Four Lakes Loop

The easternmost part of the Trinity Alps is informally known as the Red Trinities due to the distinctive red rock present in this region. However, within the red rock is a section of white granite that is akin to the White Trinities to the west. This white rock stretches from Granite Lake to Gibson Peak to Siligo Peak, and not surprisingly, this area of white rock is also the most rugged part of this region. The transition between the red and white rock is very well defined creating a fantastic juxtaposition. The Four Lakes Loop is located in the heart of the Red Trinities and offers a particularly striking tour of this geologically complex region. The loop is essentially a circumnavigation of Siligo Peak passing by four alpine lakes that surround the mountain. The loop itself is only around 6.5 miles but the entire loop is deep within the Trinity Alps Wilderness and access to the loop is through one of five trails. The shortest and most efficient is the Long Canyon Trail at 6 miles (18+ miles total for the loop and access), but other options include the Stoney Ridge Trail, Granite Lake Trail via Swift Creek, Deer Creek Trail via Stuark Fork Trinity River, and Bear Basin. The land is not as rugged as the neighboring White Trinities, but it has a unique and charming character that is spectacular in its own right. The Four Lakes Loop is a wonderful introduction to the region and has new and spectacular scenery around seemingly every corner.

The author accessed the Four Lakes Loop via the Long Canyon Trail so the following is a description of that route.  The Long Canyon Trail is a steady climb through conifer forest before emerging into meadows beneath striking Gibson Peak. It is here where one may encounter fields of Anemone occidentalis, or the western pasqueflower.  The pasqueflower produces a fruit called an achene that is ellipsoid in shape and feather-like. This furry fruit reminds people of the truffula trees in Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax. The flower and its whimsical late summer fruit can be found in open rocky slopes and alpine meadows in the trinity alps and one of the best places is the meadows in upper Long Canyon and the slopes above Deer Lake. The meadows continue all the way to Bee Tree Gap, where one obtains a view of Siligo Meadows and the spires along Gibson Peak’s west ridge. After about a mile traverse above Siligo Meadows one arrives at Deer Creek Pass and is treated to a wonderful view of Deer Creek and the glacier carved U-shaped valley of Deer Creek. Here the striking juxtaposition of red and white rocks becomes apparent as red rocks fill the basin around Deer Lake but Siligo Peak possesses a distinctively white summit area.

A switchback beneath Deer Creek Pass is the junction with the Four Lakes Loop. Doing the loop clockwise, one makes a lovely traverse through the red rocks above Deer Lake and up some switchbacks to the south shoulder of Siligo Peak. The trail passes through wonderful meadows stretching down to Deer Lake and including more pasqueflower. At the shoulder of Siligo Peak a use trail departs up the ridge to 8,162 ft Siligo Peak. In only a quarter mile the trail reaches the summit which contains a gorgeous 360 degree panorama of the region. To the west one has a birds eye view of Diamond Lake, the Stuart Fork of the Trinity River canyon, and the White Trinities. All of the major peaks of the White Trinities are visible including Mount Hilton, Thompson Peak, Caesar Peak and Caribou Mountain. Closest and most prominent is Sawtooth Mountain with its distinctive tooth-like summit block and a massive apron of white granite slabs on its east side. To the south is Summit Lake, Red Mountain and Middle Peak. To the east is a striking demarcation between the red rocks of Seven Up Peak and the rugged ridge known as Dolomite Ridge composed of the white rocks. To the north one peers into the glacier-carved Deer Creek canyon with Mount Shasta’s distinctive snow-capped cone rising above the ridges. Suffice it to say, the side trip to Siligo Peak is well worth the extra effort.

Back on the Four Lakes Loop one may make a side trip to Summit Lake which is the largest of the four lakes on the Four Lakes Loop. Continuing on, the loop drops into the Salt Creek drainage and switchbacks down toward Diamond Lake, which sits on a meadowy bench with the White Trinities towering across the Stuart Fork Canyon. This is lovely country with bountiful summertime wildflowers and outstanding scenery. From Diamond Lake it’s a gradual climb up to the northwest shoulder of Siligo Peak where one crosses into the Deer Creek drainage. From here the trail traverses above astonishingly beautiful Luella Lake which sits right at the line between red and white rock with Seven Up Peak and Dolomite Ridge making a dramatic background. Colorful Luella Lake sits at the base of the north face of Siligo Peak which contains mountain hemlocks and rugged cliffs. This steep north-facing topography enables snow to collect around Luella Lake and persist into late summer and sometimes year around. Beneath Luella Lake the trail descends into a valley in the upper reaches of Deer Creek Canyon. At the valley floor is the junction with the trail that goes down Deer Creek Canyon, which also provides access the route from Granite Lake and Swift Creek. Staying right to stay on the Four Lakes Loop, the trail makes a steep ascent up the headwall of Deer Creek through meadows and clumps of Mountain Hemlock to Deer Lake. The imposing cliffs of Dolomite Ridge dominate the view are along this section. From Deer Lake there’s one final climb to complete the loop and then reach Deer Creek Pass before a mainly flat traverse back to Bee Tree Gap and virtually all downhill through Long Canyon back to the trailhead. Total mileage of the Four Lakes Loop via Long Canyon is around 18 miles. 

The area has numerous opportunities for exploration and one option is the following tour of three additional off-trail lakes that connects back to the Long Canyon trail. Instead of returning back to Deer Creek Gap, one may take the trail down to Siligo Meadows and then up to Little Stonewall Pass. Just beyond Little Stonewall Pass a usetrail branches out to Echo Lake, one of the more charming lakes in the region. Circle Echo Lake on either side and then ascend a chute with some loose rocks (off-trail) to a col on the crest. Descend talus and then traverse slopes north to Billy Be Damned Lake. From Billy Be Damn Lake it’s a short climb up and over to the magnificent Anna Lake, situated in a bowl of red granite slabs and mountain hemlock. From Anna Lake a faint use trail heads down a steep gully down to Long Canyon. The use trail ultimately disappears in the meadows, but the Long Canyon trail is visible below and the way is unambiguous. GPS route here.

Photo albums: Camera; iPhone 

Stone Ridge & Aerial Falls

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. Such steep topography leads to many awesome features, not the least of which is waterfalls! On this day I visited an ephemeral waterfall on the backside of Cone Peak in the headwaters of the San Antonio River, my first adventure into the San Antonio watershed. This falls only flows with any kind of noticeable volume after a period of substantial winter rainfall so on all my times standing on Cone Peak I never noticed the falls. However, when in flow the falls is striking from the summit particularly in the afternoon sunlight. Technically the falls does not drain Cone Peak itself, but from the summit one can gain a great birds eye view of the main 100+ ft drop across the canyon. I named the falls “Aerial Falls” because of the aerial style of the view from Cone Peak and also when standing beneath the falls it seems as if the water is falling from the sky as it plunges off the massive conglomerate rock facade. Beneath the main drop is a series of additional falls and cascades so the total height of the falls from top to bottom likely approaches 200 vertical feet. In order to view the falls from its base one must earn it: first in terms of timing to see the falls in flow (which is admittedly rare) and second in the arduous off-trail adventure down into the depths of the remote, trail-less headwaters of the San Antonio River (it’s farther than it seems).


The most prominent ridge on the Cone Peak massif (which includes Twin Peak) is Stone Ridge. The direct route up this ridge is tremendous and worthy of the title “Sea to Sky.” Stone Ridge is easily the most impressive and prominent ridge along the entire Big Sur Coast. While there are a bevy of beautiful grassy ridges near the ocean that I have explored (Boronda, Prewitt, Shouey, East Molera, Kirk Creek, Mount Mars to name a few), each with its own charm and inspiration, none compare to Stone Ridge in terms of height (4,800 ft), length (4 miles) and sheer topography in all directions. In 5.25 miles, one can go from the Pacific Ocean to the 5,155 ft summit of Cone Peak, the King of the Big Sur Coast.  Suffice it to say, Stone Ridge is one-of-a-kind. I’ve blogged about Stone Ridge and the “Sea to Sky” route many times before so there really isn’t anything to add except some photos from the latest trip. 

Silver Peak, Soda Peak and Cinnamon Falls

Recently I have been trying the new Clif Organic Energy Food on adventures and I really like the stuff for quick but quality calories on the go and they will definitely be a part of my nutrition plan on adventures this summer where REAL food is a necessity. Pizza Margarita and Sweet Potato Sea Salt are the salty flavors while Banana Beet and Banana Mango taste like delicious smoothies. I’m hosting a giveaway and the winner will get two samples of each flavor (eight total). Just post a comment and a random winner will be drawn sometime next week. Good luck! 

The South Coast of Big Sur has some of the best scenery of the entire Big Sur coast. The majority of the region is protected by the Silver Peak Wilderness, a 31,555 acre wilderness established in 1992. While only a fraction of the size of the better known Ventana Wilderness to the north, there are several awesome trails and great opportunities for exploration in the Silver Peak Wilderness. The region has great biodiversity of vegetation including redwoods, chaparral, oak woodland, pine forest, and even some groves of the rare Santa Lucia Fir. This post contains photos from several destinations in the wilderness, including: (1) Pt. 2,866 or “Soda Peak“; (2) the wilderness’s namesake summit, 3,520 ft Silver Peak; and (3) Cinnamon Falls along Alder Creek.   Our first destination was Pt. 2,866, a vista I had seen last fall and was eager to see again. This point has no official name but “Soda Peak” makes geographical sense since it sits at the head of the Soda Creek drainage. Soda Peak is on the WSW ridge coming off Silver Peak. The ridge contains several high points but the last one and most dramatic is Point 2866. Since Soda Peak is the last point of prominence along the ridge it has a commanding view of the south Big Sur coast. The rocky limestone summit is also mostly free of brush enabling an excellent 360 degree panorama including San Martin Top, Silver Peak, Cone Peak and Mount Mars. The easiest way to reach Soda Peak is via the Soda Creek Trailhead and then the Buckeye Trail. At about 2,100 ft along the Buckeye Trail take a use trail that starts near a bent lone pine tree on the southern of two spur ridges coming off Soda Peak. The use path is fairly easy to follow and in about 750 vertical feet you’re on top and gazing across the Soda Creek drainage to Mount Mars and beyond, a truly spectacular vantage. It’s only about 3 miles each way to Soda Peak, but the few miles pack around 2,500 ft of elevation gain. I have been around Silver Peak many times but never summited until now. The Cruickshank Trail is beautiful as it traverses the hillside above Villa Canyon passing through numerous different plant and forest communities. It’s a nice trek from the Villa-Salmon Saddle to the peak passing through young forests of Sargeant’s Cypress and Coulter Pine with excellent views in both directions. Silver Peak contains an entertaining summit register placed by Boon Hughey who has accounted for many of the summit entries over the years. Erica and I were the 14th and 15th visitors this year so there is not too much traffic to this fairly remote summit. We enjoyed a unique view as a 2,500 ft marine layer filled the canyons and crested over Mount Mars and County Line Ridge into a fog bank cascade. Silver Peak also has a very nice view to Cone Peak.After enjoying the descent down Villa Canyon with its rugged reddish canyon rocks, I took the Buckeye Trail and then went off trail to check out a falls I had identified on the topographic map and satellite. It turns out this multi-step falls is one of the tallest on a main stem creek in the entire Big Sur region. The falls includes two main segments and a couple smaller ones totaling over 150 ft (a conservative estimate based on my watch altimeter). The rocks surrounding the falls are reddish brown, hence I have called the falls “Cinnamon Falls.” The descent down to the base of the falls was precarious on loose rock and very steep hardpan but I enjoyed the lowest two pools and imagined how tremendous this falls would be in high flow after winter rains. I will definitely put Cinnamon Falls on my calendar for next winter. With a strong El Nino developing for winter 2015-2016 there are some decent odds that this falls and other waterfalls in Big Sur will have some big flows next winter. Upon exiting the base of the falls, I found a better route which was still steep but had some oak trees to hang on to and reasonably solid rock to climb. This will be my route into the base of Cinnamon Falls in the future. Perhaps the best view of Cinnamon Falls is along the spine of this rocky sub-ridge where you can get a good overview of the falls and see most of it at once. From the bottom it is impossible to see the entire falls. 

Sugar Falls

Sugar Falls was a splendid discovery in the Santa Lucia Mountains of Big Sur. The falls is tucked into a steep canyon and not visible from any trails or nearby high points. There are many gems of the Ventana Wilderness and Big Sur that have little or no information which makes it that much more fun adventuring in these mountains.

Waterfalls of Big Sur

Latest updates on the Waterfalls Project Page

While most of the content on this blog is based on photography and experiences from specific trips, I occasionally like to produce special posts that gather my thoughts from numerous experiences into a cohesive list. This special post includes a description and photos from a few dozen waterfalls I have visited in the Big Sur region, from cataracts deep in the most remote and wild corners of the Ventana Wilderness to the easily accessible falls near the highway. The Big Sur region has incredible topographical relief from the summits of the Santa Lucia Mountains down to the rocky shores of the Pacific Ocean so it should come as no surprise that the rugged canyons draining the peaks hold many amazing waterfalls. The list of falls range from delicate 15 ft falls to towering 200 ft falls. The setting of the falls is equally varied including coastal falls, lush redwood-filled canyons, rocky slopes with Santa Lucia Firs and ephemeral falls in the drier chaparral zones. Other intricacies include varying degrees and type of mineral calcification and the depth and size of plunge pools. This list includes photos of each falls I have visited along with a short description. Where I have made a video of a falls I have also included the video footage as I have come to discover that video is a particular great medium to capture the movement of water. While this is a fairly comprehensive catalog of the major waterfalls in the Big Sur region, including the Silver Peak and Ventana Wilderness, there is a growing list of falls the author has yet to visit. This post will be updated as additional waterfalls are visited and/or discovered. It should be noted that many falls require substantial rainfall for optimal viewing which may not happen until winter rains.

  • Last Chance Falls (120 ft): When in flow, Last Chance Falls is arguably the most dramatic waterfall in the Ventana Wilderness. The falls flow over an overhanging precipice in an impressive free fall with a large cavern behind the falls. A natural amphitheater of cliffs surrounds the falls and the setting surrounding the falls is fit for a scene out of Jurassic Park. The ephemeral nature of Last Chance Falls makes it particularly special and requires planning, or more accurately, waiting for the ideal conditions which occur during a small window after heavy rains.   
  • Canogas Falls (80 ft total):  Canogas Falls is one of the most stunning waterfalls in Big Sur. The falls includes multiple steps with spectacular turquoise pools in between each step. The falls is nestled between rugged cliffs with a lush redwood forest at the base of the falls making it a magical setting.  
  • Devils Falls (80-90 ft est): I identified Devils Falls by satellite and topography with essentially no information about the drainage prior to my visit. Much to my excitement, Devis Falls turned out to be one of the great gems of the Ventana. The falls contains two primary steps with spectacular turquoise pools in between. The upper segment is a few feet taller than the lower segment. Just above the main waterfall step is a lead-in falls of about 20 ft with another turquoise pool (not included in the height). Perhaps most amazing about Devils Falls is its spectacular setting tucked into an incredibly rugged cirque of vertical cliffs culminating in a spire I dubbed “Devils Spire”.        
  • Hellhole Falls (40 ft est): Hellhole Falls tumbles from a V-shaped notch into a chasm and ultimately into a large turquoise pool.  Together with Canogas Falls and a half dozen other smaller falls within a relatively short distance, this is arguably the most rugged and impressive stretch of canyon in all of Big Sur. The lead up to Hellhole Falls is just as striking as the falls itself with a number of cascades and waterfalls over smooth bedrock. Behind the falls is a distinguished spire-like Santa Lucia Fir epitomizing the Ventana. I dubbed the falls “Hellhole” since it fits with the naming of the canyon and also because of the impasse that this falls presents to the adventurer to continuing upstream. However, the falls is not a true impasse since a very steep and loose gully downstream of the falls can be used to gain the cliffs where a bushwhacking traverse leads back to the creek upstream of the falls. Video of Hellhole Falls is in the last minute of the Devils Falls video above.  
  • Sugar Falls (40 ft): Sugar Falls was a splendid discovery. The falls has an extremely lush setting of hanging green vegetation and a deep turquoise pool that is magical. There is heavy mineral accumulation on everything submerged in water and especially on the face of the waterfall. This thick mineral accumulation provides the basis for vegetation to grow next to the falls, channels the watercourse and creates the spectacular turquoise color in the plunge pool. We named the falls “Sugar Falls” since this is the only falls I know of in the Big Sur/Ventana region near a grove of Sugar Pines and the water appears like falling sugar as it passes through the mineral-encrusted channel. 
  • Devils Pool (35 ft): The most remarkable aspect of this falls is not the falls itself (which is very pretty too), but the expansive and deep plunge pool, which is likely the greatest of its kind in Big Sur, hence I named the feature “Devils Pool.”  The pool takes on a bright turquoise with sunlight and changes to emerald in the shade. This is also due to thick calcification of minerals on all surfaces in which the water passes. This process is unlike anywhere else I have seen in Big Sur. Due to the large size and depth of Devils Pool, the colors are enhanced making the setting especially magical.  
  • Chasm Falls (50 ft): Deep in one of the most rugged canyons in Big Sur lies a falls that slices through the cliffs and free falls into a chasm with a large and deep pool. 
  • Rock Slide Falls (45 ft estimate): A picturesque falls flows into a cavernous cirque with a nice plunge pool and pretty cascades downstream.  
  • Upper Lion Falls (70 ft; main segment 50 ft; lower segment 20 ft): Two waterfall segments over smooth bedrock and two lovely plunge pools deep in the wild of the Ventana. See Lower Lion Falls below for video footage of Upper Lion Falls. 
  • Lower Lion Falls (40 ft): This falls plunges into a spectacular circular pool surrounded by cliffs and tall redwoods. Upstream of the falls lies a series of beautiful cascades and pools on the bedrock. 
  • Condor Falls (60 ft; main segment 40 ft):   A remote and scenic waterfall with several picturesque small falls culminating in the main cataract. The falls looks and feels very similar to Sugar Falls except more vertical without a deep plunge pool. I named this falls Condor Falls since the majestic bird can often be seen flying overhead this rugged coastal canyon.
  • Estate Gorge (110 ft): A series of small falls in an extremely rugged gorge culminating in an 80 ft cataract. The lowest segment of the falls is a pretty 15 ft drop into a large plunge pool surrounded by tall cliffs. 
  • Pick Creek Falls (80 ft): A picturesque falls which shoots over a ledge with an 80 ft free-fall into a large, clear pool surrounded by a lovely grove of old growth Santa Lucia Firs (Abies bracteata aka Bristlecone Fir), with their unmistakable slender, spire-like stature. The Santa Lucia Fir is endemic to the northern part of the Santa Lucia Mountains and the rarest fir in the world. An impressive rock amphitheater surrounds Pick Creek Falls with hanging ferns making a magical setting. Also in the vicinity are the beautiful bathtubs at Bathtub Creek. Creek walking downstream of Pick Creek Falls features more spectacular gorges and cascades all the way to the confluence with the South Fork Big Sur River with more Santa Lucia Firs lining the stream.                      
  • Discovery Falls (90+ ft): A gem hidden deep in the steepest canyon draining Cone Peak, this nearly vertical falls flows over an immense wall. I named the falls “Discovery” since this is a major falls for the Santa Lucia Mountains but so carefully hidden by nature. The falls contains heavy mineral accumulation characteristic of waterfalls in the region. The falls was visited at the end of a long, hot summer and fall in a drought year but there was still some flow, albeit low. Discovery Falls promises to be extremely impressive after winter rains.  
  • Terrace Falls (200+ ft & 50 ft lower falls): A 200 ft cateract over a mineral encrusted wall with moss and ferns. Below the main falls is another falls, a picturesque 50 footer with several channels and weeping moss. Prior to my visit I could find no photos taken from below the falls and no documentation on the size or nature of this falls (except that a tall falls existed). Thus, it was exciting to find this prolific falls.  
  • Ventana Falls (50 ft est.): One of the most remote falls in all of the Ventana and Big Sur, this stunning falls is not easy to reach as it entails a 5 mile creek walk along beautiful Ventana Creek from Ventana Camp. The rock facade surrounding the falls is especially striking with white and reddish rock. The creek walk to reach the falls entails numerous log jams, gorges, clear blue pools, and cascades. Ventana Falls guards access to the terrain upstream which is arguably the most rugged, wild and awe-inspiring in any coastal area of the contiguous United States. Bypassing the falls is not trivial and entails a scramble on loose rock.     
  • Hanging Garden Falls (70-80 ft est.): Located near the headwaters of Ventana Mesa Creek this falls is not high flow, but instead achieves its beauty through its delicate nature. There are two segments, with a shorter segment around 15 ft and the balance the much taller upper segment for 70-80 ft in the aggregate. The falls does not really contain a plunge pool, but the lush setting is unmatched by any of the Ventana waterfalls I have seen. Thick moss cloaks the entire rock facade, both underneath the watercourse and on the surrounding cliffs. Other vibrant green vegetation, including a large colony of five finger ferns, hangs from the cliffs besides the falls. Hanging Garden Falls seems like a very fitting name for this magical cataract with its hanging garden of ferns and moss.
  • Ventana Mesa Falls (50 ft est.): Countless picturesque cascades and pools in the lower part of Ventana Mesa Creek above the Entrance Falls culminate in a stunning waterfalls that contains a large pool with a circular amphitheater and tall cliffs. The water tumbles at least 50 ft, all in free-fall. This falls is more impressive than the Entrance Falls, both in height and setting. Video footage of Ventana Mesa Creek below, including Ventana Mesa Falls.  
  • Ventana Mesa “Entrance Falls” (25 ft est.): Right at the confluence of Ventana Mesa Creek and the Carmel River within the  Carmel River gorge, the Entrance Falls to Ventana Mesa Creek is part of the magic of the Carmel River gorge described above. The falls shoots over sloping slick rock with ferns and moss in a very pretty setting. Above the Entrance Falls are a pair of beautiful pools, one turquoise and the other emerald. 
  • Carmel River Falls and Gorge (40 ft est.): Deep in the Carmel River canyon is a remarkable gorge that is one of the highlights of the Carmel River and in my opinion, the entire Ventana. The gorge contains towering cliffs, a deep pool, a beautiful slick rock cascade and a major waterfall along the main stem of the Carmel River. This extremely rugged section of the river is remarkably hidden despite the Carmel River Trail and Round Rock Camp Trail passing nearby.
  • Pine Falls (40 ft est.): Pine Falls is located near the headwaters of the Carmel River about three quarters of a mile downstream from lovely Pine Valley. As such, flow over the falls is rarely large, but the falls is particularly aesthetic with a section of free fall and a large clear pool. The setting is lush with moss clinging to the rocks and a very pretty forest of old growth Santa Lucia firs fills the canyon. 
  • Lower Pine Falls (est. 100 ft aggregate): Located less than a quarter of a mile downstream of Pine Falls, it appears few people know about Lower Pine Falls but it’s an impressive sight and very different in character from Pine Falls making it worthy of a visit. There is no large pool at Lower Pine Falls. Instead, the falls is a series of large cascades over smooth bedrock scrubbed clean of moss. This smooth bedrock is rather hazardous for climbing, but a hand line has been placed in the most precarious spot to assist. It’s a rather chaotic scene as the falls tumbles down the numerous steps strewn with large boulders and sculptured bedrock. The highest segment of the falls is the most impressive and concentrated while lower down the water course splits. This would be an amazing falls to see in higher flow.  
  • Cinnamon Falls (150 ft est.): A multi-step falls that is one of the tallest on a main stem creek in the entire Big Sur region. The falls includes two main segments and a couple smaller sections totaling over 150 ft (a conservative estimate based on my watch altimeter). The rocks surrounding the falls are reddish brown, hence I called the falls Cinnamon Falls. Perhaps the best view of Cinnamon Falls is along the spine of a rocky sub-ridge where you can get a good overview of the falls and see most of it at once. This overview spot is located just below the bottom of a grassy ridge, which can be accessed from the Buckeye Trail. From the base of the falls it is impossible to see the entire cataract and reaching it is more difficult as one must descent the very steep and sometimes loose sub-ridge. Cinnamon Falls would be tremendous in high flow after winter rains. 
  • Salmon Creek Falls (100 ft est.): By all metrics Salmon Creek Falls is impressive: it has great volume with its location near Salmon Creek’s outlet into the ocean, its a strikingly tall falls, and the setting is stunning with a large pool, boulders and cliffs. The only detraction from an otherwise beautiful falls is its close proximity to the highway and the resultant overuse of the area and careless visitors leaving trash.  
  • Upper Salmon Creek Falls (25 ft): While only about a quarter of the height of the main Salmon Creek Falls with significantly less volume, Upper Salmon Creek falls possess a pristine and unfettered beauty that is lost at the main falls. Unlike the main falls, Upper Salmon Creek Falls is not easily accessible and it appears few venture to the shores of its large circular pool. Upper Salmon Creek Falls is a gem. Video footage above. 
  • Circular Pool #1 (15 ft est.):  The first circular pool along the Little Sur River is the largest pool of three and features the tallest falls and also the most vertical cliff amphitheater surrounding the pool. A large section of the cliff above the first pool collapsed over the winter depositing a large pile of rock debris into about 30% of the pool so for the time being the first circular pool is not very circular. Video footage of all three pools is below Circular Pool #3. 
  • Circular Pool #2 (5-10 ft steps): The second circular pool is significantly smaller than the first, both in size of the pool and height of its falls.  However, immediately above this pool lies a series of small cascades and mini-pools over slick rock that are stunning, particularly in periods of moderate flow.  In fact, this section is one of the highlights of the entire Little Sur River. Video footage of all three Circular Pools is below Circular Pool #3. 
  • Circular Pool #3 (12 ft est): The third circular pool is the culmination of a magnificent narrow gorge where the cliffs on both sides come right down into the river resulting a deep pool beneath the falls.   
  • Rainbow Falls (55 ft): Located about a half mile south of Rainbow Camp along the South Fork Trail, Rainbow Falls is along a small tributary of the South Fork Little Sur River. Visibility is limited from the South Fork Trail but a better view can be found just off the trail. The falls never has much volume so it is best viewed after winter rains. What makes Rainbow Falls so special is its extremely lush amphitheater of ferns and moss and the delicate nature of the falls as it plunges over a nearly vertical cliff. See video footage of Rainbow Falls in the Pick Creek Falls video above. 
  • Mocho Falls (total 40 ft est.): Mocho Falls has two distinct steps, but what is most fascinating about this rarely seen falls is a twisty chasm of elegantly sculpted and polished rock separating the two steps. The depth of the chasm and its twisty nature is such that it is virtually impossible to see both steps of the falls at the same time. The lower step is an estimated 20 ft and drops into a spectacular circular amphitheater with a deep and large pool. The upper step is around 10 ft est. and within the narrow rock chute there are additional small steps.  
  • Lion Gorge and Circular Pool (15 ft): Deep and rugged gorge in the lower part of Lion Creek culminates in a circular pool with a 15 ft falls. Additional pools and cascades upstream of the falls. 
  • McWay Falls (75 ft): McWay Falls is an iconic spot and probably the most photographed natural feature in Big Sur. This is a must stop for tourists driving Highway 1 and there is often a line of cars parked along the road. Sometimes the area feels like the international terminal at SFO. The falls overlook is accessed by a paved path that is under a quarter mile. The many visitors to McWay Falls range from selfie enthusiasts to professional photographers. Thank goodness access to McWay Falls beach is forbidden and even for the non-law abiding crowd it’s not an easy proposition to get down to the beach (people have been rescued trying). Thus, even if the overlook is a zoo, you can forget about the crowds when you look out onto the picturesque scene of the falls tumbling into the pristine turquoise waters and an untrammeled beach.    
  • Upper McWay Falls (35 ft): Heading up McWay Canyon from the iconic McWay Falls one passes through redwoods and several smaller cascades before arriving at another pretty falls which flows over an overhang into a small nook. 
  • Limekiln Falls (90 ft): Limekiln Falls is located near the bottom of the Middle Fork Limekiln Creek which drains the region between Twin Peak and Cone Peak. It seems like everything in this region is grand and Limekiln Falls is no different. Unless flow is particularly high, the falls is split into two prongs. The cataract is easily accessed from the main area of Limekiln State Park and includes passage through a lush redwood forest complete with a dense carpet of sorrel.   
  • Mutt & Jeff Falls (Jeff 35 ft; Mutt 110 ft): Named by Dr. Jack Glendening after a comic strip named Mutt and Jeff created in 1907 lasting through 1983 with a tall and thin Mutt character and his short friend Jeff. In this case, the short Jeff Falls is the real attraction as it’s along the main stem of Santa Lucia Creek. After recent heavy rain Jeff Falls roars over a 35 cliff into a large, deep pool. Tall and thin Mutt Falls is located next to Jeff Falls on a small tributary with a series of steps totaling over 100 ft but never has high volume and is likely a trickle for a large potion of the year. The two falls can be viewed in tandem. See video footage of Jeff Falls in the Last Chance Falls video above. 
  • Pico Blanco Camp Falls (15 ft est.): Pico Blanco Camp Falls is a lovely spot along the South Fork Little Sur River set amid old growth redwoods with a carpet of redwood sorrel. The falls is not large, but includes a blue pool beneath it and a lush surrounding of moss and ferns.  Downstream of the falls is a spectacular narrows along the South Fork Little Sur River. 
  • Partington Falls (20 ft over two steps): Just upstream of where the Tanbark Trail switchbacks out of the Partington Creek canyon lies a nice two step falls in a lush setting.
  • Ventana Cone Falls (35 ft):  This two-step falls is in an extremely remote corner of the Ventana on an unnamed tributary of the Carmel River that drains the north side of the region between Vetnana cone and the Ventana Spires.
  • Prewitt Falls (60+ ft): This falls was found in late fall during drought so flow was very low, but it promises to be impresive after winter rain as it plunges over a 60+ ft wall of moss and ferns. The impressive setting of this falls is highlighted by a steep cirque and redwoods. 
  • Pfieffer Falls (60 ft): The touristy Pfieffer Falls is among the top four most visited waterfalls in Big Sur (along with McWay, Salmon, Limekiln) but it’s probably the least impressive of the bunch. Unlike many other Big Sur waterfalls, the lush riparian vegation alongside and beneath the falls has been wiped out by heavy human visitation. The falls is also less than vertical – almost a slab waterfall. Finally, the falls is generally low flow since Pfieffer-Redwood Creek is a relatively small drainage. That said, the falls is measured at 60 ft so I’m sure it would be more impressive after rainy periods. In addition, immediately above Pfieffer Falls is a photogenic stair-step cascade; prettier than the main drop in my opinion.
  • Wild Pfieffer Falls (35 ft): In my quest to catalog the known and unknown waterfalls of Big Sur I noticed a rugged canyon upstream of Pfieffer Falls and judged this to be a likely spot for additional waterfalls. I found that a pretty waterfall does indeed exist in this canyon, a secret to virtually all of the tourists who visit Pfieffer Falls below, and untamed by footprints, fences and selfies. Thus, I named the cataract “Wild Pfieffer Falls.” Unlike Pfieffer Falls, Wild Pfieffer has plentiful vegetation at its base and alongside the watercourse. While the main drop of Wild Pfieffer is only ~35 ft tall, it’s a pretty falls in a nice setting with the canyon walls surrounding the falls. It’s certainly worthy of a visit in the future when flow is higher and there are potentially additional falls upstream.
  • Pothole Slide Falls (35 ft): Located next to the Lost Valley Trail as it descends into Lost Valley, Pothole slide falls is a series of two slides down a smooth rock face with a pool in between, the “pothole.” The falls is more horizontal than vertical and the drainage upstream is small so this falls is best viewed after recent rain. 
  • McWay Canyon Falls (20 ft est.): The other falls above McWay Falls is McWay Canyon Falls which is located on a tributary of McWay Canyon Creek with commensurately less volume.  However, the falls is in a pretty setting with five finger ferns and the sprawling root system of a large redwood right next to it.    
  • Firehose Falls (15 ft est.): Located on Jackson Creek near its confluence with the Little Sur River, Firehose Falls spits off a ledge like a fire hose into a pretty pool surrounded by ferns and moss. See video footage of Firehose Falls in the Little Sur Circular Pools video above.  
  • Sierra Falls (100+ ft): A tall two-step falls off the ocean bluffs that falls virtually onto the sand. The lower segment is far and away the taller of the two. The falls is fairly ephemeral and only produces substantial flows after heavy rain.  
  • Ventura Falls (100+ ft): Around the corner from Sierra Falls is an even taller, but more ephemeral falls.
  • Fuller’s Falls (60 ft+): Hear the sound of waves crashing ashore and water falling from above simultaneously. A unnamed stream from a small drainage flows over all ocean bluffs and nearly onto the beach. The falls is surrounded by cliffs adorned with pampas grass.  
  • Grimes Gorge (50 ft): A series of cascades totaling 50 ft in a picturesque narrow gorge at the mouth of Grimes Canyon and the incredibly rugged Grimes Point.   
  • Granite Creek Falls (15 ft): At the outlet of Granite Creek beneath Granite Creek Bridge. The falls is small but it drops into a rugged photogenic cove. 
  • Mocho Creek Falls (18 ft): Located just upstream of Mocho Creek’s confluence with the South Fork Little Sur River, Mocho Creek Falls is a pretty falls in a cliffy nook with a garden of hanging ferns beside it. 
  • Launtz Falls (100+ ft over multiple steps): Launtz Falls is at the base of  a small tributary descending from Launtz Ridge that flows into the Little Sur River. The bottom of the falls is visible from the usepath to Fox Usecamp and you can get a sense there is much more above, but it is not clearly visible unless you cross the Little Sur River and ascend the ultra steep slopes on the other side. Upon climbing the slopes a tall falls presents itself flowing over a lush cliff face.  See video footage of Firehose Falls in the Little Sur Circular Pools video above.   

Other Falls: Eagle Creek Falls, Cienega Falls, Jewel Falls, Vicente Falls

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 ( 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. 

Carmel River Gorge

The headwaters of the Carmel River drains the northeast side of the Ventana Wilderness in some of the most rugged and remote terrain in the Santa Lucia Mountains. I have greatly enjoyed exploring some of this terrain recently and look forward to returning for more adventures in this stunning region of the Ventana. Deep in the Carmel River canyon is a remarkable gorge that is one of the highlights of the Carmel River and in my opinion, the entire Ventana. The gorge contains towering cliffs, a deep pool, a beautiful slick rock cascade and a major waterfall along the main stem of the Carmel River. This extremely rugged section of the river is remarkably hidden despite the Carmel River Trail and Round Rock Camp Trail passing nearby. Accessing the gorge from Hiding Canyon Camp one must simply follow the river upstream instead of taking the trail uphill toward Hiding Canyon. At first alders line the river with a splendid grove of Santa Lucia Firs on the hillsides. Soon the canyon walls narrow requiring travel in the river bed. At the confluence with Ventana Mesa Creek, a picturesque waterfall tumbles off slick rock into a pool on Ventana Mesa Creek just above the river.

Beyond the confluence with Ventana Mesa Creek, the Carmel River gorge grows even narrower and one must avoid deeper pools by scrambling on the slick rock. The tall cliffs shield the gorge from sunlight most of the day resulting in a lush environment of moss and ferns. However, lower down the polished rock is bare and smooth manifesting the tremendous power of water that comes through during winter storms. This is obviously not a good place to be in high volume! Approaching the climax of the chiseled gorge the cliffs become overhanging. At this point one arrives at a deep pool and further progress requires swimming to reach a major waterfall along the river which is located around a corner. While a good view of the falls from cannot be achieved from this point without swimming, it is possible to gain a great vantage from above via the Round Rock Camp Trail that passes upstream of the gorge and falls. The Round Rock Camp Trail descends from the junction with the Carmel River Trail to a crossing point of the Carmel River that is remarkably calm. The only thing hinting at a major waterfall and gorge downstream is the noise of falling water, but even this is fairly muted compared to what actually lies below. A short distance downstream the river enters a beautiful slick rock cascade. The cascade includes a swift “luge track” on a slick rock and a couple circular mini pools I like to call the “teacups.”  Just downstream of the teacups is the most dramatic feature of the gorge, the ~50 ft falls on the main stem of the Carmel River. When viewed from above on ledges, the setting for this beautiful falls is stunning with the deep gorge below and tall cliffs above with overhanging shelves at the top of the gorge with Santa Lucia Firs clinging to the rocks. I visited the gorge in relatively low flow but I’m very interested to return in medium flow. Upstream of the gorge and falls the Carmel River is relatively mellow but still beautiful with occasional cascades and lush sections with ferns and moss. While I have not ventured beyond the confluence with Blue Creek, I understand that it remains fairly mellow until reaching Pine Falls. This blog post contains many photos of the magnificent gorge and the Carmel River canyon. I’ve also included a video which is perhaps the best way to capture the scope of the falls.