Devils Pool & Gorge

Some places were created perfectly. Devils Canyon is one such place. I have visited this region several times over the past months including Sugar Falls and the Devils Loop. Each time I have found an enchanting and magical environment of spectacular waterfalls with turquoise and emerald pools surrounded by lush vegetation, all in a pristine setting. Travel has also involved complexities entailing rock scrambling, thick brush and copious poison oak. A waterfall downstream of the south and middle fork confluence was the last major feature I had yet to see in the area and it did not disappoint. The most remarkable aspect of this falls is not the falls itself (which is very pretty too), but the expansive and deep plunge pool, which is likely the greatest of its kind in Big Sur, hence I named the feature “Devils Pool.”  Similar to the other plunge pools in Devils Canyon, the pool takes on a bright turquoise with sunlight and changes to emerald in the shade. This is also due to thick calcification of minerals on all surfaces in which the water passes. This process is unlike anywhere else I have seen in Big Sur. Due to the large size and depth of Devils Pool, the colors are enhanced making the setting especially magical.  The waterfall drop into the pool is around 35 ft but has twice as much flow as any of the falls in Devils Canyon since it’s downstream of the middle and south fork confluence. The creek walking in the vicinity of the pool is very rugged with considerable scrambling and maneuvering around countless smaller cascades and pools to avoid swimming. Travel through this gorge is rather arduous and slow going but the beauty more than compensate. I call this part of the canyon the “Devils Gorge.” On the way back I checked out the road leading to the New Camaldoli Hermitage which has breathtaking views of the coastline and a great angle on the entire length of Stone Ridge leading to Twin Peak and Cone Peak. Numerous benches and even some picnic tables are placed along the road for enjoyment of the view and contemplation of the amazing gift of nature. I’m not a religious guy, but the monks certainly found a nice spot for prayer. The Hermitage is open to the public and I highly recommend the diversion off the highway to drive up the road to enjoy the views.   

Sugar Falls

Sugar Falls was a splendid discovery in the Santa Lucia Mountains of Big Sur. The falls is tucked into a steep canyon and not visible from any trails or nearby high points. There are many gems of the Ventana Wilderness and Big Sur that have little or no information which makes it that much more fun adventuring in these mountains.

Canogas Falls

With excellent memories of Canogas Falls from last year I was eager to return during this year’s open house at Big Creek Reserve. Located deep in Devils Canyon on the South Fork Devils Canyon Creek which drains the remote north side of Cone Peak, Canogas Falls is one of the most stunning waterfalls in Big Sur. The falls includes multiple steps totaling 80 ft with spectacular turquoise pools in between each step. The falls is nestled between rugged cliffs with a lush redwood forest at the base of the falls making it a magical setting. Part of what makes Canogas and all of the falls in Devils Canyon so special is the thick mineral accumulation on any surface submerged in water. This accumulation creates an overhanging apron over the tallest segment of the falls and also produces the striking turquoise water in the pools. The accumulation also serves as a growing opportunity for moss and other lush vegetation producing a hanging garden beside the water channel.  While Canogas Falls is within the Ventana Wilderness, the easiest access entails passing through Big Creek Reserve which is closed to the public for all but one day of the year. The following includes many photos of one of my favorite waterfalls in Big Sur and a few shots from the rest of our day at the Big Creek Reserve including the hot springs along Big Creek.

Between Julie Pfieffer Burns State Park and Limekiln State Park is a long stretch of amazingly beautiful Big Sur coastline that unfortunately lies on private land precluding exploration beyond the turnouts along Highway 1.  However, on one day of the year a section of this coastline opens to the general public at the Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve. This reserve is part of the University of California Natural Reserve System with a mission to further university-level teaching, research and public service at protected natural areas.  In order to foster the on-site research and education principles, the reserve is closed to the public for all but one day of the year (usually the second Saturday in May). The Big Creek reserve encompasses rugged canyons that drain the region to the north and west of Cone Peak, the King of Big Sur, and is located within arguably the most scenic region in all of Big Sur. Big Creek is a treasure and well-deserving of its protection. It was great to explore a section of the Big Sur coast that I have never seen and I look forward to returning next year.

Devils Loop featuring Devils Falls, Canogas Falls, Hellhole Falls

Note: the following describes my experiences on an extremely arduous off-trail adventure on one of the most challenging creek walks in the Ventana. This is an advanced route requiring advanced skills and prior experience with off trail canyon navigation.  It’s 2015 so I expect every major waterfall in a place like the Ventana Wilderness, so close to a megalopolis, to have been “discovered” with information readily available or at least knowledge that somebody had actually visited them. My assumption was incorrect! Deep within a remote corner of the Ventana Wilderness lies a gem: a major waterfall with two segments and two clear turquoise pools in a stunning setting of cliffs and spires. Strava GPS route here.

Beautiful Canogas Falls left an impression on me last weekend and I wanted to see more turquoise pools, more elegant falls over mineral-encrusted cliffs and more wild and pristine Big Sur canyons. I scoured the topo maps and satellites images of the Devils Canyon region with reasoning that if the South Fork Devils Canyon has a major falls there is also a good chance there is a major falls on the Middle Fork. I zeroed in on a region of the Middle Fork where the topography lines come remarkably close indicating an immense cliff, which I would later call the “Devils Spire”, and topography that would support a major falls. Close satellite inspection revealed turquoise pools and falls. Could this be the jackpot?! There was a high potential this was a major falls like Canogas and I knew this was the next place I wanted to visit. Brian had visited Canogas with me the prior week, and similarly inspired, he was game for the waterfall discovery adventure.

We ascended the Arroyo Seco Trail to coast ridge and then descended through some brush and steep oak woodland to the Middle Fork Devils Canyon Creek. Travel in the upper portion of the creek was reasonable with sections of dry talus amid Santa Lucia Firs where the water was flowing underneath and spots where it emerged above the rocks. The most difficult sections were within stands of thick alder trees that created a cluttered understory of debris and branches. There were two main observations in the headwaters of the Middle Fork: birds and ladybugs. For over an hour as we descended we heard a constant cacophony of birds chirping and patches of thousands of ladybugs. As we descended further, the creek became more mature with increasingly deeper and larger pools and more impressive waterfalls. When we got our first view of the imposing cliffs of Devils Spires I knew we were getting close and before I knew it we were standing atop Devils Falls gazing down over its two impressive waterfall sections and two large turquoise pools. In the aggregate, the falls is ~80-90 ft tall with two separate drops close in height, the upper segment being slightly taller. There is also a pretty “lead-in” falls around a corner above the falls that is approximately 20 ft tall. We backtracked a bit to find a way down to the base of the falls and then enjoyed the setting beside the lower and upper pools for a long time over lunch. It was special to be in a pristine spot beside a major falls with absolutely no evidence of humans and a major falls that few human eyes have ever seen. Perhaps most remarkable about Devils Falls is its setting nestled in an incredibly rugged cirque with vertical cliffs several hundred feet high towering above. This is one of the largest vertical cliffs in the Ventana, a feature I dubbed “Devils Spire” since the cliffs culminate in a distinctive point. I am more accustomed to seeing cliffs of this size in the Sierra Nevada.
I wanted to spend more time at this stunning falls but it was time go if we wished to keep open the possibility of accomplishing our reach goal of a large loop entailing creekwalking the entire length of the Middle Fork down to its confluence with the South Fork and then taking the South Fork up to Ojito Camp and the Gamboa Trail. There were many unknowns about this plan with virtually no information on any part of the creekwalk except Canogas Falls itself which we had just visited the prior week. We delayed the decision and decided to continue down the Middle Fork for an hour to see how it looked. Ultimately we decided to continue the loop, but we would have to be efficient to get out of the canyon before dark. With so many unknowns I did not want to be in the canyon micro-navigating in the dark. Things started out very well. The lower part of the Middle Fork has some pretty cascades and falls but the micro-navigating was fairly straightforward and not time-consuming. We made good time to the confluence and I was optimistic. 20 minutes later after ascending the lower reaches of the South Fork we were at beautiful Canogas Falls. We had certainly taken the more arduous route to Canogas this time vs the prior week! I will be having a special blog post dedicated to Canogas Falls from this prior trip since we were able to spend much more time (and swim!) at this spectacular falls on that trip.  
After another snack, we climbed up Canogas Falls and continued up the South Fork Devils Canyon. My research identified a mile long stretch above Canogas Falls that had potential for additional waterfalls. My suspicion proved true as we encountered a relentless set of waterfalls and challenging obstructions to overcome. At one point we stopped to look at the terrain ahead when Brian remarked “we’re f$^ked!” I thought he was just joking, especially since he was smiling, but he wasn’t. Ahead of us was a falls spitting out of a narrow notch in the vertical rock completely surrounded by tall cliffs extending well downstream. I knew there was a decent chance we could get around the falls on the south side so I was not ready to entertain ideas of aborting the route, which would require somehow getting a ride back to Memorial Park from Hwy 1. Brian wanted to visit the falls up close and despite copious poison oak and some awkward climbing moves it was a great decision. It’s a truly spectacular chasm as the falls tumbles out of a V-shaped notch in the cliffs with a large turquoise pool beneath it and an amphitheater of tall cliffs. Above the falls is a distinguished spire-like Santa Lucia Fir. I called the falls “Hellhole Falls” to fit with the Devil theme of the canyon and also the fact that it’s basically a hole presenting an impasse. We backtracked from Hellhole Falls and traversed some sloping rock to get into a loose and extremely steep chute that would enable us to get above the cliffs and traverse above the cliffs. After battling some thick brush we reached a rocky point where optimism grew that we would find another chute above the falls to descend back to the stream. Success! We had found a way around Hellhole Falls, which turned out to be the crux navigation of the route. 

As much as I wanted Hellhole Falls to be the last obstruction I knew that the topography supported more falls ahead. Indeed, we encountered several more falls with deep pools, rock scrambling and continuous micro-navigation. None of these falls required as extensive loop arounds as Hellhole Falls but the South Fork Devils Canyon is relentless with its challenges and complexities. Even after a long mellow part of the stream when I thought we would simply rock hop to Ojito Camp, the South Fork produced one last cavernous falls that required us to scramble some poison oak and moss covered rock. Needless to say, it was a great feeling to finally reach Ojito Camp. Despite all of the mental and physical challenges of the south fork, we actually made better time than I was expecting at the point where we decided to go for the loop. It was 7 pm and we would be well on our way back to Memorial Park on the trail before light faded. Ojito Camp itself is in disrepair and it looks like this camp rarely gets used since no trail reaches the camp. Meanwhile, Ojito Usecamp, at the base of the Ojito Camp Trail, seems to be the camp of choice for most these days. In fact, we met a couple who were surprised to see us. We told them what we had just done but I think it didn’t make any sense to them.

The Ojito Camp Trail up to Ojito Pass has a number of trees down over the trail but they are easy to get over and it was a highway compared to the 11 hours of creek walking we had just done. We enjoyed great evening light on the Gamboa Trail gazing down at South Fork Devils Canyon which we had just ascended. I turned my headlamp on at the junction with the Arroyo Seco Trail and from there it was a relatively quick run back to Memorial Park although the Arroyo Seco Trail is becoming quite brushy making quick running impossible. The adventure went about as well as I could have expected, especially considering how arduous and rugged the terrain is in the Devils Canyons.This is probably the premiere creek-walking adventure in the Ventana Wilderess based on the metrics of challenge, ruggedness, and major waterfalls encountered. While the route is mentally and physically exhausting, it also immensely rewarding. The beauty of the falls and pools in the Devils Canyons is enhanced by a distinct mineral deposit that accumulates on everything under water. Nowhere else in the Ventana have I seen such mineral deposits. I suspect that this deposit is limestone and it produces magical turquoise pools and ultimately turquoise waters along the Big Sur coastline between Big Creek and Limekiln. It was great to share the experience with Brian and I look forward to discovering more gems in this amazing region! 

Cone Peak’s North Ridge & Lost Valley

This was an excellent route linking the spectacular North Ridge of Cone Peak and the remote Lost Valley.  I have been wanting to visit Lost Valley for some time so it was great to finally make it out there and also incorporate the excellent scenery of Cone Peak and South Fork Devils Canyon. We started from Memorial Park campground and went up the Arroyo Seco Trail. There is quite a bit of new downfall from a winter storm in February with one particularly cumbersome tree, but the canyon forest of incense cedar and Santa Lucia Fir was as beautiful as I remembered from the Santa Lucia Three Peaks adventure. Once on the North Coast Ridge, we made good progress to Cone Peak’s amazing north ridge where we left the trail.  The ridge has awesome views in all directions, including the rugged South Fork Devils Canyon and the upper reaches of the San Antonio River. It’s also great to climb amid sugar pines and Santa Lucia Firs. After summiting Cone, we took the Cone Peak Trail back to Trail Springs and then up the Gamboa Trail to complete the small lollipop loop. We then took the North Coast Ridge Trail all the way to the junction with the Rodeo Flats Trail where Erica turned off to head back down to Memorial Park while I continued along the ridge to the Lost Valley Connector Trail. Continued below… The Lost Valley Connector is marked by a stake where the old road bed of the North Coast Ridge Trail emerges onto the firebreak. The first part is single track with some encroaching brush and the next part is on an old firebreak that is quickly narrowing into single track as brush fills in. It is important to carry and study a map for the Lost Valley Connector as I saw a backpacking group heading down a wayward ridge and experiencing difficulties in thick brush. As long as you stay on the route, the trail is in fair condition and an efficient way to get form the coast ridge to Lost Valley. Lost Valley is a beautiful, peaceful spot with grassy meadows, pines, and chaparral covered hillsides. The best meadows are beyond the Lost Valley camp and a crossings of both Lost Valley Creek and Higgins Creek. This stretch of meadows is nearly a mile long and picturesque.  While the meadows are beautiful, it is prime tick territory and I removed a number of them from my socks. After my out-and-back through Lost Valley I returned via the Lost Valley Trail which was recently brushed and cleared by a crew. The trail is in good shape except for a few new downfalls from the February storm. From 1,800 ft in Lost Valley, the trail climbs over 1,000 feet to a pass at ~2,900 ft that provides access back to the main stem Arroyo Seco drainage. Part of the way up to this pass is a pretty waterfall known as Pothole Slide Falls. The waterfall is a series of two slides down a smooth rock face with a pool in between, the “pothole.”  Beyond the pass is a steep descent to the Arroyo Seco River. After crossing the river an 500+ ft vertical ascent leads to Escondido Camp where the trail concludes. From Escondido Camp it was a run along the Indian Rd. dirt track back to Memorial Camp. Stava route here, but note that actual mileage is 33+ miles.


Santa Lucia Three Peaks

The Santa Lucia Three Peaks is classic route that includes the summits of three major peaks in the Ventana Wilderness – Cone Peak, Twin Peak and Junipero Serra Peak. Along the way there are great views of both the Big Sur Coast and the interior Ventana Wilderness. While mostly utilizing trails, the route does feature three prominent cross-country ridges, the North Ridge of Cone Peak, the traverse between Cone Peak and Twin Peak, and the West Ridge of Twin Peak.  These prominent off-trail ridges are probably the highlight of the route and make it an adventure.  With the exception of redwoods, the route contains the entire array of Ventana vegetation, including perhaps the best Santa Lucia fir forest in existence, the most extensive stand of old growth Sugar Pines in the Santa Lucia Mountains, and rare grove of incense cedars in the Arroyo Seco river canyon. It’s a big route coming in over 32 miles with nearly 10,000 feet of elevation gain and the off-trail portions are fairly arduous and slow compared to the trails.  Strava route here.

The route starts at Santa Lucia Memorial Park Campground after a drive through Fort Hunter Liggett (note: Del Venturi Road is closed after heavy rain). From Memorial Park, the Arroyo Seco Trail provides quick access to the North Coast Ridge Trail on a great single track.  This upper section of the Arroyo Seco canyon is surprisingly lush and enchanting with madrone, oak, Santa Lucia Firs and a rare grove of Incense Cedars. Climbing out of the canyon, the vegetation turns more chaparral with a young forest of knobcone pine. On the north coast ridge, the trail climbs to Tin Can Camp with a great view looking back to Junipero Serra Peak and an awesome stretch through Sugar Pine and Coulter Pine forest.  At the junction with the Gamboa Trail, veer left to continue on the North Coast Ridge Trail. Cross a rocky slope and then begin descending on the east side of Cone Peak before finding an easy gap to gain the crest of the north ridge of Cone Peak. The first part of the north ridge is easy open terrain with a use path in sections. The second part of the north ridge becomes more rugged with bits of scrambling in spots and a couple places where you must come off the ridge to the west side to avoid loose rock formations on the ridge crest proper. This second part of the north ridge has phenomenal views and an airy feeling with lots of relief on both sides of the serrated rocky ridge, especially on the east side where cliffs plunge several hundred feet. Old growth Santa Lucia Firs and Sugar Pines are at home in this environment clinging to the cliffy slopes and thereby avoiding the periodic wildfires that sweep through these mountains. The scrambling is very enjoyable on the north ridge, but it doesn’t last long before the familiar fire lookout atop 5,155 ft Cone Peak comes into view. Cone Peak is the King of the Big Sur Coast and third highest point in the Santa Lucia Mountains. It features the most dramatic relief from the ocean in the contiguous United States as only 3 miles separate its summit from the sands. After enjoying the marvelous views from Cone Peak, descend the Cone Summit Trail for a short distance and take the ridge connecting Cone Peak to Twin Peak. This cross country route features a couple scrambling moves but is largely a use path along the ridge.  

After summiting Twin Peak, continue down the West Ridge of Twin. At first, it is best to stay on the north side of the ridge in old growth Sugar Pine forest with an open understory. Some large downfalls slow travel but ultimately you reach the grassy slopes of the lower part of the ridge. The only paths on this ridge are made by game and their feet are much narrow than humans. The result is steep sidehilling than can become tiring but the views more than compensate. Eventually the grassy ridge terminates at the Stone Ridge Trail-Gamboa Trail junction at Ojito Pass. From Ojito Pass take the Gamboa Trail as it traverses through the headwaters of the South Fork Devils Canyon passing through arguably the most complete Santa Lucia forest in existence. A reliable spring is located at Trail Spings (can be a seep in late summer and fall). Continue along the Gamboa Trail past Trail Springs and climb to the junction with the North Coast Ridge Trail. From this junction retrace steps back to Santa Lucia Memorial Park Campground.

From Memorial Park, head south down the road a short distance and find the Santa Lucia Trail/Junipero Serra Peak Trailhead. For the first couple miles, the Santa Lucia Trail is very runnable as it undulates through grassland and oak woodland. However, the final four miles to the summit of Junipero Serra Peak become steep rising over 3,500 feet over that distance. This climb is a real challenge after the preceding climbs of Cone Peak and Twin Peak. It is not advisable on a warm day, especially in the afternoon since most of the climb is exposed south-facing chaparral. The vegetation changes in the last mile to the summit when the trail rounds a corner onto the north side of the peak where there is a pleasant forest of Sugar Pine and Coulter Pine. The broad summit of Junipero Serra Peak (aka Pimkolam by the Native Americans) is the highest point in the Santa Lucia Mountains at 5,862 feet. The summit has a nice vista looking west to Cone Peak, the Silver Peak Wilderness region, and also north to Ventana Double Cone. If Cone Peak is the King of Big Sur and Ventana Double Cone is the Queen of the Ventana, Junipero Serra is the grandfather of the Santa Lucias (Pico Blanco is the prince of Big Sur and Silver Peak is the princess of the South Coast). There is a summit a register on the east side of the ridge located on a cement foundation. The old dilapidated fire lookout on the west side of the ridge has virtually nothing left but its steel frame. There are also some old artifacts on the ridge, including an old cot frame. Enjoy the descent, which is virtually all downhill to the finish at Memorial Park; you will have earned it!  Strava route here.