The Santa Ynez Mountains are an east to west coastal mountain range part of the greater Transverse Ranges of Southern California. The range is essentially a high ridge with steep and rugged terrain on either side mostly inhabited by chaparral vegetation but there is oak woodland on the lower slopes and some pine tree stands on the ridge crest. Immediately above Santa Barbara is one of the higher points along the ridge, La Cumbre Peak, rising nearly 4,000 ft in short order from downtown and the highest point by the city. The Cathedral Peak route is an amazing line up the spine of a rugged ridge to La Cumbre Peak in the Santa Barbara front country. Along the route is an exquisite section of Matilija sandstone that is ubiquitous on the ridge leading to Arlington Peak and is sustained for over 2 miles of rock hopping and scrambling totaling nearly 2,000 vertical feet. Add in astounding view of the coastline, Channel Islands and Santa Ynez Mountains and you have one of the finest coastal scrambles along the west coast. The route starts at the end of the road in foothill residential community of Santa Barbara. Parking is limited and challenging so expect to walk an extra section of road on weekends. From the trailhead, travel about a mile along the paved Edison access road and then turn left to follow a short section on the Jesusita Trail. When the Jesusita Trail crosses Mission Creek, turn right and take a use path that rises steeply above the Mission Creek canyon. This rugged canyons was basically dry when we ascended the route, but after rains there are several pools and waterfalls. The trail continues to rise steeply to the distinct southeast ridgeline of Arlington Peak. From this point is a sustained 2 mile rock hop scramble on beautiful Matilija sandstone with it’s distinctive rock formations and orange color to the 3,275 ft summit of Arlington Peak. This section is arduous and steep, but the views of the Santa Barbara and Ventura County coastline are incredible. As one ascends higher, the views become increase with an excellent vantage into the Mission Creek Canyon and beyond to the spine of the Santa Ynez Mountains, the Santa Barbara region and the Channel Islands. The summit of Arlington marks the end of the sustained scrambling and the trail levels off as it continues to Cathedral Peak, with its impressive south buttress cliff face visible from many points in Santa Barbara. A use path continues from Cathedral Peak in a chaparral tunnel down to a saddle from which a final very steep section that leads to the summit of La Cumbre Peak. La Cumbre Peak is vehicle accessible via the East Camino Cielo Road. For an excellent loop back to the trailhead, travel along the road east to the upper trailhead of the Tunnel Trail, one of the more popular trails in the Santa Barbara Frontcountry. The Tunnel Trail traverses along the canyon of Mission Creek and then switchbacks down to the access road with excellent views back to Arlington Peak and Cathedral Peak. This is a super fun route that I hope to do again next time I’m in Santa Barbara. GPS route here.
Between the Pacific Coast and the Cuyama badlands of Ventura County lies a high mountain ridge that supports a beautiful forest of sugar pines, Jeffrey pines and white fir. The lengthy ridgeline is named Pine Mountain Ridge with two prominent points along the ridge named Reyes Peak (7,514 ft) and Haddock Mountain (7,431 ft). Most of the ridge is located within the Sespe Wilderness of Los Padres National Forest, a 219,700 acre wilderness established in 1992 and includes Sespe Creek, the last remaining undammed river in southern California. A 53,000 acre portion of the wilderness is designated as the Sespe Condor Sanctuary to protect California condors in the Condor re-introduction and recovery program. While Reyes Peak is the highest point along Pine Mountain Ridge, Haddock Mountain is more rugged in character with steep cirques and picturesque cliffs on the south side of the ridge. Haddock Mountain is also the more remote summit requiring a four mile hike from the trailhead. Typical of high mountains in southern California, the south side of the ridge transitions to chaparral fairly rapidly while the north side is a lush ecosystem of pine and fir forest for several thousand feet to canyons below, including Beartrap Creek Canyon and Piedra Blanca Creek Canyon. Deep within this canyon lies the Gene Marshall Piedra Blanca National Recreation Trail which I’d like to run in the future. From the trailhead, we took the maintained trail through the beautiful pine forest to Haddock Mountain. The trail largely stays on the north side of the ridge where it tends to be shady with the occasional section along the ridge crest with excellent views to Haddock Mountain. From Haddock Mountain, views to the north include Mount Pinos and the Cuyama Badlands while views to the south include the Sespe Wilderness and coastal mountains of Santa Barbara and Ventura County. Mount Pinos to the north is a substantially higher summit reaching above 8,800 ft and is high enough to support cross country skiing in the winter. However, the terrain of the Mount Pinos massif is more gentle in nature. On the way back, we left the maintained trail and took use paths up the east ridge of Reyes Peak to its summit. A lookout used to exist above the summit rocks but all that remains now is the foundation posts. From Reyes Peak, the Reyes Peak Trail leads down to the west side of Reyes Peak to near the trailhead. Pine Mountain Ridge is a gem of interior Ventura County and certainly exceeded expectations. I look forward to exploring other parts of the Sespe Wilderness including the Gene Marshall Piedra Blanca Trail and the Sespe Hot Springs.
Last Updated: February 12, 2015
A special post on Big Sur Waterfalls here.
The Big Sur region is an adventure running playground. The Ventana Wilderness, Silver Peak Wilderness and a handful of state parks form a network of protected public land over the northern half of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range that is one of the greatest coastal wilderness regions anywhere. The steep degree of relief from the ocean to the mountaintops is unmatched in the contiguous United States providing dramatic vistas throughout the coast. Perhaps one of the most magical Big Sur experiences is a clear day when the ridgetop views include a backdrop of the deep blue Pacific Ocean transitioning to turquoise near the coastline. However, a foggy day along the coast can be equally fascinating as the marine layer interacts with the terrain. In the interior of the wilderness, deep, shady canyons slice through the Santa Lucia Mountains and are filled with ancient redwoods, waterfalls, gorges and mystique. The higher reaches of the wilderness are characterized by rugged, rocky summits with rare groves of the stately Santa Lucia Fir, endemic to these mountains and one of my favorite tree species. Iconic spots like Bixby Bridge and McWay Falls draw millions of visitors to the Big Sur Coast, but with the exception of Sykes Hot Springs, a minuscule fraction travel far from the highway leaving a vast wilderness where solitude, intrigue, and a substantial amount of brush can be found.
Adventuring in Big Sur and the Ventana Wilderness is certainly possible in the summer months if travel is restricted to the immediate coast and the cool canyons, but the higher terrain can be extremely hot resulting in copious sweat, biting black flies, and active rattlesnakes. Therefore, the ideal time for exploration is from late fall through late spring when the air temperature is cooler, bugs are minimal, and the snakes are dormant. Furthermore, the winter months can provide a special treat when the occasional storm drops several inches of snow on the summits providing a unique experience of coastal views combined with snow. These same storms bring downpours to the lower elevations, enlivening the vegetation and numerous waterfalls. I have done several adventures in Big Sur over the years, but it took until last winter for me to become captivated by the phenomenal beauty of this region and gain a desire to explore the land in-depth. The result has been a bevy of awesome explorations and much inspiration for future adventures. This post compiles all of my Big Sur outings separated by sub-region categories that I came up with that made sense to me, generally organized from north to south. Most of the trips link to a dedicated blog post with many photos and a description of the adventure, but some only link to photo albums. This post also includes an array of some of my favorite photos from the region. The best resource to use when planning your adventure is Big Sur Trail Map, which includes wilderness trail conditions, donwloadable topographic trail maps and a route metrics generator. The Ventana Wliderness Aliance Forum also includes trip reports where the most recent conditions can be found. Feel free to ask me for any additional tips or information. As there is still a lot for me to explore in Big Sur I will continue to update this post.
North Big Sur Coast:
- Doud Peak & Rocky Ridge (April 13, 2013) – Garrapata State Park
- Doud Peak & Rocky Ridge (May 11, 2013) – Garrapata State Park
- Sierra Hill at Brazil Ranch (December 22, 2013)
- Soberanes Loop (January 2, 2015)
North Interior Ventana; the Carmel River:
- Carmel River Point-to-Point (October 2009)
- Carmel River-Ventana Double Cone Loop (January 10, 2015)
- Ventana (single) Cone Adventure (January 17, 2014)
- Carmel River Falls & Gorge (February 1, 2015)
- Other: Pine Falls, Church Creek, Miller Canyon
Cabezo-Molera, Coast to Ridge:
- Post Summit & East Molera Ridge (April 14, 2013)
- Andrew Molera (October 13, 2013)
- Cabezo-Molera Loop (January 4, 2014)
- Cabezo-Molera Loop (February 23, 2014)
- East Molera Ridge & Post Summit (April 20, 2014)
Little Sur featuring Pico Blanco, Prince of the Ventana:
- Pico Blanco via Little Sur (May 12, 2013)
- Circular Pools (January 26, 2014)
- Pico Blanco-Little Sur Loop (February 16, 2014)
- Pico Blanco’s North Ridge (November 28, 2014)
Ventana Double Cone, Queen of the Ventana:
- Ventana Double Cone (December 24, 2013)
- La Ventana Loop (January 15, 2014)
- Kandlbinder & Ventana Double Cone via the Drain (April 13, 2014)
- Big Sur Station to Bottcher’s Gap via Ventana Double Cone (May 4, 2014)
Big Sur River, Wild & Scenic:
- Sykes Hot Springs (November 2009)
- Into the Wild on the Big Sur Trail (January 11, 2014)
- Redwood Creek & Sykes Hot Springs (July 27, 2014)
- Mocho Loop featuring Mocho Falls (January 24, 2015)
Coast Ridge including Marble Peak and Mining Ridge:
- Limekiln to Big Sur via the Coast Ridge (December 28, 2013)
- Coast Ridge: Stone to Boronda (December 28, 2014)
Arroyo Seco, the Gorge:
- Marble Peak 50k+ (December 6, 2014): A trans-Ventana route from the Arroyo Seco Gorge to Mable Peak on Coast Ridge
- Last Chance Falls, Jeff Falls and Santa Lucia Creek Gorge (February 10, 2015)
Memorial Park featuring Junipero Serra Peak – Grandfather of the Ventana:
- Junipero Serra Peak (December 8, 2013): The highest point in the Santa Lucia Mountains at 5,857 ft
- Santa Lucia Three Peaks (January 25, 2014): A classic route that includes the summits of three major peaks in the Ventana Wilderness – Cone Peak, Twin Peak and Junipero Serra Peak
- Cone Peak’s North Ridge & Lost Valley (March 8, 2014)
Central Big Sur Coast, Big Views:
- Boronda/De Angulo Loop (December 21, 2013)
- Partington Cove to McWay Falls (December 22, 2013) – Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park
- Partington to McWay, Julia Pfieffer Burns (March 15, 2014) – Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park
- Big Creek Reserve (May 10, 2014) – Open to the public one day each year!
- Prewitt & Boronda Wildflowers (May 11, 2014) – One of the greatest wildflower displays
- Boronda Turkey Trot (November 27, 2914)
- Big Sur condor Loop (December 13, 2015)
- Ewoldsen & Alta Vista (December 27, 2015)
Cone Peak, King of Big Sur:
- Cone Peak via Vicente Flat (January 10, 2010)
- Cone Peak via Vicente Flat (January 15, 2011)
- Cone Peak via Stone Ridge Direct (April 20, 2013)
- Cone Peak Marathon (November 3, 2013)
- Cone Peak via Stone Ridge and North Coast Trail (December 15, 2013)
- Stone Ridge Direct (February 1, 2014)
- Stone Ridge Direct Loop & Cone Peak (April 19, 2014)
- Cone Peak via Vicente Flat FKT & Stone Ridge Descent (April 26, 2014)
- New Year’s Day Stone Ridge Loop (January 1, 2015)
- Stone & Cone (January 19, 2015)
- Cone Peak Climbs (January 31, 2015)
South Coast – Pacific Valley:
- Prewitt Ridge (December 29, 2013)
- Shouey-Plaskett Loop (February 1, 2014)
- Shouey-Plaskett Loop (February 15, 2014)
- Kirk Creek Ridge (February 15, 2014)
- Prewitt Ridge & South Coast Ridge (April 6, 2014)
South Coast – Silver Peak Wilderness featuring Silver Peak, Princess of Big Sur, and Mount Mars, the Duke of the South Coast:
- Buckeye Loop (January 5, 2014)
- Mount Mars (January 5, 2014)
- South Coast Adventure (February 24, 2014)
- Silver Peak Wilderness Loop, Lion Peak and Mt. Mars (March 16, 2014)
- Dutra Loop and Soda Peak (November 23, 2014)
- Dutra Loop (January 3, 2015)
- Point Lobos: Located at the northern end of the Big Sur Coast, Point Lobos State Reserve is very popular, especially on sunny weekends. The park features numerous rocky promontories, picturesque coves and a pretty Monterey pine forest. There are many trails in the reserve that are good for a shorter run or a post-adventure stroll.
- Bixby Bridge: An essential photograph spot for tourists, this famous historic bridge is indeed very photogenic
- Soberanes Point: Rugged scenery at Garrapata State Park
- Point Sur: Historic site
- Pfieffer Beach – purple sand from manganese garnet deposits
- McWay Falls: Iconic Big Sur location and another must-photo location for tourists, located just off Hwy 1 at Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park
- Pacific Valley Bluff: Spectacular sea stacks with Cone Peak & Stone Ridge as a backdrop.
- Sand Dollar Beach: Largest beach in Big Sur with beautiful sand and scenery
Northeast Yosemite is one of my favorite places in the Sierra Nevada. The peaks are not as high as the Southern Sierra, but it’s a distinctly alpine region characterized by a series of long glacier-carved canyons separated by sharp granitic peaks and ridgelines. The numerous canyons (from east to west) include Virginia Canyon, Spiller Canyon, Matterhorn Canyon, Slide Canyon, Rock Canyon, Kerrick Canyon, Thompson Canyon, Stubblefield Canyon, Tilden Canyon and Jack Main Canyon (see annotated satellite image of the canyons). All of the canyons flow into the Tuolumne River watershed and provide virtually limitless opportunities for exploration, and several of the canyons are completely trail-less canyons. The entire region offers some of the best wilderness terrain to wander off the beaten path in solitude. On this day I was looking for a relatively quick afternoon warm-up (post drive from the Bay Area) before my trip to Arrow Peak’s northeast ridge so I decided to do Virginia Peak, a striking peak that rises between the deeply-carved Spiller Canyon and Virginia Canyon. From the summit of Virginia Peak there is a magnificent view in all directions, including the impressively steep Whorl Mountain across picturesque Spiller Canyon, Matterhorn Peak at the head of the canyon, Mount Conness and Shepherd Crest to the south, and the Roof of Yosemite including Mount Lyell, Mount Maclure and Mount Florence.
The shortest and likely quickest access to Virginia Peak is via the Green Lake Trailhead, but I decided to access via Virginia Lakes, a pretty chain of alpine lakes I had never seen with trailhead access that is almost all on paved road (the Green Lake TH is a long dirt road). Moreover, the Virginia Lakes TH starts a bit higher. The downside is the approach builds in an extra climb over a saddle that is over 11,000 ft resulting in a decent climb on the way back. On balance, the extra distance to the peak seemed worthwhile. I used maintained paths to below Summit Lake and then set off cross-country traversing across the lowest slopes of Camiaca Peak to Upper Virginia Canyon. A trail once existed in upper Virginia Canyon but I could only find bits and pieces of it in the meadows. Either way, travel is easy in the canyon and the main objective is to avoid brush patches that tend to grow near the watercourse. At the highest reaches of Virginia Canyon a headwall is reached with a waterfall. Apparently an easy route exists to bypass the waterfall and continue along the main drainage, but I found a nice gully to the right that provided an easy “staircase” up to the granite benches and talus fields below Virginia Peak and Twin Peaks Pass. The final ascent to the pass entailed some loose rock, but I was soon traversing over to the start of the scramble. The final scramble up Virginia Peak’s northeast ridge is short and mostly class 2 with a couple class 3 moves. The view from the top is awesome and I soaked in the scenery for nearly an hour before returning to the Virginia Lakes TH with plenty of time to drive south for the next day’s adventure. GPS route here.
The Lost Coast is a spectacular meeting of land and ocean along the most undeveloped, remote and rugged stretch of coastline along the U.S. West Coast. I was eager to return here to attempt the Complete Lost Coast from Mattole River to Usal Beach in a single day after amazing two-day experiences in 2010 and 2012 (see 2010 TRs: King Range,Sinkyone; July 2012 album here) and also an awesome loop through the King Range portion in March 2014 that included the beach section, Cooskie, and the Kings Crest – a route I called the King Range 50 since its distance came in just above 50 miles. Rickey Gates and I had been talking about doing the Complete Lost Coast in day for several months and it seemed like scheduling was a persistent conflict until this weekend. It was awesome to share these beautiful miles with Rickey and experience the entire Lost Coast in a single day, or more accurately, 13h47m. The 57+ mile point-to-point route has astounding variety, from rugged coastal beach in the north to redwood glens, sweeping vistas atop bluffs, and elk herds in the southern portion. In essence, the Complete Lost Coast is one of the greatest coastal adventure runs in the United States, and perhaps the world. It’s rare to find such unfettered, wild and rugged coastal scenery with no nearby roads, no established campgrounds, and no other facilities to speak of. It’s a special place and a treat to see this entire stretch of coastline unfold as you’re running down the coast. Our goal was to immerse ourselves in the coastal scenery so while moving swiftly over the terrain was an essential part of the flow for us, speed was not the top priority. Many many thanks goes to Rickey’s girlfriend Liz who helped us avoid a long car shuttle by dropping us off at Mattole and driving curvy mountainous roads to Shelter Cove and Usal Beach.
The northern portion of the Lost Coast is protected by the King Range National Conservation Area and 42,585 acres received Federal Wilderness designation on October 17, 2006. The southern portion is protected in Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, named after the Sinkyone Indians that lived on this part of the coast. The two sections are split by Shelter Cove, a small community of mainly vacation homes, but the parts are completely different in terms of their overall feel and experience. The northern section of the Lost Coast in the King Range NCA from the Mattole River to Black Sands Beach at Shelter Cove features a famous 24.5 mile beach walk with two-thirds of the distance spent on sand, gravel, and rock-hopping and the remaining third on trails just above the beach on coastal plains. The southern section took us from Hidden Valley in the King Range up and over Chemise Mountain and down into the Sinkyone Wilderness continuing all the way to the southern end of the Lost Coast Trail at Usal Beach for a total distance of 29 miles from Hidden Valley to Usal Beach. Joining these two sections was a 3.5 mile climb on Shelter Cove Road resulting in aggregate distance of 57+ miles for the Complete Lost Coast from the Mattole River to Usal Beach. It should be noted that the last 16 miles to Usal Beach from Bear Harbor are along an arduous narrow trail that is relentless in its steep ups and downs (6,000+ elevation gain), and includes sections of thick brush and often poor footing on very eroded slopes. Whether this challenging stretch is done at the beginning or end of the journey, it will require a good amount of time and energy. While I have been on this section of trail now three times, it seems to only get slightly easier each time! I should also note that special attention must be paid to the tide schedules in the northern King Range beach walk portion. There are long sections of the coastline that are impassable in high tides when the waves come right up to the cliffs. It would be extremely dangerous to be stranded in one of these sections during or approaching high tide. Careful preparation with the park BLM park map and a tide schedule is essential. In fact, our decision to go from north to south was chiefly dictated by a low tide in the morning. GPS route here.
The mother of lupine blooms! Around Mother’s Day of this year a prolific and memorable bloom of lupine peaked along the Big Sur coast. Locals told me that the last time the hillsides were covered with such density of lupine was back 1999, fifteen years prior. Perhaps the amazing display can be explained by the unprecedented weather conditions of the past year. A record dry 2013 was followed by an extremely dry January and February of this year. Hills that typically sprout with green grass by January remained golden well into February. In late February an impressive storm system dropped over a foot of rain along the Big Sur Coast. This storm only put a small dent in the ongoing exceptional drought conditions, but was enough to enable the lupine plants to sprout en masse. My hypothesis is the antecedent dry conditions prevented grasses from germinating and when the heavy rains arrived in late February the lupine were able to proliferate without being crowded out by other grasses which were unable to take hold over the winter. Additional rainfall in late March provided just enough water to keep the lupine growing and by early May entire hillsides were covered with amazingly dense gardens of lupine.
The lupine bloom was not specific to a particular location along the coast as we enjoyed spectacular displays at Prewitt Ridge, Boronda Ridge and Dolan Ridge (Dolan lupine photos here). The meadows were generally found between 800 feet to 2,000 feet in elevation. Prewitt Ridge was unique in that the lupine fields were interspersed with yellow poppies creating a fascinating mixture of colors in the foreground with Cone Peak, the King of the Big Sur Coast, looming in the background. Boronda Ridge featured perhaps the most impressive display with homogeneous, lush and dense lupine covering the spectacularly steep relief to the Pacific Ocean. The bloom was so prolific that the scent of lupine could be identified several hundred meters away from the flowers, a smell that became more pungent as one neared the meadows. This lupine bloom was an amazing sight to see and these photos are unaltered from what my camera captured.
Between Julie Pfieffer Burns State Park and Limekiln State Park is a long stretch of amazingly beautiful Big Sur coastline that unfortunately lies on private land precluding exploration beyond the turnouts along Highway 1. However, on one day of the year a section of this coastline opens to the general public at the Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve. This reserve is part of the University of California Natural Reserve System with a mission to further university-level teaching, research and public service at protected natural areas. In order to foster the on-site research and education principles, the reserve is closed to the public for all but one day of the year (usually the second Saturday in May). The Big Creek reserve encompasses rugged canyons that drain the region to the north and west of Cone Peak, the King of Big Sur, and is located within arguably the most scenic region in all of Big Sur. Extremely intrigued, I made sure to circle my calendar for the date of the “open house” and Erica and I maximized the few hours it was open. We found a wonderful network of single track trails showcasing virtually all of the greatness that is Big Sur, from lush redwood-filled canyons to grassy ridges covered in spring wildflowers with outstanding coastal views. Moreover, the reserve contained unique aspects, including one of the most stunning waterfalls in the Santa Lucia Mountains and a large hot spring pool. The variety of flora is impressive reflecting the diversity and richness of the environments and habitats in the reserve, including chaparral, redwoods, oak woodland, grassland, pine and even a grove of Santa Lucia Firs near Highlands Peak.
Two of the most important streams in the region flow through the reserve, Big Creek and Devils Canyon Creek. The streams meet in the reserve and flow as one stream for the last mile into the Pacific Ocean at Big Creek Cove. Along Big Creek is a natural hot spring pool, which is many times larger than the popular Sykes Hot Springs along the Big Sur River. Along Devils Canyon creek is perhaps the most striking feature, the remote Canogas Falls, which tumbles over 60 feet in a series of three steps with turquoise pools in between each step. The setting of the falls nestled between rugged cliffs with a lush redwood forest is magical. I couldn’t resist taking a swim in the frigid waters in the lower of two intermediary pools. The reserve also features two prominent grassy ridges with stunning views: Dolan Ridge and Highlands Ridge. Dolan Ridge provides an outstanding vista north up the coast toward Boronda Ridge and also south looking into Devils Canyon with Cone Peak and Twin Peak towering above. On this day Dolan Ridge was covered in a spectacular lupine bloom, the likes of which have not been seen since 1999. Highlands Ridge, including Gamboa Point, features excellent views back to Dolan Ridge, the Big Creek Bridge, and the turquoise waters off the coast. Big Creek is a treasure and well-deserving of its protection. It was great to explore a section of the Big Sur coast that I have never seen and I look forward to returning next year.