the ridge where there was a corridor of brush free scrambling between the cliffs and the brush. The 3rd class scrambling on the Ventana Spires traverse and the East Ridge of VDC were highly enjoyable in a stunning setting. I enjoyed the afternoon light from VDC and then began the trail run back to Bottcher’s Gap along the Ventana Double Cone Trail to Pat Springs and the Skinner Ridge Trail from pat Springs to Bottcher’s Gap. The Ventana Double Cone Trail from the summit to Puerto Suello Gap was characteristically overgrown. As usual, the cold and clear water at Pat Springs was a most welcome sight. Strava GPS route for the Drain and Ventana Spires here.
Updated June 29, 2015 to include Cinnamon Falls
Updated June 18, 2015 to include Hanging Garden Falls and Ventana Mesa Falls
While most of the content on this blog is based on photography and experiences from specific trips, I occasionally like to produce special posts that gather my thoughts from numerous experiences into a cohesive list. This special post includes a description and photos from a couple dozen waterfalls I have visited in the Big Sur region, from cataracts deep in the most remote and wild corners of the Ventana Wilderness to the easily accessible falls near the highway. The Big Sur region has incredible topographical relief from the summits of the Santa Lucia Mountains down to the rocky shores of the Pacific Ocean so it should come as no surprise that the rugged canyons draining the peaks hold many amazing waterfalls. This list includes a photo of each falls I have visited along with a short description. Where I have made a video of a falls I have also included the video footage as I have come to discover that video is a particular great medium to capture the movement of water. While this is a fairly comprehensive catalog of the waterfalls in the Big Sur region, including the Silver Peak and Ventana Wilderness, there are several falls I have yet to visit. I plan to update this post as I visit these falls, although it may take some time as several of them require substantial rainfall for optimal viewing which may not happen until next winter.
- Last Chance Falls (120 ft): When in flow, Last Chance Falls is arguably the most dramatic waterfall in the Ventana Wilderness. The falls flow over an overhanging precipice in an impressive free fall with a large cavern behind the falls. A natural amphitheater of cliffs surrounds the falls and the setting surrounding the falls is fit for a scene out of Jurassic Park. The ephemeral nature of Last Chance Falls makes it particularly special and requires planning, or more accurately, waiting for the ideal conditions which occur during a small window after heavy rains.
- Canogas Falls (80 ft total): Located deep in Devils Canyon on the South Fork Devils Canyon Creek which drains the remote north side of Cone Peak, Canogas Falls is one of the most stunning waterfalls in Big Sur. The falls includes multiple steps with spectacular turquoise pools in between each step. The falls is nestled between rugged cliffs with a lush redwood forest at the base of the falls making it a magical setting.
- Devils Falls (80-90 ft est): I identified Devils Falls by satellite and topography with essentially no information about the drainage prior to my visit. Much to my excitement, Devis Falls turned out to be one of the great gems of the Ventana. The falls is located along the pristine Middle Fork Devils Canyon Creek, one of the most rugged and remote drainages in the wilderness where few humans have set foot. The falls contains two primary steps with spectacular turquoise pools in between. The upper segment is a few feet taller than the lower segment. Just above the main waterfall steps is a lead-in falls of about 20 ft with another turquoise pool (not included in the height). Perhaps most amazing about Devils Falls is its spectacular setting tucked into an incredibly rugged cirque of vertical cliffs culminating in a spire I dubbed “Devils Spire”. Similar to Canogas Falls on the South Fork Devils Canyon, Devils Falls has thick accumulation of mineral deposits on the rock surfaces in the pools and over the falls.
- Hellhole Falls (40 ft est): Hellhole Falls tumbles from a V-shaped notch into a chasm and ultimately into a large turquoise pool. Together with Canogas Falls and a half dozen other smaller falls within a relatively short distance, this is arguably the most rugged and impressive stretch of canyon in all of Big Sur. The lead up to Hellhole Falls is just as striking as the falls itself with a number of cascades and waterfalls over smooth bedrock. Behind the falls is a distinguished spire-like Santa Lucia Fir epitomizing the Ventana. I dubbed the falls “Hellhole” since it fits with the naming of the canyon and also because of the impasse that this falls presents to the adventurer to continuing upstream. However, the falls is not a true impasse since a very steep and loose gully downstream of the falls can be used to gain the cliffs where a bushwhacking traverse leads back to the creek upstream of the falls. Video of Hellhole Falls is in the last minute of the Devils Falls video above.
- Sugar Falls (40 ft): The highest falls on the South Fork Devils Canyon near the headwaters of the creek below Cone Peak, Sugar Falls was a splendid discovery. The falls has an extremely lush setting of hanging green vegetation and a deep turquoise pool that is magical. As with other waterfalls in Devils Canyon, there is heavy mineral accumulation on everything submerged in water and especially on the face of the waterfall. This thick mineral accumulation provides the basis for vegetation to grow next to the falls, channels the watercourse and creates the spectacular turquoise color in the plunge pool. We named the falls “Sugar Falls” since this is the only falls I know of in the Big Sur/Ventana region near a grove of Sugar Pines and the water appears like falling sugar as it passes through the mineral-encrusted channel.
- Devils Pool (35 ft): The most remarkable aspect of this falls is not the falls itself (which is very pretty too), but the expansive and deep plunge pool, which is likely the greatest of its kind in Big Sur, hence I named the feature “Devils Pool.” Similar to the other plunge pools in Devils Canyon, the pool takes on a bright turquoise with sunlight and changes to emerald in the shade. This is also due to thick calcification of minerals on all surfaces in which the water passes. This process is unlike anywhere else I have seen in Big Sur. Due to the large size and depth of Devils Pool, the colors are enhanced making the setting especially magical. The waterfall drop into the pool is around 35 ft but has twice as much flow as any of the falls in Devils Canyon since it’s downstream of the middle and south fork confluence.
- Pick Creek Falls (80 ft): A picturesque falls which shoots over a ledge with an 80 ft free-fall into a large, clear pool surrounded by a lovely grove of old growth Santa Lucia Firs (Abies bracteata aka Bristlecone Fir), with their unmistakable slender, spire-like stature. The Santa Lucia Fir is endemic to the northern part of the Santa Lucia Mountains and the rarest fir in the world. An impressive rock amphitheater surrounds Pick Creek Falls with hanging ferns making a magical setting. Also in the vicinity are the beautiful bathtubs at Bathtub Creek. Creek walking downstream of Pick Creek Falls features more spectacular gorges and cascades all the way to the confluence with the South Fork Big Sur River with more Santa Lucia Firs lining the stream.
- Ventana Falls (50 ft est.): One of the most remote falls in all of the Ventana and Big Sur, this stunning falls is not easy to reach as it entails a 5 mile creek walk along beautiful Ventana Creek from Ventana Camp. The rock facade surrounding the falls is especially striking with white and reddish rock. The creek walk to reach the falls entails numerous log jams, gorges, clear blue pools, and cascades. Ventana Falls guards access to the terrain upstream which is arguably the most rugged, wild and awe-inspiring in any coastal area of the contiguous United States. Bypassing the falls is not trivial and entails a scramble on loose rock.
- Hanging Garden Falls (70-80 ft est.): Located near the headwaters of Ventana Mesa Creek this falls is not high flow, but instead achieves its beauty through its delicate nature. There are two segments, with a shorter segment around 15 ft and the balance the much taller upper segment for 70-80 ft in the aggregate. The falls does not really contain a plunge pool, but the lush setting is unmatched by any of the Ventana waterfalls I have seen. Thick moss cloaks the entire rock facade, both underneath the watercourse and on the surrounding cliffs. Other vibrant green vegetation, including a large colony of five finger ferns, hangs from the cliffs besides the falls. Hanging Garden Falls seems like a very fitting name for this magical cataract with its hanging garden of ferns and moss.
- Ventana Mesa Falls (50 ft est.): Countless picturesque cascades and pools in the lower part of Ventana Mesa Creek above the Entrance Falls culminate in a stunning waterfalls that contains a large pool with a circular amphitheater and tall cliffs. The water tumbles at least 50 ft, all in free-fall. This falls is more impressive than the Entrance Falls, both in height and setting. Video footage of Ventana Mesa Creek below, including Ventana Mesa Falls.
- Ventana Mesa “Entrance Falls” (25 ft est.): Right at the confluence of Ventana Mesa Creek and the Carmel River within the Carmel River gorge, the Entrance Falls to Ventana Mesa Creek is part of the magic of the Carmel River gorge described above. The falls shoots over sloping slick rock with ferns and moss in a very pretty setting. Above the Entrance Falls are a pair of beautiful pools, one turquoise and the other emerald.
- Carmel River Falls and Gorge (40 ft est.): Deep in the Carmel River canyon is a remarkable gorge that is one of the highlights of the Carmel River and in my opinion, the entire Ventana. The gorge contains towering cliffs, a deep pool, a beautiful slick rock cascade and a major waterfall along the main stem of the Carmel River. This extremely rugged section of the river is remarkably hidden despite the Carmel River Trail and Round Rock Camp Trail passing nearby.
- Pine Falls (40 ft est.): Pine Falls is located near the headwaters of the Carmel River about three quarters of a mile downstream from lovely Pine Valley. As such, flow over the falls is rarely large, but the falls is particularly aesthetic with a section of free fall and a large clear pool. The setting is lush with moss clinging to the rocks and a very pretty forest of old growth Santa Lucia firs fills the canyon.
- Lower Pine Falls (est. 100 ft aggregate): Located less than a quarter of a mile downstream of Pine Falls, it appears few people know about Lower Pine Falls but it’s an impressive sight and very different in character from Pine Falls making it worthy of a visit. There is no large pool at Lower Pine Falls. Instead, the falls is a series of large cascades over smooth bedrock scrubbed clean of moss. This smooth bedrock is rather hazardous for climbing, but a hand line has been placed in the most precarious spot to assist. It’s a rather chaotic scene as the falls tumbles down the numerous steps strewn with large boulders and sculptured bedrock. The highest segment of the falls is the most impressive and concentrated while lower down the water course splits. This would be an amazing falls to see in higher flow.
- Cinnamon Falls (150 ft est.): A multi-step falls that is one of the tallest on a main stem creek in the entire Big Sur region. The falls includes two main segments and a couple smaller sections totaling over 150 ft (a conservative estimate based on my watch altimeter). The rocks surrounding the falls are reddish brown, hence I called the falls Cinnamon Falls. Perhaps the best view of Cinnamon Falls is along the spine of a rocky sub-ridge where you can get a good overview of the falls and see most of it at once. This overview spot is located just below the bottom of a grassy ridge, which can be accessed from the Buckeye Trail. From the base of the falls it is impossible to see the entire cataract and reaching it is more difficult as one must descent the very steep and sometimes loose sub-ridge. Cinnamon Falls would be tremendous in high flow after winter rains.
- Salmon Creek Falls (100 ft est.): By all metrics Salmon Creek Falls is impressive: it has great volume with its location near Salmon Creek’s outlet into the ocean, its a strikingly tall falls, and the setting is stunning with a large pool, boulders and cliffs. The only detraction from an otherwise beautiful falls is its close proximity to the highway and the resultant overuse of the area and careless visitors leaving trash.
- Upper Salmon Creek Falls (25 ft): While only about a quarter of the height of the main Salmon Creek Falls with significantly less volume, Upper Salmon Creek falls possess a pristine and unfettered beauty that is lost at the main falls. Unlike the main falls, Upper Salmon Creek Falls is not easily accessible and it appears few venture to the shores of its large circular pool. Upper Salmon Creek Falls is a gem. Video footage above.
- Circular Pool #1 (15 ft est.): The first circular pool along the Little Sur River is the largest pool of three and features the tallest falls and also the most vertical cliff amphitheater surrounding the pool. A large section of the cliff above the first pool collapsed over the winter depositing a large pile of rock debris into about 30% of the pool so for the time being the first circular pool is not very circular. Video footage of all three pools is below Circular Pool #3.
- Circular Pool #2 (5-10 ft steps): The second circular pool is significantly smaller than the first, both in size of the pool and height of its falls. However, immediately above this pool lies a series of small cascades and mini-pools over slick rock that are stunning, particularly in periods of moderate flow. In fact, this section is one of the highlights of the entire Little Sur River. Video footage of all three Circular Pools is below Circular Pool #3.
- Circular Pool #3 (12 ft est): The third circular pool is the culmination of a magnificent narrow gorge where the cliffs on both sides come right down into the river resulting a deep pool beneath the falls.
- Rainbow Falls (55 ft): Located about a half mile south of Rainbow Camp along the South Fork Trail, Rainbow Falls is along a small tributary of the South Fork Little Sur River. Visibility is limited from the South Fork Trail but a better view can be found just off the trail. The falls never has much volume so it is best viewed after winter rains. What makes Rainbow Falls so special is its extremely lush amphitheater of ferns and moss and the delicate nature of the falls as it plunges over a nearly vertical cliff. See video footage of Rainbow Falls in the Pick Creek Falls video above.
- Mocho Falls (total 40 ft est.): Mocho Falls has two distinct steps, but what is most fascinating about this rarely seen falls is a twisty chasm of elegantly sculpted and polished rock separating the two steps. The depth of the chasm and its twisty nature is such that it is virtually impossible to see both steps of the falls at the same time. The lower step is an estimated 20 ft and drops into a spectacular circular amphitheater with a deep and large pool. The upper step is around 10 ft est. and within the narrow rock chute there are additional small steps.
- McWay Falls (75 ft): McWay Falls is an iconic spot and probably the most photographed natural feature in Big Sur. This is a must stop for tourists driving Highway 1 and there is often a line of cars parked along the road. Sometimes the area feels like the international terminal at SFO. The falls overlook is accessed by a paved path that is under a quarter mile. The many visitors to McWay Falls range from selfie enthusiasts to professional photographers. Thank goodness access to McWay Falls beach is forbidden and even for the non-law abiding crowd it’s not an easy proposition to get down to the beach (people have been rescued trying). Thus, even if the overlook is a zoo, you can forget about the crowds when you look out onto the picturesque scene of the falls tumbling into the pristine turquoise waters and an untrammeled beach.
- Limekiln Falls (90 ft): Limekiln Falls is located near the bottom of the Middle Fork Limekiln Creek which drains the region between Twin Peak and Cone Peak. It seems like everything in this region is grand and Limekiln Falls is no different. Unless flow is particularly high, the falls is split into two prongs. The cataract is easily accessed from the main area of Limekiln State Park and includes passage through a lush redwood forest complete with a dense carpet of sorrel.
- Mutt & Jeff Falls (Jeff 35 ft; Mutt 110 ft): Named by Dr. Jack Glendening after a comic strip named Mutt and Jeff created in 1907 lasting through 1983 with a tall and thin Mutt character and his short friend Jeff. In this case, the short Jeff Falls is the real attraction as it’s along the main stem of Santa Lucia Creek. After recent heavy rain Jeff Falls roars over a 35 cliff into a large, deep pool. Tall and thin Mutt Falls is located next to Jeff Falls on a small tributary with a series of steps totaling over 100 ft but never has high volume and is likely a trickle for a large potion of the year. The two falls can be viewed in tandem. See video footage of Jeff Falls in the Last Chance Falls video above.
- Pico Blanco Camp Falls (15 ft est.): Pico Blanco Camp Falls is a lovely spot along the South Fork Little Sur River set amid old growth redwoods with a carpet of redwood sorrel. The falls is not large, but includes a blue pool beneath it and a lush surrounding of moss and ferns. Downstream of the falls is a spectacular narrows along the South Fork Little Sur River.
- Pothole Slide Falls (35 ft): Located next to the Lost Valley Trail as it descends into Lost Valley, Pothole slide falls is a series of two slides down a smooth rock face with a pool in between, the “pothole.” The falls is more horizontal than vertical and the drainage upstream is small so this falls is best viewed after recent rain.
- Upper McWay Falls (couple steps totaling 30 ft): Above McWay Falls is a beautiful redwood forest and a couple small waterfalls. Upper McWay Falls is one of these falls and includes a couple steps totaling around 30 ft. The lushness of the surrounding redwood forest and cliffs in the canyon makes this a nice falls. It is also located on the main stem of McWay Canyon Creek so flow is decent.
- McWay Canyon Falls (20 ft est.): The other falls above McWay Falls is McWay Canyon Falls which is located on a tributary of McWay Canyon Creek with commensurately less volume. However, the falls is in a pretty setting with five finger ferns and the sprawling root system of a large redwood right next to it.
- Firehose Falls (15 ft est.): Located on Jackson Creek near its confluence with the Little Sur River, Firehose Falls spits off a ledge like a fire hose into a pretty pool surrounded by ferns and moss. See video footage of Firehose Falls in the Little Sur Circular Pools video above.
- Mocho Creek Falls (18 ft): Located just upstream of Mocho Creek’s confluence with the South Fork Little Sur River, Mocho Creek Falls is a pretty falls in a cliffy nook with a garden of hanging ferns beside it.
- Launtz Falls (100+ ft over multiple steps): Launtz Falls is at the base of a small tributary descending from Launtz Ridge that flows into the Little Sur River. The bottom of the falls is visible from the usepath to Fox Usecamp and you can get a sense there is much more above, but it is not clearly visible unless you cross the Little Sur River and ascend the ultra steep slopes on the other side. Upon climbing the slopes a tall falls presents itself flowing over a lush cliff face. See video footage of Firehose Falls in the Little Sur Circular Pools video above.
Other Falls: Eagle Creek Falls, Cienega Falls, Jewel Falls, Vicente Falls, Pfieffer Falls
The Circular Pools are a series of (you guessed it) three circular shaped pools in a very remote and wild section of the Little Sur River. The first pool contains the tallest falls and and largest pool. A huge chunk of the cliff amphitheater surrounding the pool recently fell into with rock debris covering up a portion (I estimate around 30%) making it non-circular for the time being. The second pool includes a series of beautiful cascades and mini-pools on slick rock that flow into the pool. The third pool is the culmination of a spectacular narrow gorge. Leading up to the first pool all the way through the third pool is an amazingly lush and rugged setting of pools, gorges, waterfalls, cascades and cliffs. Last year I visited the Circular Pools in January before it had rained so the falls were flowing very gently and the vegetation was relatively dry. I made it a point to revisit this gem of the Ventana after rains to see the pools and falls in their full glory. One week after a healthy rainfall I made my way back to the Circular Pools, this time venturing all the way to the third pool. I found delightful cascades, gushing waterfalls, and a remarkably green canyon of moss and ferns thanks to the rain. While it was beautiful the first time, this experience was on another level. The Cricular Pools are beautiful anytime, but especially after recent rain. GPS route here. The trek to the Circular Pools entails an adventure up the wild and trail-less Little Sur River to an otherworldly scene of clear pools, delicate waterfalls, and precipitous cliffs deep in a lush, redwood filled canyon. The most straightforward access to the pools begins from Bottcher’s Gap where it’s 3.5 miles downhill on the dirt road to the Pico Blanco Boy Scout Camp. Just beyond the Scout Camp, the Jackson Camp Trail continues 1.5 miles to Jackson Camp. (Note: you can pre-arrange with the Boy Scout Camp to get a code to the locked gate and drive the dirt road down to the Camp and save some mileage but it’s not a great road for low clearance cars). The Jackson Camp Trail is in good shape and generally traverses on the slopes a couple hundred vertical feet above the Little Sur River. The trail reaches Fish Camp where the first crossing of many Little Sur River crossings is located. The real Jackson Camp is only a couple river crossing away, but from Jackson Camp to Fox Usecamp there are numerous crossings of the Little Sur River (a total of 12 by one count). These crossings can be rock hops in low flow or thigh deep crossings after heavy rains. In general, it does not seem prudent to travel along the Little Sur River during a heavy rainy period or immediately thereafter. The official trail ends at Jackson Camp, but the use path to Fox Camp 1.3 miles upstream is fairly easy to follow with the numerous river crossings either obvious or marked with orange tape. This section features some truly immense redwoods that are a treat to pass underneath. These colossal trees have thrived deep in this canyon for centuries and the forest looks healthy considering the fire that roared through these mountains in 2008. Beyond Fox camp, the use path becomes more faint as it seems less people venture further upsteam. However, the general idea is the same: follow the river upstream and the use path virtually always coincides with the path of least resistance. The scenery is spectacular the entire way with smooth white river rocks littering the stream bed and alders, bay trees, and redwoods alongside the river. Soon after Fox camp, the canyon narrows considerably with precipitous cliffs closing in on the waterway. Usually the cliffs are only on one side of the river allowing fairly easy access on the opposite side, but in one section the Little Sur enters a small gorge with steep rock walls on both sides. After this narrow portion, the canyon opens a bit before narrowing once again just before reaching the first Circular Pool. At first only the sound of a waterfall can be heard, but as you round a bend around some rocks a paradisaical scene presents itself with a large pool virtually completely surrounded by cliffs. A section of these cliffs collapsed during a winter storm and deposited into the pool making it not-so-circular anymore. Time will tell if the power of water will rearrange the rockfall debris and become circular again. This rock amphitheater around the first pool contains an assortment of lush hanging vegetation including five finger ferns and mossThe first circular pool has the tallest waterfall and largest rock amphitheater, but more adventure lies upstream. A few feet downstream of the main pool a weakness in the cliffs on the north side allows passage upsteam. The next section of the Little Sur River features a series of small pools and cascades culminating in the second circular pool, which is significantly smaller, both in size of the pool and the waterfall plunging into it. This pool does not have an easy walk-around and a small rock step must be surmounted to proceed. A nylon rope aids in this climbing which is particularly helpful as the rock is slick, especially when downclimbing. After the second pool there is a sweet area of slick rock formations including a series of small pools and waterfalls. Beyond the second pool the river rounds a bend and enter perhaps the most dramatic section, a narrow gorge with vertical cliffs on both sides. This gorge culminates in the third circular pool and an impressive waterfall flowing over chiseled rock into the gorge. This third circular pool can by bypassed by climbing up above the gorge granting access to Bathtub Usecamp and beyond lies one of the most remote camps in the Ventana Wilderness (the North Fork Camp) located at the confluence of Puerto Suello Creek and the Little Sur River. On this day, I did not have time for additional exploration beyond the third circular pool so I look forward to returning soon to reach the remote upper reaches of the Little Sur River near North Fork Camp. GPS route here.
Pick Creek features some of the most beautiful creek walking I have seen in the Ventana Wilderness. The centerpiece is stunning Pick Creek Falls which shoots over a ledge with an 80 ft free-fall into a large, clear pool surrounded by lovely grove of old growth Santa Lucia Firs. Just downstream of Pick Creek Falls is a confluence with Bathtub Creek, which is aptly named since just upstream of this confluence are a series of gorgeous cascades and pools that look like bathtubs. Downstream of the confluence with Bathtub Creek, Pick Creek winds its way down a steep canyon to the South Fork Big Sur River. Along the way, the creek has numerous picturesque cascade and two impressive gorges with deep pools and small waterfalls. The gorges and pools are deep enough to require a bypass, each time on the north side of the creek. The entire canyon is filled with moss, ferns, cliffs and Santa Lucia Firs in a pristine setting.
Upon reaching the end of Pick Creek at its confluence with the South Fork Big Sur River, the fun does not end. While the South Fork Big Sur River is more mellow in its character than Pick Creek and there is a trail (albeit very faint in spots), the deep canyon features a remarkably beautiful forest composed of Santa Lucia Firs and Incense Cedars. In fact, the cedars are the dominant species in certain spots and many of the trees are old growth making this the largest and most intact grove of Incense Cedar that I have seen in the Santa Lucia Mountains, which are otherwise quite rare in teh range. Within about 0.5 miles of Rainbow Camp is picturesque Rainbow Falls, which tumbles into a lush amphitheater of ferns. The 55 ft falls is never a high volume falls since its upstream drainage is small, but its beauty lies in the lush setting and delicate nature. The Pick Creek Loop is an aesthetic 27 mile loop that I designed which packages all of the beauty of Pick Creek and the South Fork Big Sur described above, with some magnificent coastal scenery along Anderson Direct and the De Angulo Trail. Along with dozens of photos of the scenery, the remainder of this post describes the sites and experiences along this phenomenal loop. I completed the loop a week after a winter storm with substantial rain and I recommend seeing it when the falls and creeks have decent flow. GPS track here.
The day started with one of the steeper climbs in Big Sur up 3,500+ feet from McWay falls to Anderson Peak. The brush on the lower part is filling in vigorously but the upper part is the same blowdown mess. Definitely an arudous route, but overall it’s still an efficient and scenic route to Anderson Peak from Hwy 1. Only three condors today. From Anderson Peak I ran north along Coast Ridge Road for 2 miles before dropping into the Pick Creek drainage. The upper part of Pick Creek drainage is fairly mellow with a valley including some nice meadows. Downstream of the meadows the cross country travel is fairly easy. The watercourse quickly becomes rugged requiring walking beside or in the watercourse and before I knew it I was on top of Pick Creek Falls, a picturesque 80 foot drop into a circular pool with hanging gardens of ferns. I especially like the setting of this falls amid Santa Lucia Firs. I went down to the pool and my timing was good as while I was there sunlight illuminated the entire falls. After enjoying the falls I headed downstream and took the Bathtub Creek tributary a short ways upstream to a series of pools and waterfalls known as the Bathtubs. I suspect there might be more pools further upstream that would be worth checking out next time. After the Bathtubs, I returned to Pick Creek and headed downstream to the South Fork Big Sur River. Pick Creek is stunning with numerous cascades, moss, ferns, and lined with Santa Lucia Firs the entire way. I followed the stream with two exceptions where the creek entered into narrow gorges withe deep pools and small waterfalls. The bypasses was fairly straightforward. Despite the creek walk in Pick Creek being time-consuming and arduous, it was bittersweet to reach South Fork Camp since I enjoyed Pick Creek so much. From South Fork Camp I was able to follow the South Fork Trail most of the way but there were a few sections that were uncertain. I enjoyed the forest of incense cedars and Santa Lucia Firs. I also saw the infamous South Fork wild board. There was an annoying blowdown section before Rainbow Falls, but that was soon forgotten when I saw the beautiful 50 foot falls with an amphitheater of hanging ferns. I went down to the base of the falls, had a snack, and then returned to the trail. Last time I was at Rainbow Falls it was merely a trickle so it was great to see it in flow and the fern gardens happy after recent rains. The final section of the South Fork Trail to Rainbow Camp is in great shape. From Rainbow Camp, it was up the Devils Staircase to Cold Springs and Coast Ridge Road. The ticks and other insects were out in abundance on this section, the downside to summer-like weather in February. I reached Cold Springs just after 5 pm and figured I had a chance to reach McWay Falls before darkness. I ran down the DeAngulo Trail with a pretty sunset and then hustled down Hwy 1 back to McWay Falls before the last light had faded. Another amazing day in the Ventana! GPS track here.
When in flow, Last Chance Falls is arguably the most dramatic waterfall in the Ventana Wilderness. The falls flows over an overhanging precipice with a 120 foot free fall with a large cavern behind the falls. A natural amphitheater of cliffs surrounds the falls. The ephemeral nature of Last Chance Falls perhaps makes it more special and requires planning, or more accurately, waiting, for the ideal conditions. The drainage upstream of the falls, the headwaters of the South Fork Santa Lucia Creek, is relatively small and in a climatologically dry part of the range. However, in early February an atmospheric river impacted the central coast interrupting months of virtually dry weather. Rainfall amounts were healthy over the Ventana Wilderness but particularly over the Santa Lucia Creek drainage, which is typically a drier region on the east side of the range but received impressive rainfall totals of around ~6 inches in just a couple days. This provided a great opportunity to see Last Chance Falls in flow. By “in flow” I mean a solid stream of water from the top to the base of the falls. The falls becomes merely a trickle in summer and fall and otherwise has no flow or low flow for all but a handful days of the year immediately following heavy rains. This is a quintessential flashy waterfall, and especially flashy after an atmospheric river event during an unprecedented multi-year drought. GPS route here.
A great viewpoint of the falls is located on the Santa Lucia Trail as it switchbacks out of the Canyon. One can also travel cross country following the South Fork Santa Lucia Creek upstream to immediately underneath the falls with exploration of the pool and cavern. The setting of the falls is magical. Visiting Last Chance Falls also provides an opportunity to explore the immensely scenic Santa Lucia Creek gorge, including the 35 ft Jeff Falls, which is picturesque, particularly in the high flow we experienced. Next to Jeff Falls is Mutt Falls, a tall but skinny falls from a side tributary. Both Jeff and Mutt Falls are visible at the same time and are aptly named by Jack Glendening (http://bigsurtrailmap.net/ creator) after the historically popular comic strip with similarly proportioned characters. Dr. Jack also named Last Chance Falls after the the camp downstream in beautiful meadows of the same name. In my opinion, Last Chance is a great name for this ephemeral falls. Jeff Falls is much less flashy than Last Chance Falls since its water source includes the main stem of Santa Lucia Creek which drains a region several times the size of the South Fork Santa Lucia Creek alone. Thus, if Jeff Falls is running low, Last Chance Falls may be a trickle or bone dry.
As a shorthand, I’ve determined that flow of 250cfs or greater on the Arroyo Seco River will yield a an “in flow” Last Chance Falls but to really bring out the beauty of the falls it seem flow of 500cfs or greater is needed on the Arroyo Seco. The Santa Lucia Creek gorge entails several crossings of Santa Lucia Creek which was running high (Arroyo Seco was ~550 cfs on this day). If the flow was much higher the lower part of the Santa Lucia trail would be impassable. Thus, it would not be advisable to access Last Chance Falls via the Santa Lucia Creek gorge if at peak flow immediately after big rainfall events. Instead, use the Arroyo Seco-Indians Road and drop down into the drainage after the South Fork Santa Lucia Creek has branched off. The Arroyo Seco-Indians Road has some awesome views of the Arroyo Seco canyon and the interior of the Ventana Wilderness. Another great addition is the ridge immediately above the Arroyo Seco campground. A use path runs across the spine of this ridge and includes some fantastic views of the Arroyo Seco region.
The headwaters of the Carmel River drains the northeast side of the Ventana Wilderness in some of the most rugged and remote terrain in the Santa Lucia Mountains. I have greatly enjoyed exploring some of this terrain recently and look forward to returning for more adventures in this stunning region of the Ventana. Deep in the Carmel River canyon is a remarkable gorge that is one of the highlights of the Carmel River and in my opinion, the entire Ventana. The gorge contains towering cliffs, a deep pool, a beautiful slick rock cascade and a major waterfall along the main stem of the Carmel River. This extremely rugged section of the river is remarkably hidden despite the Carmel River Trail and Round Rock Camp Trail passing nearby. Accessing the gorge from Hiding Canyon Camp one must simply follow the river upstream instead of taking the trail uphill toward Hiding Canyon. At first alders line the river with a splendid grove of Santa Lucia Firs on the hillsides. Soon the canyon walls narrow requiring travel in the river bed. At the confluence with Ventana Mesa Creek, a picturesque waterfall tumbles off slick rock into a pool on Ventana Mesa Creek just above the river.
Beyond the confluence with Ventana Mesa Creek, the Carmel River gorge grows even narrower and one must avoid deeper pools by scrambling on the slick rock. The tall cliffs shield the gorge from sunlight most of the day resulting in a lush environment of moss and ferns. However, lower down the polished rock is bare and smooth manifesting the tremendous power of water that comes through during winter storms. This is obviously not a good place to be in high volume! Approaching the climax of the chiseled gorge the cliffs become overhanging. At this point one arrives at a deep pool and further progress requires swimming to reach a major waterfall along the river which is located around a corner. While a good view of the falls from cannot be achieved from this point without swimming, it is possible to gain a great vantage from above via the Round Rock Camp Trail that passes upstream of the gorge and falls. The Round Rock Camp Trail descends from the junction with the Carmel River Trail to a crossing point of the Carmel River that is remarkably calm. The only thing hinting at a major waterfall and gorge downstream is the noise of falling water, but even this is fairly muted compared to what actually lies below. A short distance downstream the river enters a beautiful slick rock cascade. The cascade includes a swift “luge track” on a slick rock and a couple circular mini pools I like to call the “teacups.” Just downstream of the teacups is the most dramatic feature of the gorge, the ~50 ft falls on the main stem of the Carmel River. When viewed from above on ledges, the setting for this beautiful falls is stunning with the deep gorge below and tall cliffs above with overhanging shelves at the top of the gorge with Santa Lucia Firs clinging to the rocks. I visited the gorge in relatively low flow but I’m very interested to return in medium flow. Upstream of the gorge and falls the Carmel River is relatively mellow but still beautiful with occasional cascades and lush sections with ferns and moss. While I have not ventured beyond the confluence with Blue Creek, I understand that it remains fairly mellow until reaching Pine Falls. This blog post contains many photos of the magnificent gorge and the Carmel River canyon. I’ve also included a video which is perhaps the best way to capture the scope of the falls.
Another phenomenal day on the mountain I call the King of Big Sur! Cone Peak rises 5,155 ft above the Pacific Ocean in less than three miles as the crow flies, making it one of the steepest gradients from ocean to summit in the contiguous United States. It’s nearly a vertical mile above the glimmering ocean with a commanding view of the Big Sur Coast. My first visit to this grand mountain was in 2010 via the “standard” all-trail route from Kirk Creek to Vicente Flat and the Cone Peak Trail. I repeated this route in 2011. It was only in 2013 when I did the Stone Ridge Direct route that the possibilities for off-trail exploration on Cone Peak really clicked for me. Since then I’ve visited Cone Peak frequently exploring the various trails and routes on this amazing mountain. GPS route here.
On this day, I joined Joey Cassidy for the next step of my personal discovery of Cone Peak by tackling a series of rock scramble routes. In the process we ascended all three of Cone Peak’s prominent ridges: the Southeast Ridge, the North Ridge and the ridge linking Cone Peak to Twin Peak. We also included an ascent of the short but sweet West Rib, arguably the finish of the Cone-Twin Ridge, which makes up for its short length with relatively solid rock (for the Santa Lucia Mountains) and an outrageous setting of stunning views in the background. A special thanks goes to Joey Cassidy for showing me the northeast face and the west rib, routes he had previously scoped out and climbed. It’s always a pleasure to join Joey on adventures, especially since he’s an extremely talented photographer. His photos of me on these scrambles were so awesome I’ve included a few in this post so double thanks goes to Joey for contributing (credit indicated below or above his photos). We started with an ascent of Stone Ridge Direct, as beautiful as ever, rising from the redwood-filled canyons of Limkiln to the exposed grassy slopes and finally the Ventana alpine zone with Santa Lucia Firs, Coulter Pines and Sugar Pines. Once we crossed over to Cone Peak via the Twin-Cone Ridge we took the Cone Peak trail down to a point where we could access the Southeast Ridge, a prominent ridge separating the Limekiln drainage from the San Antonio River drainage.Southeast Ridge: The Southeast Ridge is extremely scenic with amazing views of Stone Ridge and also the rugged cirque on the northeast side of Cone Peak giving a nice angle on the face that we would climb later that day. The Southeast Ridge included some sections of class 3 scrambles. The more difficult sections could by bypassed by dropping off the north side of the ridge and traversing underneath, but we chose to stick to the crest of the ridge and enjoy as much rock scrambling as we could. The most difficult part of the Southeast ridge is a loose downclimb from the prominent knob along the ridge into a deep notch. Once in the notch the route is finished with a straightforward scramble up to the Cone Peak Trail.
West Rib: The west rib of Cone Peak (pictured above) is a short pitch of remarkably solid rock for the Santa Lucia Mountains. Most rock in the Santa Lucias is very crumbly so when a pitch is fairly solid it’s automatically a gem! However, what makes the West Rib so sweet is its amazing position above Twin Peak, Stone Ridge and the South Fork Devils Canyon. A stunning panorama surrounds you as you ascend the rib to the summit. Instead of traversing around the mountain and taking the switchbacks to the top, simply scramble up the boulder field to the base of the rib. There are easier and looser routes to the summit from this point, but the prominent west rib is the line to climb with its relatively solid rock and mixture of enjoyable 3rd/4th class moves. Credit goes to Joey Cassidy for introducing me to this sweet little finish to summit Cone and it’s going to be hard for me to resist climbing the west rib every time in the future versus taking the trail. Northeast Face: The Northeast Face is the most dramatic, committing and steepest scramble offered by Cone Peak’s topography. The route starts from a talus field along the North Coast Ridge Trail where you look up into a cliffy cirque with the lofty summit of Cone Peak perched 1,200 ft above. After ascending loose talus, the route enters a gully filled with Santa Lucia Firs. Depending on where you enter the gully dictates how much of the gully you ascend but you ultimately look to exit the gully onto rock on climbers right where you officially start the climb up the northeast face. The rock becomes more vertical and the scrambling begins in earnest. It should be noted that staying in the gully will take you away from the Northeast Face and toward the deep notch on the Southeast Ridge – not the route I am describing. Once you’ve exited the gully and are on the Northeast Face there are numerous possibilities and micro-route finding challenges to ascend the class 3 face interspersed with class 4 climbing. Some lines will be more difficult than others, but the inhibiting factor in tackling the more vertical, exposed rock on the face is the inherent poor quality of the rock. This results in sometimes using vegetation as holds or foot steps. That being said, the rock is solid enough where you need it to be on the 4th class sections that it’s a very fun scramble.The crux moves are near the top where the holds become thin for a few moves but after surmounting this final cliff you emerge onto easier terrain near the top of the north ridge. As with the other scramble routes described, the setting is amazing with a view of the 5th class cliffs along the north ridge, and a vista above a pristine grove of old growth Santa Lucia Firs leading down to the San Antonio River drainage. Photos above and below by Joey Cassidy of me ascending the NE Face.North Ridge: We descended the North Ridge to reach the North Coast Ridge Trail which we took to the base of the Northeast Face route. The lower part of the north ridge is easy open terrain with a use path in sections. The upper part of the north ridge is more rugged with bits of scrambling in spots and a couple places where it’s most efficient to come off the ridge slightly to the west side to avoid loose rock formations and gendarmes on the ridge crest proper. This upper part of the north ridge has phenomenal views with lots of steep relief on both sides of the serrated rocky ridge, especially on the east side where cliffs plunge several hundred feet, including the cliffs of the northeast face route described above. Old growth Santa Lucia Firs and Sugar Pines are at home in this environment clinging to the cliffy slopes and thereby avoiding the periodic wildfires that sweep through these mountains. The scenery makes for some very enjoyable scambling on the north ridge, a classic route of Big Sur. In the photo below Joey enjoys the amazing views from the Southeast Ridge to Stone Ridge, the Middle Fork Limekiln Creek and Hare Canyon. Photo below by Joey Cassidy of me ascending the West RibAfter the scramble routes we cruised down the Cone Peak Trail to Trail Spring and then ran the Gamboa Trail underneath the forest of Santa Lucia Firs and Sugar Pines in the headwaters of the South Fork Devils Canyon to Ojito Saddle, where we took the Stone Ridge Trail back to the lower part of Stone Ridge and down to Limekiln Canyon. The more time I spend exploring Cone Peak, the more I love the mountain! Photo above and below by Joey Cassidy of me ascending the SE Ridge. Photo above and below by Joey Cassidy of the SE RidgePhoto above by Joey Cassidy of me ascending the short but sweet West Rib.