Devils Loop featuring Devils Falls, Canogas Falls, Hellhole Falls

Note: the following describes my experiences on an extremely arduous off-trail adventure on one of the most challenging creek walks in the Ventana. This is an advanced route requiring advanced skills and prior experience with off trail canyon navigation.  It’s 2015 so I expect every major waterfall in a place like the Ventana Wilderness, so close to a megalopolis, to have been “discovered” with information readily available or at least knowledge that somebody had actually visited them. My assumption was incorrect! Deep within a remote corner of the Ventana Wilderness lies a gem: a major waterfall with two segments and two clear turquoise pools in a stunning setting of cliffs and spires. Strava GPS route here.

Beautiful Canogas Falls left an impression on me last weekend and I wanted to see more turquoise pools, more elegant falls over mineral-encrusted cliffs and more wild and pristine Big Sur canyons. I scoured the topo maps and satellites images of the Devils Canyon region with reasoning that if the South Fork Devils Canyon has a major falls there is also a good chance there is a major falls on the Middle Fork. I zeroed in on a region of the Middle Fork where the topography lines come remarkably close indicating an immense cliff, which I would later call the “Devils Spire”, and topography that would support a major falls. Close satellite inspection revealed turquoise pools and falls. Could this be the jackpot?! There was a high potential this was a major falls like Canogas and I knew this was the next place I wanted to visit. Brian had visited Canogas with me the prior week, and similarly inspired, he was game for the waterfall discovery adventure.

We ascended the Arroyo Seco Trail to coast ridge and then descended through some brush and steep oak woodland to the Middle Fork Devils Canyon Creek. Travel in the upper portion of the creek was reasonable with sections of dry talus amid Santa Lucia Firs where the water was flowing underneath and spots where it emerged above the rocks. The most difficult sections were within stands of thick alder trees that created a cluttered understory of debris and branches. There were two main observations in the headwaters of the Middle Fork: birds and ladybugs. For over an hour as we descended we heard a constant cacophony of birds chirping and patches of thousands of ladybugs. As we descended further, the creek became more mature with increasingly deeper and larger pools and more impressive waterfalls. When we got our first view of the imposing cliffs of Devils Spires I knew we were getting close and before I knew it we were standing atop Devils Falls gazing down over its two impressive waterfall sections and two large turquoise pools. In the aggregate, the falls is ~80-90 ft tall with two separate drops close in height, the upper segment being slightly taller. There is also a pretty “lead-in” falls around a corner above the falls that is approximately 20 ft tall. We backtracked a bit to find a way down to the base of the falls and then enjoyed the setting beside the lower and upper pools for a long time over lunch. It was special to be in a pristine spot beside a major falls with absolutely no evidence of humans and a major falls that few human eyes have ever seen. Perhaps most remarkable about Devils Falls is its setting nestled in an incredibly rugged cirque with vertical cliffs several hundred feet high towering above. This is one of the largest vertical cliffs in the Ventana, a feature I dubbed “Devils Spire” since the cliffs culminate in a distinctive point. I am more accustomed to seeing cliffs of this size in the Sierra Nevada.
I wanted to spend more time at this stunning falls but it was time go if we wished to keep open the possibility of accomplishing our reach goal of a large loop entailing creekwalking the entire length of the Middle Fork down to its confluence with the South Fork and then taking the South Fork up to Ojito Camp and the Gamboa Trail. There were many unknowns about this plan with virtually no information on any part of the creekwalk except Canogas Falls itself which we had just visited the prior week. We delayed the decision and decided to continue down the Middle Fork for an hour to see how it looked. Ultimately we decided to continue the loop, but we would have to be efficient to get out of the canyon before dark. With so many unknowns I did not want to be in the canyon micro-navigating in the dark. Things started out very well. The lower part of the Middle Fork has some pretty cascades and falls but the micro-navigating was fairly straightforward and not time-consuming. We made good time to the confluence and I was optimistic. 20 minutes later after ascending the lower reaches of the South Fork we were at beautiful Canogas Falls. We had certainly taken the more arduous route to Canogas this time vs the prior week! I will be having a special blog post dedicated to Canogas Falls from this prior trip since we were able to spend much more time (and swim!) at this spectacular falls on that trip.  
After another snack, we climbed up Canogas Falls and continued up the South Fork Devils Canyon. My research identified a mile long stretch above Canogas Falls that had potential for additional waterfalls. My suspicion proved true as we encountered a relentless set of waterfalls and challenging obstructions to overcome. At one point we stopped to look at the terrain ahead when Brian remarked “we’re f$^ked!” I thought he was just joking, especially since he was smiling, but he wasn’t. Ahead of us was a falls spitting out of a narrow notch in the vertical rock completely surrounded by tall cliffs extending well downstream. I knew there was a decent chance we could get around the falls on the south side so I was not ready to entertain ideas of aborting the route, which would require somehow getting a ride back to Memorial Park from Hwy 1. Brian wanted to visit the falls up close and despite copious poison oak and some awkward climbing moves it was a great decision. It’s a truly spectacular chasm as the falls tumbles out of a V-shaped notch in the cliffs with a large turquoise pool beneath it and an amphitheater of tall cliffs. Above the falls is a distinguished spire-like Santa Lucia Fir. I called the falls “Hellhole Falls” to fit with the Devil theme of the canyon and also the fact that it’s basically a hole presenting an impasse. We backtracked from Hellhole Falls and traversed some sloping rock to get into a loose and extremely steep chute that would enable us to get above the cliffs and traverse above the cliffs. After battling some thick brush we reached a rocky point where optimism grew that we would find another chute above the falls to descend back to the stream. Success! We had found a way around Hellhole Falls, which turned out to be the crux navigation of the route. 

As much as I wanted Hellhole Falls to be the last obstruction I knew that the topography supported more falls ahead. Indeed, we encountered several more falls with deep pools, rock scrambling and continuous micro-navigation. None of these falls required as extensive loop arounds as Hellhole Falls but the South Fork Devils Canyon is relentless with its challenges and complexities. Even after a long mellow part of the stream when I thought we would simply rock hop to Ojito Camp, the South Fork produced one last cavernous falls that required us to scramble some poison oak and moss covered rock. Needless to say, it was a great feeling to finally reach Ojito Camp. Despite all of the mental and physical challenges of the south fork, we actually made better time than I was expecting at the point where we decided to go for the loop. It was 7 pm and we would be well on our way back to Memorial Park on the trail before light faded. Ojito Camp itself is in disrepair and it looks like this camp rarely gets used since no trail reaches the camp. Meanwhile, Ojito Usecamp, at the base of the Ojito Camp Trail, seems to be the camp of choice for most these days. In fact, we met a couple who were surprised to see us. We told them what we had just done but I think it didn’t make any sense to them.

The Ojito Camp Trail up to Ojito Pass has a number of trees down over the trail but they are easy to get over and it was a highway compared to the 11 hours of creek walking we had just done. We enjoyed great evening light on the Gamboa Trail gazing down at South Fork Devils Canyon which we had just ascended. I turned my headlamp on at the junction with the Arroyo Seco Trail and from there it was a relatively quick run back to Memorial Park although the Arroyo Seco Trail is becoming quite brushy making quick running impossible. The adventure went about as well as I could have expected, especially considering how arduous and rugged the terrain is in the Devils Canyons.This is probably the premiere creek-walking adventure in the Ventana Wilderess based on the metrics of challenge, ruggedness, and major waterfalls encountered. While the route is mentally and physically exhausting, it also immensely rewarding. The beauty of the falls and pools in the Devils Canyons is enhanced by a distinct mineral deposit that accumulates on everything under water. Nowhere else in the Ventana have I seen such mineral deposits. I suspect that this deposit is limestone and it produces magical turquoise pools and ultimately turquoise waters along the Big Sur coastline between Big Creek and Limekiln. It was great to share the experience with Brian and I look forward to discovering more gems in this amazing region! 

The Heart of the Ventana

This post is the third installment of a series on the Ventana Double Cone region, which features arguably the most rugged and wild coastal terrain in the contiguous United States. The first post described a repeat of “The Drain” route with a mini-loop addition to visit the stunning “Ventana Spires” and the second post detailed the Ventana Triple Crown which is a spectacular high ridge traverse from South Ventana Cone to Ventana Cone to Ventana Double Cone including several rocky and remote intermediary summits. This last posts describes a point-to-point route up beautiful Ventana Creek past 50 ft Ventana Falls to La Ventana (aka The Window) and Kandblinder Peak carrying over into the Little Sur drainage to finish at Bottcher’s Gap. This was one of the more rugged adventures I’ve done including Ventana Creek’s beautiful gorges and cascades amid old growth redwoods, the extremely remote and stunning Ventana Falls, an ultra-steep climb up to the namesake geographical feature of the Ventana Wilderness (La Ventana aka The Window), and spectacular views from Kandlbinder. From Ventana Camp to Jackson Camp it was an arduous but rewarding adventure over terrain that is grand, awe-inspiring and humbling at the same time – the heart of the Ventana. Full album here. GPS route hereThe route begins at Big Sur Station with some trail miles on the Pine Ridge Trail above the Big Sur River gorge. After 4 miles on the Pine Ridge Trail descend to Ventana Camp along the Big Sur River. Follow the Big Sur River downstream a short distance and then take a use path to the entrance of Ventana Creek. Ventana Creek is an amazing creek walk including narrow gorges with small waterfalls and rapids in a setting of lush redwoods, ferns and moss. The creek wading is often not optional since the walls of the canyon periodically come right down to the water course. Walking up Ventana Creek there is a strong sense of remoteness as few have traveled up this unspoiled waterway. Ventana Creek is not an advisable place to be in higher volume creek flow and there is ample evidence of the power of the water that comes down this canyon during winter storms.  It’s fairly slow going wading in the creek with innumerable step overs, immense redwood log jams, clear pools, small waterfalls and other obstacles to climb through, up and under. However, as creek walks go Ventana Creek is fairly efficient.  Near the confluence with the East Fork Ventana Creek the forest canopy parts for a moment providing glimpses of the cliffs and rocky buttresses of Ventana Double Cone, the Queen of the Ventana, presiding over a rugged region that is unmatched in the coastal mountain ranges of the west coast of the United States. After about 5.5 miles of creek walking in Ventana Creek, one gets a sense of the canyon walls closing in with a headwall approaching. First there is a thin falls coming coming in from the right on a tributary flowing off Kandlbinder. Then, a few feet later one rounds a corner and is treated to Ventana Falls, which tumbles an estimated 50 feet over reddish and white cliffs into a nearly circular amphitheater. Evidence of rocks and vegetation strewn about the base of the falls indicates it is very flashy during periods of heavy rains, but since it’s very close to the headwaters it appears flow returns to relatively light shortly thereafter. Ventana Falls is not particularly high and it does not maintain high volume, but it’s extremely remote setting in a reddish amphitheater of cliffs is stunning.

Getting around Ventana Falls to access the terrain upstream is perhaps the crux of the route. A few feet downstream of the falls is a loose gully in an active rock slide zone. There appears to be two options to get around the falls from here. The first option is to ascend the gully a short distance and find a way to climb a short vertical step of reddish rock. This rock is crumbly so extreme care must be taken. The second option is to ascend the gully about 100 vertical feet. About midway up the gully the loose rock is interspersed with solid bedrock. Carefully ascend the rock and look for a non-technical traverse that can be taken to exit the gully and access easier terrain that leads back down to Ventana Creek above the falls. Regardless of which route is chosen, the rock is extremely loose so caution must be taken with each move. Above the falls, the creek is characterized by a lot of large talus blocks which provide an efficient means of travel and gaining elevation as the grade becomes steeper. The creek disappears at times under talus so make sure to fill up water while it’s still easy to access.   At a broad, open section of talus, the main drainage curves into the Drain which flows up toward Ventana Double Cone, but to access the Window take a smaller gully to the left. This gully ultimately leads toward Kandlbinder, so one must be on the lookout for shallow gullies that trend up and right toward the Window. It seems there are several shallow gullies at the bottom but the correct one ascends toward the vertical cliff band that descends off the east side of La Ventana. I found the most solid talus to be immediately beneath these cliffs on the right side of the gully. The route up to La Ventana is a straightforward, albeit steep talus climb with no technicalities encountered. While the views from the Window proper are mostly obscured by the vegetation, there are excellent vistas of Ventana Double Cone and the Ventana Creek drainage on the way up. Immediately above La Ventana is a pinnacle that forms the western high point of the window frame.  This pinnacle has arguably the best view of the Ventana Double Cone region. At your feet is a sweeping vista of the rugged cliffs and buttresses above the east side of the Window stretching down into the Drain and the western face of Ventana Double Cone. It’s an awe-inspiring panorama that is unmatched in the Ventana in terms of the sheer ruggedness.From The Window or its western pinnacle it may be tempting to stay on the ridge crest which contains plentiful deadfall and brush. While this route on top of the ridge is feasible, it is definitely easier and likely faster to traverse on the north side of the ridge utilizing open terrain amid Santa Lucia Fir and talus. After some traversing a talus gully leads back toward the ridge crest where the final climb along the ridge to Kandlbinder is on open terrain with excellent views looking back to Ventana Double Cone. Kandlbinder is an awesome spot to soak in the 360 degree views including the entire Little Sur River drainage with Pico Blanco, Post Summit and Cabezo Prieto, Ventana Double Cone and the Drain, the Big Sur River drainage and distant views all the way to Cone Peak and Junipero Serra. The descent off Kandlbinder is a bit arduous on loose talus and scree fields, but one can find some plunge stepping lanes on the edges of the main rock gully. From the bottom of Kandlbinder’s gully, walk down the drainage (the headwaters of the LIttle Sur River) until a very small climb leads up and over a saddle into the Jackson Creek drainage. At this point a use path becomes more defined and as one descends into Jackson Creek it’s important to stay on this use path which is fairly efficient in its upper portion. As the use path descends further into the Jackson Creek drainge there is increasing deadfall to negotiate but the general idea is stay near the creek alternating sides to utilize the path of least resistance. While going down Jackson Creek is certainly easier than going up, it’s not a great deal amount faster due to all of the blowdowns. Near the bottom of Jackson Creek is pretty Firehose Falls with a small but beautiful pool. The confluence with the Little Sur River is just beyond. While there are several crossings of the Little Sur River, the trail becomes much easier to Jackson Camp and on to Pico Blanco Boyscout Camp and finally the dirt road up to Bottcher’s Gap.  

Ventana Triple Crown

Deep within the Ventana Wilderness along a high ridge that separates the Carmel River drainage from the Big Sur River drainage lies some of the most remote, wild and unforgiving coastal terrain in the United States. Along this ridge are the three “Ventana Cones” including Ventana Double Cone, Ventana (single) Cone and South Ventana Cone. While there is a history of exploration and climbs along this ridge, Bob Burd was the first person to envision a traverse of this entire ridge in a single day including summits of all three Ventana Cones, a route he coined the “Ventana Triple Crown.” After a couple failed attempts, Bob succeeded his dayhike aspirations in 2006, a feat that has not been repeated until now. I have done several routes to get acquainted with the terrain of this amazing region including visits to Kandlbinder, the Window (aka La Ventana), Ventana Double Cone, Ventana (single) Cone and the Ventana Spires. Over time I became intrigued by the ridge and the collection of rocky summits between Ventana Double Cone and Ventana (single) Cone.  Completing the Triple Crown offered a great way to explore this extremely remote and rugged stretch. The volume of experiences I’ve had in the area enabled me to carefully study the terrain and utilize the path of least resistance. Admittedly, the path of least resistance still entailed much resistance, but I knew what to expect and doing my homework certainly helped as I was able to complete the Triple Crown in 14 hours, 15 minutes roundtrip from the China Camp TH of the Pine Ridge Trail. It was both a mentally and physically challenging journey, but it was also incredibly rewarding and a route that I enjoyed a lot, as manifested by the nearly 500 (!) photographs that I took. I look forward to further explorations in this amazing region and also repeating the Triple Crown.  GPS route here.  Full photo album hereOverview of the Triple Crown from Mount Manuel below: Chaparral & Santa Lucia Firs: Much of the difficulty of the Triple Crown is due to the unavoidable bushwhacking through California chaparral, a hardy, drought-adapted mix of shrubs that covers much of the land and includes ceanothus, chamise, oak scrub and manzanita. The chaparral provides copious fuel to fires that periodically sweep over the ridges and down into the canyons. The same fires also encourage explosive reproduction of the shrubs and in as little as four years the chaparral can return as thick as ever, sometimes so thick that it is virtually impenetrable. On rocky, mostly north facing slopes, a rare forest of Santa Lucia Fir can be found. Endemic to the Santa Lucia Mountains and the rarest fir in the world, the Santa Lucia Fir is not fire resistant, but has survived in these mountains by habituating fireproof terrain on rocky slopes and the bottom of moist canyons. This amazing tree is symbolic of the Ventana Wilderness with its slender, spire-like form. The largest concentration of Santa Lucia Firs in the world can be found in the canyons and peaks of the upper Carmel River watershed. Often times, the steep, rocky terrain characteristic of the Santa Lucia Fir habitat is the ticket to efficient travel. The 2008 Basin Complex fire roared through this area of the Ventana with ferocious speed and heat leaving a maze of deadfall in spots. However, it appears the Santa Lucia Fir forest largely survived, a testament to the fir’s unique adaptability in a region where fires occur periodically.    The Intermediary Summits: There are several intermediary summits along the ridge connecting the three Ventana Cones with no official names. Several of these summits are worthy of distinction for their prominence, location and outstanding character. Moreover, passing over these intermediary summits entail some of the most arduous terrain on the route. For reference, I have dubbed Peak 4,455 between Pine Ridge and Ventana Cone as “Blue Peak” since it has a commanding view of the Blue Creek drainage. Peak 4,387, located north of Ventana Cone is arguably the most impressive unnamed summit in the Ventana with steep, cliffy terrain on all sides. In particular, the southwest face of Peak 4,387 is an impressive cliff facade overlooking the Lion Creek drainage. Thus, “Lion Rock” seems like a fitting name for this awesome summit. Peak 4,260+ does not even get a marker on the USGS map, but it’s a prominent summit along the ridge and also overlooking the wild headwaters of the East Fork Ventana Creek. The point is also a milestone on the Triple Crown traverse. When viewed from Ventana Double Cone, Peak 4,260+ has a rounded top characteristic of knobs with a Santa Lucia Fir forest in a scree gully on its north slope. Thus, “Ventana Knob” seems like an appropriate name. Finally, Peak 4,452 is labelled on the map, but there are actually three high points along the narrow ridge separating Ventana Mesa Creek and the unnamed creek draining the north side of Ventana (single) cone. The label on the USGS map is placed on what is the middle high point, but the highest point is actually the southern point (verified by GPS) by a few feet. The northern point along the ridge is considerably lower than its southern neighbors, but is still a prominent point along the ridge.  All three high points contain impressive cliff faces, particularly on their southeast sides, with sharp drops on all sides and pointy summits so the “Ventana Spires” is a very apt name to describe these three rugged pinnacles with south, middle and north spires used to identify each of the three high points. Preparation:  There are several aspects of this route which require planning. First, and perhaps the most critical aspect of this route, is water, or lack thereof. There is no water source from Pine Ridge all the way to past Ventana Double Cone. Essentially the entire off-trail portion of the route does not have water. There is water in the canyons beneath the ridge but the water is several hundred to over a thousand vertical feet below ridge and difficult to access at best. Thus, one must plan to carry sufficient water for several hours of bushwhacking on an exposed ridge or risk dehydration. The first reliable source of water on the trail without a side trip is beneath Puerto Suello Gap. Reliable water can be found near Lone Pine Camp with a short detour. The lack of water on the ridge is closely related to the second important aspect: weather. As the ridge is exposed to direct sunlight most of the way, it is not a good idea to be up there when it is hot or when there is any kind of inclement weather or limitation on visibility. I did the traverse on a relatively cool spring day and I still found it hot in the middle of the day. Attempting the route on a warmer day increases the difficulty proportionately and being on the ridge on a hot day (typical of late spring and summer) would be tortuous and would require substantially more water, amounts that could be prohibitively heavy and cumbersome to carry efficiently through the brush. Third, come prepared for full-on bushwhacking. There is some unavoidable brush and sharp deadfall, particularly between Ventana (single) Cone and Ventana Double Cone, that will shred any exposed skin. It is critical to cover the legs with durable material. You cannot have hesitation charging through the brush and dead vegetation to get through some sections with any kind of decent forward progress. For clarification, decent forward progress can be as little as 1 mph in this brushy, complex terrain. Fourth, understand the topography. The first leg between Pine Ridge and Ventana (single) Cone has fairly gentle topography with light to moderate brush. Most of the time-consuming complexities and arduous terrain is located after Ventana (single) Cone and it persists all the way to  Ventana Double Cone. There are several sharp drops between the intermediary summits of Lion Rock, Ventana Knob and the Ventana Spires with incredibly thick brush to avoid and copious sharp deadfall and trees to engage in bushwhacking gymnastics. The terrain is much steeper and contains cliffs with some unavoidable rock scrambling. It definitely pays to study this section carefully and anticipate that the segment between Ventana (single) Cone and Ventana Double Cone will take significantly longer than the segment between South Ventana Cone and Ventana (single) Cone. The Route: The route begins at the China Camp TH with the first several miles along the Pine Ridge Trail to Church Creek Divide. This stretch of trail is immensely scenic with excellent views into the Church Creek drainage and also views to Ventana (single) Cone and Ventana Double Cone. From Church Creek Divide, the Pine Ridge Trail traverses a number of drainages as it traverses to Pine Ridge. The most prominent drainage contains the headwaters of the Carmel River and is the last reliable source of water all the way to Lone Pine Spring or the stream below Puerto Suello Gap. It may be tempting to climb South Ventana Cone directly from the Pine Ridge Trail but the upper section is choked with thick brush. Better to save the energy for later. Instead, continue along the Pine Ridge Trail to the junction with the Black Cone Trail and take the Black Cone Trail south to the southwest side of Ventana Double Cone where there is a corridor of light brush to the summit. The SW side requires pushing through a short section of very thick brush beside the trail, but just above the southwest slope is user friendly and becomes less brushy as one ascends.  The SW slope is likely the most efficient way to reach South Ventana Cone in present conditions (i.e. no fire in a number of years). After South Ventana Cone retrace steps to the Black Cone/Pine Ridge junction and head toward Pine Ridge on faint use paths. A few majestic ponderosa pines survived the Basin fire and the view from the reddish summit rocks is spectacular. The descent from Pine Ridge is fairly efficient as there are wide swaths of open ground between the bushes. Eventually the open ground becomes lesser and the brush closes in requiring some light to moderate bushwhacking. This bushwhacking continues through the low point between Pine Ridge and Blue Peak but once on the upper part of the ridge to Blue Peak the terrain opens up and the final part is an easy walk on rocks to the summit of Blue Peak. From Blue Peak there is more brush to contend with leading to another intermediary summit. I found it best to stay a few feet below the ridge crest on the south side on this section. At the intermediary summit Ventana Cone appears close and the brush becomes lighter for the final stretch to the summit of Ventana Cone. The view from Ventana Cone is stellar and includes all of the remaining highpoints on the way to Ventana Double Cone. From Ventana Cone, descend several hundred feet on the north side of the ridge through Santa Lucia Fir forest and traverse talus slopes and Santa Lucia Firs toward the pass between Ventana Cone and Lion Rock, but stay below the pass. Ascend Lion Rock remaining on the north side of the ridge utilizing more talus in Santa Lucia Firs. Near the top of Lion Rock regain the ridge and ascend the final rocks to the summit. The summit area is surprisingly spacious with some relatively flat rocks. Descending the north side of Lion Rock entail some downclimbing through rocks. The next section was severely burned by the Basin fires leaving a maze of dead trees and branches to navigate. New brush is beginning to sprout through the dead vegetation in spots making forward progress especially taxing. The going is especially tough just after a small pass between Lion Rock Ventana Knob. Eventually, the brush gives way to a pleasant open stretch of grass and yuccas that leads almost all the way to the top of Ventana Knob. Ventana Knob has one of the best views in the Ventana looking across to the rugged South Arete of Ventana Double Cone and the towering Ventana Spires and down the wild East Fork Ventana Creek.From Ventana Knob, downclimb some rock and then take a scree gully down through Santa Lucia Firs. Once below cliffs on the skiers right, veer toward Heartbreak Pass, so named because of incredibly thick brush that grows in this low point. Before reaching Heartbreak Pass, traverse west through some brush to a talus gully, which is the ticket to avoiding the thick brush above Heartbreak Pass. Most of the way up the talus gully is a convenient chute that leads to the ridge below the South Ventana Spire. This chute has some fun third class scrambling on solid rock in the lower part which transitions to second class loose talus on the upper part. From the ridge, the summit of South Ventana Spire, the highest spire, is a short third class scramble away. At Ventana Spires most of the complexities of the Triple Crown have already been overcome. It may appear that brush has taken over the entire saddle between the Ventana Spires and Ventana Double Cone, but the thick brush can largely be avoided by staying on the left side near the cliffs that drop into the East Fork Ventana Creek. In fact, this terrain includes some enjoyable scrambling on blocky third class rock. From Ventana Double Cone, it’s all trail back to the China Camp Trailhead, but still many miles fairly of overgrown trails. As of this writing, the Ventana Double Cone trail is overgrown but has seen some substantial work to clear out the brush and blowdowns. The upper mile of the Puerto Suello Trail was cleared of dozens of blowdowns which is incredibly helpful. The middle part is still a challenge with some overgrown parts and blowdowns while the final stretch into Hiding Canyon Camp is in good condition. From Hiding Canyon Camp, cross the Carmel River and head up Hiding Canyon on the Carmel River Trail, which has become quite overgrown through this section. The trail becomes better on the final climb into Pine Valley. It’s a pleasure to come through Pine Valley with its lovely pastures and forest of ponderosa pine. From Pine Valley, it’s up to Church Divide and retracing steps on the Pine Ridge Trail back to China Camp Trailhead. 

The Drain & Ventana Spires

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 hereMy 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. Drain Spires routeDrain Spires route closeThe 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

Last Chance Falls

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. 

Cone Peak Climbs

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.    Photo by Joey CassidyPhotos 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 RibPhoto by Joey CassidyAfter 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 by Joey CassidyPhoto above and below  by Joey Cassidy of me ascending the SE Ridge. Photo by Joey CassidyPhoto above and below by Joey Cassidy of the SE RidgePhoto by Joey CassidyPhoto above by Joey Cassidy of me ascending the short but sweet West Rib. 

 

Mocho Loop Featuring Mocho Falls

The Mocho Loop is another Big Sur Classic combining spectacular coastal views, a magical walk through a lush river canyon, and a rarely seen waterfall on the main stem of the South Fork Big Sur River. I started the loop with an always-inspiring hike up Boronda Ridge and then ran down the Coast Ridge Road with more marvelous coastal vistas all the way to the top of the Terrace Creek trail. Terrace Creek descends into an old growth redwood grove with a cascading stream along the way. At the bottom of Terrace Creek I took the Pine Ridge Trail to Sykes Hot Springs. The Pine Ridge trail is in awesome condition; the best I have seen it personally. The Pine Ridge Trail is also very runnable with excellent views of the Big Sur River canyon. When the Pine Ridge Trail crosses the Big Sur River, instead of going downstream to the springs I went upstream to the confluence of the North and South Forks of the Big Sur River. This mile-long stretch to the confluence is very pretty with cliffs walls on both sides of the river. At the confluence I went right onto the South Fork Big Sur River. For about 3 miles from the confluence I made my way up the South Fork fairly efficiently as a combination of flood channels, sand bars and rock hopping meant I only had to be in the stream part of the time. Higher flow on the river would make this a more arduous trek as I as continuously crossing the stream. GPS route here.After a major tributary, the canyon walls along the South Fork Big Sur River narrow into a gorge and I could sense a waterfall was coming. Indeed around a cliffy corner the lower section of Mocho Falls appeared. Since the falls is on the main stem of the river, the volume is impressive and the pool beneath the falls is big and deep. Perhaps most impressive is the amphitheater of smooth rock surrounding the falls and pool. The vertical walls around the falls meant I had to backtrack to find a route above the falls to continue upstream. A weakness in the cliffs allows one to ascend a very steep slope above the gorge and then traverse steep, sometimes loose slopes above the waterfall gorge. Mocho Falls has two distinct steps, but what was most fascinating about the falls was a twisty chasm of elegantly sculpted and polished rock separating the two steps. The depth of the chasm was such that it was impossible to see both steps of the falls at the same time cleanly (at least without a wetsuit and ropes). Nonetheless, what is visible is an amazing sight and it was a treat to experience this rarely seen falls. I can only imagine what Mocho Falls would look and sound like after a heavy rain when the water is squeezed through the chasm. In fact, after such rains the roaring sound of the falls is so great that it can be easily heard from the Devils Staircase climb up the Big Sur Trail.

Above Mocho Falls the lovely scenery continues with slick rock pools with fern and moss-covered cliffs a constant. At the junction with Mocho Creek I ate lunch under a lovely canopy of Santa Lucia Firs, incense cedars and redwoods – a rare occasion to have all three of these amazing tree species living side-by-side – yet another wonder of Big Sur! After lunch I went up Mocho Creek a short distance to see Mocho Creek Falls, which is a pretty falls in a lush setting – well worth the visit. Instead of continuing up Mocho Creek to intersect the Big Sur Trail I decided to backtrack to the South Fork Big Sur River to take the river all the way to Rainbow Camp. It was so beautiful I didn’t want it to end and I also wanted to do the Devils Staircase climb a little later in the day when it would be shaded. This turned out to be a good decision with more beautiful pools and cascades along the river lined with Santa Lucia Firs. At Rainbow Camp I turned onto the Big Sur Trail for the climb up to Cold Springs and Coast Ridge, known as the Devils Staircase due to the relentless switchbacks and substantial elevation gain. In all, it took me about 1.5 hours to go from Rainbow Camp to Cold Springs up the Devils Staircase, hardly “impassable” as some have commented (although a big pack would certainly slow things down). Bright green flagging marks the trickiest spots in the riparian zones. There are blowdowns along the climb and the brush is thick at times, but progress is reasonable. Back on the Coast Ridge Road I knew I was setting myself up for another awesome descent down Boronda Ridge in evening light. Going down this special ridge is always a fantastic way to end an adventure run, particularly a classic like the Mocho Loop! GPS route here.