Big Sur to Bottcher’s Gap via Ventana Double Cone

While it’s now June and most likely the days of comfortable travel in the interior Ventana Wilderness have passed until fall (most summer days are oppressively hot with copious flies), this post recaps an awesome point-to-point adventure with David Frank back in early May from Pfieffer Big Sur to Bottcher’s Gap via Ventana Double Cone. From 6 miles of wading through a lush canyon to classic Ventana bushwhaking to precarious scrambling, this was quite the adventure!  The route started at Big Sur Station. After some trail miles on the Pine Ridge Trail we descended to Ventana Camp. Shortly thereafter, an amazing creek walk began in Ventana Creek up narrow gorges with small waterfalls and rapids in a setting of lush redwoods, ferns and moss. The creek wading is not optional; the walls of the canyon come right down to the water course and this is not an advisable place to be in higher volume creek flow.  It was fairly slow going wading in the creek with innumerable step overs, log jams, pools, waterfalls and other obstacles to climb through, up and under, but I enjoyed every minute in this mystical and captivating canyon. Walking up Ventana Creek the sense of remoteness is strong as few have traveled up this unspoiled waterway.  At one point the forest canopy parted and we caught a glimpse of Ventana Double Cone, the Queen of the Ventana, presiding over a rugged region that is unmatched in the coastal mountain ranges of the west coast of the United States. After several miles of walking and wading in Ventana Creek, we turned off onto the East Fork of Ventana Creek where dense vegetation closed in creating a claustrophobic situation at times. After 6 miles of total creek wading, the creek bed dried out and travel became easier over talus, but not without copious poison oak and the usual chaparral vegetation of the interior Ventana. After some time in the dry creekbed, we ascended steep slopes into the extremely remote south cirque of Ventana Double Cone and then scrambled rock to the south arete. This area is wild with a sheer ruggedness that is more customary of the Sierra Nevada.

Everything was going well for this part of the scramble, but things quickly turned serious as the rock became steeper and dangerously loose as we approached the south arete. The final part to gain the south arete and then traversing the first part along the spine of the ridge involved some very loose rock; not just small rocks but entire blocks were deeply fractured and ready to tumble upon a touch. We quickly discovered that the south face of Ventana Double Cone is incredibly crumbly and no step or hold can be taken for granted. We took pause of the potentially dangerous situation that lay ahead where we would have to commit to climbing extremely loose rock on steep terrain with considerable exposure over cliffs. Ultimately, we decided to forgo these risks, a decision that was aided by the fact that a fortuitous talus gully allowed us to drop off the arete and traverse over to the easy east ridge without much delay. The improvised alternative route was brushy, but we did not have to backtrack on the route and we gained the summit of Ventana Double Cone safely, therefore enabling us to continue our point to point to Bottcher’s Gap. The summit views were marvelous as usual and it was a treat to explore the wild upper reaches of the East Fork Ventana Creek.  An added surprise was the marvelous wildflower meadows on the way to Bottcher’s Gap near Big Pines and Devils Peak. There were literally millions of lupine and poppy carpeting the hillsides; a spectacular patchwork of color! We arrived at Bottcher’s Gap just under 12 hours after starting; another amazing adventure in the Ventana! Looking back at this adventure, the most endearing part was the creek walk up the mystical and wild canyon of Ventana Creek. I look forward to returning there for a point to point to Bottchers Gap, except via the Drain, which I feel is the premier route up Ventana Double Cone for both scenery and aesthetics. The following photographs are in chronological order as the day adventure unfolded. GPS route here.

King Range 50 at the Lost Coast

The Lost Coast is a spectacular meeting of land and ocean along the most undeveloped, remote and rugged stretch of coastline along the U.S. West Coast. I was eager to return here after amazing experiences in 2010 and 2012 (see 2010 TRs: King Range, Sinkyone; July 2012 album here).  The northern portion of the Lost Coast is protected by the King Range National Conservation Area and 42,585 acres received Federal Wilderness designation on October 17, 2006. The southern portion is protected in Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, named after the Sinkyone Indians that lived on this part of the coast. The two sections are split by Shelter Cove, a small community of mainly vacation homes, but the parts are completely different in terms of their overall feel and experience. The northern section of the Lost Coast in the King Range NCA from the Mattole River to Black Sands Beach at Shelter Cove features a famous 24.5 mile beach walk with two-thirds of the distance spent on sand, gravel, and rock-hopping and the remaining third on trails just above the beach on the bluffs. 

Lesser known than the beach walk is the interior of the King Range NCA, which features a rugged subrange of the coastal mountains that reach just above 4,000 feet at King Peak. On my first two visits to the Lost Coast I did the beach walk in the King Range NCA, but on this trip I decided to explore the interior and designed a 50 mile loop that includes virtually all of the highlights of the beach portion along with with most of the highlights of the interior mountains including the Kings Crest and Cooskie Trails.  The “King Range 50″ is a phenomenal route that showcases the immense beauty of the King Range NCA, both the spectacular Lost Coast and the rugged interior mountains. It’s an aesthetic and convenient way to see a lot of amazing scenery without having to organize a care shuttle.  The loop is a challenging route with over 11,000 feet of elevation gain, virtually all of it coming in the last 26 miles. However, the first 24 miles are no cake-walk either with a steep 3,200 ft descent down the Buck Creek Trail followed by nearly 20 miles along the beach on a sometimes arduous surface of talus or gravel. Careful planning must also take into consideration the two sections of beach that are impassable at high tide (a 4 mile section and a 4.5 mile section).  Impassable at high tide is an accurate statement as the waves crash right into the cliffs at high tide making travel impossible. Being stranded part of the way through one of these sections would be very dangerous.  GPS route hereThe route beings with a steep descent down the Buck Creek Trail to Buck Creek camp along the coast. The upper portion of the trail features sweeping views to Shelter Cove and south to the Sinkyone portion of the Lost Coast.  Towards the bottom the trail enters a lush forest with ferns covering the ground. Emerging on the coast, I began walking north on sand and rocks toward Miller Flat and Big Flat (this section is impassable in high tide).  The coastal section was as beautiful as I had remembered from my previous visits. Continuing north past Spanish Flat, the beach walk enters another rocky and sandy section that is impassable at high tide. The geology of this portion is fascinating with cliffs of conglomerate and plate rocks coming right to the coast. The final section of my journey north along the coast featured Seal rock and Punta Gorda Lighthouse.  Shortly after the lighthouse turn uphill on the Cooskie Trail, which climbs moderately steeply. The grassy slopes feature outstanding views of Punta Gorda to Cape Mendocino. The Cooskie Trail then enters a dense Douglas fir forest where directional arrows placed by the BLM are essential. This area sees little foot traffic and it would otherwise be easy to wander astray. The Cooskie Trail emerges from the dense forest into a meadow area known as “The HJ” with more excellent views of the northern part of the Lost Coast. The grassy meadows culminate at the summit of Gorda 2, with a jaw-dropping view of the Cooskie drainage on one side and the northern Lost Coast on the other. After a steep descent off Gorda 2, the Cooskie Trail passes a cattle area. The cow paths and other trails increase the route finding challenge as one descends to Cooskie Creek. Above, Cooskie Creek, the trail climbs through a lush glen with heritage oaks and big leaf maples. The trail then emerges onto meadows once more on Lake Ridge with excellent vistas back towards Gorda 2 and the coast, perhaps my favorite view of the entire loop. The Cooskie Trail finally reaches the junction with Spanish Ridge and from there it’s a short distance to the Spanish Ridge Trailhead. From the trailhead, it’s a run along the Telegraph gravel road to the North Slide Trialhead where the King Crest Trail begins. The King Crest Trail is an awesome stretch of singletrack with a healthy does of steep climbs and steep views. The conglomerate rock faces along the King Crest are fascinating. King Peak, the highest point in the region, is reached nearly 44 miles into the loop. It’s a phenomenal viewpoint with the chiseled canyons of Big Creek and Big Flat Creek thousands of feet below. After King Peak it’s mostly downhill although there was a surprising amount of downfall and brush in the first few miles to slow things down. The last couple miles to Saddle Mountain Trialhead are along an old road.

Volcanic Ridge and Minaret Loop

The Minarets are one of the most scenic and rugged corners of the High Sierra. Ranging from 10,560 ft to 12,261 ft, the peaks that compose the serrated ridge rise impressively from a series of breathtaking alpine lakes, including Minaret Lake, Cecile Lake, Iceberg Lake, and Lake Ediza. Both Cecile Lake and Iceberg Lake often harbor snow late into the summer and true to name, Iceberg Lake contains many icebergs during its summer melt-out. The name Minarets is derived from their resemblance to Islamic mosques and seventeen of the pinnacles are named after one of their first ascentionists.  Arguably the finest view of this magnificent region can be had from the summit of Volcanic Ridge, which possesses a staggering panorama of most of the Minarets to Mount Ritter and Banner Peak.

The first and only other time I have been in the Minarets was during an ascent of the Rock Route on Clyde Minaret in July 2009. I had great memories of that outing and was eager to return and explore. On this day I climbed Volcanic Ridge as part of a “Minaret Loop” starting and finishing at Devil’s Postpile, passing through the chain of lakes from Minaret Lake to Lake Ediza, and finishing with Shadow Lake and the JMT back to Devil’s Postiple. I ascended Volcanic Ridge first thing in the morning via grass and talus slopes from Minaret Lake. After the enjoying the amazing summit view, I returned to Minaret Lake where I took many photos and met up with Erica. From Minaret Lake, we continued beyond Minaret Lake via use paths and a short bit of scrambling to Cecile Lake. Cecile Lake contained some steep snow patches around its shore where we used ice axe and microspikes. The descent from Cecile Lake to Iceberg Lake contained the usual early season stretch of steep and hard snow (that I recalled from 2009) where we utilized the crampons and ice axe that we brought. At the outlet of Iceberg Lake we ate a snack underneath the towers of the Minarets and took photos of the icebergs floating in Iceberg Lake. Continuing down from Iceberg Lake, we found some more patches of snow and then arrived at always beautiful Lake Ediza. The remainder of the loop is not as scenic although the trail is still pretty. From the highpoint along the segment of the JMT from Shadow Lake to Devil’s Postpile is a nice gradual downhill stretch that brought us back to the trail head. The Minaret Loop itself (without climbing Volcanic Ridge) is around 23 miles with the portion between Minaret Lake and Iceberg Lake generally off-trail. This is a top notch route, one of the best, and I will definitely be returning to this region for further exploration! 

Cherry Creek Canyon

Cherry Creek Canyon is a granite moonscape with fascinating glacial features and stunning scenery that is unlike anywhere else in the Sierra. In other words, it’s ridiculously cool! Located in the Emigrant Wilderness near the border with Yosemite National Park, it’s surprising this canyon was not included within the park, but I’m guessing the line-drawers had no idea what the terrain was like. The ice-polished granite that characterizes 99% of the surface area in upper Cherry Creek Canyon is so white and smooth that it’s easily recognizable from space on visible satellite, clearly standing out from the rest of the range. On the way out via the Kibbie Ridge Trail we learned that Cherry Creek Canyon is known as the “miracle in the Sierra” or the “holy grail” in the whitewater kayaking community and is among the best in the world for Class V+ expedition kayaking (a group from New Zealand was preparing to put in the next day). It’s not easy to access this trail-less canyon on foot either with portions of thick brush, rock scrambling, and route finding, especially in early season when the stream cannot be forded. However, high flow is the most picturesque time to visit the Canyon as the watercourse becomes a trickle in late summer. The highlight of the route is known as the “Cherry Bomb,” a spectacular narrow “S” shaped gorge with sheer granite on both sides. While we visited the canyon in the short period when the water flow is ideal for kayaking, we did not see any active kayakers on the stream, and in fact, we didn’t see anybody until we were descending the Kibbie Ridge trail.

Most of the complexities in the canyon are located in its lower portion, including annoying and unavoidable brush patches, routefinding, and a rock scramble. The upper part of the canyon is fairly striaghtforward cross-country travel on granite slabs.  I noticed a potential route into the upper part of the canyon that would avoid most of the complexities but not sacrifice the best part of the scenery in the upper canyon. This route would utilize the Kibbie Ridge trail up to Lookout Point and then descend through forest and slabs to a part of the canyon known as the Flinstones. I will likely try this approach next time. We found that Cherry Creek was not fordable and when we encountered an impasse about three-quarters of a mile from the top of the Canyon, we instead ascended the ridge line to Mercur Lake. Along the ridge there were breathtaking views of Cherry Creek Canyon and granite as far as the eye could see. The region also contains some spectacular lakes nestled amid the granite slabs. Last year, we visited Big Lake and Hyatt Lake and I look forward to returning to the region to explore Boundary Lake, Spotted Fawn Lake and Inferno Lakes.  

2013 Adventure Run Ideas – High Sierra

As always, I have many great ideas for adventure runs in the Sierra.  Listed below are twenty potential trips organized from South to North.  Most of these ideas are rather obscure, but the high Sierra is filled with hidden gems and I expect all of these will not be lacking in outstanding scenery and route quality.  Hopefully I’ll get to several ideas this summer!  All photos by me from last year’s adventures.

  • Triple Divide & Glacier Ridge Loop via Wolverton: I’ve scoped out a big loop with big views. The route starts with the Pear Lake Trail up to the Tablelands and Big Bird Peak followed by a high traverse to Coal Mine Pass and across granite slabs to Glacier Ridge. From Glacier Ridge, another crossing of the granite slabs leads to Lion Lake Pass and a scamble of Triple Divide Peak. The descent is through Lion Lake and Tamarack Lake, ultimately down to the High Sierra Trail. I described the loop in one direction although it might make more sense to do the run reverse with the High Sierra Trail portion first thing pre-dawn.
  • Tyndall & Williamson: Double the fun for these two fourteeners via Shepherd’s Pass and Williamson Bowl.
  • Mount Rixford, Dragon Peak & University Peak: These all look like fun peaks to ascend. Mount Rixford, with its position west of the crest, is a particularly good viewpoint. Dragon Peak looks impressively rugged from the Rae lakes Basin.  
  • Arrow Peak and Bench Lake: An adventure via Taboose Pass that has been on the list for many years, but I haven’t made it out yet to see the classic Sierra view of Arrow Peak from Bench Lake.
  • Observation Peak and Amphitheater Lake: A remote part of the range also accessed via Taboose Pass. Observation Peak is apparently aptly named as it is a great spot to observe the Palisades.
  • Josephine Lake: Rarely visited lake tucked in below Glacier Ridge with views to Mount Brewer, South Guard, and North Guard entailing a steep scramble from Cloud Canyon.
  • Split Mountain: Another fourteener on the list.
  • Palisade Circumnavigation & Palisade Basin: A great route around the most rugged and alpine region of the High Sierra with lots of arduous talus travel.
  • Sky Haven & Cloudripper: Just for the tremendous views of Palisades and hopefully an overnight stay for sunrise. Access via South Lake.
  • Mount Reinstein, Lake 10,232 and Goddard Creek Valley: This loop comes in around 50 miles and looks stunning, passing through some of the most remote and wild terrain in the Sierra.
  • Ionian Basin, Scylla & Hansen: Accessed via Sabrina Basin, this region is near Muir Pass and the JMT, but far away from the beaten path and features spectacular peaks and many high lakes amid one of the most rugged and strikingly desolate settings in the High Sierra.
  • Charybdis & Black Giant: Two more peak in the Ionian Basin. Perhaps I will combine climbs of these peaks with objectives described immediately above and make it a single night fastpacking outing.
  • Bench Valley: Another western approach to the LeConte Divide, featuring a string of remote high alpine lakes off-trail.
  • Evolution Loop: In order to lower the FKT on this 55 mile horseshoe loop, it looks I’m going to have to curtail my photography substantially from the 300+ photos I took last time. Last time I did the horseshoe loop from north to south, but I’m wondering if south to north is actually faster. The argument for south to north is that most of the steep climbing is completed earlier rather than later, which may work better for me as I’ll be able to attack the long and at times steep climb out Pate Valley to Muir Pass early in the route.  Despite it being a long uphill slog from the JMT junction to Piute Pass, it’s fairly gradual and I think most of it is runnable for me if I’m feeling good at that point in the run, whereas the climb from Pate Valley to Bishop Pass is too steep for any running late in the run. I also like the idea of running down through Evolution Basin and Valley.  Finally, the South Lake trailhead is also marginally higher by about 500 feet.  I guess I’ll have to find out if south to north is faster!
  • Volcanic Ridge: Easily the best view of the Minarets and another candidate for an overnight bivy to view sunrise and early morning light. Access via Devils Postpile and fantastic scenery including Minaret Lake, Cecile Lake, and Iceberg Lake. 
  • Rodgers Peak: Accessed via Silver Lake, this is a fairly remote major peak in the region and looks awesome from many of the surrounding mountains, therefore spurring interest
  • Northern Yosemite 50: Classic loop route all on trails from Twin Lakes, including the Benson Lake riviera, a close view of Matterhorn Peak and Sawtooth Ridge, glacially sculpted Matterhorn Canyon, and the lovely Peeler Lake and Smedberg Lake. I first ran this route in 2011, documented here. The complete loop is close to 50 miles, although a short cut via Ice Lakes Pass (off-trail) would shave off some miles and elevation gain to Mule Pass.
  • Stubblefield Canyon and Stubblefield Lake: Remote spot in Northern Yosemite for some fun explorations.
  • Cherry Canyon and Boundary Lake: In Emigrant Wilderness, this area is characterized by smooth granite and clear lakes. A good route for earlier in the season when snow covers higher terrain.
  • Desolation Seven Summits: The same trip as last year, with the exception of taking the trail to Gilmore Lake from Dick’s Pass (instead of the off-trail segment on the ridge) and including Mount Ralston on the way out. With proper hydration and route knowledge I imagine this loop can be done in under 10 hours without too much trouble.

Jedediah Smith Redwoods

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

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!