Between the Pacific Coast and the Cuyama badlands of Ventura County lies a high mountain ridge that supports a beautiful forest of sugar pines, Jeffrey pines and white fir. The lengthy ridgeline is named Pine Mountain Ridge with two prominent points along the ridge named Reyes Peak (7,514 ft) and Haddock Mountain (7,431 ft). Most of the ridge is located within the Sespe Wilderness of Los Padres National Forest, a 219,700 acre wilderness established in 1992 and includes Sespe Creek, the last remaining undammed river in southern California. A 53,000 acre portion of the wilderness is designated as the Sespe Condor Sanctuary to protect California condors in the Condor re-introduction and recovery program. While Reyes Peak is the highest point along Pine Mountain Ridge, Haddock Mountain is more rugged in character with steep cirques and picturesque cliffs on the south side of the ridge. Haddock Mountain is also the more remote summit requiring a four mile hike from the trailhead. Typical of high mountains in southern California, the south side of the ridge transitions to chaparral fairly rapidly while the north side is a lush ecosystem of pine and fir forest for several thousand feet to canyons below, including Beartrap Creek Canyon and Piedra Blanca Creek Canyon. Deep within this canyon lies the Gene Marshall Piedra Blanca National Recreation Trail which I’d like to run in the future. From the trailhead, we took the maintained trail through the beautiful pine forest to Haddock Mountain. The trail largely stays on the north side of the ridge where it tends to be shady with the occasional section along the ridge crest with excellent views to Haddock Mountain. From Haddock Mountain, views to the north include Mount Pinos and the Cuyama Badlands while views to the south include the Sespe Wilderness and coastal mountains of Santa Barbara and Ventura County. Mount Pinos to the north is a substantially higher summit reaching above 8,800 ft and is high enough to support cross country skiing in the winter. However, the terrain of the Mount Pinos massif is more gentle in nature. On the way back, we left the maintained trail and took use paths up the east ridge of Reyes Peak to its summit. A lookout used to exist above the summit rocks but all that remains now is the foundation posts. From Reyes Peak, the Reyes Peak Trail leads down to the west side of Reyes Peak to near the trailhead. Pine Mountain Ridge is a gem of interior Ventura County and certainly exceeded expectations. I look forward to exploring other parts of the Sespe Wilderness including the Gene Marshall Piedra Blanca Trail and the Sespe Hot Springs.
Rocky Ridge is located in Garrapata State Park on the northern end of the Big Sur Coastline. The terrain of the park is characterized by a rugged and rocky coastline with steep mountain slopes rising to over 2,000 ft. The vegetation is predominantly chaparral and coastal scrub with the exception of a pocket of redwoods at the bottom of Soberanes Canyon and some grassy meadows on top of Rocky Ridge to Doud Peak. The aforesaid meadows come to life in the spring with a palette of beautiful wildflowers. Owing to its close proximity to Monterey and Carmel, the Rocky Ridge hike is very popular, especially on weekends. Two routes lead to the ridge crest allowing for a logical loop, but both are quite steep with some loose sections. The grade is so steep in spots that it’s more efficient to power hike than run. The trail heading up to the ridge from Soberanes Canyon is technically closed, although it seems as if people ignore the signs en masse. However, the more scenic route in my opinion is the sanctioned route that follows the ridge from its base and provides continuous sweeping views of the coastline below. Near the top of the ridge there are several rock outcroppings with excellent views to soak in. Once on top of Rocky Ridge, virtually all hikers either turnaround or complete the loop, but few continue on a faint path to Doud Peak. This stretch of trail is particularly pleasant with little elevation gain and wonderful meadows. The panoramic views from Doud Peak are also excellent and look into a redwood canyon and beautiful hillsides along the Malpaso Creek canyon. One can continue beyond Doud Peak on yet fainter paths to the park border where more colorful meadows and great views are found along the way. See my hike route for the day on Strava.
The meadows on East Molera Ridge burst with color during the spring producing one of the best coastal wildflower displays along the Big Sur Coast. The top of Post Summit provides a logical culminating destination with sweeping views of the coast and the interior Ventana Wilderness from a perch 3,455 ft above sea level. The East Molera Ridge Trail begins along a dirt road behind a white barn at the main parking area for Andrew Molera State Park. The trail goes under Highway 1 through a tunnel and then heads uphill, soon joining a wider trail that heads up through oak woodland and then chaparral. The path narrows to single track at the base of the ridge. On this day there was a stunning display of California poppy in incredibly dense patches. The density and vibrant orange color of these flowers was simply amazing. Continuing up, the single track makes a long switchback across the steep slope with views improving with each step. Ultimately the designated trail ends at a point on top of the ridge with a strip of redwoods and views across the Little Sur Valley to Pico Blanco.
From the end of the official trail, an informal use path continue south along grassy ridges and wonderful meadows for a couple miles. The views of Point Sur, Andrew Molera, the LIttle Sur Valley, and Pico Blanco are remarkable and improve as you progress up the ridge. Pico Blanco, or “white peak,” is aptly named with a large deposit of exposed white limestone composing its distinctive pyramidal summit. The peak forms an aesthetic background for the wildflowers on East Molera Ridge and begs to be climbed! The grassy meadows end at a knoll (2,500 ft) and the final 1,000 feet of ascent to Post Summit is on a steep path through brush (fairly tame by Ventana standards). Note that there are ticks in this brush so make sure to check your skin and clothing after passage. Soon enough we were on the summit and enjoying the views. One can continue along the use paths via a route to Manuel Peak and Pfieffer Big Sur State Park via Cabezo Preito. This route along the ridge crest was obvious, but a continuation of the tick-infested brush is inevitable. On this day, we decided to forgo the ticks and bushwhacking and returned the way we came, enjoying even better light for photography while coming down through the wildflower meadows. The aesthetic loop to Manuel Peak, down to Big Sur Valley, and back to Andrew Molera is definitely on my list for the future, although the best views and scenery are on the grassy meadows of the East Molera Ridge portion.
Pinnacles National Park is an amazing display of geology reflecting millions of years of volcanic and tectonic activity that has sculpted the rock into sheer spires, fascinating formations and intricate talus caves. The park has a prehistoric ambiance complete with California condors and stately gray pines. Pinnacles was elevated from National Monument to National Park status on January 10, 2013 and this was my first visit to the park since its National Park designation. While the inspiring terrain and rock features are the same and park infrastructure is unchanged, it seems as if the public has taken notice as the park was fairly busy. In fact, on the east side of the park, a shuttle was in operation transporting visitors from a large overflow lot behind the main information center to the trailhead at Bear Gulch. A ranger I spoke to mentioned that this is a particularly busy time of the year at Pinnacles with spring break at the schools and generally favorable weather conditions (the Pinnacles can get unbearably hot in the summer months). Nonetheless, it seems like it’s now a good idea to arrive early at the Pinnacles if you visit during the weekends.
It was early April when I visited, but on the drive down I noticed the south facing hillsides were already golden. The “green” period was unusually short this year due to meager rainfall. In fact, I heard that only 4 inches of rain fell over Pinnacles during the winter months. The result was a virtually bone dry park with streams dried up and limited wildflowers. I have heard the wildflowers can be gorgeous at Pinnacles and hopefully next year will be a more typical winter in this region providing lush greenery and wildflowers more typical of Spring. I started at Bear Gulch and did a hike of the High Peaks Trail, a marquee attraction with sections of the steep and narrow trail chiseled into the hillsides with rock steps and hand rails. The views form the High Peaks trail are breathtaking and on this day Condors were constantly hovering overhead. After the High Peaks Trail I headed down through Tunnel Trail to the Chaparral area on the west side and then a visit to the Balconies Cave. The sheer Machete Ridge is always inspiring, and it was great to follow a pair of climbers attacking a route on the formation’s steepest pitch. After the Balconies I headed back to the Chaparral area and back up towards the High Peaks, finishing out the hike with the Condor Gulch Trail. Pinnacles National Park is a gem and well deserving of the National Park designation. I look forward to returning there for further exploration, including the North Wilderness Trail and the Chalone Peaks.