The Big Sur condor loop is an awesome coastal loop at the heart of the Big Sur coast. The route starts with a direct route up Anderson Peak (aka “Anderson Direct”) from McWay Falls, gaining 4,000 feet in less than 3 miles by following an old firebreak/underground utilities line up the prominent ridge between McWay Canyon and Anderson Canyon. Anderson Direct is to Anderson Peak what Stone Ridge is to Cone Peak; an extremely steep ridge climb with stunning coastal views. Unlike Stone Ridge, Anderson Direct is not grassy and the upper two-thirds are essentially a continuous blowdown with literally thousands of burnt snags over the route from the 2008 Basin Complex fires. There are also some patches of festering poison oak to wade through, but the good news is the brush is relatively light. It’s an arduous route, but it’s easily the most efficient way to reach Anderson Peak on foot and remarkably scenic with enormous views up and down the Big Sur coast . GPS data here.
About 1 mile up the ridge we passed right next to the home of the local condor population. They were resting on the crowns of the redwoods in the early morning sunshine, presumably drying off from the recent rains. The condors were the closest I have ever seen so I could see their features in detail. The condor has a very prehistoric look. An extensive reintroduction program has allowed the majestic California condor to return to its native habitat soaring over the Santa Lucia Mountains. In 1987, the California condor was eradicated from the wild due to poaching, lead poisoning and habitat destruction. The remaining 22 birds were taken into captivity to prevent species extinction. Starting in 1992, the birds were reintroduced into the wild and Big Sur was one of the earliest release sites. Currently there are an estimated 237 free-flying condors in California, many of which still reside in Big Sur but the population’s range has expanded to Pinnacles National Park, Ventura County and the Transverse Ranges. On this day we were grateful to see 9 of these magnificent birds. Later on our ascent the condors took off and flew as a group showcasing there remarkable wing span that is up to 9.5 feet! The wings are so big that when the bird flies above enough air is pushed aside that it makes a sound like a kite. At one point we saw all 9 condors circling above us. It seemed as if the condors followed us throughout our journey as we continued to see these majestic birds from Coast Ridge Road and on the descent of the DeAngulo Trail, hence the name I gave this loop. While there is no guarantee of seeing condors in this area, let alone 9 at the same time, this was not the first time I’ve seen condors soaring above Torre Canyon, Partington Canyon and McWay Canyon. From Anderson Peak, we took the Coast Ridge Road for about 4 miles with a continuation of coastal vistas and also great views of the interior Ventana including the South Fork Big Sur River drainage, Ventana Double Cone, Black Cone and Junipero Serra. We then descended the DeAngulo Trail. Overall, the DeAngulo trail was in decent condition, and now even better since we cleared out branch debris and Brian did substantial pruning with his loppers. There were excellent views to Boronda Ridge and looking north up the coast. At the bottom of DeAngulo, we ran along Hwy 1 for one mile to connect into the Julia Pfieffer Burns Trail network including the Tanbark Trail, Waters Trail and Ewoldsen Trail, ultimately depositing us at McWay Falls to complete the loop. The highlight of this section was beautiful Partington Canyon, lush as ever with nice flow through Partingon Creek’s cascades. While McWay Falls is definitely touristy, it’s popular for a reason and a great way to finish the loop with afternoon light on the falls. GPS data here.
The Marble Peak 50k+ is another Ventana Wilderness classic. The Marble Peak Trail always looked like an intriguing way to go from the depths of the Arroyo Seco Gorge to Coast Ridge at Marble Peak. However, until recently an important section of the trail had been extremely difficult with heavy brush and copious blowdowns. Thanks to several years of trail work by project leader Betsy and volunteers with the Ventana Wilderness Alliance this awesome trans-Ventana trail is now passable from start to finish, and this trail will likely improve more in the near future. Parts of the Marble Peak Trail are very runnable, but overall it’s still an arduous outing you’d expect from the Ventana Wilderness backcountry. In addition to the usual brushy sections there is likely to be numerous blowdowns of burnt snags. As we passed we tried to remove little branches to make the blowdowns easier to navigate. Water was flowing everywhere resulting in some wet stream crossings throughout the route but the trail itself drains very well with hardly any mud despite a foot of rain on coast ridge in the past week before our outing. Rainfall the prior day produced a magical and ethereal experience in the morning with fog layers in the canyons and also hovering on the peaks. The normally dry eastside was surprisingly lush as even the chaparral hillsides were a verdant green. One of the highlights was meeting project leader Betsy with 2 miles to go by coincidence. It was awesome to thank her personally for the tremendous effort that went into rehabilitating this trail and making this type of run possible. GPS route here.
The route starts along a 2.4 mile stretch of the Arroyo-Seco Indians road from Escondido Camp to the Marble Peak Trailhead. This stretch of dirt road is permanently closed and it has some excellent views looking into the lower part of the Arroyo Seco gorge. The Marble Peak Trail descends to the Arroyo Seco where a bridge crosses the river and then enters the Tassajara Creek drainage staying on the south side of the creek all the way to Tassajara Creek Camp. This is a lovely stretch of single track through oak woodland and pine trees. At Tassajara Creek Camp, Tassajara Creek and Willow Creek split with the Marble Peak trail following Willow Creek. Soon after, the trail begins crossing back and forth along the creek in a lush riparian zone of ferns, alders, madrones and sycamores. The crossings were wet after rains, but would be dry crossings most of the year as the drainage is not huge. At the head of the canyon, the trail begins an ascent to the Willow-Zigzag Saddle passing through some tall Coulter Pines before emerging into chaparral. Views down Willow Creek are fantastic near this saddle. On the Zigzag side of the saddle, the trail does not descend much into the drainage, instead traversing the chaparal hillsides through several tributaries of Zigzag Creek including Camp Creek and Shovel Handle Creek. This strech of trail is in remarkably good shape with little brush or obstructions. The trail ultimately descends to the Strawberry Valley and the upper reaches of Zigzag Creek, where it follows downstream for a short section before turning up Tan Oak Creek. The Tan Oak drainage was heavily burned in the 2008 Basin Complex fires resulting in thousands of burnt snags. Unfortunately, many of these snags are still standing but prone to toppling over in wind events. The trail also follows the stream corridor, which is a habitat ripe for explosive chaparral growth. This stretch of trail was once extremely difficult, but the trail crews with the Ventana Wilderness Alliance have made it much easier. The trail gains elevation and passes through a pass between Tan Oak Creek and the upper reaches of the South Fork Big Sur River. This pass has a lovely view looking down the South Fork Big Sur River including Ventana Double Cone in the distance. Instead of crossing over this pass, the trail switchbacks up the hill to a high ridge saddle between Tan Oak Creek and Indian Valley. At this high saddle, the trail begins a long descent into beautiful Indian Valley, with its meadows and pines. From Indian Valley is the final climb up to Marble Peak. A small loop can be made around Marble Peak by utilizing the Coast Ridge road and the Marble Peak usetrail. The views from Marble Peak are wonderful and include the Paciifc Ocean, Cone Peak, Ventana Double Cone, Lost Valley and many other points of interest in the Ventana Wilderness. The Marble Peak highpoint makes for a very nice destination at the turnaround point before the return trip to Arroyo Seco. The return trip is mostly downhill with the largest climb being an 800 foot climb out Indian Valley to the Tan Oak-Indian Valley.
The South Coast of Big Sur has some of the best scenery of the entire Big Sur coast. The majority of the region is protected by the Silver Peak Wilderness, a 31,555 acre wilderness established in 1992. While only a fraction of the size of the better known Ventana Wilderness to the north, there are several awesome trails and great opportunities for exploration in the Silver Peak Wilderness. The region has great biodiversity of vegetation including redwoods, chaparral, oak woodland, pine forest, and even some groves of the rare Santa Lucia Fir. Villa Canyon and Salmon Creek Canyons are the heart of the wilderness and are both spectacular. Fires have not affected this region in a number of years so the flora is generally more developed with far fewer signs of fire compared to the badly burned areas of the Ventana Wilderness from the 2008 Basin Complex fires. As the South Coast is far from both the SF Bay Area to the north and the Los Angeles basin to the south, this stretch of the Big Sur Coast is probably the least visited and an excellent location if you’re looking for solitude. On this occasion from back in November I put together a loop including Dutra Flats, County Line Ridge and Mount Mars, some of my favorite spots on the South Coast. I enjoyed this loop so much that I recently did it again in the reverse direction with Erica and it was nice to see the hills turning green after December Rains (photos here). GPS for Dutra Loop here.
The Dutra Loop route utilizes a established trails and some use paths giving an excellent taste of both the interior and coastal aspects of the Silver Peak Wilderness. Access to Dutra Flats is via the standard route of the Salmon Creek Trail and Spruce Creek Trail, both awesome single tracks in a lush canyon environment with Douglas Fir forest. The Spruce Creek Trail is especially lush and there is a glimpse of a remote Santa Lucia Fir grove high in the drainage, one of the southernmost stands of the rarest fir on earth. Dutra Flats is such a pleasant peaceful spot with its green pastures lined by gray pines, ponderosa pines and heritage oaks. From the edge of the flats a use path contours down and into the Dutra Creek drainage. The path peters out in the grassy area but is picked up again at the edge of the forest at the bottom of the hill. After crossing Dutra Creek, the well-defined use path heads uphill and emerges at the Baldwin Ranch Road. One can cross Baldwin Ranch Road and continue on more use path to the Baldwin Ranch Shortcut, passing through more beautiful meadows and then entering a pine and oak forest for a climb up to County Line Ridge. A spring about halfway up the climb to County Line Ridge appears to have perennial water. County Line Ridge is a beautiful mixture of grassland and oaks with impressive relief to the Pacific Ocean. On this day I explored two spurs off the main ridge, the better being Point 1950 which has enough horizontal prominence to yield an excellent view up and down the coast including Piedras Blancas and most of the Big Sur south coast. At the north end of County Line Ridge a use path traverses the various summits of Mount Mars through pine forest and then chapparal. Beyond the highest summit, the path emerges on the impressively steep grassy slope of Mount Mars. This steep grassy slope is a Big Sur classic with incredible relief down the deep blue ocean seemingly at your feet. At the base of this grassy ridge a use path can be taken back down to the Salmon Creek Trail. After the Dutra Loop I headed up to Point 2866 via the Soda Creek Trailhead. Point 2866 is on the WSW ridge coming off Silver Peak. The ridge contains several high points but the last one and most dramatic is Point 2866. It appears this point has no official name but “Soda Peak” makes geographical sense since it sits at the head of the Soda Creek drainage. Since Soda Peak is the last point of prominence along the ridge it has a commanding view of the south Big Sur coast. The rocky limestone summit is also mostly free of brush enabling an excellent 360 degree panorama including San Martin Top, Silver Peak, Cone Peak and Mount Mars. I guessed that evening light would be great from this spot and I was not disappointed. The easiest way to reach Soda Peak is via the Soda Creek Trailhead and then the Buckeye Trail. At about 2,100 ft along the Buckeye Trail take a use trail on the southern of two spur ridges coming off Soda Peak. The use path is fairly easy to follow and in about 750 vertical feet you’re on top and gazing across the Soda Creek drainage to Mount Mars and beyond, a truly spectacular vantage. It’s only about 3 miles each way to Soda Peak, but the few miles pack around 2,500 ft of elevation gain.
From Big Sur to the High Sierra, 2014 was another tremendous year of adventures. As I did in 2013 and past years (links to past year’s recaps located on right sidebar of homepage), this post lists all of the adventures for 2014 in chronological order with a link to the blog post, where available, or photo album. My most notable adventure the year was completing the John Muir Trail in a new FKT, and in the process holding the FKTs for three of the most famous and iconic trails in the High Sierra at the same time: the High Sierra Trail, the John Muir Trail and the Rae Lakes Loop. I am grateful to have the opportunity to make these improvements in the FKT/adventure sport in the High Sierra. I also achieved FKTs in the California coastal ranges including Big Sur and the Lost Coast. I have no doubt these times will be lowered in the future. However, much more than any time or split, what stands out the most as I look back on 2014 and my entire portfolio of adventures is the volume of experiences I’ve had exploring wild and rugged places in the mountains. The greatest award or achievement I can find in this sport is not a place or a ranking, but the joy of exploration and discovery of the splendors of nature. Being in the wilderness is a visceral and spiritual experience that is far form the pageantry and commercialization of organized sports. From sea to summit, I hope 2015 finds me on many more adventures!
The Santa Ynez Mountains are an east to west coastal mountain range part of the greater Transverse Ranges of Southern California. The range is essentially a high ridge with steep and rugged terrain on either side mostly inhabited by chaparral vegetation but there is oak woodland on the lower slopes and some pine tree stands on the ridge crest. Immediately above Santa Barbara is one of the higher points along the ridge, La Cumbre Peak, rising nearly 4,000 ft in short order from downtown and the highest point by the city. The Cathedral Peak route is an amazing line up the spine of a rugged ridge to La Cumbre Peak in the Santa Barbara front country. Along the route is an exquisite section of Matilija sandstone that is ubiquitous on the ridge leading to Arlington Peak and is sustained for over 2 miles of rock hopping and scrambling totaling nearly 2,000 vertical feet. Add in astounding view of the coastline, Channel Islands and Santa Ynez Mountains and you have one of the finest coastal scrambles along the west coast. The route starts at the end of the road in foothill residential community of Santa Barbara. Parking is limited and challenging so expect to walk an extra section of road on weekends. From the trailhead, travel about a mile along the paved Edison access road and then turn left to follow a short section on the Jesusita Trail. When the Jesusita Trail crosses Mission Creek, turn right and take a use path that rises steeply above the Mission Creek canyon. This rugged canyons was basically dry when we ascended the route, but after rains there are several pools and waterfalls. The trail continues to rise steeply to the distinct southeast ridgeline of Arlington Peak. From this point is a sustained 2 mile rock hop scramble on beautiful Matilija sandstone with it’s distinctive rock formations and orange color to the 3,275 ft summit of Arlington Peak. This section is arduous and steep, but the views of the Santa Barbara and Ventura County coastline are incredible. As one ascends higher, the views become increase with an excellent vantage into the Mission Creek Canyon and beyond to the spine of the Santa Ynez Mountains, the Santa Barbara region and the Channel Islands. The summit of Arlington marks the end of the sustained scrambling and the trail levels off as it continues to Cathedral Peak, with its impressive south buttress cliff face visible from many points in Santa Barbara. A use path continues from Cathedral Peak in a chaparral tunnel down to a saddle from which a final very steep section that leads to the summit of La Cumbre Peak. La Cumbre Peak is vehicle accessible via the East Camino Cielo Road. For an excellent loop back to the trailhead, travel along the road east to the upper trailhead of the Tunnel Trail, one of the more popular trails in the Santa Barbara Frontcountry. The Tunnel Trail traverses along the canyon of Mission Creek and then switchbacks down to the access road with excellent views back to Arlington Peak and Cathedral Peak. This is a super fun route that I hope to do again next time I’m in Santa Barbara. GPS route here.
Between the Pacific Coast and the Cuyama badlands of Ventura County lies a high mountain ridge that supports a beautiful forest of sugar pines, Jeffrey pines and white fir. The lengthy ridgeline is named Pine Mountain Ridge with two prominent points along the ridge named Reyes Peak (7,514 ft) and Haddock Mountain (7,431 ft). Most of the ridge is located within the Sespe Wilderness of Los Padres National Forest, a 219,700 acre wilderness established in 1992 and includes Sespe Creek, the last remaining undammed river in southern California. A 53,000 acre portion of the wilderness is designated as the Sespe Condor Sanctuary to protect California condors in the Condor re-introduction and recovery program. While Reyes Peak is the highest point along Pine Mountain Ridge, Haddock Mountain is more rugged in character with steep cirques and picturesque cliffs on the south side of the ridge. Haddock Mountain is also the more remote summit requiring a four mile hike from the trailhead. Typical of high mountains in southern California, the south side of the ridge transitions to chaparral fairly rapidly while the north side is a lush ecosystem of pine and fir forest for several thousand feet to canyons below, including Beartrap Creek Canyon and Piedra Blanca Creek Canyon. Deep within this canyon lies the Gene Marshall Piedra Blanca National Recreation Trail which I’d like to run in the future. From the trailhead, we took the maintained trail through the beautiful pine forest to Haddock Mountain. The trail largely stays on the north side of the ridge where it tends to be shady with the occasional section along the ridge crest with excellent views to Haddock Mountain. From Haddock Mountain, views to the north include Mount Pinos and the Cuyama Badlands while views to the south include the Sespe Wilderness and coastal mountains of Santa Barbara and Ventura County. Mount Pinos to the north is a substantially higher summit reaching above 8,800 ft and is high enough to support cross country skiing in the winter. However, the terrain of the Mount Pinos massif is more gentle in nature. On the way back, we left the maintained trail and took use paths up the east ridge of Reyes Peak to its summit. A lookout used to exist above the summit rocks but all that remains now is the foundation posts. From Reyes Peak, the Reyes Peak Trail leads down to the west side of Reyes Peak to near the trailhead. Pine Mountain Ridge is a gem of interior Ventura County and certainly exceeded expectations. I look forward to exploring other parts of the Sespe Wilderness including the Gene Marshall Piedra Blanca Trail and the Sespe Hot Springs.
Wildcat Point and Cold Mountain are two fairly remote and obscure destinations north of Tuolumne Meadows between the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne and canyon country of northeast Yosemite. The scenery at both locations is stunning. Wildcat Point is to the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne what Clouds Rest is to Tenaya Canyon; a lofty viewpoint perched thousands of feet above a rugged granitic canyon. The primary difference between the two is that Wildcat Point does not have a trail and it’s rarely visited. Meanwhile, Cold Mountain is not a high or remarkable summit by most standards, but its isolated and central position surrounded by deep canyons provides a spectacular 360 degree view, especially into northerneast Yosemite’s canyon country to Sawtooth Ridge. Just to the north of Cold Mountain is a subsidiary peaklet I dubbed “Cold Point” which contains an amazing view of rarely seen Virginia Lake with a sea of granite peaks and domes in the background. Starting at Tuolumne Meadows I started by taking the trail to Glen Aulin. I ran into quite a bit of snow and ice covering the trail which slowed things down; it was November after all. From Glen Aulin I started down the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne but soon turned off the trail to head up beautiful smooth granite slabs toward Wildcat Point. Views of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne opened up with each step. About halfway up the side of the canyon I took a shallow gully with a little bit of brush to the upper granitic slopes that were more moderately sloped with easy terrain leading to the base of Wildcat Point, which is more of a dome. After some brief scrambling I was at the top marveling at the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne several thousand feet below. The views are excellent from the top of the dome, but the best views of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne are further down the ridge at a point where the gentle granite slabs end and a sheer drop into the canyon begins. From this point one can gaze from Tuolumne Meadows to all the way down the Canyon to Pate Valley. Wildcat View provides perhaps the best view of Tuolumne Peak as it rises impressively on the south side of the canyon with cliffs and buttresses leading all the way down to the canyon bottom. From Wildcat Point I traversed a pleasant alpine basin to Cold Mountain, which included beautiful Mattie Lake and another unnamed alpine lake directly below Cold Mountain. The final ascent to Cold Mountain was on friendly granite slabs. Ironically, the summit of Cold Mountain was warm for November. I enjoyed the view over lunch with calm winds and blazing sunshine. Gazing over miles of wilderness in all directions I experienced true solitude as the snowy trail conditions and late season meant that I was the only human around for miles. After my summit break I explored the area, including a visit to a peaklet north of the summit I dubbed “Cold Point.” This spot had perhaps my favorite view of the day with a spectacular vantage of rarely seen Virginia Lake and a sea of granite domes in the background culminating in rugged Sawtooth Ridge and Whorl Mountain above Matterhnorn Canyon. From Cold Mountain I descended forested slopes to Cold Canyon where I found the trail back to Glen Aulin. On the way back from Glen Aulin, instead of returning by trail, I visited a number of domes with excellent views of Tuolumne Meadows and the Cathedral Range. The day finished with an delightful sunset from Olmstead Point (the actual point, not the parking lot). Full album here and GPS route here.