Ventana Cone & Lion Rock

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.

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Carmel River Gorge

The headwaters of the Carmel River drains the northeast side of the Ventana Wilderness in some of the most rugged and remote terrain in the Santa Lucia Mountains. I have greatly enjoyed exploring some of this terrain recently and look forward to returning for more adventures in this stunning region of the Ventana. Deep in the Carmel River canyon is a remarkable gorge that is one of the highlights of the Carmel River and in my opinion, the entire Ventana. The gorge contains towering cliffs, a deep pool, a beautiful slick rock cascade and a major waterfall along the main stem of the Carmel River. This extremely rugged section of the river is remarkably hidden despite the Carmel River Trail and Round Rock Camp Trail passing nearby. Accessing the gorge from Hiding Canyon Camp one must simply follow the river upstream instead of taking the trail uphill toward Hiding Canyon. At first alders line the river with a splendid grove of Santa Lucia Firs on the hillsides. Soon the canyon walls narrow requiring travel in the river bed. At the confluence with Ventana Mesa Creek, a picturesque waterfall tumbles off slick rock into a pool on Ventana Mesa Creek just above the river.

Beyond the confluence with Ventana Mesa Creek, the Carmel River gorge grows even narrower and one must avoid deeper pools by scrambling on the slick rock. The tall cliffs shield the gorge from sunlight most of the day resulting in a lush environment of moss and ferns. However, lower down the polished rock is bare and smooth manifesting the tremendous power of water that comes through during winter storms. This is obviously not a good place to be in high volume! Approaching the climax of the chiseled gorge the cliffs become overhanging. At this point one arrives at a deep pool and further progress requires swimming to reach a major waterfall along the river which is located around a corner. While a good view of the falls from cannot be achieved from this point without swimming, it is possible to gain a great vantage from above via the Round Rock Camp Trail that passes upstream of the gorge and falls. The Round Rock Camp Trail descends from the junction with the Carmel River Trail to a crossing point of the Carmel River that is remarkably calm. The only thing hinting at a major waterfall and gorge downstream is the noise of falling water, but even this is fairly muted compared to what actually lies below. A short distance downstream the river enters a beautiful slick rock cascade. The cascade includes a swift “luge track” on a slick rock and a couple circular mini pools I like to call the “teacups.”  Just downstream of the teacups is the most dramatic feature of the gorge, the ~50 ft falls on the main stem of the Carmel River. When viewed from above on ledges, the setting for this beautiful falls is stunning with the deep gorge below and tall cliffs above with overhanging shelves at the top of the gorge with Santa Lucia Firs clinging to the rocks. I visited the gorge in relatively low flow but I’m very interested to return in medium flow. Upstream of the gorge and falls the Carmel River is relatively mellow but still beautiful with occasional cascades and lush sections with ferns and moss. While I have not ventured beyond the confluence with Blue Creek, I understand that it remains fairly mellow until reaching Pine Falls. This blog post contains many photos of the magnificent gorge and the Carmel River canyon. I’ve also included a video which is perhaps the best way to capture the scope of the falls.

Ventana (single) Cone Adventure

After carefully analyzing topographic maps and satellite imagery I saw potential for an aesthetic route from the depths of the Carmel River Canyon directly to Ventana (single) Cone, arguably the most remote major summit in the Ventana Wilderness. Only an average of one party a year visits Ventana Cone and all appear to access via the 2 mile bushwhack from Pine Ridge. I was looking for a more adventurous and less brushy approach that would take us from the lush environs of the Carmel River headwaters up steep talus slopes to the 4,738 ft summit with sweeping views of much of the Ventana Wilderness. Designing new adventure routes carries a lot of uncertainty and in terrain this rugged there was a real chance of encountering an impasse and getting turned around. It’s not always easy to find partners for these types of routes, but Brian Lucido was game. We ended up nailing the route, but not without encountering some challenges. I’m especially proud of designing and executing this extremely aesthetic new route to a major summit of the Ventana in an awesome area of the wilderness with outstanding scenery virtually the entire way. GPS route hereThe first part of the morning entailed running the Carmel River Trail from Los Padres Dam. The first few miles along the old road were by headlamp but by Bluff Camp daylight had arrived. We continued along the Carmel River Trail deep into the canyon and above Hiding Canyon CAmp we to the Round Rock Camp Trail to Round Round Camp. At Round Rock Camp we continued upstream along the Carmel River before finding the unnamed major tributary that drains the north side Ventena Cone. This amazing stream flows 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 created a scene fit for Jurassic Park. Almost was everything was photogenic.  At the head of the canyon the stream splits and we took the left fork. The pace of ascent along the stream rapidly increased and we soon reached our first challenge of the day, a waterfall surrounded by cliffy terrain. Brian and I took different routes up this waterfall but each was probably low 5th class. Shortly after this waterfall we encountered another waterfall. While this waterfall did not have a feasible route alongside it, there was a loop around it, but not without copious brush and wading through thickets of poison oak. The good news was that this bypass around the second falls was the only substantial brush we encountered on the route. That being said, the poison oak was tall and thick and left it’s mark on my allergic skin (thankful that prompt washing with Tecnu after these adventures makes it about 95% better that it can be). Large version of annotated panorama hereAbove the waterfall headwall and we were back in the stream bed starting what would be nearly 2,000 feet of talus slopes in Santa Lucia Fir forest. The stream would disappear underneath the talus rocks which were unstable as-is, but since water was running underneath they had some slippery condensation adding to the arduous nature of the slope. At times the stream would reappear on the surface when it flowed over the bedrock. Most of this section was remarkably devoid of brush although there was the occasional brush patch to plow through. The routes passed through several rugged cirques surrounded by impressive cliffs and ridges.  The Santa Lucia firs in this fire-proof terrain looked very old and the rocky certainly protects these majestic trees from fire. Approaching the summit the final pitch increased in steepness one more time for a direct finish to Ventana Cone. Cresting at the top we were treated to an amazing 360 panorama including virtually all of the Ventana Wilderness. My favorite view was along the rugged divide to Ventana Spires, Ventana Double Cone and Kandlbinder. I also enjoyed the views of the Pacific Ocean and down the unnamed canyon we had just ascended. After a nice break on the summit to soak in the views we headed back down. The return trip proved to be nearly as long since the unstable and sometimes slippery talus slopes are not much faster to descend and the creek walking is not much faster on the descent either. Back down at the waterfall, we carefully reversed our moves down the wet rock, which was naturally much more difficult as a downclimb. After the downclimb we were back in the lush stream and found lovely afternoon light shining down the canyon bringing out the blues in the pools and the vibrant green of the moss and ferns. I enjoyed this section immensely. Back at Round Rock Camp we took a short break and then set off for the 2.5 hour run back to Los Padres Dam. We had about an hour of running with headlamp over the last 5 miles but it was quite pleasant with mild temps. It was an awesome day in the Ventana Wilderness, one of my favorite routes for sure and especially satisfying to know that we had put up a new and aesthetic route in the Ventana. GPS route here