Cone Peak Climbs

Another phenomenal day on the mountain I call the King of Big Sur! Cone Peak rises 5,155 ft above the Pacific Ocean in less than three miles as the crow flies, making it one of the steepest gradients from ocean to summit in the contiguous United States. It’s nearly a vertical mile above the glimmering ocean with a commanding view of the Big Sur Coast. My first visit to this grand mountain was in 2010 via the “standard” all-trail route from Kirk Creek to Vicente Flat and the Cone Peak Trail. I repeated this route in 2011.  It was only in 2013 when I did the Stone Ridge Direct route that the possibilities for off-trail exploration on Cone Peak really clicked for me. Since then I’ve visited Cone Peak frequently exploring the various trails and routes on this amazing mountain. GPS route here.

On this day, I joined Joey Cassidy for the next step of my personal discovery of Cone Peak by tackling a series of rock scramble routes. In the process we ascended all three of Cone Peak’s prominent ridges: the Southeast Ridge, the North Ridge and the ridge linking Cone Peak to Twin Peak. We also included an ascent of the short but sweet West Rib, arguably the finish of the Cone-Twin Ridge, which makes up for its short length with relatively solid rock (for the Santa Lucia Mountains) and an outrageous setting of stunning views in the background.  A special thanks goes to Joey Cassidy for showing me the northeast face and the west rib, routes he had previously scoped out and climbed. It’s always a pleasure to join Joey on adventures, especially since he’s an extremely talented photographer. His photos of me on these scrambles were so awesome I’ve included a few in this post so double thanks goes to Joey for contributing (credit indicated below or above his photos).  We started with an ascent of Stone Ridge Direct, as beautiful as ever, rising from the redwood-filled canyons of Limkiln to the exposed grassy slopes and finally the Ventana alpine zone with Santa Lucia Firs, Coulter Pines and Sugar Pines. Once we crossed over to Cone Peak via the Twin-Cone Ridge we took the Cone Peak trail down to a point where we could access the Southeast Ridge, a prominent ridge separating the Limekiln drainage from the San Antonio River drainage.Southeast Ridge: The Southeast Ridge is extremely scenic with amazing views of Stone Ridge and also the rugged cirque on the northeast side of Cone Peak giving a nice angle on the face that we would climb later that day. The Southeast Ridge included some sections of class 3 scrambles. The more difficult sections could by bypassed by dropping off the north side of the ridge and traversing underneath, but we chose to stick to the crest of the ridge and enjoy as much rock scrambling as we could. The most difficult part of the Southeast ridge is a loose downclimb from the prominent knob along the ridge into a deep notch. Once in the notch the route is finished with a straightforward scramble up to the Cone Peak Trail.

 

West Rib: The west rib of Cone Peak (pictured above) is a short pitch of remarkably solid rock for the Santa Lucia Mountains. Most rock in the Santa Lucias is very crumbly so when a pitch is fairly solid it’s automatically a gem! However, what makes the West Rib so sweet is its amazing position above Twin Peak, Stone Ridge and the South Fork Devils Canyon. A stunning panorama surrounds you as you ascend the rib to the summit. Instead of traversing around the mountain and taking the switchbacks to the top, simply scramble up the boulder field to the base of the rib. There are easier and looser routes to the summit from this point, but the prominent west rib is the line to climb with its relatively solid rock and mixture of enjoyable 3rd/4th class moves. Credit goes to Joey Cassidy for introducing me to this sweet little finish to summit Cone and it’s going to be hard for me to resist climbing the west rib every time in the future versus taking the trail. Northeast Face: The Northeast Face is the most dramatic, committing and steepest scramble offered by Cone Peak’s topography. The route starts from a talus field along the North Coast Ridge Trail where you look up into a cliffy cirque with the lofty summit of Cone Peak perched 1,200 ft above. After ascending loose talus, the route enters a gully filled with Santa Lucia Firs. Depending on where you enter the gully dictates how much of the gully you ascend but you ultimately look to exit the gully onto rock on climbers right where you officially start the climb up the northeast face. The rock becomes more vertical and the scrambling begins in earnest. It should be noted that staying in the gully will take you away from the Northeast Face and toward the deep notch on the Southeast Ridge – not the route I am describing. Once you’ve exited the gully and are on the Northeast Face there are numerous possibilities and micro-route finding challenges to ascend the class 3 face interspersed with class 4 climbing. Some lines will be more difficult than others, but the inhibiting factor in tackling the more vertical, exposed rock on the face is the inherent poor quality of the rock. This results in sometimes using vegetation as holds or foot steps. That being said, the rock is solid enough where you need it to be on the 4th class sections that it’s a very fun scramble.The crux moves are near the top where the holds become thin for a few moves but after surmounting this final cliff you emerge onto easier terrain near the top of the north ridge.  As with the other scramble routes described, the setting is amazing with a view of the 5th class cliffs along the north ridge, and a vista above a pristine grove of old growth Santa Lucia Firs leading down to the San Antonio River drainage.    Photo by Joey CassidyPhotos above and below by Joey Cassidy of me ascending the NE Face.North Ridge: We descended the North Ridge to reach the North Coast Ridge Trail which we took to the base of the Northeast Face route. The lower part of the north ridge is easy open terrain with a use path in sections. The upper part of the north ridge is more rugged with bits of scrambling in spots and a couple places where it’s most efficient to come off the ridge slightly to the west side to avoid loose rock formations and gendarmes on the ridge crest proper. This upper part of the north ridge has phenomenal views with lots of steep relief on both sides of the serrated rocky ridge, especially on the east side where cliffs plunge several hundred feet, including the cliffs of the northeast face route described above. 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 scenery makes for some very enjoyable scambling on the north ridge, a classic route of Big Sur.  In the photo below Joey enjoys the amazing views from the Southeast Ridge to Stone Ridge, the Middle Fork Limekiln Creek and Hare Canyon. Photo below by Joey Cassidy of me ascending the West RibPhoto by Joey CassidyAfter the scramble routes we cruised down the Cone Peak Trail to Trail Spring and then ran the Gamboa Trail underneath the forest of Santa Lucia Firs and Sugar Pines in the headwaters of the South Fork Devils Canyon to Ojito Saddle, where we took the Stone Ridge Trail back to the lower part of Stone Ridge and down to Limekiln Canyon. The more time I spend exploring Cone Peak, the more I love the mountain! Photo by Joey CassidyPhoto above and below  by Joey Cassidy of me ascending the SE Ridge. Photo by Joey CassidyPhoto above and below by Joey Cassidy of the SE RidgePhoto by Joey CassidyPhoto above by Joey Cassidy of me ascending the short but sweet West Rib. 

 

An Evening on Stone Ridge

An ascent of Cone Peak via Stone Ridge Direct is a tremendous route and worthy of the title “Sea to Sky.” Stone Ridge is easily the most impressive and prominent ridge along the entire Big Sur Coast. While there are a bevy of tremendous grassy ridges near the ocean that I have explored (Boronda, Prewitt, Shouey, East Molera, Kirk Creek, Mount Mars to name a few), each with its own charm and inspiration, none compare to Stone Ridge in terms of height (4,800 ft), length (4 miles) and sheer topography in all directions. In 5.25 miles, one can go from the Pacific Ocean to the 5,155 ft summit of Cone Peak, the King of the Big Sur Coast.  Suffice it to say, Stone Ridge is one-of-a-kind.  

The Stone Ridge Sea to Sky route is extremely aesthetic remaining on the ridge crest virtually the entire way and features outstanding and uninterrupted scenery with a panorama that broadens with each ascending step. Fortunately, the non-stop views distract from the difficult nature of the steep use path. A section between 2,600 ft and 4,000 ft is particularly steep and relentless, a section I like to call “The Escalator” since there are tiny flat spots between the steep flights. This route features amazing diversity of ecosystems including redwoods, expansive grassland, oak woodland, chaparral, Coulter Pines and a rare forest of Santa Lucia Fir and Sugar Pine on the north side of Twin Peak and Cone Peak in the South Fork Devils Canyon.  For my third time up Stone Ridge, I decided to visit in the afternoon to capture evening light after doing the Shouey-Plaskett loop in the morning.

A picture is worth a thousand words and the only thing better is more pictures so this post contains around a hundred photos from the evening trip up Stone Ridge. Despite taking over 500 shots (from which I made this selection), I still managed to reach Cone Peak less than 2h10m after starting and I was back at the car before dusk for a roundtrip of 4h18m. I would be interested to see what I could do on this route sometime if I took speed seriously (i.e. left the camera in the car). Despite being half the distance of the all-trail Kirk Creek-Vicente Flat route, times appear fairly similar. I suspect a dialed-in Stone Ridge attempt would ultimately be faster. Regardless of speed, Stone Ridge Direct is definitely a route I look forward to doing many times in the future with hundreds more photos. Hopefully I’ll also be on the route when the mythical winter snow event turns Stone Ridge to a striking white. Strava GPS route here.  

Prewitt Ridge

If Stone Ridge is the most striking, prominent ridge along the Big Sur Coast, and Boronda Ridge is the most elegant, Prewitt Ridge takes the award for the most outstanding views. The route features an unparalleled vantage of the Cone Peak region to the north and Pacific Valley to the south. We started by taking the north end of the Prewitt Loop Trail for around 1 mile up a series of switchbacks to a junction with the Prewitt Ridge use path. This first mile has great views of the sea stacks at Pacific Valley Bluff and was brush-free. The use path starts by ascending in low coastal chaparral with vistas back to Sand Dollar Beach, Jade Cove and down the southern Big Sur coast.  The route emerges from the chaparral onto gorgeous grassy slopes and at a small knoll at around ~1,500 ft Cone Peak reveals itself for the first time. The views continue to improve as the path climbs with another classic vista from a rock outcropping at ~1,800 ft. At 2,000 ft the route passes by some old sycamores and a spring with a water trough.

The next section is my favorite as you’re right on top of a grassy ridge with numerous heritage oaks and views in all directions, including deep into the north and south canyons of Prewitt Creek. Cone Peak, the King of the coast, rises imperially above the grassy ridges with no ridge more impressive than Stone Ridge, which can be viewed from top to bottom in all its glory. After passing through a small forest section, the final portion becomes steep once again through grassland and patches of pine trees. The route tops out at ~3,100 ft at a magnificent vista point on the South Coast Ridge Road. On this spectacular winter day there was a group of para gliders and hang gliders taking off from this point. Prewitt Ridge is apparently a legendary spot for para gliding and hang gliding and for good reason with the outrageous scenery and relatively easy access for crews.  It was fun to watch them throughout the hike and we would later see their landing spot at Pacific Valley. After a snack and some exploration at the top, we returned the way we came with plenty more photography and admiration of nature’s beauty. In all, it’s a little over 4 miles from Pacific Valley to the top at the South Coast Ridge Road (8 miles roundtrip).  Sand Dollar Beach and Pacific Valley Bluffs are nearby, both excellent spots to spend an afternoon relaxing after the trip up Prewitt Ridge. It was a magical day on the Big Sur coast with outstanding clarity and deep blue skies to match the azure waters of the Pacific.  The views far exceeded my expectations and I look forward to returning soon.  I have several adventure ideas to link-up various ridges along this southern part of the Big Sur coast so stay tuned!  Strava route here

A 360 panorama from Prewitt Ridge: 

Cone Peak Marathon Loop

California’s spectacular natural landscape ranges from the Pacific coastline to the Sierra crest, each filled with many inspiring destinations and experiences. As the seasons shift into late autumn and winter I gravitate to coastal adventures. This time of year has reliably less fog along the immediate coast and interior locations are comfortably cooler. This is also the time of year when winter rains begin to revitalize the redwood forests.  One of my favorite regions for coastal scenery is the Ventana Wilderness along the Big Sur coastline. The premier destination within this vast wilderness is Cone Peak. Arguably the most aesthetic and complete route on Cone Peak is the “Cone Peak Marathon,” a classic lollipop loop from the ocean to the summit of 5,155 ft Cone Peak and back down via the Gamboa Trail and Stone Ridge Trail. This route thoroughly covers the trail network around Cone Peak and passes through three of the canyons formed by forks of Limekiln Creek. In addition, there are great views down the rugged and wild South Fork Devils Canyon.  The route showcases the wide variety of ecosystems on Cone Peak including coastal scrub, redwood forest, grassy meadows, oak woodland, chaparral, and a unique high elevation forest composed of Santa Lucia Fir and Sugar Pine forest. This is a top notch route in a stellar region! Strava route here.

As of this writing, the Vicente Flat Trail is in excellent condition all the way up to the Cone Peak Road. The route beings with about 1,200 feet of climbing over the first couple miles and then levels off as it rounds a corner into the Hare Canyon. Just before 4 miles from the trailhead, the trail makes a short descent to the bottom of Hare Canyon where the junction with the Stone Ridge Trail is reached after a creek crossing. Shortly after this junction, the Vicente Flat trail gets down to business with the steepest chunk of climbing between miles 5 and 7. Over these two miles, the trail ascends around 1,600 feet. The Vicente Flat trail ends at a gravel road that can be driven from the Nacimiento-Fergusson Road. Turning uphill on the dirt road, the ascent is more gradual than the preceding steep climb out of hare Canyon, but it’s still a bit of a slog. After about a mile on the dirt road, you turn onto the Cone Peak Trail for the final chunk of climbing. The trail first makes a lengthy traverse beneath the summit and then switchbacks up Cone Peak’s South Ridge to a junction with the Summit Trail. The final set of switchbacks on the Summit Trail to the abandoned fire lookout are steeper once again but the spectacular views are a great distraction. The view from the summit is outstanding with a 360 degree panorama including the interior Ventana Wilderness and views for miles up and down the Big Sur coastline.

Back at the junction with the Summit Trail, turn left down the backside of Cone Peak. This section of trail is still called the Cone Peak Trail and passes through a section where trail crews recently cut through enormous Sugar Pine downfall. Descending off the backside of Cone Peak into the South Fork Devils Canyon is a treat with passage through a rare forest of Santa Lucia Fir, the rarest species of fir in the world. These beautiful conical trees are only found in small pockets at high elevations of the Santa Lucia Mountains.  Somewhat counter intuitively, the Santa Lucia Fir is not fire resistant and therefore fares best in areas of fireproof topography (i.e. rocky sheltered locations).  The backside of Cone Peak is a perfect example of this rocky and rugged, fireproof terrain and therefore contains one of the finest Santa Lucia Fir forests in existence. Ultimately, the Cone Peak Trail ends at Trail Spring Camp where it intersects the Gamboa Trail.  From Trail Spring commences a particularly pleasant stretch of single track traverses the hillside below Twin Peak all the way to a small pass along the West Ridge of Twin Peak. It is at this pass that the Gamboa Trail becomes the Strone Ridge Trail and descends into the West Fork of Limekiln Creek canyon. Extensive trail work was completed this year on the Gamboa and Stone Ridge trails removing a lot of brush and downfall. It should be noted that the tread on these trails is narrow and sometimes technical; generally not fast tread or terrain for running but they are runnable. In addition, the descent via the Stone Ridge Trail entails some deceiving climbs, including an ascent up to Stone Ridge and an ascent out of Limekiln Creek. Both of these climbs are not long, but any substantial climbing after the initial climb up Cone Peak can be taxing. All told, there is over 7,000 ft of climbing on this route. Stone Ridge is the most prominent feature in the region and includes an excellent direct route to the summit, the true “Sea to Sky.” A good chunk of the Stone Ridge Direct route is visible from the Stone Ridge Trail as it crosses Stone Ridge at around 2,200 ft and again from the slopes above Limekiln Creek. This winter I hope to visit Cone Peak during a relatively rare winter snow event.  With outstanding scenery, lots of vertical, and engaging trails, I will surely be back for more runs on Cone Peak soon. Strava route here.