Ventana Double Cone

If Cone Peak is the King of the Big Sur Coast, Ventana Double Cone is the Queen of the Ventana Wilderness. Rising 4,853 ft above sea level, no other peak in the Ventana Wilderness possesses such a rugged face as Ventana Double Cone’s west and south aspects. Aptly named, the mountain features twin summits of nearly identical height, but it’s the southern summit that contains an astounding 360 degree view of the surrounding wilderness and Big Sur coastline. The peak serves as the divide for three major drainages in the northern Ventana Wilderess: the Little Sur River, the Big Sur River and the Carmel River. On a clear day, one can look north to Monterey Bay, Santa Cruz, the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Diablo Range. To the south lies the wild and scenic Big Sur River drainage, the Coast Ridge, Junipero Serra Peak and Cone Peak. To the east is Pine Valley, Chews Ridge, Ventana Cone, Pine Ridge, and South Ventana Cone.  Immediately below is the immensely rugged and wild cirque that forms the headwaters of Ventana Creek. Across this impressive cirque and close at hand is La Ventana (aka the Window) and Kandlbinder Peak with Pico Blanco’s unmistakable white apron rising directly above La Ventana notch. Strava route here.

Adding to the allure of Ventana Double Cone is its remote position. The mountain is viewable from the trailhead at Bottcher’s Gap, but it requires nearly 15 miles on trail each direction (nearly 30 miles total) to reach. Moreover, there is quite a bit of undulating up and down en route which means lots of elevation gain can be expected in both directions (nearly 9,000 feet in all).  Finally, the trail (particularly after Little Pines) can become brushy with sharp and scratchy chaparral so it’s advisable to cover the legs as much as possible for a more pleasant experience. While it’s a long way to Ventana Double Cone, the route is immensely scenic the entire distance. Largely following the ridge crest that forms the rim of the Little Sur River drainage, the scenery is spectacular and the forested sections are very pleasant. The first miles are in a madrone and oak forest up Skinner Ridge and then up to Devils Peak, which provides the first panoramic views from the route. From Devils Peak to Pat Springs, there are plenty of gorgeous grassy meadows with spectacular vistas to Pico Blanco, Ventana Double Cone and Kandlbinder Peak. Approaching Pat Springs, the vegetation transitions to ponderosa pine with a magnificent stand of old growth trees near the springs that survived the 2008 Basin Complex Fire. Pat Springs features cool, pure spring waters and it’s a must stop for any traveler continuing beyond to Ventana Double Cone. While there may be water in the springs beyond, none are as easy to access and as reliable as Pat Springs.

Beyond Pat Springs, the trail ascends through ponderosa pine forest to Little Pines and then gradually descends around the west side of Uncle Sam Mountain to Puerto Suello Pass. At this point the trail becomes more brushy with the worst brush located in the miles immediately south of Puerto Suello. Eventually the trail emerges from the brush on the final ridge leading to Ventana Double Cone. As one nears the summit, Coulter pines and Santa Lucia Firs grow strong next to the trail with increasingly broader views into the valleys and canyons below. The culmination of the journey is an amazing summit panorama where one feels like they’re on top of the world, or at least the Ventana! A fire lookout once stood at the summit, but has long been dismantled (I recommend similarly dismantling the ugly lookout atop Cone Peak which only serves to get in the way of the views).  From Ventana Double Cone, it’s hard to not spend a lot of time soaking in the spectacular summit views, staring down into the rugged cirque of Ventana Creek, and admiring the tenacity of the Santa Lucia Firs clinging to the steep and rocky mountainsides. The following photos and route map are from a trip Ventana Double Cone on a clear day in late December, but we have since returned to the region to complete an off-trail traverse from Kandlbinder to La Ventana to Ventana Double Cone, which formed a large loop including the Jackson Creek route and the Ventana Double Cone Trail described above. We have called this route the “La Ventana Loop.”  Stay tuned to this blog for details and many more photos from the La Ventana Loop and other Big Sur adventures!  Strava route here.

For a 360 annotated panorama from the summit of Ventana Double Cone click here or the image below: 

Partington Cove to McWay Falls

The Big Sur/Ventana Wilderness area has captured my attention recently. Nowhere in the lower 48 does the meeting of land and ocean occur with such impressive, rugged relief. Add to that the pristine wilderness, much of which is remote and difficult to access, and you get a paradise for adventure running. I’ve already posted on several routes that I believe are classics and expect many more to come. Perhaps at some point I will create a summary post that will function as an online guide to my favorite Big Sur adventures. For this post I describe an aesthetic way to cover virtually all of the trails in Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park by running from Partington Cove to McWay Falls and back. The route includes the famous Ewoldson Loop, which is widely considered one of the best hikes in all of Big Sur. The praise for the Ewoldson Loop is for good reason: the trail features the most impressive stand of old growth redwoods in the Santa Lucia Mountains and spectacular coastal views. The sharp transitions between lush redwood forest and coastal chaparral are spectacular. A trip up the Ewoldson trail starts near the iconic McWay Falls, which plunges 80 feet over cliffs onto white sands and a turquoise cove. The loop gives a taste of virtually everything Big Sur has to offer. The 2008 Basin Complex fire closed the trail for over five years with heavy damage reported, but it has recently been reopened for the public’s enjoyment. On my recent visit I was happy to see that the redwood forest has made a vigorous comeback. Most redwoods appear to have survived the fire and new limbs and saplings are sprouting with vigor – a testament to the resiliency of redwoods. I imagine in 10 yeas it will be difficult to notice the fire that once roared through this forest. Work crews have also built a series a magnificent new hand-made bridges over McWay Creek, constructed with fallen redwoods on location. By doing an out-and-back from Partington Cove one can run down the Canyon side of the Ewoldson Loop on the way out and the Ocean side on the way back, thus covering the entire loop.

The turnaround point for the Partington to McWay is the iconic McWay Falls. It’s a special experience to follow McWay Creek through its journey down a steep canyon with lush redwoods forest and then to exit the forest at McWay Cove with surreal coastal scenery. If you do the loop in the early morning you will even be able to enjoy McWay Falls without the tourists. The other highlight of the route in my opinion is Alta Vista, an old homestead that burned in the 2008 fire.  This destination is off the main route and unsigned.  All that remains of the homestead is its foundation, a wine cellar carved into the mountains and a few burned artifacts. A plaque has been placed on the site to memorialize the history of the location and the property has been transferred to the State Parks. The best part of Alta Vista in my opinion, and the reason why I recommend making the side trip, is the incredible view across McWay Canyon and south along the Big Sur Coast. While the use trail to Alta Vista is not marked, it’s an obvious junction located at the high point of the Tanbark Trail before it descends to meet the fire road.  The other portions of the Partington to McWay route are equally impressive. The Water Trail, which connects the Ewoldson Trail in McWay Canyon with the Tanbark Trail in Partington Canyon, is a narrow single track on a steep hillside that parallels the ocean with spectacular vistas en-route. There is a grassy section that is particularly scenic with views to sea stacks and turquoise waters below. The Tanbark Trail starts with a lush redwood forest in Partington Canyon and then ascends up to the ridge with great views across Partington Canyon to Partington Ridge and Boronda Ridge. On the other side of Hwy 1, a dirt road descends 0.5 miles to Partington Cove and Partington Beach. An old tunnel provides access to the Cove with rich history and the scenic beach features towering bluffs and ocean smoothed rocks. These coastal destinations are well worth the short extension to complete the tour of the Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park. These trails are phenomenal trail running and provide an excellent mix of all that Big Sur offers. Strava route here

Boronda-De Angulo Loop

The Boronda-De Angulo Loop is a classic route of Big Sur.  I like to describe Boronda Ridge as Stone Ridge’s little sister. Similar to Stone, Boronda is a prominent grassy ridge that rises steeply from the ocean with magnificent vistas of the Pacific Ocean and surrounding terrain. While Stone Ridge tops out at over 4,800 ft at the summit of Twin Peak, Boronda ridge reaches just over 3,000 feet at the summit of Timber Top. Boronda packs nearly as much punch as Stone Ridge in terms of rate of elevation gain per mile. The distance from the ocean to Twin Peak via Stone is around 5.5 miles with 5,000 ft of elevation gain while Boronda is only 3 miles with over 2,500 feet of gain. Despite its lower vertical, Boronda Ridge rises more steeply immediately from the ocean with truly impressive relief on the lower part of the ridge. From a vista at 1,500 feet above sea level, the topography is so steep that it’s almost as if you could dive into the ocean! The amazing views on Boronda are virtually non-stop owing to the fact that the ridge crest is almost entirely devoid of vegetation other than grass.  The ridge culminates in an elegant arm at the upper part of the ridge, the highlight of the trail in my opinion. This photogenic rounded arm is separated by deep canyons of oak and redwood with the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean shimmering below. It’s a remarkable sight and now one of my favorite spots along the Big Sur Coast. 

Beyond the elegant arm, a short traverse and final climb brought us to the summit of Timber Top.  The view from Timber Top is gorgeous and worth spending some time to enjoy. From Timber Top, we took the access road down to the Coast Ridge Road, which clings to the crest of the ridge with more spectacular vistas towards Big Sur amid the many grassy ridge lines that characterize this beautiful section of Coast Ridge. Heading north along the Coast Ridge Road from the junction withTimber Top is also beautiful with more open grassy hillsides and excellent views to Ventana Double Cone and the Big Sur River drainage. After exploring to the north we retraced our steps and took the Coast Ridge Road south to the De Angulo trail. The De Angulo Trail starts by traversing a steep hillside and then descends the spine of Partington Ridge with a jumble of loose rocks. The trail then turns off the spine of Partington Ridge and commences a series of steep switchbacks down the hillside with very loose, poorly defined, and sharply angled tread. Suffice it to say this stretch is not very runnable, but at least it has been recently brushed. The De Angulo Trail finally pops out on an old fire road which is taken down to Highway 1. This fire road provides very nice views of Boronda Ridge and north along the rugged Big Sur Coast.  Once at the highway, a 1.5 mile run brought us back to the Boronda trailhead. While the traffic can be annoying, there are enough turnouts and awesome views to make it worthwhile to complete the loop. The base Boronda-De Angulo Loop is a little over 10 miles but extensions along the Coast Ridge Road are worthwhile. The route is also near McWay Falls at Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park. We visited this iconic destination of Big Sur in nearly ideal afternoon light and I’ve posted those photos at the end of this post. Strava route here.  

2013 Adventure Recap

2013 was an awesome year of adventures! From the coast to the High Sierra, there was a lot of everything. Browsing through my posts from this year really makes me appreciate living in California where it’s possible to enjoy a diverse set of adventures and occupy my desire to explore wild and rugged places year around.  This year was a little different in that I dealt with a major injury setback (Achilles and Soleus) in the Spring that required months of rehab and therapy. This precluded some of the more grand projects I had in mind, including FKT type aspirations. As the injury improved in the fall I was able to get out on some longer and faster outings which proved very memorable. Despite some frustrations with the injury I spent more time exploring the Sierra than in any prior year, which is very encouraging. This leaves me optimistic in thinking about what I can do if I’m healthy. I’ve already got many ideas for next year so the excitement level is high. Below is a complete list of this year’s adventures with a link to the blog post where I described that adventure in greater detail with many photos. Note: several adventures in the Ventana Wilderness along the Big Sur Coast occurred in late December 2013, but will be blogged in early 2014. I also envision putting together a list or online guide to my favorite Big Sur hikes and adventures.

  1. Glacier Point XC (December 31, 2012) 
  2. Dewey Point Snowshoe (January 1, 2013)
  3. Mount Silliman Snowshoe (January 19, 2013)
  4. Winter Alta & Moose Lake Snowshoe (January 20, 2013)
  5. Buena Vista Peak, Horse Ridge & Ostrander Snowshoe (February 10, 2013)
  6. Prairie Creek Redwoods (February 16-18, 2013)
  7. Jedediah Smith Redwoods (February 17, 2013)
  8. Point Reyes 27 mile loop (March 23, 2013)
  9. Pinnacles National Park (April 6, 2013)
  10. Doud Peak & Rocky Ridge (April 13, 2013)
  11. Post Summit & East Molera Ridge (April 14, 2013)
  12. Cone Peak via Stone Ridge Direct (April 20, 2013)
  13. Yosemite North Rim Tour (April 27, 2013)
  14. Clouds Rest via Yosemite Valley (April 28, 2013)
  15. Doud Peak & Rocky Ridge (May 11, 2013)
  16. Pico Blanco via Little Sur (May 12, 2013)
  17. Tenaya Rim Loop (May 19, 2013)
  18. Cherry Creek Canyon (May 25, 2013)
  19. Smith Peak (May 26, 2013)
  20. High Sierra Camps Loop (June 1, 2013)
  21. Tuolumne Explorations (June 2, 2013)
  22. Rodgers Peak (June 15, 2013)
  23. Sky Haven & Cloudripper (June 16, 2013)
  24. Volcanic Ridge and Minarets Loop (June 22, 2013)
  25. Mount Starr and Little Lakes Valley (June 23, 2013)
  26. Reinstein & Godard Fastpacking (June 29-30, 2013)
  27. Mount Florence (July 5, 2013)
  28. Onion Valley to South Lake (July 6, 2013)
  29. Mount Hoffman (July 7, 2013)
  30. Tapto Lakes (July 19-21, 2013)
  31. Desolation Seven Summits (July 28, 2013)
  32. Pinnacles National Park (August 4, 2013)
  33. Red Slate Mountain (August 10, 2013)
  34. Sawtooth Loop: Matterhorn Peak, Finger Peaks, Kettle Peak (August 11, 2013)
  35. Mount Stanford & Kings-Kern Loop (August 24, 2013)
  36. Mount Shasta via Clear Creek (August 31, 2013)
  37. Trinity Alps Traverse: Mount Hilton, Wedding Cake, Thompson Peak (September 1, 2013)
  38. Caribou Lakes (September 2, 2013)
  39. Lion Loop: Lion Rock & Triple Divide Peak (September 8, 2013)
  40. Kaweah Queen, Lawson Peak & Kaweah Gap (September 15, 2013)
  41. Whitney to Langley via Miter Basin (September 28, 2013)
  42. Tulainyo Lake: Cleaver Peak and Mount Carillon (September 29, 2013)
  43. Robinson Peak (October 5, 2013)
  44. Little Lakes Valley (October 5, 2013)
  45. Mount Winchell & Mount Robinson (October 6, 2013)
  46. Andrew Molera (October 13, 2013)
  47. Foerster Peak (October 19, 2013)
  48. Tuolumne to Devils Postpile via Minarets and Donohue Peak (October 22, 2013)
  49. Monarch Divide Semi-Loop: Kennedy Mountain, Munger Peak, Goat Mountain (October 27, 2013)
  50. Cone Peak Marathon (November 3, 2013)
  51. Clouds Rest & Yosemite’s South Rim (November 9, 2013)
  52. Point Reyes South District Loop (November 24, 2013)
  53. Junipero Serra Peak (December 8, 2013)
  54. Cone Peak via Stone Ridge and North Coast Trail (December 15, 2013)
  55. Boronda/De Angulo Loop (December 21, 2013)
  56. Partington Cove to McWay Falls (December 22, 2013) 
  57. Sierra Hill at Brazil Ranch (December 22, 2013) [Blog Post Coming Soon]
  58. Ventana Double Cone (December 24, 2013) [Blog Post Coming Soon]
  59. Limekiln to Big Sur via the Coast Ridge (December 28, 2013) [Blog Post Coming Soon]
  60. Prewitt Ridge (December 29, 2013) [Blog Post Coming Soon]

Cone Peak & Beyond

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.

Andrew Molera State Park

Andrew Molera State Park has some fantastic trail running and scnery. In the spring I did a hike up East Molera Ridge to Post Summit. The East Molera Ridge route has spectacular views with a gorgeous display of wildflowers and green grass in the spring. A use path continues beyond Post Summit along Cabezo Prieto to Mount Manuel and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, a loop that I look forward to completing soon.  On this day I explored the trails on the west side of Hwy 1 with Erica where a great loop can be designed including Ridge Trail, Panorama Trail and Bluffs Trail. I did this loop back in 2009 so it’s been awhile. This route has classic Big Sur coastal scenery with steep hillsides plunging into the turquoise waters of the Pacific Ocean including rugged sea stacks and hidden beaches. While there trails are largely in exposed coastal scrub and chaparral, there are sections of beautiful oak woodland even some patches of pretty redwoods.

The run started out foggy along the coast but as we descended the Panorama Trail, the fog retreated from the coast dramatically revealing the amazing coastal scenery.  The trails in Andrew Molera State Park are very runnable and moderate in elevation gain, especially when compared with most other trails in the Big Sur region. On this run we also checked out the Headlands Trail to Point Molera which is an awesome viewpoint including the Pico Blanco towering above. The great view from this promontory was an unexpected surprise which made it all the more sweeter. There was a group of guided horseback riders on the beach across the lagoon that produced a particularly photogenic scene. For history buffs, there is a very old cabin on the way to the Point Molera known as the Cooper Cabin. Strava Route here

Junipero Serra Peak

It’s fairly rare for a modified arctic cold front to sweep into central California. However, in early December a cold, dry continental airmass overspread the region. With the cold air in place, attention turned to the possibility of low elevation snow on local mountains. All we needed was moisture. It seemed like wishes would come true with a system coming in from the north late in the week. In fact, the National Weather Service office in Monterey issued a winter weather advisory two days out from the event, specifically calling out the Santa Lucia Mountains for up to 6 inches of snow. Stoke level was high for a snow day on Cone Peak’s Stone Ridge. Well, things didn’t turn out as initially forecasted and the winter weather advisory did not verify. Snow levels wound up being much higher and only the highest peaks in the Santa Lucia Mountains received snowfall (>4,500 ft). Why?  The low pressure tracked from near Crescent City, California to Lake Tahoe placing the central coast on the south side of the low. In this sector, onshore winds brought in relatively mild air off the Pacific Ocean just as the heaviest precipitation arrived. In fact, temperatures increased as the event unfolded despite it being in the middle of the night. Once the cold front passed, snow levels plummeted once again, but by then very little moisture was left. All things considered, it seemed highly unlikely snow accumulated on Stone Ridge between 2,500-3,800 ft (we were right).  At this time Joey came up with a plan B – Junipero Serra Peak. As the highest point in the Santa Lucia Mountians at 5,862 ft, Junipero Serra Peak stood the best chance of having some snow accumulation. The route would be only 12.4 miles roundtrip but feature over 4,000 ft of climbing.  It turned out to be a great idea!   Strava route here

The group for this adventure included Joey Cassidy, Flyin’ Brian Robinson and Brian Rowlett. From the trailhead we could see some snow accumulation on the summit, but we were not prepared for how remarkably awesome the wintry scene would become on the last thousand feet of vertical on the mountain.  As we ascended above the snow line, we found a unique combination of snow, rime ice, and glaze ice (from freezing rain).  It felt as if we were entering an ice box as everything was glazed in ice, sometimes approaching over an inch thick.  I have never seen so much ice accumulation!  After ascending to the summit ridge, we traversed to the north side where we hiked through a coniferous forest which had become a winter wonderland with snow and ice covered Coulter Pines (largest pine cones in the world, weighing up to 8 pounds!) and Sugar Pines (the longest pine cones in the world, growing up to 24 inches long).  The entire mountain was burned in the Basin Complex Fire in 2008, but it’s good to see a large portion of the conifer grove survived the fire. In fact, Coulter Pine saplings were thick in spots. The chaparral slopes on the mountain did not fare as well with virtually all of the older woody chaparral charred. Five years later new chaparral vegetation is growing back aggressively, but the old burned snags remain making for an interesting sight when glazed with ice.

The flora and fauna of the Santa Lucia Mountains is often rare and fascinating. The pine forest of Coulter Pines and Sugar Pines atop Junipero Serro was so striking I decided to do a little research. It turns out Sugar Pines are not common in the Santa Lucia Mountains and can only be found on a few of the tallest peaks in the range, including Cone Peak and Junipero Serra Peak. The grove at Junipero Serra is particularly large with several tall old-growth trees.  Interestingly, the Sugar Pines in the Santa Lucias are genetically distinct from other populations of Sugar Pine due to large geographic separation. The two populations cannot mix. I wonder how these trees got the summit area of Junipero Serra in the first place as everything surrounding the grove is either chamise or montane chaparral. 

Another favorite topic of mine is meteorology. What caused such an impressive accumulation of glaze ice on Junipero Serra? As mentioned above, the weather system that pulled in some relatively warmer air off the Pacific in the middle and upper levels of the atmosphere, but colder air lingered at the lower levels of the atmosphere. Rain droplets formed in the warmer clouds but then became supercooled when they descended into the colder air below and froze upon contact with any object on the upper part of the mountain. This is freezing rain. The resulting ice from freezing rain is aptly named glaze ice and was at least an inch thick in spots. After the cold front passed on Saturday night, the entire atmosphere became cold enough to support snowfall on the highest elevations of Junipero Serra. This phase of the storm dropped 3+ inches of snow to complete the unique winter wonderland scene.  

While I’m a big fan of winter sports in general, seeing places snowcovered that don’t typically receive much snow is always a special experience. After this adventure I’m even more pumped for the winter season and the potential for a few more chances to see local mountains snowcovered. You can bet I’ll be chasing the snow!