Cone Above the Clouds

Since the non-winter travel season in the Sierra ended I’ve been fairly active in Big Sur but have not blogged on those trips, partially due to time constraints, but mostly because I have already posted on these particular routes many times in the past. The Soberanes Fire burned a good deal of the Ventana Wilderness and the resultant closure means a lot of potential new and interesting routes and waterfall explorations will have to wait until the closure is lifted. As I will explain, this doesn’t mean there won’t be any new Big Sur adventures and I’m also looking forward to winter adventures to the Sierra now that we’re finally building a good snowpack of years of snow drought.

The Soberanes Fire was the most expensive in U.S. history and caused a great deal of damage to homes and structures in the north part (outside the wilderness) where it burned through decades old chaparral fast and hot. However, from what I have seen of the burn scar in the Ventana, it looks patchy which generally reflects the fire’s slower moving, lower-intensity nature once it crossed into the Basin Complex footprint where the fuels were only 8 years old vs decades old. Make no mistake, some hillsides and ridge lines in the Ventana burned severely, but the canyons look surprisingly green. From what I can see, the ever-resilient redwoods that survived the Basin Complex in 2008 appear to have largely made it out of the Soberanes Fire as well. I am hopeful many of my favorite ponderosa pines in Pine Valley and near Pat Springs also survived. I’m also hopeful groves of the endemic Santa Lucia Fir that were fireproof enough to withstand the Basin fire also survived the Soberanes. The worst burn areas seem to be where the burnout operations took place and a “scorched-earth” strategy was intentionally implemented by fire managers to contain the fire’s spread. Other zones badly effected look like mostly south facing chaparral zones which are basically evolved to burn vigorously and grow back even more vigorously in the years after fire. It should not be forgotten that only a few years after the Basin Complex fire in 2008 many of these chaparral communities were already firmly reestablished and I have no doubt these plants will come back even more vigorously this year, especially with the very promising start to the rainy season. Overall, my initial impression is that the fire did not leave a moonscape and I’m hopeful nature will bounce back fast as it has done in the past in these mountains.

I’ll have more on my thoughts on the fire in posts to follow, but suffice to say that explorations into the wilds of the Ventana will be limited this year. I say limited because unlike the Basin Complex/Chalk Fire in 2008 which closed the entirety of the Ventana, the southern part did not burn in the Soberanes Fire leaving plenty of opportunities for adventure. This unburned region includes Cone Peak, the King of Big Sur, which is the mountain that has captivated me more than any other mountain on the planet. In addition, the South Coast/Silver Peak Wilderness was also spared fire as the Chimney Fire by Lake Nacimiento was stopped before reaching the Silver Peak Wilderness. I’ve already got a number of adventure ideas in these regions unaffected the fire.

I’ve blogged on Cone Peak many times, so there are several trips that feel similar enough to past posts that it’s not worth sharing again. However, on New Years day I joined Joey Cassidy for a unique day on the mountain that will certainly be remembered for a long time. Instead of the usual sunny and clear conditions with vistas of the deep blue Pacific, we had a dynamic scene with a relatively stable 4,000 ft cloud layer swirling around the canyons and peaks. It’s not like the clear views of the ocean aren’t stunning, but we’ve seen that dozens of times and taken thousands of photos. This was something different. The cloud layer was constantly changing and dynamic and at the perfect elevation to be dramatic from the mountain tops. Climbing up Stone Ridge in the morning we entered into the cloud layer at ~3,000 ft. Joey felt confident we would emerge from the cloud based on cloud experiences and I was a little more suspicious. There’s been plenty of times where I’ve been caught on a summit not quite high enough to emerge from the clouds. It turns out Joey was right and we emerged from the clouds into the blue sky at around 4,000 ft. While Joey called the breakout, neither of us could anticipate how the cloud layer would transform familiar sights in the high country into dramatic and constantly evolving scenes. This was a day that demanded a lot of photography and while most of the photos I’m sharing are from iPhone, Joey’s album includes amazing shots from his DSLR and it’s worth checking out every photos in the album which I’ve shared on Facebook page. To help organize those memories and share the experience the following is a photo blog of my favorite photos from the trip and a few time lapse scenes along the way. Full photo album here.

After emerging from the cloud layer on the high slopes of Twin Peak we traversed over to Cone Peak finishing off with the West Rib scramble route which is a short and sweet scramble in an amazing setting perched above the South Fork Devils Canyon. The clouds filling the canyon and surrounding Twin Peak only enhanced the scramble and we took turns photographing each other as we climbed the pitch. At the summit we sought shelter from the fiercely cold winds by hanging out on the south side of the lookout building. This was a rare time when I actually appreciated the building as a wind blocker. Most of the time it looks like a metal trash that I’d rather see removed. After pausing for some time lapse photography we continued down the North Ridge. As we descended the wind abated and it became pleasant once again encouraging even more photography. I always marvel at the beautiful stand of Sugar Pines, Coulter Pines and Santa Lucia Firs along this narrow ridge with tremendous views of the South Fork Devils Canyon on one side and the upper San Antonio River watershed on the other side. The cloud play also continued with a tendril from Devils Cranyon cresting over the low point in the ridge. From the end of the north ridge we took the North Coast Ridge Trail to the Carrizo Trail. The upper part of the Carrizo Trail has seen a lot of brush growth since I last visited (spring 2016) with quite a bit of tall brush now encroaching. Eventually we rounded the corner into the Sugar Pine forest and left the Carrizo Trail for the Cook Spring connector use trail which passes through a lovely section of the forest. This area around Cook Spring is is a large north facing bowl, perfect growing habitat for the Sugar Pine which prefers cooler conditions and naturally resistant topography to fire. The result is the most impressive grove of Sugar Pines in the Ventana with many large and tall trees (Sugar Pines are only found in the Cone Peak region and on top of Junipero Serra Peak). Unlike the forest in the Sierra Nevada where the Sugar Pine is often a cohabitant with other species of pine, the forest here is almost purely Sugar Pine. The stately tree is tall and bears the longest cones of any conifer in the world. The weight of the cones on the trips of branches pulls branches downard resulting in horizontal branches or even download sloping branches on mature trees. The Sugar Pine was considered by John Muir to be the “King of Conifers” and I have to agree. Save for a few Santa Lucia Firs and incense cedars mixed in it’s nearly a pure stand of this magnificent tree. It’s always a pleasure to walk among the giants in this forest.

From Cook Spring we connected back to the North Coast Ridge Trail and made an out-and-back to Tin Can Camp where one can gaze across the Arroyo Seco River headwaters to the Indians and Junipero Serra Peak. The west side of the ridge features a wonderful view of the Middle Fork Devils Canyon with it’s own stands of Sugar Pines and Santa Lucia Firs. We returned along the North Coast Ridge Trail and took the Gamboa Trail down to Trail Spring reentering the cloud layer. Trail Spring flows more like a creek after winter rains and after drinking the delicious water we headed up the Cone Peak Trail back toward Cone Peak. We traversed the Cone to Twin ridge in evening light and another extensive photography session we headed back down Stone Ridge heading back into the cloud layer and leaving the amazing world above the clouds for good, but the excitement of what we saw will stay with us much longer! 

 

 

Pine Valley

Jack English’s passing on March 3 at the age of 96 brought back memories of my first visit to the Ventana Wilderness in November 2009, a point-to-point run from China Camp down the Carmel River to Los Padres Dam with Gary Gellin and Jim Moyles. It was an amazing introduction to the Ventana and I feel grateful to have met Mr. English. Jim Moyles has a wealth of knowledge on the Ventana, some of which he shared on this trip and sparked my interest in the region that would only grow in the coming years. We started at China Camp and descended to beautiful Pine Valley where we met Jack English, who warmly welcomed us into his cabin for tea and cookies. Jack English is a legend of the Ventana Wilderness and built the cabin in Pine Valley with his wife in the late 70s after becoming enamored with the valley.  He lived in the cabin for the next 30+ years and even in the last couple years when he could no longer live in the cabin independently or walk the 5.5 miles from the China Camp trailhead to the valley, a helicopter would drop him off in Pine Valley so he could spend time at his favorite spot over the weekends. Back in 2009, Jack showed us the exceptional violin bows that he made. His masterful craftsmanship resulted in demand for his bows from world class violinists. Jack told us stories about his beloved wife Mary, who passed away in 2001, and life at Pine Valley, including the quiet winters with few visitors and the fires that periodically swept through the valley.  Jack thoroughly enjoyed living in the valley, and unlike some folks who live off-the-grid, Jack was incredibly welcoming to all visitors. I included a few clips and photos of our visit in a video that I made at the time, included below (the English cabin starts at 1:24). The English cabin still stands in Pine Valley and Jack’s spirit will continue to be felt throughout the valley. This video also reminds me that fall is a wonderful time in Pine Valley with some of the best fall color in the Ventana to be found on the oaks and maples in Pine Valley and along the Pine Ridge Trail west of Church Divide.

I have been to Pine Valley several times since 2009, including twice this spring. It’s a magical spot with the towering Ponderosa pines, pretty meadows, spectacular sandstone rock formations and a pretty waterfall downstream along the Carmel River. Like Jack English, it’s become one of my favorite spots in the Ventana. In addition, the area has great opportunities for exploration including the Pine Ridge Trail toward Pine Ridge, Bear Basin and Church Creek. Complete photo albums:

The Church Creek Valley is particularly enjoyable with more spectacular sandstone formations, meadows, oak woodland and scenic vistas. Church Creek sees a fraction of the visitation of Pine Valley so the trail contains much more brush and faint tread, particularly the southern portion which has non-existent tread in some of the meadow areas.  

Pine Ridge is another fascinating spot with a remnant forest of Ponderosa pine, Coulter pine, incense cedar and Santa Lucia Fir. Before the Marble Cone and Basin Fires the forest was more expansive, but a good swath of the forest remains intact on the northern side of the ridge. The southern side of the ridge was largely obliterated by the fire, however a clump of ancient ponderosa pines stands near the top of Pine Ridge and is visible from many parts of the Ventana Wilderness. Many of the trees along this ridge are contorted and grizzled manifesting the harsh weather conditions on the ridge including strong winds, frigid winter temperatures, and scorching summer heat. 

Bear Basin is a location I have yet to explore, but look forward to visiting. It appears the greatest grove of incense cedar remaining in the Ventana is in the basin with the distinctive shape and light green color of the incense cedar visible from the Pine Ridge Trail. Similar to Pine Ridge, a good deal of the forest in Bear Basin was burned in the fires, but many of the old growth trees did make it out alive. A trail used to traverse Bear Basin but has long been lost with virtually no tread remaining.  

 

Mocho Loop Featuring Mocho Falls

The Mocho Loop is another Big Sur Classic combining spectacular coastal views, a magical walk through a lush river canyon, and a rarely seen waterfall on the main stem of the South Fork Big Sur River. I started the loop with an always-inspiring hike up Boronda Ridge and then ran down the Coast Ridge Road with more marvelous coastal vistas all the way to the top of the Terrace Creek trail. Terrace Creek descends into an old growth redwood grove with a cascading stream along the way. At the bottom of Terrace Creek I took the Pine Ridge Trail to Sykes Hot Springs. The Pine Ridge trail is in awesome condition; the best I have seen it personally. The Pine Ridge Trail is also very runnable with excellent views of the Big Sur River canyon. When the Pine Ridge Trail crosses the Big Sur River, instead of going downstream to the springs I went upstream to the confluence of the North and South Forks of the Big Sur River. This mile-long stretch to the confluence is very pretty with cliffs walls on both sides of the river. At the confluence I went right onto the South Fork Big Sur River. For about 3 miles from the confluence I made my way up the South Fork fairly efficiently as a combination of flood channels, sand bars and rock hopping meant I only had to be in the stream part of the time. Higher flow on the river would make this a more arduous trek as I as continuously crossing the stream. GPS route here.After a major tributary, the canyon walls along the South Fork Big Sur River narrow into a gorge and I could sense a waterfall was coming. Indeed around a cliffy corner the lower section of Mocho Falls appeared. Since the falls is on the main stem of the river, the volume is impressive and the pool beneath the falls is big and deep. Perhaps most impressive is the amphitheater of smooth rock surrounding the falls and pool. The vertical walls around the falls meant I had to backtrack to find a route above the falls to continue upstream. A weakness in the cliffs allows one to ascend a very steep slope above the gorge and then traverse steep, sometimes loose slopes above the waterfall gorge. Mocho Falls has two distinct steps, but what was most fascinating about the falls was a twisty chasm of elegantly sculpted and polished rock separating the two steps. The depth of the chasm was such that it was impossible to see both steps of the falls at the same time cleanly (at least without a wetsuit and ropes). Nonetheless, what is visible is an amazing sight and it was a treat to experience this rarely seen falls. I can only imagine what Mocho Falls would look and sound like after a heavy rain when the water is squeezed through the chasm. In fact, after such rains the roaring sound of the falls is so great that it can be easily heard from the Devils Staircase climb up the Big Sur Trail.

Above Mocho Falls the lovely scenery continues with slick rock pools with fern and moss-covered cliffs a constant. At the junction with Mocho Creek I ate lunch under a lovely canopy of Santa Lucia Firs, incense cedars and redwoods – a rare occasion to have all three of these amazing tree species living side-by-side – yet another wonder of Big Sur! After lunch I went up Mocho Creek a short distance to see Mocho Creek Falls, which is a pretty falls in a lush setting – well worth the visit. Instead of continuing up Mocho Creek to intersect the Big Sur Trail I decided to backtrack to the South Fork Big Sur River to take the river all the way to Rainbow Camp. It was so beautiful I didn’t want it to end and I also wanted to do the Devils Staircase climb a little later in the day when it would be shaded. This turned out to be a good decision with more beautiful pools and cascades along the river lined with Santa Lucia Firs. At Rainbow Camp I turned onto the Big Sur Trail for the climb up to Cold Springs and Coast Ridge, known as the Devils Staircase due to the relentless switchbacks and substantial elevation gain. In all, it took me about 1.5 hours to go from Rainbow Camp to Cold Springs up the Devils Staircase, hardly “impassable” as some have commented (although a big pack would certainly slow things down). Bright green flagging marks the trickiest spots in the riparian zones. There are blowdowns along the climb and the brush is thick at times, but progress is reasonable. Back on the Coast Ridge Road I knew I was setting myself up for another awesome descent down Boronda Ridge in evening light. Going down this special ridge is always a fantastic way to end an adventure run, particularly a classic like the Mocho Loop! GPS route here.

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.