I’ll admit it: I’m enamored with the majestic Santa Lucia Fir, Abies bracteata. The species is the rarest fir on the earth and can only be found on the rocky peaks or canyon bottoms in the Santa Lucia mountain range. Even within the mountain range it’s not a common tree and is limited to around two dozen groves sprinkled throughout the mountains. It’s a proud tree with a tall, narrow crown that is spire-like and sharply pointed, reminiscent of the subalpine fir in the mountainous regions of the Pacific Northwest but much larger, taller (up to 100 ft) and well adapted to survive in a region where severe drought, heavy winter rains, and fire are a regular occurrence.
How does a non-fire resistant conifer survive in the coastal mountains of California where fire is a regular occurrence? The answer is in the topography. The location of the Santa Lucia Firs groves is largely dictated by fire. Unlike the redwoods with fire resistant bark, the Santa Lucia Fir has thin bark and keeps its lower branches making it non-resistant to fire and susceptible to fire injury. However, the tree is remarkably adapted to the reality of periodic fires through these mountains. Virtually all of the groves are found in “fire-proof” locations, either on precipitous cliffs or at the bottom of steep, rocky canyons that preclude the accumulation of plant litter and the growth of grass and brush that fuel fires. Thus, fire embers are limited in their penetration into the groves. The result is that most fires skip over the Santa Lucia Fir groves and they have survived in these mountains despite numerous fire episodes that have engulfed surrounding terrain.
But how does a conifer that looks like it belongs in a cold weather climate survive the droughts and hot summers of the Santa Lucia Mountains? The answer is also in the topography. Stands of Santa Lucia Firs located on high peaks are typically found on north or northeast facing slopes that are sheltered from the rays of the sizzling summer sun. Similarly, canyon-bottom groves are situated in locations that provide ample shade, cool air flow and a source of moisture during the hot and dry summer months.
Why is the Santa Lucia Fir endemic to the Santa Lucia Mountains? Did it once have a wider range?From my research, the history of the Santa Lucia Fir and how it arrived to the Santa Lucia Mountains is somewhat of a mystery, but the reason why it does not have a wider range is, you guessed it, also the result of topography. The following quote sums it up nicely: “As to why [the Santa Lucia Fir] is not found elsewhere in the West today we can ask ourselves: Where else can high equability, heavy winter rains with long dry summers, and large areas of fireproof topography be found. The answer is nowhere but the Santa Lucia Mountains for all of western North America” (Talley, Steven N. 1972.06.08. Notes concerning the status of ecological studies on Santa Lucia fir, Abies bracteata. http://www.conifers.org/pi/Abies_bracteata.php). The Santa Lucia Mountains are indeed unique and special, and the Santa Lucia Fir is but one of the many magical aspects of these mountains. Note that “high equability” refers to the close range of temperatures throughout the year that is characteristic of Mediterranean climate.
Most agree the Santa Lucia Fir is a majestic tree and it’s now widely distributed in botanical and private gardens, but why is the narrow, spire-like crown not present in these plantings? The spire-like crown is immediately recognizable in the wild groves and it’s what makes the Santa Lucia Fir so magical. Age of the tree is almost certainly a factor as ornamental plantings are still generally young trees and the narrow crowns are almost exclusive to old-growth trees. Even in the wild, the young trees do not have the narrow crown and only the older trees take on the quintessential spire-like shape. However, even some older plantings of Santa Lucia Fir fail to take on the spire-like shape. For this reason I suspect topography is also a factor. The wild Santa Lucia Fir groves are located on precipitously steep slopes or deep, shady canyons which cause adaptations in the growth patterns, often forcing the firs to lean over and reach for the sky in search of sunlight.
One of the first things noticed when standing by a Santa Lucia Fir is its persistent lower branches which help to give the fir its beautiful conical shape. Moving closer to a branch, one must be careful not to touch the needles carelessly since they are unusually large (2 inches) and sharp-tipped. In fact, the tips are so sharp they can pierce the skin. The Santa Lucia Fir groves have a diverse set of neighboring trees and each grove seems to have different set of cohabitants making them even more unique and special. For instance, groves in the Big Sur River drainage often grow among redwoods while the groves on Cone Peak share the rocky slopes with Sugar Pines and Coulter Pines. In a few locations the fir can be found alongside incense cedars. In the Carmel River watershed, heritage oaks, sycamores and big leaf maples are common next to the firs and sometimes there are ponderosa pines.
Over the course of my travels in the Ventana and Silver Peak Wilderness I’ve seen many of the existing groves, but an expansive grove tucked into a rugged canyon of the Miller Fork is perhaps the finest of all. It’s my understanding that a larger grove once covered the flanks of Ventana Double Cone, but many of the trees were taken out in the Basin Fire of 2008. While large portions of the Ventana Double Cone grove were untouched in the fire (the especially fire-proof spots), the surface area of the grove was substantially reduced. Meanwhile, it appears the Miller grove was largely untouched by the fire. This deep, rocky canyon provides ideal conditions for the trees to thrive with moisture, shade and protection from fires. The result is a fantastic display of elegant old growth Santa Lucias with density that is rivaled by few other places in the range. It came as no surprise that the rugged, deep canyon where the Santa Lucias Firs thrive contains a pretty gorge where the canyon walls come in to the watercourse. This narrows feature is worthy of the trip in itself, but when combined with the old growth Santa Lucia Firs soaring above the canyon it makes for a magical experience. All photos are from Miller Canyon except photo 2 (Ventana Double Cone), photo 3 (Cone Peak) and photo 5 (Kandlbinder). Complete photo album here.
When in flow, Last Chance Falls is arguably the most dramatic waterfall in the Ventana Wilderness. The falls flows over an overhanging precipice with a 120 foot free fall with a large cavern behind the falls. A natural amphitheater of cliffs surrounds the falls. The ephemeral nature of Last Chance Falls perhaps makes it more special and requires planning, or more accurately, waiting, for the ideal conditions. The drainage upstream of the falls, the headwaters of the South Fork Santa Lucia Creek, is relatively small and in a climatologically dry part of the range. However, in early February an atmospheric river impacted the central coast interrupting months of virtually dry weather. Rainfall amounts were healthy over the Ventana Wilderness but particularly over the Santa Lucia Creek drainage, which is typically a drier region on the east side of the range but received impressive rainfall totals of around ~6 inches in just a couple days. This provided a great opportunity to see Last Chance Falls in flow. By “in flow” I mean a solid stream of water from the top to the base of the falls. The falls becomes merely a trickle in summer and fall and otherwise has no flow or low flow for all but a handful days of the year immediately following heavy rains. This is a quintessential flashy waterfall, and especially flashy after an atmospheric river event during an unprecedented multi-year drought. GPS route here.
A great viewpoint of the falls is located on the Santa Lucia Trail as it switchbacks out of the Canyon. One can also travel cross country following the South Fork Santa Lucia Creek upstream to immediately underneath the falls with exploration of the pool and cavern. The setting of the falls is magical. Visiting Last Chance Falls also provides an opportunity to explore the immensely scenic Santa Lucia Creek gorge, including the 35 ft Jeff Falls, which is picturesque, particularly in the high flow we experienced. Next to Jeff Falls is Mutt Falls, a tall but skinny falls from a side tributary. Both Jeff and Mutt Falls are visible at the same time and are aptly named by Jack Glendening (http://bigsurtrailmap.net/ creator) after the historically popular comic strip with similarly proportioned characters. Dr. Jack also named Last Chance Falls after the the camp downstream in beautiful meadows of the same name. In my opinion, Last Chance is a great name for this ephemeral falls. Jeff Falls is much less flashy than Last Chance Falls since its water source includes the main stem of Santa Lucia Creek which drains a region several times the size of the South Fork Santa Lucia Creek alone. Thus, if Jeff Falls is running low, Last Chance Falls may be a trickle or bone dry.
As a shorthand, I’ve determined that flow of 250cfs or greater on the Arroyo Seco River will yield a an “in flow” Last Chance Falls but to really bring out the beauty of the falls it seem flow of 500cfs or greater is needed on the Arroyo Seco. The Santa Lucia Creek gorge entails several crossings of Santa Lucia Creek which was running high (Arroyo Seco was ~550 cfs on this day). If the flow was much higher the lower part of the Santa Lucia trail would be impassable. Thus, it would not be advisable to access Last Chance Falls via the Santa Lucia Creek gorge if at peak flow immediately after big rainfall events. Instead, use the Arroyo Seco-Indians Road and drop down into the drainage after the South Fork Santa Lucia Creek has branched off. The Arroyo Seco-Indians Road has some awesome views of the Arroyo Seco canyon and the interior of the Ventana Wilderness. Another great addition is the ridge immediately above the Arroyo Seco campground. A use path runs across the spine of this ridge and includes some fantastic views of the Arroyo Seco region.
Cone Peak is the King of the Big Sur Coast and a visit to the region is always awesome. Rising 5,155 ft above the Pacific Ocean in around 3 miles as the crow flies, the summit has a commanding view of the region with stunning coastal vistas. The rugged topography is simply spectacular with a background of deep blue ocean a constant. The diversity of vegetation on the mountain is fascinating, including redwood, grassland, oak, and Santa Lucia alpine forest with the rare Santa Lucia Fir, Coulter Pines, and Sugar Pines. This time, I joined Brian Robinson for a repeat of the Stone Ridge Direct “Sea to Sky” route that I did last Spring. We also added on a very worthwhile extension from Trail Spring to Tin Can Camp. Iinstead of taking the Twitchell Flat use trail from Hwy 1, we took a more aesthetic route from Limekiln Beach and through Limekiln Park to a new trail (currently under construction) that links up with the Twitchell Flat use path in the West Fork Limekiln Creek drainage. Stone Ridge was every bit as amazing the second time around with mesmerizing ocean views with each step; perhaps my favorite route in all of the Big Sur coast. From the top of Twin Peak we traversed the rocky ridge all the way to the Cone Peak Trail which included a couple rock moves on the spine of the ridge. After visiting the Cone Peak lookout, we descended the trail on the north side which was an extremely treacherous ice skating rink of snow and ice. We gingerly walked through this section utilizing any kind of traction we could find. We arrived at Trail Spring happy to be done with that stretch.
After filing up water bottles at Trail Spring we continued along the Gamboa Trail north. This section was brand new to me and I enjoyed the views down the South Fork Devils Canyon and the beautiful alpine forest of Santa Lucia Firs and Sugar Pines. After a climb, we reached the junction with the North Coast Ridge Trail and continued north along North Coast Ridge Trail, entering a lovely Sugar Pine forest near Cook Camp. Beyond Cook Camp, the North Coast Ridge Trail emerges from the forest along a high ridgecrest with amazing views down the wild and rugged Middle Fork Devils Canyon on one side and Junipero Serra Peak (Pimkolam Summit in Native American) on the other side. We made Tin Can Camp the logical turnaround spot and enjoyed the spectacular views from a rocky outcropping. From this point, we talked about continuing along the North Coast Ridge Trail and then Coast Ridge Road all the way to Big Sur, a future project we were eager to tackle. After retracing our steps to Trail Springs and filling up water one last time, we continued along the Gamboa Trail west, one of my favorite stretches of single track in the Santa Lucia Fir forest. We took the Stone Ridge Trail back to the rocky knoll and ~2,100 ft and then the Stone Ridge use path down into Limekiln Park. After the adventure run, I drove out to Pacific Valley Bluff and snapped some great sunset photos of Stone Ridge and Cone Peak. It was another great day Cone Peak and I’m already planning future adventures on the mountain! Strava route here.
North of Santa Cruz near the outpost of Davenport is a stretch of rugged coastline with rocky cliffs, sea stacks, and unique marine terraces interspersed with golden sandy beaches. Panther Beach and Hole in the Wall Beach are two of these stunning beaches. Both are located just south of Bonny Doon Road and accessed from the same point. The parking area is not marked along the road and very easy to pass. If you’re traveling from the south and you reach Bonny Doon Road and the parking for Bonny Doon Beach, you’ve driven too far. The parking area is actually an elongated gravel strip by the old railroad tracks that is often potholed.
Once parked, the descent to the beach on foot can be tricky in flip flops as it’s steep and rocky in spots. The extra effort to get here is well worth the effort as Panther Beach is beautifully situated among the cliffs. At the south end of the beach is a rock formation with an arch, known as the Hole in the Wall, that leads to its namesake beach. The only way to access Hole in the Wall Beach is through this arch and one must be mindful of the tides as this entry point can become inaccessible in high tides. Hole in the Wall Beach is equally gorgeous with several sandy alcoves and a distinctive golden hue to the rock walls. At the far south end of the beach is an impressive sea stack with a large area of rock terraces for exploration in low tides. Look for Jah Beach and Ship Rock in the next post. Here are some photos with the complete album here.
Pigeon Point Light Station, built in 1871, is the tallest lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States standing 115 ft tall. It is located a few miles south of Pescadero on a rocky promontory with gorgeous views of the surrounding coastline and Pacific Ocean. The lighthouse is currently undergoing restoration to preserve this important heritage site. I have driven by Pigeon Point several times on the way to various trails in the area including fantastic running in nearby Butano State Park and Big Basin State Park via Waddell Beach. After a nice run, I stopped to enjoy a marvelous sunset on the cliffs near the lighthouse. Some of my favorite photos are below with more here.
Long Ridge Open Space Preserve has some of the best vistas in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The combination of meadows and forest on a high ridge overlooking the Pescadero watershed to the Pacific Ocean produces some awesome photography opportunities. Here are some photos from a hike to the Stegner Bench at Long Ridge last summer and a recent run through the park.
Earlier in the week the forecast called for blazing sunshine and warm temps for the entire Bay Area over the weekend. Instead most locations experienced a gray weekend as moisture trapped under a strong ridge of high pressure produced widespread fog and stratus. In other words, the forecast was a bust!
However, it was a different story at parts of the coast and higher elevations which were above the stratus layer that hovered between 1,500 to 1,600 feet all weekend. At these locations, the sunny and warm forecast verified. In search of sunshine I first hiked Black Mountain on Saturday on the Peninsula and then one of my favorite parks, Mount Tamalpais, on Sunday. The classic Steep Ravine-Matt Davis loop was the hike of choice and sunset was from the top of the ridge near Rock Springs. The Steep Ravine-Matt Davis loop showcases much of what Mount Tamalpais has to offer – lush redwood forest, sweeping coastal views, rolling meadows, and fantastic single track. I also recommend an out-and-back along the Coastal trail where the mountainside becomes steeper and the views of Stinson Beach more expansive. Head out for as long as you desire and return back to the Matt Davis descent or continue on to the Willow Camp Trail for an alternative descent back down to Stinson Beach. From sunbursts, to lush forest, to clear views, the photography along the hike was delightful.
Sunset from the ridge about 200 feet above the stratus layer was equally amazing. Clouds and fog always adds a different dimension to the photography with their intricacy and the fact that they are constantly changing. No two photos are ever the exact same and this is why I call it “fog play”! A complete gallery can be found here. I’ve posted some of my favorite photos below, which you can click for a larger image.