Dutra Loop & “Soda Peak”

The South Coast of Big Sur has some of the best scenery of the entire Big Sur coast. The majority of the region is protected by the Silver Peak Wilderness, a 31,555 acre wilderness established in 1992. While only a fraction of the size of the better known Ventana Wilderness to the north, there are several awesome trails and great opportunities for exploration in the Silver Peak Wilderness. The region has great biodiversity of vegetation including redwoods, chaparral, oak woodland, pine forest, and even some groves of the rare Santa Lucia Fir. Villa Canyon and Salmon Creek Canyons are the heart of the wilderness and are both spectacular. Fires have not affected this region in a number of years so the flora is generally more developed with far fewer signs of fire compared to the badly burned areas of the Ventana Wilderness from the 2008 Basin Complex fires. As the South Coast is far from both the SF Bay Area to the north and the Los Angeles basin to the south, this stretch of the Big Sur Coast is probably the least visited and an excellent location if you’re looking for solitude.  On this occasion from back in November I put together a loop including Dutra Flats, County Line Ridge and Mount Mars, some of my favorite spots on the South Coast. I enjoyed this loop so much that I recently did it again in the reverse direction with Erica and it was nice to see the hills turning green after December Rains (photos here). GPS for Dutra Loop here.

The Dutra Loop route utilizes a established trails and some use paths giving an excellent taste of both the interior and coastal aspects of the Silver Peak Wilderness. Access to Dutra Flats is via the standard route of the Salmon Creek Trail and Spruce Creek Trail, both awesome single tracks in a lush canyon environment with Douglas Fir forest. The Spruce Creek Trail is especially lush and there is a glimpse of a remote Santa Lucia Fir grove high in the drainage, one of the southernmost stands of the rarest fir on earth. Dutra Flats is such a pleasant peaceful spot with its green pastures lined by gray pines, ponderosa pines and heritage oaks. From the edge of the flats a use path contours down and into the Dutra Creek drainage. The path peters out in the grassy area but is picked up again at the edge of the forest at the bottom of the hill. After crossing Dutra Creek, the well-defined use path heads uphill and emerges at the Baldwin Ranch Road. One can cross Baldwin Ranch Road and continue on more use path to the Baldwin Ranch Shortcut, passing through more beautiful meadows and then entering a pine and oak forest for a climb up to County Line Ridge. A spring about halfway up the climb to County Line Ridge appears to have perennial water. County Line Ridge is a beautiful mixture of grassland and oaks with impressive relief to the Pacific Ocean. On this day I explored two spurs off the main ridge, the better being Point 1950 which has enough horizontal prominence to yield an excellent view up and down the coast including Piedras Blancas and most of the Big Sur south coast. At the north end of County Line Ridge a use path traverses the various summits of Mount Mars through pine forest and then chapparal. Beyond the highest summit, the path emerges on the impressively steep grassy slope of Mount Mars. This steep grassy slope is a Big Sur classic with incredible relief down the deep blue ocean seemingly at your feet.  At the base of this grassy ridge a use path can be taken back down to the Salmon Creek Trail.   After the Dutra Loop I headed up to Point 2866 via the Soda Creek Trailhead. Point 2866 is on the WSW ridge coming off Silver Peak. The ridge contains several high points but the last one and most dramatic is Point 2866. It appears this point has no official name but “Soda Peak” makes geographical sense since it sits at the head of the Soda Creek drainage. Since Soda Peak is the last point of prominence along the ridge it has a commanding view of the south Big Sur coast. The rocky limestone summit is also mostly free of brush enabling an excellent 360 degree panorama including San Martin Top, Silver Peak, Cone Peak and Mount Mars. I guessed that evening light would be great from this spot and I was not disappointed. The easiest way to reach Soda Peak is via the Soda Creek Trailhead and then the Buckeye Trail. At about 2,100 ft along the Buckeye Trail take a use trail on the southern of two spur ridges coming off Soda Peak. The use path is fairly easy to follow and in about 750 vertical feet you’re on top and gazing across the Soda Creek drainage to Mount Mars and beyond, a truly spectacular vantage. It’s only about 3 miles each way to Soda Peak, but the few miles pack around 2,500 ft of elevation gain.   

Silver Peak Wilderness Loop

After being inspired and captivated by the awesome scenery of the South Big Sur Coast and Silver Peak Wilderness on the South Coast Adventure, I was eager to return for more exploration in the region, this time for a very aesthetic loop that comes in around 25-26 miles. Aside from repeat visits to the incredible Mount Mars and Buckeye Trail, this loop added a lot of new terrain for me, including upper Villa Creek, Lion Peak, the Three Peaks area and Dutra Flats. If a point-to-point is too cumbersome to arrange (this is, after all, the most remote section of the Big Sur coast), than this loop is the perfect way to hit hit the highlights and see a lot of the terrain in the region. I’ll definitely be returning for further exploration in the South Big Sur region. Strava GPS route here.

The loop starts with switchbacks on the Cruikshank Trail on a south facing chaparral slope that can be hot even in the morning. However, the trail soon rounds a corner and enters the lovely Villa Creek Canyon and begins one of the best sections of single track in all of Big Sur. From top to bottom, the Cruikshank Trail packs an incredible amount of biodiversity in its six miles, including redwoods, various pine species, Douglas fir, Santa Lucia Firs, Sargent’s cypress, various oak species, and madrone. Note that there is also plenty of poison oak alongside the trail in its  upper portion.  The trail also has excellent views to the ocean and a rugged section of Villa Creek canyon with reddish rocks characteristic of this region. About 5.75 miles from the start, the Cruikshank Trail crosses a saddle with a young Sargent’s cypress forest where a spur path heads west to Silver Peak while the main trail heads down to the beautiful Lion Den camp.  This camp has to be one of the best in Big Sur, complete with a spring, ample shade under the pines, and a commanding view overlooking Salmon Creek canyon, Silver Peak and the Pacific Ocean. Beyond Lion Den Camp, the Cruickshank heads uphill a short distance to meet the South Coast Ridge Road. A short ways south along the road is an optional side trip to Lion Peak. While the road comes close to the summit, a small bushwhack is still necessary to reach the top. Most of the unpleasantness can be avoided by leaving the road at a small saddle near the peak and entering a dense thicket. While not entirely devoid of bushwhacking, travel is reasonable and the distance is short so it only takes 10-15 minutes. It is well worth the troubles with an excellent 360 degree panorama from the exposed reddish summit block. The vista includes Cone Peak and Junipero Serra Peak to the north, Silver Peak and Lion Den camp, Three Peaks, the Salmon Creek canyon, and interior views to Burro Mountain.

After Lion Peak, more quick running along South Coast Ridge Road leads to the Three Peaks Trail, which is an old firebreak along the ridge with vegetation that has filled in to make it a single track. Overall, the trail is in fairly good condition and largely brush-free save for a couple spots.  It’s an efficient way to go from the South Coast Ridge Road to the Dutra Flats area. The land is mainly covered in chaparral and exposed to sunlight, but there are some pretty stands of coulter pine and gray pine along the way with nice views back to Lion Peak and terrain to the south. Most of the way to Dutra Flats, the Three Peaks trail crosses a prominent ridge and on the other side are awesome views of the meadows in Dutra Flat and County Line Ridge. Dutra Flat is a peaceful meadow area with heritage oaks and pines. A camp is located at the flats under cypress trees and it appears this area is used for cattle grazing. From Dutra Flat, the Murray Mine Track which leads down to Dutra Creek and then steeply up to County Line Ridge. This is a pretty section with straightforward navigation and nice views of Mount Mars and the surrounding region. 

From County Line ridge, take the Mount Mars use path up and over a couple false summits to the summit of Mount Mars, with nice views of Salmon Creek canyon, Lion Peak and Silver Peak. Descend through the vegetation tunnel on Mount Mars and emerge onto the grassy ridge with an outstanding view down the ridge to the Pacific Ocean and Salmon cone. From Kozy Kove meadows at the bottom of the very steep ridge, take the use path to the Salmon Creek Trail which quickly descends to the trailhead along Hwy 1. The Buckeye trail is a short distance away and climbs steeply at first (can be hot) but becomes more reasonable as it enters oak woodland beyond the junction with the Soda Springs Trail. There is typically water in Soda Spring Creek about halfway to Buckeye Camp.  The Buckeye Trail features marvelous coastal vistas back to Mount Mars and Piedras Blancas, and is one of the best coastal trails in Big Sur.  Buckeye Camp is always a treat with its cool fresh spring water and shady heritage oaks in the meadow. Beyond Buckeye Camp, the Buckeye Trail makes one final climb to Buckeye Vista before entering a pine forest that switchbacks down to upper Cruikshank camp. The final downhill portion along the lower Cruikshank Trail bring  you back to the Cruikshank trailhead. 

South Coast Adventure

The South Big Sur Coast stretches from Pacific Valley to Ragged Point. Due to its remote location 1.5+ hours from Monterey Bay, it is the least visited portion of the Big Sur coast, but it is well worth the extra time. The centerpiece of this region is the Silver Peak Wilderness, established in 1992 and containing 31,555 acres, containing a network of amazing trails including the Cruikshank Trail, the Salmon Creek Trail and the Buckeye Trail. Also included in the wilderness is Mount Mars, which is one of the most spectacular and impressive grassy ridges in all of Big Sur. In fact, the incredibly steep west ridge of Mount Mars rises over 2,600 ft in a little over 1.25 miles as the crow flies from the ocean! The Buckeye Trail is arguably the most scenic coastal trail in all of Big Sur with outstanding vistas and enjoyable technical single track. One of the best ways to enjoy the South Coast is via a point-to-point such as the South Coast Adventure route described here.

The South Coast Adventure route starts at Williams Ranch which is a working cattle ranch at the southern tip of the Big Sur coast near Ragged Point. A steep ascent up the grassy slopes leads up toward Bald Top and County Line Ridge with impressive views to the Piedras Blancas coastal plain. Once on County Line Ridge a dirt ranch road leads along the top of the ridge with excellent vistas of the deep blue Pacific on one side and interior views on the other. The ridge is largely grassy meadows with clumps of heritage oaks. As you move north along the ridge, there are more pine trees, including gray pines, Ponderosa pines, and Coulter pines. At the junction with County Line dirt road, stay on the ridge crest and follow the Mount Mars traverse use path 0.6 miles to the summit of Mount Mars. The first part of the path climbs steeply through pine and oak forest and then chaparral to a pair of sub-summits before making the final climb in low manzanita to Mount Mars. From the summit, take a vegetation tunnel that was cut through the tall chaparral down to the grassy west ridge. The view as you emerge from the vegetation tunnel is simply stunning with Salmon Cone and the deep blue Pacific Ocean 2,500 ft below. On the left is Piedras Blancas with the lighthouse visible on clear days and on the right is the rugged Silver Peak. As you head down the beautiful grassy ridge, it is difficult to keep from gazing at the amazing view, but use caution as the slope is extremely steep with loose rocks.  About two-thirds of the way down is lovely Kozy Kove Meadows, a fairly flat spot that is also the turnoff for the use path that leads down to the Salmon Creek Trail and beautiful Salmon Falls, which is set amid large boulders and bay trees. At the Salmon Creek Trailhead run on Hwy 1 for a couple hundred meters to reach the Buckeye Trailhead. The initial climb on Buckeye Trail is quite steep and exposed so it is often very hot. About 1 mile in, the Soda Springs Trail branches off down to another trailhead along Hwy 1 while the Buckeye Trail commences another climb through chaparral and oak woodland for 2.5 miles to Buckeye Camp and Buckeye Springs. The coastal vistas along this stretch are magnificent. Buckeye Camp is located in a peaceful meadow with a colossal oak tree, some pines, and even a few mature eucalyptus that were planted here decades ago when (I’m assuming) a homestead existed in this meadow. A spring near the camp provides refreshing cold water. Buckeye Camp would certainly make for a great nap spot! Beyond Buckeye Camp, the trail descends to Redwood Gulch Creek before making a final ascent to Buckeye Vista, Pt. 2,318, arguably the best view on the entire trail. After Buckeye Vista, the trail enters pine forest as it switchbacks down the hill to Cruikshank Camp. For this route, continue through Upper Cruikshank camp and descend to redwood-filled Villa Creek remaining on the Buckeye Trail. The Buckeye Trail then traverses the ridge on the north side of Villa Creek canyon with excellent views of Villa Creek canyon and then rounds a corner into the Alder Creek drainage which contains alder and Douglas Fir forest, a fascinating contrast to the redwoods in Villa Creek. At Alder Camp take the Alder Creek Road up to San Martin Top Ridge where there is a four way junction. Continue straight onto the Willow Creek Road which leads down through the largest Douglas fir forest on the central coast to the Highway near Cape San Martin. There are some nice views in the bottom portion of Willow Creek road when it emerges from the forest. An excellent 36 mile point-to-point route that I look forward to doing in the future would be to turn right at the four way junction on San Martin Top ridge and connect into South Coast Ridge Road which can be taken all the way to Prewitt Ridge for a spectacular descent into Pacific Valley.  Stay tuned for posts on a couple more routes in this gorgeous section of the Big Sur Coast!  Strava track for this route here