One can find some wildflowers in Big Sur virtually any time of the year, but the time of year when the hillsides erupt with sky lupine and poppy lasts only a few short weeks in the Spring. The season can start as early as mid March and can run as late as mid May with the wildflowers starting first in the lower elevations and finishing at the highest elevations. Most years the peak of the bloom is sometime in April and the two primary species are sky lupine and California poppy. The scope and location of the bloom varies substantially year to year and this post describes some of this variability in just the past three years. Sometimes poppy blooms before the lupine while other years they bloom concurrently. Moreover, some seasons have had great blooms of other wildflower species including early-rising shooting star. All of the photos in this post are from this year’s lupine bloom on Boronda Ridge and Coast Ridge from Grimes Canyon to Marble Meadows. Full album here. The spring of 2014 produced the “mother” of all lupine blooms and featured a ridiculous display of sky lupine that covered entire mountainsides, particularly those at lower elevations below 2,500 ft that don’t often see big wildflower concentrations. The lower elevation bloom was particularly stunning with a background of the deep blue ocean close at hand. This bloom occurred at the height of the drought with virtually no rain until late February, at which point a series of atmospheric rivers put down several inches of rain. This rainfall was just enough to cause the lupine to pop. With no grass to impede their growth, the lupine flourished and grew to great height and concentration. The result was an amazing, fairy tale display that peaked on mother’s day weekend, hence the “mother” of all blooms. It was a relatively late peak due to the late start to germination. Long-time Big Sur residents commented that such a display had not been seen in a decade and a half and it has not been repeated since; not even close. Most grassy ridges along the coast had tremendous displays of lupine which made for a truly memorable experience. I just wish it would happen more often! The winter of 2014-2015 was substantially wetter and resulted in more grass growth at lower elevations. The spring of 2015 featured nice lupine fields at mid and higher elevations, but nothing like the 2014 bloom (you already knew that). While in 2014 the best patches were below 2,000 ft, in 2015 the best patches were generally above 2,000 ft. Due to the ongoing drought and uneven nature of the rainy season, the lupine bloom was still quite good in favored spots, but it was functionally more of a typical bloom with the best spots where you would normally expect. This year’s winter was wetter than both of the prior two preceding winters and the result was that grass grew vigorously throughout winter at lower elevations and crowded out most flowers down low. This year’s best patches were even higher than 2015 – generally above 3,000 ft where the grass was unable to grow as much due to the cooler temperatures at elevation. At lower elevations lupine was sparse and small, unable to compete for water and light amid the tall grass. While not as good at 2015 and nowhere near the super bloom of 2014, there were still some nice patches at higher elevations, including the highest reaches of Boronda Ridge, Marble Meadows and interior meadows along the Pine Ridge Trail. While this year’s bloom wasn’t quite as good as 2015 and nowhere near 2014, it was still quite beautiful when I found myself in a lupine patch and these photos show there was still some great displays to enjoy. This post includes some photos from a run up Boronda and along Coast Ridge to Marble Meadows. As mentioned above, sky lupine fields only started at ~2,500 on Boronda and the patches became more impressive as one gained elevation on coast ridge toward Anderson Peak and Marble Peak. Marble Meadows, located beneath Marble Peak at around 3,800 ft in elevation, had the best lupine display on the route and likely the best lupine display with coastal Big Sur views this season. I love sky lupine fields, especially when there’s a background of green hills and the blue Pacific Ocean! A later post will showcase the lupine and owl clover patches along the Pine Ridge Trail (2015 Pine Ridge Trail flowers), which is another favorite spot for springtime wildflowers.
“The Window” or “La Ventana” is a prominent and historically significant feature in the most rugged corner of the Ventana Wilderness. The deep notch along the high ridge between Kandlbinder Peak and Ventana Double Cone is clearly visible from the north and south. The first visitors to the Window were almost certainly Native Americans who intimately knew these mountains. The name “La Ventana” likely originates with Spanish explorers and the significance of the feature resulted in the entire wilderness of the northern Santa Lucia Mountains bearing the name “Ventana.” Modern interest in the Window began in the 1960’s with a multi-year effort to clear a route to the Window highlighted by a 25 person meeting at the the Window in May 1968 with parties arriving from three different directions (likely from Venatana Creek to the south, Jackson Creek to the North and Ventana Double Cone to the east). More details on the history and route can be found here.
Unofficially named Kandlbinder Peak is the high point at the west end of the ridge. Formerly known as “No-Name Peak,” members of the Ventana Chapter of the Sierra Club renamed the peak in 1971 in memory of then-recently passed Dr. Alfred Kandlbinder who was a founding member of the Ventana Chapter of the Sierra Club and an avid hiker of the Ventana. The 360 degree vista from Kandlbinder if arguable the best summit view in the Ventana Wilderness with the centerpiece feature being the wild and rugged west face and entire drain feature of Ventana Double Cone. To the north the expansive Little Sur drainage is at one’s feet including Pico Blanco’s distinctive southern apron of white limestone. To the west is Point Sur, the Cabezo Prieto ridgeline, Coast Ridge and the mighty Pacific Ocean. To the south is Cone Peak, Santa Lucia Peak and the Big Sur river drainage.
Close to 50 years and several large fires after the famous meeting of the paths to the Window, access has deteriorated substantially with innumerable blowdowns and brush making for an arduous adventure by any direction. However, the Jackson Creek route via the Little Sur River is still the shortest and quickest approach to the Window and several parties visit the Window each year via this route. Most of the entries in the register are from boy scout groups climbing up the Jackson Creek route from nearby Pico Blanco Boy Scout Camp although it seems scout interest has waned in recent years. Parties who backpack tend to camp in the Window itself where there’s a large flat spot and fire ring. Most of the register entries are in the summer months when the many biting flies who inhabit the Window are at their peak intensity and aggression. The other formerly-established camping spot at Happy Fork was largely destroyed by a large oak tree that fell directly over the camp last year though camping is still feasible in the grass next to the blowdown.
The old route that once traversed the ridgeline to Ventana Double Cone has completely disappeared and is now an advanced bushwhack with a grueling combination of dead wood from the Basin Fire and aggressive new chaparral growth. Approaching from the south via Ventana Creek entails a long creek walk and then a sketchy scramble around Ventana Falls. The traverse to Kandlbinder is an entirely off-trail route, but one can avoid the worst brush by staying on the north side of the ridge when leaving the Window and then returning to the ridge crest for the final couple hundred feet to the summit. Inside the Window the view is largely obstructed by trees and the surrounding cliffs. However, one can climb a pinnacle on the SW side of the Window which has a magnificent view of cliffs descending from the Window down more than two thousand feet to headwaters of Ventana Creek and the impressively rugged west face of Ventana Double Cone.
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.
The Santa Lucia Wilderness is a little-known 20,412 acre wilderness at the southern end of the Santa Lucia Range near San Luis Obispo. Only a few trails traverse the relatively small wilderness, including Lopez Canyon Trail, Big Falls Trail and Little Falls Trail. The Little Falls and Big Falls Trails can be connected using dirt roads to form an attractive loop. The dirt road on the ridge is a fire road (closed to vehicles) with stellar views of the surrounding ridges while the dirt road at the bottom is the access road for a surprising number of homeowners holed up in lower Lopez Canyon. While the road in Lopez Canyon is publicly accessible, high clearance is required, especially if there is any kind of flow in the waterfalls since the road crosses Lopez Creek many times (and often quite deep). There is therefore little vehicle traffic on the road. For most folks it makes much more sense to park on the other side of the ridge at Rinconada Trailhead. From Rinconada, a great 13+ mile lasso loop includes the Big Falls and Little Falls Trails which feature three waterfalls, excellent views of the surrounding mountains and great diversity of flora. Moreover, the out-and-back trail from Rinconada to the ridge is not very long (~1.5 miles) and enjoyable in its own right.
My last visit to this area was in autumn when the falls were mostly dry so it was a completely different experience with the falls and streams gushing at high flow after recent heavy rain. The centerpiece waterfall feature is Big Falls at around 80 ft in height with a beautiful rock amphitheater surrounding the falls. Lower down the Big Falls Trail is a smaller “slide” falls that plunges into a deep pool that makes for a lovely swimming and diving hole on warm summer days. The third falls is “Little Falls” which is about half the height of Big Falls but has very charming setting and pretty plunge pool. Little Falls is not visible from the Little Falls Trail; instead one must take a usepath that departs the main trail at the last crossing of Little Falls Creek before it embarks on a lengthy ascent up the Little Falls canyon. If there is flow in the creeks expect dozens of creek crossings, both on the trails and the Lopez Canyon road with guaranteed wet feet.
Silver Peak rises steeply from the south coast of Big Sur to a lofty perch at 3,590 ft. The summit sits at the center of the 31,555 acre namesake Silver Peak Wilderness, which encompasses some of the most spectacular terrain and scenery in all of Big Sur. Silver Peak is a broad massif with relatively gradual topography at its uppermost elevations becoming progressively steeper as one descends toward the canyons of Salmon Creek and Villa Creek. One of my favorite aspects of the Silver Peak Wilderness is the amazing biological diversity. The upper elevations are generally a mix of chaparral, Gray Pine and Coulter Pine. The eastern end of the Silver Peak massif includes a rare grove of Sargent Cypress. Middle elevations, especially in riparian corridors, tend to feature oak woodland and bay laurel trees. The upper Villa Creek Canyon includes a rare grove of Santa Lucia Firs and the middle and lower sections of Villa Creek Canyon feature one of the southernmost stands of old growth redwood. Meanwhile, Salmon Creek Canyon has a nice stand of Douglas Fir. Silver Peak stands apart from the south coast ridge crest so the 360 degree panorama from its summit is tremendous. To the north is an excellent view of Cone Peak, Twin Peak and Junipero Serra. Close at hand is San Martin Top, Alder Peak and Lion Peak. To the south is a commanding view of the Dutra Flats area, Mount Mars, County Line Ridge, Bald Top, Piedras Blancas and the mountains of Hearst Ranch in San Luis Obispo County. The steep topographical relief results in immense orographic enhancement of precipitation in winter storms. This results in a number of impressive waterfalls and beautiful streams flowing over bedrock that drain Silver Peak. The Silver Peak Wilderness includes a lovely network of trails. A loop around Silver Peak can be made utilizing the Cruickshank, Salmon Creek and Buckeye Trails and is a wonderful way to enjoy the many facets of this wilderness, but it does not reach the summit of Silver Peak. In order to reach the summit of Silver Peak, a use path on a narrowed old fire road starts at the divide between Villa Creek and Salmon Creek along the Cruickshank Trail. The old fire road has narrowed to single track in spots as it passes thorugh Sargent Cypress, a stand of Coulter Pines and chaparral. The old fire road passes within a few feet of the summit, at which point a short path cuts through the brush to the summit rocks, which includes a summit register. One may continue along the old fireroad west of the summit to complete the traverse of the Silver Peak massif. The old fire road terminates near Silver Peak usecamp. From the Silver Peak usecamp, “Soda Wildtrail” cuts through the chaparral to prominent point 2,866 (aka “Soda Peak”) which sits near the headwaters of Soda Gulch. “Soda Peak” has one of the best views of the south Big Sur coastline looking south to Piedras Blancas and Mount Mars. The final portion of the Silver Peak traverse continues down from Soda Peak toward the Buckeye Trail and features lovely meadows interspersed with pines and oak trees with spectacular vistas the entire way.
I’ve written in great detail about Santa Lucia Firs recently so I won’t repeat myself and describe the awesomeness of this tree again. The highest concentration of Santa Lucias (by far) is in the Carmel River drainage where the rocky, rugged terrain provides an ideal fire-proof habitat for the trees to thrive. The second greatest concentration stretches from Devils Canyon up to Cone Peak, also very rugged and rocky. South of Cone Peak there are only a few isolated groves in existence, perhaps fewer than a half dozen, making each of these groves especially unique. The most accessible of these groves is located in the upper part of Villa Creek in the Silver Peak Wilderness. The Cruickshank Trail passes among the firs with good views into the canyon bottom where the firs are highly concentrated. As I’m a Santa Lucia Fir aficionado, I decided to visit a more remote stand that has piqued my interest ever since I saw the familiar narrow conical crowns of the Santa Lucia Firs from a nearby ridge. Since the grove is tucked away in a hanging valley with no easy access I decided to name it the Lost Grove. Unlike the larger stands in the Carmel River drainage and Cone Peak, the growing habitat in the Lost Grove is restricted to a narrow mile-long strip along a rocky stream. The vast majority of the trees reside on the cooler northeast facing slope and the density of firs is some of the greatest I have seen; it’s almost as if the trees are huddling together to keep cool. There is a sharp gradient between the Santa Lucia Firs and the hot chaparral slopes with only a few Coulter and gray pines mixed in. It appears destructive fire has largely avoided this grove for many years and the result is some amazing old growth trees with impressively tall spire-like crowns that epitomize the Santa Lucia Fir. A few of the firs appeared drought stressed or have already succumbed to drought so hopefully this winter’s rain will be sufficient to help these trees survive the next summer. This grove resides in a relatively hotter and drier location than most Santa Lucias so it did not come as a surprise that the effects of the drought were visible, but the vast majority of trees still appeared healthy and there were hundreds of new saplings on the shady forest floor poised to become the next generation. I also suspect that the lifespan of the Santa Lucia Fir is not all the great as every grove I have visited includes several old snags. Access to the grove entails either a moderately brushy approach from a nearby ridge with excellent views to the Pacific Ocean or a creek walk with an extended stretch of beautiful bedrock and boulder cascades.
I enjoyed last year’s Ventana (single) Cone Adventure so much that I came back to explore a new ascent route up Ventana Cone and a new descent route from Lion Rock. I climbed both peaks on the Ventana Triple Crown route last year, but in my opinion climbing Ventana Cone and Lion Rock from the Carmel River is more aesthetic as it includes some amazing creek walking, waterfalls and Santa Lucia Fir groves. Both routes went as planned and proved to be efficient ways to climb both Ventana Cone and Lion Rock with relatively light brush in a trail-less region where bushwhacking is notoriously arduous. Ventana Cone is not visited very often (I was the first entry of 2016) and Lion Rock is visited even less frequently with only on a few parties known to have stood on its rocky summit in the last several decades. The stretch from Kandlbinder to Ventana Cone is the most rugged and wild region in all of the Ventana (and arguably the coastal ranges of the West Coast) so it is always a pleasure to visit this area. As with last year, the first part of the morning entailed running the Carmel River Trail from Los Padres Dam traveling nearly 10 miles deep into the canyon to Hiding Canyon Camp, a nice camp with Santa Lucia Firs and a tall ponderosa pine. Another 1.5 miles leads to Round Rock Camp. The trail to Round Rock Camp has some brush and blowdowns but still seems faster than walking in the river. Beyond Round Rock Camp is all off-trail, mostly creek-walking through a stunningly beautiful canyon of turqoise pools, slick rock, cascades, house-sized boulders, ferns, and moss. The amazing lushness of this deep canyon with several different varieties of ferns, and moss covering virtually everything creates a scene fit for Jurassic Park. Almost everything is photogenic. However, unlike last year, I took the first creek that enters the main tributary instead of continuing to the head of the canyon (my return route would include the entire canyon). This small creek does not produce enough flow to clear out the riparian brush so it is difficult in its lower reaches and I found much progress on the slopes above the stream bed. Eventually the stream opens up into a long talus field, at first under oak trees but increasingly a Santa Lucia Fir forest as one ascends the steepening slopes. The old growth Santa Lucia firs in the upper part of this drainage are simply amazing. The talus staircase is fairly stable and therefore an efficient route all the way up to a high notch where one must traverse into another drainage for the final climb up to Ventana Cone. This traverse includes some light brush with the burnt vegetation being the greater impediment. A final talus slope provides efficient access to the ridge near the summit of Ventana Cone. The view from Ventana Cone was just as I had remembered it from prior visits with a 360 degree panorama taking in the entire northern part of the Santa Lucia Mountains. Close at hand are the Ventana Spires, Ventana Double Cone, Kandlbinder and Lion Rock. From Ventana Cone to Lion Rock I used the same route as I did on the Triple Crown, generally staying on the east side of the ridge in talus slopes with Santa Lucia Firs. Lion Rock is an unofficial name I gave this majrestic peak that sits at the head of Lion Creek. Lion Rock is rugged and steep on all sides and an attractive peak from every direction. In fact, it’s one of my favorites in all of the Ventana. An old scrap register was left by legendary Ventana pioneer Ward Allison and Toshi Hosaka placed a new mini-register last year (no other signatures after his visit). From Lion Rock I descended the class 3 rock face and worked north to the top of a long and steep talus slope. Unlike the earlier talus slope, this one had much smaller, looser rock and the descent was rather tedious, but still much more efficient and pleasant than a bushwhack. This talus slope continued virtually unabated for over a thousand vertical feet before I reached more more mixed terrain. As the creek picked up flow I found myself increasingly in the stream descending into the lovely canyon with bedrock cascades, fern gardens and moss covered rocks. There are several beautiful waterfalls in this drainage including Spire Falls, Lion Rock Falls, Ventana Cone Falls, Carmel Falls and the Carmel Gorge.