Pick Creek Loop

Pick Creek features some of the most beautiful creek walking I have seen in the Ventana Wilderness. The centerpiece is stunning Pick Creek Falls which shoots over a ledge with an 80 ft free-fall into a large, clear pool surrounded by lovely grove of old growth Santa Lucia Firs. Just downstream of Pick Creek Falls is a confluence with Bathtub Creek, which is aptly named since just upstream of this confluence are a series of gorgeous cascades and pools that look like bathtubs. Downstream of the confluence with Bathtub Creek, Pick Creek winds its way down a steep canyon to the South Fork Big Sur River. Along the way, the creek has numerous picturesque cascade and two impressive gorges with deep pools and small waterfalls. The gorges and pools are deep enough to require a bypass, each time on the north side of the creek. The entire canyon is filled with moss, ferns, cliffs and Santa Lucia Firs in a pristine setting.

Upon reaching the end of Pick Creek at its confluence with the South Fork Big Sur River, the fun does not end. While the South Fork Big Sur River is more mellow in its character than Pick Creek and there is a trail (albeit very faint in spots), the deep canyon features a remarkably beautiful forest composed of Santa Lucia Firs and Incense Cedars. In fact, the cedars are the dominant species in certain spots and many of the trees are old growth making this the largest and most intact grove of Incense Cedar that I have seen in the Santa Lucia Mountains, which are otherwise quite rare in teh range. Within about 0.5 miles of Rainbow Camp is picturesque Rainbow Falls, which tumbles into a lush amphitheater of ferns. The 55 ft falls is never a high volume falls since its upstream drainage is small, but its beauty lies in the lush setting and delicate nature. The Pick Creek Loop is an aesthetic 27 mile loop that I designed which packages all of the beauty of Pick Creek and the South Fork Big Sur described above, with some magnificent coastal scenery along Anderson Direct and the De Angulo Trail.  Along with dozens of photos of the scenery, the remainder of this post describes the sites and experiences along this phenomenal loop. I completed the loop a week after a winter storm with substantial rain and I recommend seeing it when the falls and creeks have decent flow. GPS track here.

The day started with one of the steeper climbs in Big Sur up 3,500+ feet from McWay falls to Anderson Peak. The brush on the lower part is filling in vigorously but the upper part is the same blowdown mess. Definitely an arudous route, but overall it’s still an efficient and scenic route to Anderson Peak from Hwy 1. Only three condors today. From Anderson Peak I ran north along Coast Ridge Road for 2 miles before dropping into the Pick Creek drainage. The upper part of Pick Creek drainage is fairly mellow with a valley including some nice meadows. Downstream of the meadows the cross country travel is fairly easy. The watercourse quickly becomes rugged requiring walking beside or in the watercourse and before I knew it I was on top of Pick Creek Falls, a picturesque 80 foot drop into a circular pool with hanging gardens of ferns. I especially like the setting of this falls amid Santa Lucia Firs. I went down to the pool and my timing was good as while I was there sunlight illuminated the entire falls. After enjoying the falls I headed downstream and took the Bathtub Creek tributary a short ways upstream to a series of pools and waterfalls known as the Bathtubs. I suspect there might be more pools further upstream that would be worth checking out next time. After the Bathtubs, I returned to Pick Creek and headed downstream to the South Fork Big Sur River. Pick Creek is stunning with numerous cascades, moss, ferns, and lined with Santa Lucia Firs the entire way. I followed the stream with two exceptions where the creek entered into narrow gorges withe deep pools and small waterfalls. The bypasses was fairly straightforward. Despite the creek walk in Pick Creek being time-consuming and arduous, it was bittersweet to reach South Fork Camp since I enjoyed Pick Creek so much. From South Fork Camp I was able to follow the South Fork Trail most of the way but there were a few sections that were uncertain. I enjoyed the forest of incense cedars and Santa Lucia Firs. I also saw the infamous South Fork wild board. There was an annoying blowdown section before Rainbow Falls, but that was soon forgotten when I saw the beautiful 50 foot falls with an amphitheater of hanging ferns. I went down to the base of the falls, had a snack, and then returned to the trail. Last time I was at Rainbow Falls it was merely a trickle so it was great to see it in flow and the fern gardens happy after recent rains. The final section of the South Fork Trail to Rainbow Camp is in great shape. From Rainbow Camp, it was up the Devils Staircase to Cold Springs and Coast Ridge Road. The ticks and other insects were out in abundance on this section, the downside to summer-like weather in February. I reached Cold Springs just after 5 pm and figured I had a chance to reach McWay Falls before darkness. I ran down the DeAngulo Trail with a pretty sunset and then hustled down Hwy 1 back to McWay Falls before the last light had faded. Another amazing day in the Ventana!  GPS track here.

Coast Ridge: Stone to Boronda

The Coast Ridge point-to-point was one of my favorite routes of the 2013-2014 Ventana season. I love point-to-points since I feel they are the best way to maximize viewing as much terrain as possible. The second annual Coast Ridge route was largely the same as the first with a few important variations that enhanced the route including (i) taking Stone Ridge Direct to Cone Peak, (ii) descending Cone Peak via its North Ridge, (iii) making a small detour to fill water at pretty Cooks Spring, and (iv) descending Boronda Ridge instead of continuing on Coast Ridge Road to Ventana Inn. The net result of these changes was about 6 fewer miles but we gained a summit of Cone Peak, more ridge walking, more single track and more elevation gain. Overall, the route was still many miles of amazing and constantly changing scenery for its entire 33 mile length.  This aesthetic route is a masterpiece and one of the “super” classics of Big Sur and the Ventana Wilderness. The route essentially parallels the coast from south to north and is mostly right on the crest of Coast Ridge.  As you might expect from a ridge of this prominence, there are wide vistas in all directions for virtually the entire route. On the west side of the ridge, the Pacific Ocean and Big Sur Coast are ever present, with views into some of the most wild and rugged drainage basins along the entire coast, including the forks of Devils Canyon and Big Creek. On the east side of the ridge are vistas into the remote interior Ventana Wilderness including the Lost Valley, Junipero Serra and the South Fork Big Sur River. GPS route here. Full photo album hereMost of the elevation gain is accomplished within the first 6.5 miles and after one last climb up to Anderson Peak, a running-friendly dirt road provides a net gradual downhill for 7 miles to Timber Top and then a beautiful tour down single track on Boronda Ridge in evening light. The middle section on the North Coast Ridge Trail is the most remote and has some brushy sections and a few small blowdowns, but no major bushwhack and route finding is straightforward. The route beings with a steep climb out of the redwoods in Limekiln Canyon onto lower Stone Ridge.  At the intersection with the Stone Ridge Trail, instead of taking the trail into the West Fork Limekiln drainage we continued up Stone Ridge direct to Twin Peak enjoying the spectacular views from this prominent grassy ridge. From Twin Peak we traversed over to Cone Peak and descended Cone Peak’s North Ridge with excellent views of the South Fork Devils Canyon and also the San Antonio River Drainage. At the end of the North Ridge we joined with the North Coast Ridge Trail which has sublime views of the surrounding terrain. After an open area, the North Coast Ridge Trail enters a spectacular sugar pine forest with a nice smooth trail covered in pine needles. We made a small detour off the trail to Cooks Spring Camp and spring, set amid towering old growth sugar pines and a few incense cedars. Back on the North Coast Ridge Trail we exited the forest near Tin Can Camp, which possesses one of the best views of the entire route. To the west is the remote, rugged and trail-less Middle Fork Devils Canyon and to the east is the imposing massif of Junipero Serra Peak. Beyond Tin Can Camp, the North Coast Ridge Trail descends through one last stand of Sugar Pine and Coulter Pine forest before exiting into a largely chaparral landscape that was burned in the 2008 Basin Complex fire. The trail is easily followed, but contains areas of brush and downfall to negotiate. The firebreak and the trail are mostly in unison on the ridge ridge crest, however they sometimes diverge when the firebreak sticks to he crest religiously while the trail will traverse across the terrain (mostly on the west side) to avoid intermediary high points and unnecessary ups and downs. We mostly stayed to the trail except we took the firebreak over Mining Ridge. As the highest point between Ventana Double Cone and the Cone Peak area, Mining Ridge has a fantastic 360 panorama. The firebreak can be taken up and over Mining Ridge to rejoin the North Coast Ridge Trail near the junction with the Redondo Trail (which leads down into Memorial Park).  The next section was one of the best ridge sections with excellent views to Ventana Double Cone, which appears noticeably closer at this point in the journey. Along this ridge we were happy to find water at the Coast Ridge Spring (aka Redondo Spring) as this spring’s location is miraculous considering the surrounding dry terrain.  We also found water in a stream about a mile earlier that was not running last year but was flowing after the December rains. The final portion of the North Coast Ridge Trail is becoming more overgrown. It was nice to see some pine trees survived the fire in this section as well as many new pine saplings emerging from the chaparral. The North Coast Ridge Trail ends at the Coast Ridge Road, which is a dirt road that would take us all the way to Boronda Ridge. While closed to public vehicular traffic, pedestrians have a right of way on this dirt road that is in reasonably good shape to allow access to a few homes and private properties along the way. We stuck to the road except for a small diversion to the rocky summit of Marble Peak which has another stupendous view of the surrounding region. The Coast Ridge Road skirts around Anderson Peak, which is fenced off government property, but after this point it’s mostly all downhill along the dirt road with amazing views throughout. At Timber Top we left the road and descended Boronda Ridge as the final chapter of the route.  The views of the Big Sur coast from Timber Top and Boronda Ridge are truly spectacular and a fitting finish to a gorgeous point-to-point route. GPS route here. Full photo album here

Big Sur Condor Loop

The Big Sur condor loop is an awesome coastal loop at the heart of the Big Sur coast. The route starts with a direct route up Anderson Peak (aka “Anderson Direct”) from McWay Falls, gaining 4,000 feet in less than 3 miles by following an old firebreak/underground utilities line up the prominent ridge between McWay Canyon and Anderson Canyon. Anderson Direct is to Anderson Peak what Stone Ridge is to Cone Peak; an extremely steep ridge climb with stunning coastal views. Unlike Stone Ridge, Anderson Direct is not grassy and the upper two-thirds are essentially a continuous blowdown with literally thousands of burnt snags over the route from the 2008 Basin Complex fires. There are also some patches of festering poison oak to wade through, but the good news is the brush is relatively light. It’s an arduous route, but it’s easily the most efficient way to reach Anderson Peak on foot and remarkably scenic with enormous views up and down the Big Sur coast . GPS data here.

About 1 mile up the ridge we passed right next to the home of the local condor population. They were resting on the crowns of the redwoods in the early morning sunshine, presumably drying off from the recent rains. The condors were the closest I have ever seen so I could see their features in detail. The condor has a very prehistoric look. An extensive reintroduction program has allowed the majestic California condor to return to its native habitat soaring over the Santa Lucia Mountains. In 1987, the California condor was eradicated from the wild due to poaching, lead poisoning and habitat destruction. The remaining 22 birds were taken into captivity to prevent species extinction. Starting in 1992, the birds were reintroduced into the wild and Big Sur was one of the earliest release sites. Currently there are an estimated 237 free-flying condors in California, many of which still reside in Big Sur but the population’s range has expanded to Pinnacles National Park, Ventura County and the Transverse Ranges. On this day we were grateful to see 9 of these magnificent birds. Later on our ascent the condors took off and flew as a group showcasing there remarkable wing span that is up to 9.5 feet! The wings are so big that when the bird flies above enough air is pushed aside that it makes a sound like a kite. At one point we saw all 9 condors circling above us. It seemed as if the condors followed us throughout our journey as we continued to see these majestic birds from Coast Ridge Road and on the descent of the DeAngulo Trail, hence the name I gave this loop. While there is no guarantee of seeing condors in this area, let alone 9 at the same time, this was not the first time I’ve seen condors soaring above Torre Canyon, Partington Canyon and McWay Canyon. From Anderson Peak, we took the Coast Ridge Road for about 4 miles with a continuation of coastal vistas and also great views of the interior Ventana including the South Fork Big Sur River drainage, Ventana Double Cone, Black Cone and Junipero Serra. We then descended the DeAngulo Trail. Overall, the DeAngulo trail was in decent condition, and now even better since we cleared out branch debris and Brian did substantial pruning with his loppers. There were excellent views to Boronda Ridge and looking north up the coast. At the bottom of DeAngulo, we ran along Hwy 1 for one mile to connect into the Julia Pfieffer Burns Trail network including the Tanbark Trail, Waters Trail and Ewoldsen Trail, ultimately depositing us at McWay Falls to complete the loop. The highlight of this section was beautiful Partington Canyon, lush as ever with nice flow through Partingon Creek’s cascades. While McWay Falls is definitely touristy, it’s popular for a reason and a great way to finish the loop with afternoon light on the falls. GPS data here

Boronda Ridge & Marble Peak

Back in January I explored the Boronda-De Angulo Loop and thought it would be fitting to return to Boronda Ridge during the short spring period of green.  Boronda Ridge rises steeply from the ocean with magnificent vistas of the Pacific Ocean and surrounding terrain. It’s one of the most amazing spots in all of Big Sur. The trail also provides an efficient access point to the central part of the Coast Ridge Road and Marble Peak, with its suburb views of the interior Ventana. I view Boronda Ridge as Stone Ridge’s little sister. 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.  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. 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 truly a remarkable spot and one of my favorite spots along the Big Sur Coast. The top of Boronda Ridge is a peaklet known as Timber Top, with a camping area (no water) and more phenomenal views. Boronda Ridge also provides efficient access to the middle section of the Coast Ridge Road (a gravel road closed to public vehicles).  Boronda Ridge also provides efficient access to the middle section of the Coast Ridge Road (a gravel road closed to public vehicles).  Heading north from Timber Top, the road passes through more grassy meadows as it gradually descends to the Ventana Inn at Big Sur. To the south, the road gradually gains elevation in a predominantly chaparral and pine forest environment with plenty of interior and coastal vistas along the way. The road skirts Michael’s Hill and then has a dip, followed by an ascent and another dip before the final climb to near the broad summit of Anderson Peak. Anderson Peak itself is property of the federal government and contains some buildings, aviation equipment and weather sensors. The summit area is surrounded by fencing and is closed, but fortunately Marble Peak (of nearly the same height) is only a half mile beyond. In fact, Marble Peak arguably has the better 360 degree view because it is more of a pinnacle. Running down the road from Anderson Peak, turn off just past a sign that says “Marble Peak” and briefly take a trail cuts through a brush tunnel. Near the crest of the ridge, leave the trail and take use paths traversing grass on the west side of Marble Peak until you’re almost beneath the summit. From here, a virtually brush free route to the summit presents itself. Marble Peak has excellent views of the interior Ventana Wilderness. Looking north is an excellent view of the rugged ridge from Kandlbinder to La Ventana to Ventana Double Cone. To the south is Cone Peak, Twin Peak, Mining Ridge, and the Lost Valley. To the east is Junipero Serra Peak, Black Cone and the upper drainage of the South Fork Big Sur River. All told, it’s about 7.5 miles each way from the Timber Top to the summit of Marble Peak for a 15 mile roundtrip. Combined with the 6 miles round trip to Timber Top up Boronda Ridge, the route becomes a 21 miles total. The extension to Marble Peak is an excellent way to tack on some miles on relatively fast runnable road, but still enjoy grand views along the way.  

Limekiln to Big Sur via the Coast Ridge

A point-to-point is the best way to maximize covering and experiencing a lot of terrain. The complete Coast Ridge route is no exception with 39+ miles of amazing and constantly changing scenery for its entire length.  This aesthetic route is a masterpiece and one of the “super” classics of Big Sur and the Ventana Wilderness. The route essentially parallels the coast from south to north and is mostly right on the crest of Coast Ridge.  As you might expect from a ridge of this prominence, there are wide vistas in all directions for virtually the entire route. On the west side of the ridge, the Pacific Ocean and Big Sur Coast are ever present, with views into some of the most wild and rugged drainage basins along the entire coast, including the forks of Devils Canyon and Big Creek. On the east side of the ridge are vistas into the remote interior Ventana Wilderness including the Lost Valley, Junipero Serra and the South Fork Big Sur River. Most of the elevation gain is accomplished within the first 9 miles and after one last climb up to Anderson Peak, a running-friendly dirt road provides a net gradual downhill for the final 15 miles all the way to the terminus of the Coast Ridge Road at Ventana Inn. The middle section on the North Coast Ridge Trail is the most remote and has some brushy sections and a few small blowdowns, but no major bushwhack and route finding is straightforward. Strava route here.   

The route beings with a steep climb out of the redwoods in Limekiln Canyon onto lower Stone Ridge.  At the intersection with the Stone Ridge Trail, we took the trail into the West Fork Limekiln Canyon traverseing lovelly oak woodland and redwood-filled ravines. Eventually we climbed out of the canyon to “Ojito Pass” where the Stone Ridge Trail turns into the Gamboa Trail and curves into the South Fork Devils Canyon. The Gamboa Trail is one of the my favorite trails in all of the Ventana and passes through an amazing forest of Santa Lucia Fir, Sugar Pine and Coulter Pine with excellent views down canyon to the Pacific. The trail ends at a junction with the North Coast Ridge Trail which has sublime views of the surrounding terrain. After an open area, the North Coast Ridge Trail enters a spectacular sugar pine forest with a nice smooth trail covered in pine needles. The trail exits the forest near Tin Can Camp, which possesses one of the best views of the entire route. To the west is the remote, rugged and trail-less Middle Fork Devils Canyon and to the east is the imposing massif of Junipero Serra Peak. Beyond Tin Can Camp, the North Coast Ridge Trail descends through one last stand of Sugar Pine and Coulter Pine forest before exiting into a largely chaparral landscape that was burned in the 2008 Basin Complex fire. The trail is easily followed, but contains areas of brush and downfall to negotiate. The firebreak and the trail are mostly in unison on the ridge ridge crest, however they sometimes diverge when the firebreak sticks to he crest religiously while the trail will traversing across the terrain to avoid intermediary high points and unnecessary ups and downs. We mostly stayed to the trail except we took the firebreak over Mining Ridge. As the highest point between Ventana Double Cone and the Cone Peak area, Mining Ridge has a fantastic 360 panorama. We enjoyed lunch here and then continued down the east side of the firebreak to rejoin the North Coast Ridge Trail near the junction with the Redondo Trail (which leads down into Memorial Park).  

The next section was one of the best ridge sections with excellent views to Ventana Double Cone, which appears noticeably closer at this point. Along this ridge we were happy to find water at the Coast Ridge Spring (aka Redondo Spring). This indicates the spring is fairly reliable even in dry years, but with as dry as it’s been this year, I wouldn’t count on it much longer. The final portion of the North Coast Ridge Trail is becoming more overgrown. It was nice to see some pine trees survived the fire in this section as well as many new pine saplings emerging from the chaparral. After about 20 miles, the trail emerges onto the Coast Ridge Road, which is a dirt road that would take us all the way to Ventana Inn. While closed to the public vehicular traffic, pedestrians have a right of way on this dirt road that is in reasonably good shape to allow access to a few homes and private properties along the way. I made a side trip to climb Marble Peak which has another A+ view of the surrounding region.  I also found a nice use path on my way down that emerges from a vegetation tunnel onto the Coast Ridge road directly across from a sign that says “Marble Peak.”  I also ascended to the top of Anderson Peak by skirting fences (but not surmounting any) and ascending steep grass. The summit of Anderson Peak is federal government property with some old flight radio equipment and a few buildings. The top of the peak is paved with a signal at its center. It’s an odd sight after hardly seeing any infrastructure all day, but the summit “platform” has great views of the coast and the rugged ridge between Kandlbinder and Ventana Double Cone. After Anderson Peak, it’s mostly all downhill along the dirt road with amazing views throughout. At Timber Top we briefly left the road and ascended over Timber Top instead of taking the circuitous road. The views of the Big Sur coast from Timber Top are truly spectacular. The final section of Coast Ridge Road was marvelous with the grassy hills and Mount Manuel illuminated by the soft evening light. We arrived at the finish just as the sun had set to wrap up a special day in the Ventana.

Click on the image below for a 360 degree panorama from Marble Peak:

Note: Save for the very last image, the remaining photos are basically in chronological order.