Silver Peak Wilderness Loop

After being inspired and captivated by the awesome scenery of the South Big Sur Coast and Silver Peak Wilderness on the South Coast Adventure, I was eager to return for more exploration in the region, this time for a very aesthetic loop that comes in around 25-26 miles. Aside from repeat visits to the incredible Mount Mars and Buckeye Trail, this loop added a lot of new terrain for me, including upper Villa Creek, Lion Peak, the Three Peaks area and Dutra Flats. If a point-to-point is too cumbersome to arrange (this is, after all, the most remote section of the Big Sur coast), than this loop is the perfect way to hit hit the highlights and see a lot of the terrain in the region. I’ll definitely be returning for further exploration in the South Big Sur region. Strava GPS route here.

The loop starts with switchbacks on the Cruikshank Trail on a south facing chaparral slope that can be hot even in the morning. However, the trail soon rounds a corner and enters the lovely Villa Creek Canyon and begins one of the best sections of single track in all of Big Sur. From top to bottom, the Cruikshank Trail packs an incredible amount of biodiversity in its six miles, including redwoods, various pine species, Douglas fir, Santa Lucia Firs, Sargent’s cypress, various oak species, and madrone. Note that there is also plenty of poison oak alongside the trail in its  upper portion.  The trail also has excellent views to the ocean and a rugged section of Villa Creek canyon with reddish rocks characteristic of this region. About 5.75 miles from the start, the Cruikshank Trail crosses a saddle with a young Sargent’s cypress forest where a spur path heads west to Silver Peak while the main trail heads down to the beautiful Lion Den camp.  This camp has to be one of the best in Big Sur, complete with a spring, ample shade under the pines, and a commanding view overlooking Salmon Creek canyon, Silver Peak and the Pacific Ocean. Beyond Lion Den Camp, the Cruickshank heads uphill a short distance to meet the South Coast Ridge Road. A short ways south along the road is an optional side trip to Lion Peak. While the road comes close to the summit, a small bushwhack is still necessary to reach the top. Most of the unpleasantness can be avoided by leaving the road at a small saddle near the peak and entering a dense thicket. While not entirely devoid of bushwhacking, travel is reasonable and the distance is short so it only takes 10-15 minutes. It is well worth the troubles with an excellent 360 degree panorama from the exposed reddish summit block. The vista includes Cone Peak and Junipero Serra Peak to the north, Silver Peak and Lion Den camp, Three Peaks, the Salmon Creek canyon, and interior views to Burro Mountain.

After Lion Peak, more quick running along South Coast Ridge Road leads to the Three Peaks Trail, which is an old firebreak along the ridge with vegetation that has filled in to make it a single track. Overall, the trail is in fairly good condition and largely brush-free save for a couple spots.  It’s an efficient way to go from the South Coast Ridge Road to the Dutra Flats area. The land is mainly covered in chaparral and exposed to sunlight, but there are some pretty stands of coulter pine and gray pine along the way with nice views back to Lion Peak and terrain to the south. Most of the way to Dutra Flats, the Three Peaks trail crosses a prominent ridge and on the other side are awesome views of the meadows in Dutra Flat and County Line Ridge. Dutra Flat is a peaceful meadow area with heritage oaks and pines. A camp is located at the flats under cypress trees and it appears this area is used for cattle grazing. From Dutra Flat, the Murray Mine Track which leads down to Dutra Creek and then steeply up to County Line Ridge. This is a pretty section with straightforward navigation and nice views of Mount Mars and the surrounding region. 

From County Line ridge, take the Mount Mars use path up and over a couple false summits to the summit of Mount Mars, with nice views of Salmon Creek canyon, Lion Peak and Silver Peak. Descend through the vegetation tunnel on Mount Mars and emerge onto the grassy ridge with an outstanding view down the ridge to the Pacific Ocean and Salmon cone. From Kozy Kove meadows at the bottom of the very steep ridge, take the use path to the Salmon Creek Trail which quickly descends to the trailhead along Hwy 1. The Buckeye trail is a short distance away and climbs steeply at first (can be hot) but becomes more reasonable as it enters oak woodland beyond the junction with the Soda Springs Trail. There is typically water in Soda Spring Creek about halfway to Buckeye Camp.  The Buckeye Trail features marvelous coastal vistas back to Mount Mars and Piedras Blancas, and is one of the best coastal trails in Big Sur.  Buckeye Camp is always a treat with its cool fresh spring water and shady heritage oaks in the meadow. Beyond Buckeye Camp, the Buckeye Trail makes one final climb to Buckeye Vista before entering a pine forest that switchbacks down to upper Cruikshank camp. The final downhill portion along the lower Cruikshank Trail bring  you back to the Cruikshank trailhead. 

2014 Adventure Run Ideas

It should come as no surprise that I have many ideas for adventure runs (see 2013 post here and 2012 post here).  Listed below are several potential routes in the High Sierra, Trinity Alps and Coastal Region (mostly Big Sur/Ventana, but some Lost Coast).  Many of these ideas are rather obscure, but the Ventana Wilderness and Sierra Nevada are filled with hidden gems and I expect all of these will be aesthetic routes with outstanding scenery. Hopefully I’ll get to several of these ideas this year and several more routes that I haven’t thought about yet!  I also hope to visit the North Cascades in Washington State at some point, but since my opportunities to travel up north are limited I won’t dedicate a special ideas post to the Cascades this year.  All photos by me from adventures in 2013 and 2014.

Sierra: 

  • Mount Kaweah and Second Kaweah: Fantastic views from the summits compensate for otherwise chossy climbing. The approach is also highly scenic through Little Five Lakes.
  • Whitney Zone Loop: Full meal deal with the Cleaver, Tunnabora, Carillon, Russell, Whitney, Muir, and maybe some of those other pinnacles between Whitney and Muir. 
  • Tyndall & Williamson: Double the fun for these two fourteeners via Shepherd’s Pass and Williamson Bowl.
  • Mount Rixford, Dragon Peak & University Peak: These all look like fun peaks to ascend. Mount Rixford, with its position west of the crest, is a particularly good viewpoint. Dragon Peak looks impressively rugged from the Rae lakes Basin. I’d also like ascend Mount Bago via its walk-up side.   
  • Comb Spur & Goat Mountain: Great early season route with huge views.
  • Cirque Crest Loop: An area I have yet to explore with some cool peaks I’d like to climb including Mount Ruskin and Observation Peak. This region also contains some of the range’s most remote basins including Dumbell Basin, Lake Basin and Amphitheater Lake.
  • Arrow Peak and Bench Lake: An adventure via Taboose Pass that has been on the list for many years, but I haven’t made it out yet to see the classic Sierra view of Arrow Peak from Bench Lake. Perhaps this trip could be combined with the Cirque Crest Loop described above.
  • Ionian Basin – Scylla & Hansen: Accessed via Sabrina Basin and Echo Col, this region is near Muir Pass and the JMT, but far away from the beaten path and features spectacular peaks and many high lakes amid one of the most rugged and strikingly desolate settings in the High Sierra.
  • The Black Divide Loop – Charybdis, Black Giant, McDuffie: A three peak loop tour of of the Ionian Basin, accessed via Bishop Pass and South Lake.
  • Bench Valley: Another western approach to the LeConte Divide, featuring a string of remote high alpine lakes off-trail.
  • Mt. Henry, Red Mountain and Hell for Sure Lake: A beautiful area with lots of easy cross country terrain.
  • Evolution Loop:  Last time I did the horseshoe loop from north to south, but I’m wondering if south to north is actually faster. The argument for south to north is that most of the steep climbing is completed earlier rather than later, which may work better for me as I’ll be able to attack the long and at times steep climb out Pate Valley to Muir Pass early in the route.  Despite it being a long uphill slog from the JMT junction to Piute Pass, it’s fairly gradual and I think most of it is runnable for me if I’m feeling good at that point in the run, whereas the climb from Pate Valley to Bishop Pass is too steep for any running late in the run. I also like the idea of running down through Evolution Basin and Valley.  Finally, the South Lake trailhead is also marginally higher by about 500 feet.  I guess I’ll have to find out if south to north is faster. 
  • Bench Canyon Loop: At the remote headwaters of the North Fork San Joaquin River this loop entails a section of the Sierra High Route from Thousand Island Lake to Tuolumne Meadows.
  • Northern Yosemite 50 miler: This is a fantastic loop including Peeler Lake, the Benson Lake riviera, Smedberg Lake, Matterhorn Canyon and Burro Pass.
  • Boundary Lake and Cherry Canyon: In northwest Yosemite and the Emigrant Wilderness.
  • John Muir Trail: The classic trail through the range of light. I’ve seen most of the trail over the years so it’s my hope to put it all together. 
  • Sierra High Route: Another big project. Over 195 miles, largely off trail through some of the best scenery the High Sierra has to offer.

Trinity Alps:

  • Sawtooth Mountain & Smith Lake: Easily the most rugged peak in the Trinity Alps and ironically it’s also arguably the most rugged mountain north of Sawtooth Ridge in the High Sierra (Yosemite/Hoover Wilderness). This route will include the remote Smith Lake nestled in a granite basin underneath Sawtooth Mountain, which is accessed via Alpine Lake, another fitting spot for an afternoon swim.
  • Caesar Peak via Stuart Fork: A trip up the Stuart Fork Trinity River to Emerald, Sapphire and Mirror Lakes finishing with a climb of Caesar Peak.
  • Caribou Mountain and Sawtooth Ridge: Beautiful views overlooking the Caribou Lakes basin, Stuart Fork Canyon and the Trinity Alps.

Coastal

  • Lost Coast: I have done the entire Lost Coast from the Mattole River to Usal Beach twice over two days each. The idea is to do the entire 53 mile stretch of the coast in one single day push.
  • King Crest 50: A 50 mile route in the King Range portion of the Lost Coast, including the entire King Crest, the Cooskie Creek route to Gorda 2, and a spectacular section of the Lost Coast beach walk [completed March 23rd, blog post coming soon].
  • Pico-Cabezo Route: A point-to-point tour of the peaks from Bottcher’s Gap to Pfieffer Big Sur State Park, incluidng Pico Blanco, South Fork Little Sur River, East Molera Ridge, Post Summit, Cabezo Prieto and Mount Manuel. 
  • Ventana Loop: Finding some inspiration in my La Ventana Loop report, Sachin and Toshi put up an awesome variation by descending into the rugged cirque between Kandlbinder and Ventana Double Cone and then ascending the rugged west ridge of Ventana Double Cone via what appears to be an instant classic scramble route.This is an awesome region with a lot left for me to explore.
  • Mocho Falls along the South Fork Big Sur River: A trail run to Sykes Hot Springs and then a creekwalk along the Big Sur River and then the South Fork Big Sur River to an enigmatic waterfall that is apparently 80 feet tall on the main stem of the south fork, but has seen few visitors and no photographs that I can find.
  • South Big Sur Coast Adventures: I have done several trips in the Silver Peak Wilderness recently, including the South Coast Adventure point-to-point and the Silver Peak Wilderness Loop, but it’s got some of the best scenery along the entire Big Sur coast so I look forward to returning for more exploration.
  • Arroyo Seco River Gorge: For a hot day in the summer I would like to see the entire Arroyo Seco Canyon from top to bottom in a ~25 mile loop, 13 miles on old road and the balance walking in and swimming the Arroyo Seco.

South Coast Adventure

The South Big Sur Coast stretches from Pacific Valley to Ragged Point. Due to its remote location 1.5+ hours from Monterey Bay, it is the least visited portion of the Big Sur coast, but it is well worth the extra time. The centerpiece of this region is the Silver Peak Wilderness, established in 1992 and containing 31,555 acres, containing a network of amazing trails including the Cruikshank Trail, the Salmon Creek Trail and the Buckeye Trail. Also included in the wilderness is Mount Mars, which is one of the most spectacular and impressive grassy ridges in all of Big Sur. In fact, the incredibly steep west ridge of Mount Mars rises over 2,600 ft in a little over 1.25 miles as the crow flies from the ocean! The Buckeye Trail is arguably the most scenic coastal trail in all of Big Sur with outstanding vistas and enjoyable technical single track. One of the best ways to enjoy the South Coast is via a point-to-point such as the South Coast Adventure route described here.

The South Coast Adventure route starts at Williams Ranch which is a working cattle ranch at the southern tip of the Big Sur coast near Ragged Point. A steep ascent up the grassy slopes leads up toward Bald Top and County Line Ridge with impressive views to the Piedras Blancas coastal plain. Once on County Line Ridge a dirt ranch road leads along the top of the ridge with excellent vistas of the deep blue Pacific on one side and interior views on the other. The ridge is largely grassy meadows with clumps of heritage oaks. As you move north along the ridge, there are more pine trees, including gray pines, Ponderosa pines, and Coulter pines. At the junction with County Line dirt road, stay on the ridge crest and follow the Mount Mars traverse use path 0.6 miles to the summit of Mount Mars. The first part of the path climbs steeply through pine and oak forest and then chaparral to a pair of sub-summits before making the final climb in low manzanita to Mount Mars. From the summit, take a vegetation tunnel that was cut through the tall chaparral down to the grassy west ridge. The view as you emerge from the vegetation tunnel is simply stunning with Salmon Cone and the deep blue Pacific Ocean 2,500 ft below. On the left is Piedras Blancas with the lighthouse visible on clear days and on the right is the rugged Silver Peak. As you head down the beautiful grassy ridge, it is difficult to keep from gazing at the amazing view, but use caution as the slope is extremely steep with loose rocks.  About two-thirds of the way down is lovely Kozy Kove Meadows, a fairly flat spot that is also the turnoff for the use path that leads down to the Salmon Creek Trail and beautiful Salmon Falls, which is set amid large boulders and bay trees. At the Salmon Creek Trailhead run on Hwy 1 for a couple hundred meters to reach the Buckeye Trailhead. The initial climb on Buckeye Trail is quite steep and exposed so it is often very hot. About 1 mile in, the Soda Springs Trail branches off down to another trailhead along Hwy 1 while the Buckeye Trail commences another climb through chaparral and oak woodland for 2.5 miles to Buckeye Camp and Buckeye Springs. The coastal vistas along this stretch are magnificent. Buckeye Camp is located in a peaceful meadow with a colossal oak tree, some pines, and even a few mature eucalyptus that were planted here decades ago when (I’m assuming) a homestead existed in this meadow. A spring near the camp provides refreshing cold water. Buckeye Camp would certainly make for a great nap spot! Beyond Buckeye Camp, the trail descends to Redwood Gulch Creek before making a final ascent to Buckeye Vista, Pt. 2,318, arguably the best view on the entire trail. After Buckeye Vista, the trail enters pine forest as it switchbacks down the hill to Cruikshank Camp. For this route, continue through Upper Cruikshank camp and descend to redwood-filled Villa Creek remaining on the Buckeye Trail. The Buckeye Trail then traverses the ridge on the north side of Villa Creek canyon with excellent views of Villa Creek canyon and then rounds a corner into the Alder Creek drainage which contains alder and Douglas Fir forest, a fascinating contrast to the redwoods in Villa Creek. At Alder Camp take the Alder Creek Road up to San Martin Top Ridge where there is a four way junction. Continue straight onto the Willow Creek Road which leads down through the largest Douglas fir forest on the central coast to the Highway near Cape San Martin. There are some nice views in the bottom portion of Willow Creek road when it emerges from the forest. An excellent 36 mile point-to-point route that I look forward to doing in the future would be to turn right at the four way junction on San Martin Top ridge and connect into South Coast Ridge Road which can be taken all the way to Prewitt Ridge for a spectacular descent into Pacific Valley.  Stay tuned for posts on a couple more routes in this gorgeous section of the Big Sur Coast!  Strava track for this route here

 

Shouey-Plaskett Loop

The Shouey-Plaskett Loop is one of the best short loops (<15 miles) on the Big Sur Coast with excellent variety including a lush redwood forest, expansive coastal vistas, picturesque grassy ridges, and oceanside views of rugged beaches and sea stacks. In fact, I enjoyed this loop so much that I returned here a couple weeks later with Erica (stay tuned for photos from that outing). The loop originates in Pacific Valley, one of my favorite spots on the coast, and comes in around 12 miles with nearly 4,000 feet of gain.

The route starts at the South Prewitt Trailhead behind the Pacific Valley Fire Station. The South Prewitt begins with some climbing on an old road and less than a mile up the trail, the Prewitt Loop veers to the left while the Willett Trail (here an old road) continues straight. The Willett Trail (aka Mansfield Ravine Trail) soon narrows into single track and switchbacks up a steep hillside amid a lush setting of redwoods with sustained elevation gain. There is some encroaching poison oak and brush in spots, but otherwise the trail is in good condition. At ~1,800 feet it is best to leave the trail and ascend a spur of Shouey Ridge. This is open forest at first and after a few minutes of climbing you pop out into grassland with marvelous views of Pacific Valley below. Continuing up the spur ridge, the views open up further, including the familiar craggy face of Cone Peak, the King of the Big Sur Coast. The spur ridge joins Shouey Ridge proper at ~2,200 ft, where a more defined use path can be found heading uphill along Shouey Ridge.Before heading up the ridge, I recommend first going down to a spectacular vista at 1,700 ft. The trail peters out on this lower portion of the ridge, but travel is easy through the grassy meadows.  The vista at 1,700 ft is perched over Pacific Valley with a breathtaking panorama from Cape San Martin all the way to Lopez Point, including Sand Dollar Beach, Pacific Valley Bluffs, Limekiln, Stone Ridge, Prewitt Ridge, Cone Peak and Twin Peak.

Heading back up Shouey Ridge, the amazing views never abate on the exposed ridge crest. There are some particularly photogenic Coulter and Ponderosa pines lining the ridge. After a short steeper section between 2,400-2,800 ft, the use path begins to traverse the hillside at ~2,800 ft below private property with excellent views of Plaskett Creek canyon. The use path ends at Plaskett Ridge Road, which seems to only be used by the two residents who live up there. Head downhill along the road and find more amazing views along the way; one of the prettiest roads I have ever been on! There are numerous side paths along the road that can be taken to viewpoints. Of particular interest is a series of paths that head down a spur of Plaskett Ridge to a great view of the Willow Creek drainage (we explored this area two weeks later). After a bend in the road at 2,400 feet, take another use path that follows the spine of lower Plaskett Ridge. This use path provides more stellar views before entering a pine forest and ultimately popping out on Plaskett Ridge Road for the last 1.5 miles back to Hwy 1. The views keep coming with excellent views to Sand Dollar Beach on the run down the dirt road. After a couple hundred meters on the highway, enter the Sand Dollar recreation area. A short diversion down a staircase leads to the beautiful Sand Dollar Beach (surfing, swimming, beach walking), otherwise a use trail heads north along Pacific Valley Bluffs. Exploration abounds as there are numerous interesting rock formations and beaches tucked into the seascape. Find an inspirational spot and enjoy the beautiful setting before heading back to the parking area at the Pacific Valley Fire Station. Strava GPS route here

Little Sur Circular Pools

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 (notice a lot of excellent terrain for adventures begin at this trailhead) 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. 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 passes through a shallow gully with a stream that is particularly lush with a carpet of redwood sorrel and a nice grove of redwoods.   The Jackson Camp Trail reaches False Jackson Camp where the first crossing of many Little Sur River crossings is located. The real Jackson Camp is only one more river crossing away (0.2 miles), but from Jackson Camp to Fox Usecamp there are numerous more 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 in rainy period. The official trail ends at Jackson Camp, but the use path to Fox Camp 1.3 miles upsteam 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 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 primary 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, nearly-circular pool virtually completely surrounded by cliffs. This rock amphitheater contains an assortment of lush hanging vegetation including five finger ferns and moss. The first circular pool and waterfall is the most impressive, but more adventure lies upstream. A few feet downstream of the main pool a weakness in the cliffs on the north side of the Circular Pool allows for passage upsateam. 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 rock formations known as the bathtubs. Beyond the bathtubs there is apparently a third circular pool and 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 bathtubs so I look forward to returning soon to reach the remote upper reaches of the Little Sur River near North Fork Camp.  I’m also excited to see the Little Sur River in the spring when the lushness of the environs will be at its maximum and a swim in the Circular Pools will refreshing as opposed to frigid! Stava route here

Santa Lucia Three Peaks

The Santa Lucia Three Peaks is classic route that includes the summits of three major peaks in the Ventana Wilderness – Cone Peak, Twin Peak and Junipero Serra Peak. Along the way there are great views of both the Big Sur Coast and the interior Ventana Wilderness. While mostly utilizing trails, the route does feature three prominent cross-country ridges, the North Ridge of Cone Peak, the traverse between Cone Peak and Twin Peak, and the West Ridge of Twin Peak.  These prominent off-trail ridges are probably the highlight of the route and make it an adventure.  With the exception of redwoods, the route contains the entire array of Ventana vegetation, including perhaps the best Santa Lucia fir forest in existence, the most extensive stand of old growth Sugar Pines in the Santa Lucia Mountains, and rare grove of incense cedars in the Arroyo Seco river canyon. It’s a big route coming in over 32 miles with nearly 10,000 feet of elevation gain and the off-trail portions are fairly arduous and slow compared to the trails.  Strava route here.

The route starts at Santa Lucia Memorial Park Campground after a drive through Fort Hunter Liggett (note: Del Venturi Road is closed after heavy rain). From Memorial Park, the Arroyo Seco Trail provides quick access to the North Coast Ridge Trail on a great single track.  This upper section of the Arroyo Seco canyon is surprisingly lush and enchanting with madrone, oak, Santa Lucia Firs and a rare grove of Incense Cedars. Climbing out of the canyon, the vegetation turns more chaparral with a young forest of knobcone pine. On the north coast ridge, the trail climbs to Tin Can Camp with a great view looking back to Junipero Serra Peak and an awesome stretch through Sugar Pine and Coulter Pine forest.  At the junction with the Gamboa Trail, veer left to continue on the North Coast Ridge Trail. Cross a rocky slope and then begin descending on the east side of Cone Peak before finding an easy gap to gain the crest of the north ridge of Cone Peak. The first part of the north ridge is easy open terrain with a use path in sections. The second part of the north ridge becomes more rugged with bits of scrambling in spots and a couple places where you must come off the ridge to the west side to avoid loose rock formations on the ridge crest proper. This second part of the north ridge has phenomenal views and an airy feeling with lots of relief on both sides of the serrated rocky ridge, especially on the east side where cliffs plunge several hundred feet. 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 scrambling is very enjoyable on the north ridge, but it doesn’t last long before the familiar fire lookout atop 5,155 ft Cone Peak comes into view. Cone Peak is the King of the Big Sur Coast and third highest point in the Santa Lucia Mountains. It features the most dramatic relief from the ocean in the contiguous United States as only 3 miles separate its summit from the sands. After enjoying the marvelous views from Cone Peak, descend the Cone Summit Trail for a short distance and take the ridge connecting Cone Peak to Twin Peak. This cross country route features a couple scrambling moves but is largely a use path along the ridge.  

After summiting Twin Peak, continue down the West Ridge of Twin. At first, it is best to stay on the north side of the ridge in old growth Sugar Pine forest with an open understory. Some large downfalls slow travel but ultimately you reach the grassy slopes of the lower part of the ridge. The only paths on this ridge are made by game and their feet are much narrow than humans. The result is steep sidehilling than can become tiring but the views more than compensate. Eventually the grassy ridge terminates at the Stone Ridge Trail-Gamboa Trail junction at Ojito Pass. From Ojito Pass take the Gamboa Trail as it traverses through the headwaters of the South Fork Devils Canyon passing through arguably the most complete Santa Lucia forest in existence. A reliable spring is located at Trail Spings (can be a seep in late summer and fall). Continue along the Gamboa Trail past Trail Springs and climb to the junction with the North Coast Ridge Trail. From this junction retrace steps back to Santa Lucia Memorial Park Campground.

From Memorial Park, head south down the road a short distance and find the Santa Lucia Trail/Junipero Serra Peak Trailhead. For the first couple miles, the Santa Lucia Trail is very runnable as it undulates through grassland and oak woodland. However, the final four miles to the summit of Junipero Serra Peak become steep rising over 3,500 feet over that distance. This climb is a real challenge after the preceding climbs of Cone Peak and Twin Peak. It is not advisable on a warm day, especially in the afternoon since most of the climb is exposed south-facing chaparral. The vegetation changes in the last mile to the summit when the trail rounds a corner onto the north side of the peak where there is a pleasant forest of Sugar Pine and Coulter Pine. The broad summit of Junipero Serra Peak (aka Pimkolam by the Native Americans) is the highest point in the Santa Lucia Mountains at 5,862 feet. The summit has a nice vista looking west to Cone Peak, the Silver Peak Wilderness region, and also north to Ventana Double Cone. If Cone Peak is the King of Big Sur and Ventana Double Cone is the Queen of the Ventana, Junipero Serra is the grandfather of the Santa Lucias (Pico Blanco is the prince of Big Sur and Silver Peak is the princess of the South Coast). There is a summit a register on the east side of the ridge located on a cement foundation. The old dilapidated fire lookout on the west side of the ridge has virtually nothing left but its steel frame. There are also some old artifacts on the ridge, including an old cot frame. Enjoy the descent, which is virtually all downhill to the finish at Memorial Park; you will have earned it!  Strava route here.

La Ventana Loop: Kandlbinder – La Ventana – Ventana Double Cone

The La Ventana Loop is a tremendous route that was as difficult as it was beautiful. To my knowledge Kandlbinder, La Ventana (aka The Window), and Ventana Double Cone have never been climbed together as a day trip. It took Brian Robinson, Whit Rambach, Joey Cassidy and me a little over 13 hours to complete the loop (start at 6:40 a.m. and finish at 7:50 p.m.).  The route had a little bit of everything: spectacular scenery (including coastal Big Sur and interior Ventana), remoteness, ruggedness, hideous brush, stream crossings by the dozen, waterfalls, old growth redwood groves, old growth Santa Lucia Firs, exposure, commitment, rock scrambling, treacherously loose rock, and a beautiful sunset. In all, the La Ventana Loop is around 30 miles with 9,500 ft of elevation gain, but the stats belie the difficulty of the 3 mile traverse between Kandlbinder and Ventana Double Cone. Garmin Connect Data: http://connect.garmin.com/activity/430728534

Back in December on the Ventana Double Cone trip, I was captivated as I gazed across the immensely rugged cirque to La Ventana and Kandlbinder and hoped to one day stand on those points. I recalled hearing about a route up Jackson Creek that provided direct access to La Ventana and wondered if a giant loop could be made that would include the summits of Kandlbinder and Ventana Double, essentially encircling the Little Sur drainage. In order to make the loop a reality, one must traverse between La Ventana and Ventana Double Cone, a stretch that has virtually no recent information and looked like brush hell on satellite. For a couple weeks I focused more on ascending Kandlbinder as an out-and-back via the Jackson Creek Route which has some recent route beta, but discussion with Joey reignited my interest in tackling the La Ventana Loop sooner rather than later. In a matter of days I was ready to tackle the challenge after discussion and careful satellite analysis. With a great weather forecast, the team of four was assembled at Bottcher’s Gap in the pre-dawn hours and pumped to give the La Ventana adventure a go.

Click for a full-size annotated view from Kandlbinder PeakLa Ventana Altitude

There is little information on this wild and rugged area of the Ventana Wilderness and virtually no information about the traverse between La Ventana and Ventana Double Cone. It’s a committing route that is extremely arduous, requiring advanced navigational skills and wherewithal to persevere through extremely difficult terrain and hideous brush. That being said, here are my thoughts on the segments of the La Ventana Loop:

  1. The Little Sur River: After a 3.5 mile run down the dirt road to the Pico Blanco Boy Scout Camp from Bottcher’s Gap, we took the Jackson Camp Trail to Jackson Camp. This trail is in good condition and a pleasant run through lush redwoods. Beyond Jackson Camp there are numerous crossings of the Little Sur River and we walked right through the water in the interest of time (although rock-hopping is possible in low flow). The use path is fairly easy to follow between crossings and most of the crossings are flagged. 1.3 miles from Jackson Camp is Fox Usecamp, a nice flat spot amid redwoods where Jackson Creek flows into the Little Sur River. At Fox Usecamp, we turned up Jackson Creek and soon came across a pretty waterfall known as Firehose falls.
  2. Jackson Creek:  The Jackson Creek route proved highly enjoyable. The old growth redwoods in the canyon were amazing and the stream was pretty with small cascades and pools. By taking the path of least resistance we were able to make decent progress. There are lots of down trees to go under, over and across. Beyond Happy Fork Camp, we traversed a little above the stream before heading up grassy slopes in oak woodland to a small saddle above Jackson Creek. A quick descent from the saddle brought us to a dry streambed that drains the slopes of La Ventana and Kandlbinder in periods of heavy rain.  This area had plentiful poison oak but travel through the brush was reasonable.
  3. Kandlbinder Direct:  We took a talus gully up ~1,400 feet from the bottom of the canyon below La Ventana directly to the summit of Kandlbinder. The climbing was sustained and sometimes loose, but brush-free. This is a phenomenal route amid old growth Santa Lucia Firs and the view from Kandlbinder is amazing, perhaps the best in all of the Ventana Wilderness. We arrived at Kandlbinder in under 5 hours from Bottchers Gap. This turned out to be the easy part.
  4. Kandlbinder to La Ventana: From Kandlbinder, we stayed below the ridge crest to avoid copious deadfall from the Basin Complex fire immediately on top of the ridge. While the terrain is mostly brush-free, it is very steep with cliff bands and the rock is treacherously loose requiring care and extreme caution.
  5. La Ventana:  We traversed around some cliffs and ascended the final slopes (much poison oak) to the famous notch known as La Ventana (aka the Window) for which the Ventana Wilderness is named. La Ventana is a fascinating spot, although it’s largely filled with brush these days. 
  6. The Impasse: The cliffs on the east side of the La Ventana notch are a formidable obstacle to continuing the traverse to VDC. Such an impasse is something I would expect in the High Sierra, not the Santa Lucias. We couldn’t find any safe ledges (without technical gear) in the vicinity of the notch and descended several hundred feet where we found a safe passage with some class 3 moves. 
  7. The Crux: Once we got through the cliff band, we encountered fairly thick brush as we made an ascending traverse back to the ridge crest. From here to the next high point on the ridge had truly hideous, atrocious brush. The dead manzanita and other spiny vegetation combined with the flourishing new brush growth made travel extremely arduous and slow. The brush was worst right on the ridge crest where deadfall was abundant. After careful investigation of satellite imagery before and after the trip, I’ve concluded that this section is a slog no matter which way you cut it.  
  8. The Ridge Traverse: From an intermediate high point along the ridge, the next section was rocky with little brush and we made good progress for awhile and enjoyed the exposure on both sides of the ridge.  However, we soon encountered another wall of brush and deadfall. We descended off the ridge a couple hundred feet down extremely steep and loose slopes to traverse around this brush. We ascended back to the ridge via another talus gully that was brush-free. Now back on the ridge, we enjoyed another nice rocky section with amazing views into Ventana Creek and VDC. After this point we made a direct line across the basin to the Ventana Double Cone trail. The brush in this final portion is much more manageable.
  9. Ventana Double Cone: Elated to be back on the trail, we ran up to the top of VDC and enjoyed the late afternoon views from this awesome summit. In all, it took over 3.5 hours to complete the traverse from Kandlbinder to La Ventana to VDC. 
  10. Completing the Loop: From VDC we took the trail back to Pat Springs and Bottchers Gap. We had a spectacular sunset from Little Pines overlooking Pico Blanco and drank up the cool, fresh waters in Pat Springs. A full moon and warm evening temps made the last 7 miles from Pat Springs a pleasant night run. The trail is getting some more work and is in decent shape, or maybe it just felt like a highway compared to the brush we endured on the traverse. 

Note: The following photos are in chronological order from the Little Sur River at daybreak to the group shot at Bottcher’s Gap after finishing in the dark.

Into the Wild on the Big Sur Trail

The Big Sur Trail is a rugged, overgrown trail, but the reward for the arduous effort is passage through the remote north and south forks of the wild and scenic Big Sur River. We also visited Rainbow Falls along the South Fork Big Sur River, rock hopping through the spectacular stream bed to reach this remote, hidden waterfall. Perhaps only in the bottom of the South Fork Big Sur River canyon can one find a forest composed of redwoods, Santa Lucia Firs and Coulter Pines, all living side by side. The wilderness feeling in these canyons is unparalleled.  It was a treat to see the wild and scenic canyons of the Big Sur River, arguably the heart of the Ventana Wilderness. It’s no wonder the trail posses the name “Big Sur,” the descriptive name for this rugged section of California coastline. The Basin Complex Fire in 2008 served to temporarily clear out the brush, but 5 years later the vegetation and impediments have returned with a vengeance. The remote nature of the route, and its reputation for brush, blowdowns and route finding issues explains why so few people venture into these canyons. The grand finale was a run down Boronda Ridge in evening light with an amazing sunset over the golden hills and Big Sur coastline. I had the pleasure of joining Brian Robinson for this adventure. Brian knows this trail well and spoke highly of the beauty of this region which got my imagination going and was the impetus for this trip. After seeing the Big Sur Trail for myself, I agree that it’s a gem and worth the effort. I will definitely be returning for further exploration. Strava route here.

We began by running up the Pine Ridge Trail to Sykes Hot Springs. Unlike most of the Ventana trail network, the 10 mile stretch of the Pine Ridge Trail is a well-maintained wilderness freeway with no severe ups and downs making it an enjoyable trail run. Beyond Sykes Hot Springs, the terrain was new for me and the quality of the trail decreased. After some switchbacks above Sykes, the trail traverses a steep slope (erosion in spots) with excellent views down to the confluence of the south and north forks of the Big Sur River and up the rugged canyon of the north fork. Rounding a corner in to the Redwood Creek drainage is an excellent view of an ancient redwood grove that was miraculously spared in the Basin Complex Fire. The trail descends into this beautiful grove where an excellent camp spot is located among towering redwoods and a verdant stream. Emerging from this redwood grove, one begins to see more evidence of the devastation of the 2008 fires. Along most of the Big Sur River, the redwoods have filled in and the scars of fire are becoming less striking. However, in the section from redwood camp to Cienega Creek the fire burned hot and the survival rate much less. The trail descends down the brushy and fire-scarred Cienega Creek drainage to the North Fork of the Big Sur River.

Beyond the North Fork, the trail begins many brushy switchbacks up to a small pass along a ridge that separates the north and south forks of the Big Sur River. The top of this pass represents a dividing line in fire behavior. On the south fork side, the vegetation was much less impacted with pines and oak woodland seemingly unharmed. I very much enjoyed the descent into the South Fork of the Big Sur River with some brush-free stretches of trail and excellent views into the wild and remote south fork canyon.  At the bottom of the canyon is a spectacular forest of redwoods, pine trees, and Santa Lucia Firs. It’s an ethereal scene seeing Santa Lucia Firs standing proud at the bottom of the canyon when I’m more accustomed to seeing them high on rocky ridges. At Rainbow Camp along the South Fork Big Sur River we took the remnants of the South Fork Trail to a sport where we could descend back to the river. From here, we rock hopped downstream to a small tributary that I guessed (correctly) was flowing from Rainbow Falls. We scrambled a short distance up this tributary and were treated to an awesome 55 foot drop of Rainbow Falls with a gorgeous amphitheater setting of rock and hanging gardens. The environment was relatively dry and water volume low due to the drought, but it was an awesome sight to see.  After the waterfall, we rocked hopped all the way back to Rainbow Camp. Along this stretch of the river I felt the genuine wilderness feeling in this rarely trodden canyon. It was as if we were traveling into the wild of the Ventana Wilderness. Back at Rainbow Camp, we had a snack and then continued on the Big Sur Trail to Mocho Camp about 0.5 miles distant.

Along the way there is a fantastic view looking down the South Fork with Santa Lucia Firs, Redwoods and pines filling the canyon and Ventana Double Cone towering above (first photo below). In my opinion this vista epitomizes the Ventana.  Beyond Mocho Camp is a section known as the Devil’s Staircase, so named after the long and arduous climb up numerous switchbacks from Mocho Creek to Logwood Creek. I had read reports of this section having heinous brush, routefinding problems and lots of blow downs, but I found that while the trail was brushy and difficult, travel was not unreasonable and we actually made good progress the entire way to Cold Springs, the end of the Big Sur Trail. In fairness, we came prepared for the conditions.  I wore gaiters and board shorts while Brian wore pants so our legs were completely covered from the scratchy brush. We also had gloves to push aside anything in our way. I highly recommend an outfit that protects the legs to make the Big Sur Trail an enjoyable experience. After grabbing some water at Cold Springs we took the Coast Ridge Road down to Timber Top just in time for evening light down Boronda Ridge. The run down Boronda Ridge that evening culminating in sunset is about as good as it gets; nothing short of amazing!  Boronda is the most elegant grassy ridge in all of Big Sur and timing was perfect. The clarity down the coast was phenomenal and I soaked it all in as much as I could while filling my cameras with as many photos as could take. It was one of those magical stretches in Big Sur that keep me coming back for more. All I could say upon arriving at the trailhead along Hwy 1 was “Wow!”  Strava route here

Buckeye Loop

For our first visit to the Silver Peak Wilderness we did a great 13 mile loop out of Salmon Cove including the Cruickshank Trail, the Buckeye Trail, the Soda Springs Trail and a couple miles along Hwy 1. The Silver Peak Wilderness is located along the Southern big Sur Coast.  It encompasses 31,555 acres and was established in 1992, making it the little brother of the Ventana Wilderness which spans 240,026 acres and was designated in 1969.  Within this wilderness lies the southernmost stand of coastal redwood at Redwood Creek. Our route traversed above these redwoods and also through the nearby redwood groves along Villa Creek. 

Our route began with a steep climb up the Buckeye Trail to gain a small saddle. From the saddle, the trail traverses a coastal chaparral hillside to the Soda Springs Trail junction with great views of the Pacific Ocean and Mount Mars. The Soda Springs Trail descends through oak woodland back to Highway 1. A fire crew has recently brushed out the stretch from Salmon Cove to the Soda Springs turnout on Highway 1 so this section of trail is in great shape. From Soda Springs trailhead we ran along Hwy 1 which began with a slight ascent, but was largely downhill for a couple miles to the Cruickshank Trailhead. This stretch of Highway 1 is narrow in spots, but we found minimal traffic in the morning. The Cruickshank Trail ascends an exposed hillside (note: hot in summer) in coastal chaparral with numerous switchbacks. Eventually, the trail rounds a corner into Villa Creek Canyon, thereby entering a new forested ecosystem with a pleasant mix of oak woodland, pines and redwoods. Lower and Upper Cruickshank camps are situated in pretty spots within this forest. Beyond these camps, the Buckeye Trail branches off the Cruickshank Trail and heads uphill through more oak and pine forest.

Unlike the Ventana Wilderness, which was largely burned in the 2008 Basin Complex Fire, the Silver Peak Wilderness has been spared major fires for a couple decades. The result is a mature forest of oaks and pines. After ~1,000 ft of climbing on the Buckeye Trail, the path reaches a pass. A short diversion from the pass leads to a magnificent viewpoint spanning a good chunk of the Southern Big Sur Coast. We enjoyed a snack here with a great view above the fog. Back on the Buckeye Trail, it begins a traverse across steep slopes and multiple small drainages. The tread is often in poor condition with a lot of erosion along the trail but there are excellent views down Redwood Creek to distract from the relatively slow progress. We next reached lovely Buckeye Camp which is at the south side of expansive meadows and near a natural spring with cool, pure and refreshing waters. On a very dry year, the spring was still flowing nicely. A few heritage coastal live oaks of colossal proportions play host to the camp making this a great place for a shady break. Beyond Buckeye Camp, we found some forested sections that were in reasonably good condition while some other spots were quite eroded and needing re-alignment. Ending up at the Soda Creek Junction, we were back on familiar ground for the last mile back to Salmon Cove. Overall, the entire Buckeye Trail from Cuickshank to Soda Springs is in decent shape and and an excellent choice for coastal views.  The trail has minimal encroaching brush, but there are sections that traverse steep slopes that are badly eroded which will slow you down. My impression of the Silver Peak Wilderness after my first visit was very positive. This is extremely beautiful terrain and well deserving of its wilderness designation. I look forward to future explorations on the Southern Big Sur Coast!  Strava route here

Prewitt Ridge

If Stone Ridge is the most striking, prominent ridge along the Big Sur Coast, and Boronda Ridge is the most elegant, Prewitt Ridge takes the award for the most outstanding views. The route features an unparalleled vantage of the Cone Peak region to the north and Pacific Valley to the south. We started by taking the north end of the Prewitt Loop Trail for around 1 mile up a series of switchbacks to a junction with the Prewitt Ridge use path. This first mile has great views of the sea stacks at Pacific Valley Bluff and was brush-free. The use path starts by ascending in low coastal chaparral with vistas back to Sand Dollar Beach, Jade Cove and down the southern Big Sur coast.  The route emerges from the chaparral onto gorgeous grassy slopes and at a small knoll at around ~1,500 ft Cone Peak reveals itself for the first time. The views continue to improve as the path climbs with another classic vista from a rock outcropping at ~1,800 ft. At 2,000 ft the route passes by some old sycamores and a spring with a water trough.

The next section is my favorite as you’re right on top of a grassy ridge with numerous heritage oaks and views in all directions, including deep into the north and south canyons of Prewitt Creek. Cone Peak, the King of the coast, rises imperially above the grassy ridges with no ridge more impressive than Stone Ridge, which can be viewed from top to bottom in all its glory. After passing through a small forest section, the final portion becomes steep once again through grassland and patches of pine trees. The route tops out at ~3,100 ft at a magnificent vista point on the South Coast Ridge Road. On this spectacular winter day there was a group of para gliders and hang gliders taking off from this point. Prewitt Ridge is apparently a legendary spot for para gliding and hang gliding and for good reason with the outrageous scenery and relatively easy access for crews.  It was fun to watch them throughout the hike and we would later see their landing spot at Pacific Valley. After a snack and some exploration at the top, we returned the way we came with plenty more photography and admiration of nature’s beauty. In all, it’s a little over 4 miles from Pacific Valley to the top at the South Coast Ridge Road (8 miles roundtrip).  Sand Dollar Beach and Pacific Valley Bluffs are nearby, both excellent spots to spend an afternoon relaxing after the trip up Prewitt Ridge. It was a magical day on the Big Sur coast with outstanding clarity and deep blue skies to match the azure waters of the Pacific.  The views far exceeded my expectations and I look forward to returning soon.  I have several adventure ideas to link-up various ridges along this southern part of the Big Sur coast so stay tuned!  Strava route here

A 360 panorama from Prewitt Ridge: