The Circular Pools are a series of (you guessed it) three circular shaped pools in a very remote and wild section of the Little Sur River. The first pool contains the tallest falls and and largest pool. A huge chunk of the cliff amphitheater surrounding the pool recently fell into with rock debris covering up a portion (I estimate around 30%) making it non-circular for the time being. The second pool includes a series of beautiful cascades and mini-pools on slick rock that flow into the pool. The third pool is the culmination of a spectacular narrow gorge. Leading up to the first pool all the way through the third pool is an amazingly lush and rugged setting of pools, gorges, waterfalls, cascades and cliffs. Last year I visited the Circular Pools in January before it had rained so the falls were flowing very gently and the vegetation was relatively dry. I made it a point to revisit this gem of the Ventana after rains to see the pools and falls in their full glory. One week after a healthy rainfall I made my way back to the Circular Pools, this time venturing all the way to the third pool. I found delightful cascades, gushing waterfalls, and a remarkably green canyon of moss and ferns thanks to the rain. While it was beautiful the first time, this experience was on another level. The Cricular Pools are beautiful anytime, but especially after recent rain. GPS route here. The trek to the Circular Pools entails an adventure up the wild and trail-less Little Sur River to an otherworldly scene of clear pools, delicate waterfalls, and precipitous cliffs deep in a lush, redwood filled canyon. The most straightforward access to the pools begins from Bottcher’s Gap where it’s 3.5 miles downhill on the dirt road to the Pico Blanco Boy Scout Camp. Just beyond the Scout Camp, the Jackson Camp Trail continues 1.5 miles to Jackson Camp. (Note: you can pre-arrange with the Boy Scout Camp to get a code to the locked gate and drive the dirt road down to the Camp and save some mileage but it’s not a great road for low clearance cars). The Jackson Camp Trail is in good shape and generally traverses on the slopes a couple hundred vertical feet above the Little Sur River. The trail reaches Fish Camp where the first crossing of many Little Sur River crossings is located. The real Jackson Camp is only a couple river crossing away, but from Jackson Camp to Fox Usecamp there are numerous crossings of the Little Sur River (a total of 12 by one count). These crossings can be rock hops in low flow or thigh deep crossings after heavy rains. In general, it does not seem prudent to travel along the Little Sur River during a heavy rainy period or immediately thereafter. The official trail ends at Jackson Camp, but the use path to Fox Camp 1.3 miles upstream is fairly easy to follow with the numerous river crossings either obvious or marked with orange tape. This section features some truly immense redwoods that are a treat to pass underneath. These colossal trees have thrived deep in this canyon for centuries and the forest looks healthy considering the fire that roared through these mountains in 2008. Beyond Fox camp, the use path becomes more faint as it seems less people venture further upsteam. However, the general idea is the same: follow the river upstream and the use path virtually always coincides with the path of least resistance. The scenery is spectacular the entire way with smooth white river rocks littering the stream bed and alders, bay trees, and redwoods alongside the river. Soon after Fox camp, the canyon narrows considerably with precipitous cliffs closing in on the waterway. Usually the cliffs are only on one side of the river allowing fairly easy access on the opposite side, but in one section the Little Sur enters a small gorge with steep rock walls on both sides. After this narrow portion, the canyon opens a bit before narrowing once again just before reaching the first Circular Pool. At first only the sound of a waterfall can be heard, but as you round a bend around some rocks a paradisaical scene presents itself with a large pool virtually completely surrounded by cliffs. A section of these cliffs collapsed during a winter storm and deposited into the pool making it not-so-circular anymore. Time will tell if the power of water will rearrange the rockfall debris and become circular again. This rock amphitheater around the first pool contains an assortment of lush hanging vegetation including five finger ferns and mossThe first circular pool has the tallest waterfall and largest rock amphitheater, but more adventure lies upstream. A few feet downstream of the main pool a weakness in the cliffs on the north side allows passage upsteam. The next section of the Little Sur River features a series of small pools and cascades culminating in the second circular pool, which is significantly smaller, both in size of the pool and the waterfall plunging into it. This pool does not have an easy walk-around and a small rock step must be surmounted to proceed. A nylon rope aids in this climbing which is particularly helpful as the rock is slick, especially when downclimbing. After the second pool there is a sweet area of slick rock formations including a series of small pools and waterfalls. Beyond the second pool the river rounds a bend and enter perhaps the most dramatic section, a narrow gorge with vertical cliffs on both sides. This gorge culminates in the third circular pool and an impressive waterfall flowing over chiseled rock into the gorge. This third circular pool can by bypassed by climbing up above the gorge granting access to Bathtub Usecamp and beyond lies one of the most remote camps in the Ventana Wilderness (the North Fork Camp) located at the confluence of Puerto Suello Creek and the Little Sur River. On this day, I did not have time for additional exploration beyond the third circular pool so I look forward to returning soon to reach the remote upper reaches of the Little Sur River near North Fork Camp. GPS route here.
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 here. The 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 here. Above 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.
Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park is the northernmost of the primary redwood parks. Located just outside Crescent City, it is relatively undeveloped and contains a fraction of the trail mileage of Prairie Creek or Humboldt. However, what it lacks in trail infrastructure is outweighed by arguably the most scenic display of old growth redwoods in existence making it well worth a visit. Considered by many to be among the best old growth hikes, the Boy Scout Tree Trail was our destination for a run. As an out-and-back ending at a fern waterfall that is nice but not extraordinary, the value in this run was not the destination, but the process of getting there.
The trailhead for the Boy Scout Tree Trail head is midway along Howland Hill Road, which is a spectacular drive along a narrow dirt road lined with giant redwoods the entire way. Once on the trail, the impressive redwoods keep coming. The understory is almost exclusively low lying ferns providing unusually good visibility through the forest and the layers of giant trees are reminiscent of pillars in a cathedral. I tried to capture the setting as best as I could with a camera, but the sheer size and grandeur of these trees is impossible to truly comprehend without visiting in person. All told, the round trip for the Boy Scout Tree Trail is only about 5.3 miles, but several miles of extensions can be peiced together along the Mill Creek Trail, Hiouchi Trail, and Hatton Trail, most of which is under old growth redwood forest. I look forward to running these trails next time!
After enjoying the Boy Scout Tree Trail, we continued down Howland Hill Road to the beautiful Stout Grove, where we toured more awesome redwoods. Back at Crescent City, we made a few side trips to the coast, including the photogenic Battery Point Lighthouse and the scenic beach at False Klamath Cove. On the way back south, we merely passed through Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park. So much to see, so little time. I’ll definitely be returning to Del Norte to explore the Damnation Creek Trail and other sections of the rugged Coastal Trail that I did not have time to visit on this occasion.
Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is simply amazing. Miles of ancient old growth redwoods, Roosevelt elk grazing in meadows, and unfettered sandy beaches create a primeval setting. Nowhere else can one find such an extensive and continuous stand of old growth redwoods in pristine condition. This park offers a glimpse of what the entire north coast of California once looked like before logging. I’m glad conservationists existed in an era of extraction and destruction with the foresight and wherewithal to set aside such a glorious forest from ax and saw. Perhaps the most unique aspect of this park is a fern canyon with seven types of ferns draped over 50 foot walls creating a lush hanging garden. With 75 miles of trails to explore, Prairie Creek is a paradise for trail runners. The trails range from well groomed paths such as the Prairie Creek Trail and James Irvine Trail, to very technical and arduous single track including the Rhododendron Trail and West Ridge Trail. What all of the trails share is spectacular scenery, most of which is under towering old growth redwoods with a remarkably lush understory. I found it interesting that the Sequoia sempervirens along the far north coast appear to have a grayish bark versus the reddish brown bark common among the subspecies further south.
During our visit to the north coast, I was able to do three runs through the park and in the process I covered a good chunk of the trail network, which is split fairly evenly by the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway that runs the length of the park from south to north along Prairie Creek. Perhaps the best loop in the park, and arguably the best redwood hike in the world, is the Miner’s Ridge and James Irvine Loop, which passes through all facets of the park – prairies, old growth redwoods, beach, and the fern canyon. The loop is about 12 miles long and it’s a very runnable and enjoyable trail run (route on Strava) with under 1,700 ft of elevation gain, no steep climbs, and relatively non-technical compared to many of the other narrow and root-strewn trails in the park. Just before leaving the coastal area to enter fern canyon, we spotted a group of elk grazing on the prairie with ideal afternoon lighting. Fern Canyon is simply awesome and we were lucky to have the canyon all to ourselves. I look forward to returning in late spring when the ferns in the canyon are at their peak of green vibrancy.
The second run I did was around a 20 mile loop and included some of the trails on the eastern side of the parkway (route on Strava). Foothill Trail and Brown Creek Trail were both moderate while Rhodedendron Trail was challenging with narrow, technical single track and steep climbs. Next time I would like to run the entire length of the Rhododendron Trail, hopefully coinciding with peak Rhody blossoms. Crossing over the parkway to the westside, I ascended up to the West Ridge Trail and then down to the coast for a nice run along the coastal prairie with more elk sightings and two surprise waterfalls tumbling off the coastal bluffs in a very lush setting of moss and ferns. I finished the loop with another walk through fern canyon (this time with different lighting) and then the awesome James Irvine Trail back to the campground area in Elk Meadow. The third and final run in Prairie Creek included a run up and along West Ridge with a return via Prairie Creek (route on Strava). The West Ridge trail is technical and will keep your focus down on the trail instead of up at the redwoods, but nonetheless an amazing tour along the ridge and super fun for technical single track aficionados. The upper part of the Prairie Creek trail is more singletrack before opening up onto an improved gravel trail for the final couple miles back to the park headquarters. As a big fan of redwoods, it was a real treat to spend a couple days in Prairie Creek and I look forward to returning here for further explorations!