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 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 here. Most 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.
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.
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.