Devils Loop featuring Devils Falls, Canogas Falls, Hellhole Falls

Note: the following describes my experiences on an extremely arduous off-trail adventure on one of the most challenging creek walks in the Ventana. This is an advanced route requiring advanced skills and prior experience with off trail canyon navigation.  It’s 2015 so I expect every major waterfall in a place like the Ventana Wilderness, so close to a megalopolis, to have been “discovered” with information readily available or at least knowledge that somebody had actually visited them. My assumption was incorrect! Deep within a remote corner of the Ventana Wilderness lies a gem: a major waterfall with two segments and two clear turquoise pools in a stunning setting of cliffs and spires. Strava GPS route here.

Beautiful Canogas Falls left an impression on me last weekend and I wanted to see more turquoise pools, more elegant falls over mineral-encrusted cliffs and more wild and pristine Big Sur canyons. I scoured the topo maps and satellites images of the Devils Canyon region with reasoning that if the South Fork Devils Canyon has a major falls there is also a good chance there is a major falls on the Middle Fork. I zeroed in on a region of the Middle Fork where the topography lines come remarkably close indicating an immense cliff, which I would later call the “Devils Spire”, and topography that would support a major falls. Close satellite inspection revealed turquoise pools and falls. Could this be the jackpot?! There was a high potential this was a major falls like Canogas and I knew this was the next place I wanted to visit. Brian had visited Canogas with me the prior week, and similarly inspired, he was game for the waterfall discovery adventure.

We ascended the Arroyo Seco Trail to coast ridge and then descended through some brush and steep oak woodland to the Middle Fork Devils Canyon Creek. Travel in the upper portion of the creek was reasonable with sections of dry talus amid Santa Lucia Firs where the water was flowing underneath and spots where it emerged above the rocks. The most difficult sections were within stands of thick alder trees that created a cluttered understory of debris and branches. There were two main observations in the headwaters of the Middle Fork: birds and ladybugs. For over an hour as we descended we heard a constant cacophony of birds chirping and patches of thousands of ladybugs. As we descended further, the creek became more mature with increasingly deeper and larger pools and more impressive waterfalls. When we got our first view of the imposing cliffs of Devils Spires I knew we were getting close and before I knew it we were standing atop Devils Falls gazing down over its two impressive waterfall sections and two large turquoise pools. In the aggregate, the falls is ~80-90 ft tall with two separate drops close in height, the upper segment being slightly taller. There is also a pretty “lead-in” falls around a corner above the falls that is approximately 20 ft tall. We backtracked a bit to find a way down to the base of the falls and then enjoyed the setting beside the lower and upper pools for a long time over lunch. It was special to be in a pristine spot beside a major falls with absolutely no evidence of humans and a major falls that few human eyes have ever seen. Perhaps most remarkable about Devils Falls is its setting nestled in an incredibly rugged cirque with vertical cliffs several hundred feet high towering above. This is one of the largest vertical cliffs in the Ventana, a feature I dubbed “Devils Spire” since the cliffs culminate in a distinctive point. I am more accustomed to seeing cliffs of this size in the Sierra Nevada.
I wanted to spend more time at this stunning falls but it was time go if we wished to keep open the possibility of accomplishing our reach goal of a large loop entailing creekwalking the entire length of the Middle Fork down to its confluence with the South Fork and then taking the South Fork up to Ojito Camp and the Gamboa Trail. There were many unknowns about this plan with virtually no information on any part of the creekwalk except Canogas Falls itself which we had just visited the prior week. We delayed the decision and decided to continue down the Middle Fork for an hour to see how it looked. Ultimately we decided to continue the loop, but we would have to be efficient to get out of the canyon before dark. With so many unknowns I did not want to be in the canyon micro-navigating in the dark. Things started out very well. The lower part of the Middle Fork has some pretty cascades and falls but the micro-navigating was fairly straightforward and not time-consuming. We made good time to the confluence and I was optimistic. 20 minutes later after ascending the lower reaches of the South Fork we were at beautiful Canogas Falls. We had certainly taken the more arduous route to Canogas this time vs the prior week! I will be having a special blog post dedicated to Canogas Falls from this prior trip since we were able to spend much more time (and swim!) at this spectacular falls on that trip.  
After another snack, we climbed up Canogas Falls and continued up the South Fork Devils Canyon. My research identified a mile long stretch above Canogas Falls that had potential for additional waterfalls. My suspicion proved true as we encountered a relentless set of waterfalls and challenging obstructions to overcome. At one point we stopped to look at the terrain ahead when Brian remarked “we’re f$^ked!” I thought he was just joking, especially since he was smiling, but he wasn’t. Ahead of us was a falls spitting out of a narrow notch in the vertical rock completely surrounded by tall cliffs extending well downstream. I knew there was a decent chance we could get around the falls on the south side so I was not ready to entertain ideas of aborting the route, which would require somehow getting a ride back to Memorial Park from Hwy 1. Brian wanted to visit the falls up close and despite copious poison oak and some awkward climbing moves it was a great decision. It’s a truly spectacular chasm as the falls tumbles out of a V-shaped notch in the cliffs with a large turquoise pool beneath it and an amphitheater of tall cliffs. Above the falls is a distinguished spire-like Santa Lucia Fir. I called the falls “Hellhole Falls” to fit with the Devil theme of the canyon and also the fact that it’s basically a hole presenting an impasse. We backtracked from Hellhole Falls and traversed some sloping rock to get into a loose and extremely steep chute that would enable us to get above the cliffs and traverse above the cliffs. After battling some thick brush we reached a rocky point where optimism grew that we would find another chute above the falls to descend back to the stream. Success! We had found a way around Hellhole Falls, which turned out to be the crux navigation of the route. 

As much as I wanted Hellhole Falls to be the last obstruction I knew that the topography supported more falls ahead. Indeed, we encountered several more falls with deep pools, rock scrambling and continuous micro-navigation. None of these falls required as extensive loop arounds as Hellhole Falls but the South Fork Devils Canyon is relentless with its challenges and complexities. Even after a long mellow part of the stream when I thought we would simply rock hop to Ojito Camp, the South Fork produced one last cavernous falls that required us to scramble some poison oak and moss covered rock. Needless to say, it was a great feeling to finally reach Ojito Camp. Despite all of the mental and physical challenges of the south fork, we actually made better time than I was expecting at the point where we decided to go for the loop. It was 7 pm and we would be well on our way back to Memorial Park on the trail before light faded. Ojito Camp itself is in disrepair and it looks like this camp rarely gets used since no trail reaches the camp. Meanwhile, Ojito Usecamp, at the base of the Ojito Camp Trail, seems to be the camp of choice for most these days. In fact, we met a couple who were surprised to see us. We told them what we had just done but I think it didn’t make any sense to them.

The Ojito Camp Trail up to Ojito Pass has a number of trees down over the trail but they are easy to get over and it was a highway compared to the 11 hours of creek walking we had just done. We enjoyed great evening light on the Gamboa Trail gazing down at South Fork Devils Canyon which we had just ascended. I turned my headlamp on at the junction with the Arroyo Seco Trail and from there it was a relatively quick run back to Memorial Park although the Arroyo Seco Trail is becoming quite brushy making quick running impossible. The adventure went about as well as I could have expected, especially considering how arduous and rugged the terrain is in the Devils Canyons.This is probably the premiere creek-walking adventure in the Ventana Wilderess based on the metrics of challenge, ruggedness, and major waterfalls encountered. While the route is mentally and physically exhausting, it also immensely rewarding. The beauty of the falls and pools in the Devils Canyons is enhanced by a distinct mineral deposit that accumulates on everything under water. Nowhere else in the Ventana have I seen such mineral deposits. I suspect that this deposit is limestone and it produces magical turquoise pools and ultimately turquoise waters along the Big Sur coastline between Big Creek and Limekiln. It was great to share the experience with Brian and I look forward to discovering more gems in this amazing region! 

Church Creek & Pine Valley

I have always been intrigued by the Church Creek and its massive sandstone formations. This canyon is rich in history and significance dating back to the Essalen Native Americans. I finally got around to visiting this awesome corner of the Ventana Wilderness on a beautiful spring day with patches of thick lupine on the ridges, a diverse display of wildflowers in the drainage, verdant green meadows in the heritage oak woodlands, and pleasant temperatures. I also made it over the other side Church Divide to the beautiful Pine Valley with it’s stately stand of Ponderosa Pines. I continued down the Carmel River to the very pretty Pine Falls, situated in a narrow canyon filled with Santa Lucia Firs. This is a beautiful part of the Ventana and I look forward to further explorations here. Strava GPS route here. Full photo album here.

I was tempted to make my visit to Church Creek a loop by running down the road, but I’m not a fan of roads if there is sweet single track nearby so I took the Pine Ridge trail to Church Divide and did an out-and-back into the Church Creek drainage. It turns out this was the right call with ideal morning light over lupine patches on the ridge above the Church Creek sandstone formations and excellent views to Ventana Double Cone. From the Church Creek Divide descending into Church Creek the trail is a bit eroded in spots with some brush but overall passable. There are peaks of beautiful sandstone formations among Santa Lucia Firs and pines that are certainly worth exploring in the future. Lower down, the foliage transitions from chaparral to a beautiful grassland with oak trees. After a lovely stretch the Bruce Church Ranch is reached. The dirt access road to the ranch is taken for awhile through more oak woodland and grassland before the single track resumes. This section of single track proved the most difficult of the day with brush encroaching in many spots along with very faint tread after spring growth. The trail drops into a small side drainage before steeply climbing out of the drainage on the other side and emerging onto grassy fields. From the grassy fields, the trail descends once more before making a climbing up to some of the best sandstone formations in the drainage. Along this fairly brushy climb a reportedly perennial creeklet is passed. The trail emerges from the brush into a flatter section that appears to have been brushed not too many years ago and reaches the high point where there are some awesome sandstone formations. One can climb to point 3,038 and explore the many sandstone caves and formations in the vicinity, known as the Church Creek Wind Caves.  These formations were formed over eons of wind, rain and erosion process. Beyond this point the trail descends to Wildcat Camp before one final climb through sandstone before the trail desends to meet the Tassajara dirt Road.

Church Creek is amazing spot and I could spend multiple days exploring the sandstone formations in the area, but I also wanted to return to the pleasant Pine Valley to visit PIne Falls. The trail into Pine Valley drops on the north side of Church Divide. It’s an excellent stretch of trail into Pine Valley passing through heritage oaks, ponderosa pines and Santa Lucia firs. The trail gradually descends into Pine Valley with its lovely meadows and stands of Ponderosa Pines. It really feels like a mountain environment and whenever I run through Pine Valley I get the feeling like I’m in the Sierra Nevada. From Pine Valley a use path follows the Carmel River, still in its incipient stages, downstream 0.7 miles to Pine Falls. The Carmel River quickly enters a narrow, rocky canyon filled containing one of the best groves of Santa Lucia Fir I have seen. The canyon is predominantly filled with this species, the rarest fir in the world and endemic to the northern Santa Lucia Mountains. This seems to be a perfect growing environment for the tree as some of the old growth Santa Lucias are enormous! The Carmel River progressively becomes steeper withe some small cascades before it plunges an estimated 40 feet into a clear pool. Flow over the falls is rarely large since it’s near the Carmel River headwaters, but the falls is particularly photogenic in a lush setting with moss clinging to the rocks and a very pretty forest of old growth Santa Lucia firs surrounding the falls.  Less than a quarter of a mile downstream of Pine Falls is another waterfalls and it appears few people know about it. I call it Lower Pine Falls and it’s an impressive sight worthy of the extra rock hop downstream. Lower Pine Falls is very different in character from Pine Falls. There is no large pool at Lower Pine Falls or lush canopy overhead. Instead, the falls is a series of large cascades over smooth bedrock scrubbed clean of moss in the open. This smooth bedrock is rather hazardous for climbing, but a hand line has been placed in the most precarious spot to assist. It’s a rather chaotic scene as Lower Pine Falls tumbles down the numerous steps strewn with large boulders and sculptured bedrock. The highest segment of the falls is the most impressive and concentrated while lower down the water course splits. This would be an amazing falls to see in higher flow. Back in beautiful Pine Valley, there are also interesting sandstone formations to explore. In particular there is a nice sculpted alcove tucked away in the sandstone block behind Jack English’s cabin. Strava GPS route here. Full photo album here

The Heart of the Ventana

This post is the third installment of a series on the Ventana Double Cone region, which features arguably the most rugged and wild coastal terrain in the contiguous United States. The first post described a repeat of “The Drain” route with a mini-loop addition to visit the stunning “Ventana Spires” and the second post detailed the Ventana Triple Crown which is a spectacular high ridge traverse from South Ventana Cone to Ventana Cone to Ventana Double Cone including several rocky and remote intermediary summits. This last posts describes a point-to-point route up beautiful Ventana Creek past 50 ft Ventana Falls to La Ventana (aka The Window) and Kandblinder Peak carrying over into the Little Sur drainage to finish at Bottcher’s Gap. This was one of the more rugged adventures I’ve done including Ventana Creek’s beautiful gorges and cascades amid old growth redwoods, the extremely remote and stunning Ventana Falls, an ultra-steep climb up to the namesake geographical feature of the Ventana Wilderness (La Ventana aka The Window), and spectacular views from Kandlbinder. From Ventana Camp to Jackson Camp it was an arduous but rewarding adventure over terrain that is grand, awe-inspiring and humbling at the same time – the heart of the Ventana. Full album here. GPS route hereThe route begins at Big Sur Station with some trail miles on the Pine Ridge Trail above the Big Sur River gorge. After 4 miles on the Pine Ridge Trail descend to Ventana Camp along the Big Sur River. Follow the Big Sur River downstream a short distance and then take a use path to the entrance of Ventana Creek. Ventana Creek is an amazing creek walk including narrow gorges with small waterfalls and rapids in a setting of lush redwoods, ferns and moss. The creek wading is often not optional since the walls of the canyon periodically come right down to the water course. Walking up Ventana Creek there is a strong sense of remoteness as few have traveled up this unspoiled waterway. Ventana Creek is not an advisable place to be in higher volume creek flow and there is ample evidence of the power of the water that comes down this canyon during winter storms.  It’s fairly slow going wading in the creek with innumerable step overs, immense redwood log jams, clear pools, small waterfalls and other obstacles to climb through, up and under. However, as creek walks go Ventana Creek is fairly efficient.  Near the confluence with the East Fork Ventana Creek the forest canopy parts for a moment providing glimpses of the cliffs and rocky buttresses 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 about 5.5 miles of creek walking in Ventana Creek, one gets a sense of the canyon walls closing in with a headwall approaching. First there is a thin falls coming coming in from the right on a tributary flowing off Kandlbinder. Then, a few feet later one rounds a corner and is treated to Ventana Falls, which tumbles an estimated 50 feet over reddish and white cliffs into a nearly circular amphitheater. Evidence of rocks and vegetation strewn about the base of the falls indicates it is very flashy during periods of heavy rains, but since it’s very close to the headwaters it appears flow returns to relatively light shortly thereafter. Ventana Falls is not particularly high and it does not maintain high volume, but it’s extremely remote setting in a reddish amphitheater of cliffs is stunning.

Getting around Ventana Falls to access the terrain upstream is perhaps the crux of the route. A few feet downstream of the falls is a loose gully in an active rock slide zone. There appears to be two options to get around the falls from here. The first option is to ascend the gully a short distance and find a way to climb a short vertical step of reddish rock. This rock is crumbly so extreme care must be taken. The second option is to ascend the gully about 100 vertical feet. About midway up the gully the loose rock is interspersed with solid bedrock. Carefully ascend the rock and look for a non-technical traverse that can be taken to exit the gully and access easier terrain that leads back down to Ventana Creek above the falls. Regardless of which route is chosen, the rock is extremely loose so caution must be taken with each move. Above the falls, the creek is characterized by a lot of large talus blocks which provide an efficient means of travel and gaining elevation as the grade becomes steeper. The creek disappears at times under talus so make sure to fill up water while it’s still easy to access.   At a broad, open section of talus, the main drainage curves into the Drain which flows up toward Ventana Double Cone, but to access the Window take a smaller gully to the left. This gully ultimately leads toward Kandlbinder, so one must be on the lookout for shallow gullies that trend up and right toward the Window. It seems there are several shallow gullies at the bottom but the correct one ascends toward the vertical cliff band that descends off the east side of La Ventana. I found the most solid talus to be immediately beneath these cliffs on the right side of the gully. The route up to La Ventana is a straightforward, albeit steep talus climb with no technicalities encountered. While the views from the Window proper are mostly obscured by the vegetation, there are excellent vistas of Ventana Double Cone and the Ventana Creek drainage on the way up. Immediately above La Ventana is a pinnacle that forms the western high point of the window frame.  This pinnacle has arguably the best view of the Ventana Double Cone region. At your feet is a sweeping vista of the rugged cliffs and buttresses above the east side of the Window stretching down into the Drain and the western face of Ventana Double Cone. It’s an awe-inspiring panorama that is unmatched in the Ventana in terms of the sheer ruggedness.From The Window or its western pinnacle it may be tempting to stay on the ridge crest which contains plentiful deadfall and brush. While this route on top of the ridge is feasible, it is definitely easier and likely faster to traverse on the north side of the ridge utilizing open terrain amid Santa Lucia Fir and talus. After some traversing a talus gully leads back toward the ridge crest where the final climb along the ridge to Kandlbinder is on open terrain with excellent views looking back to Ventana Double Cone. Kandlbinder is an awesome spot to soak in the 360 degree views including the entire Little Sur River drainage with Pico Blanco, Post Summit and Cabezo Prieto, Ventana Double Cone and the Drain, the Big Sur River drainage and distant views all the way to Cone Peak and Junipero Serra. The descent off Kandlbinder is a bit arduous on loose talus and scree fields, but one can find some plunge stepping lanes on the edges of the main rock gully. From the bottom of Kandlbinder’s gully, walk down the drainage (the headwaters of the LIttle Sur River) until a very small climb leads up and over a saddle into the Jackson Creek drainage. At this point a use path becomes more defined and as one descends into Jackson Creek it’s important to stay on this use path which is fairly efficient in its upper portion. As the use path descends further into the Jackson Creek drainge there is increasing deadfall to negotiate but the general idea is stay near the creek alternating sides to utilize the path of least resistance. While going down Jackson Creek is certainly easier than going up, it’s not a great deal amount faster due to all of the blowdowns. Near the bottom of Jackson Creek is pretty Firehose Falls with a small but beautiful pool. The confluence with the Little Sur River is just beyond. While there are several crossings of the Little Sur River, the trail becomes much easier to Jackson Camp and on to Pico Blanco Boyscout Camp and finally the dirt road up to Bottcher’s Gap.  

The Drain & Ventana Spires

This post covers the first in a series of routes in the Ventana Double Cone region which features arguably the most rugged and wild coastal terrain in the contiguous United States. This first route is a repeat of “The Drain” route I did last year with Joey Cassidy with a mini-loop addition to visit the “Ventana Spires” which are stunning rocky pinnacles situated on a narrow ridge across from Ventana Double Cone with the headwaters of Ventana Mesa Creek in between. The next two posts will detail (1) the Ventana Triple Crown which is a spectacular high ridge traverse from South Ventana Cone to Ventana Cone to Ventana Double Cone and (2) a point-to-point route up beautiful Ventana Creek past 50 ft Ventana Falls to The Window (aka La Ventana) and Kandblinder carrying over into the Little Sur drainage to finish at Bottcher’s Gap.  Strava GPS route for the Drain and Ventana Spires hereMy route on this day was a repeat of the Drain Route from April 2014 plus a mini-loop to visit the awesome Ventana Spires.  The Drain became one of my favorite routes that I’ve done when I did it in April 2014 so I knew it was amazing, but I was still in awe of the sheer ruggedness and beauty of the cirque between Kandlbinder and Ventana Double Cone on the second time. In fact, this time may have been more enjoyable knowing that the route would go without issue. The Ventana Creek cirque provides a real sense of adventure in a truly wild canyon that is rugged and unspoiled and it was a pleasure to revisit. A route description and more details on the Drain route between Kandlbinder and Ventana Double Cone can be found here, but I’ve included a whole bunch of photos in this post from this year’s trip through the drain.    After completing the Drain route and topping out on Ventana Double Cone, I descended into the headwaters of Ventana Mesa Creek via an efficient gully through Santa Lucia Fir groves and talus. From the creek I took another steep talus gully with some rock scramblingn up to the Ventana Spires, which have remarkably rugged and precipitous SE faces. “Ventana Spires” is an unofficial name for these rocky pinnacles, but seems very fitting. Their position in the most remote region of the wilderness makes them particularly special. Few people have have stood atop the spires. There are three prominent points along the ridge make up the Ventana Spires and I’ve chosen to call them the north, middle and south Ventana Spires. The spires increase in height from north to south. From the north spire the ridge continues north gradually losing elevation on terrain that looks fairly brush free; a potential future project to explore down the ridge. Drain Spires routeDrain Spires route closeThe middle spire has an impressive view of the south spire with the wild east fork of Ventana Creek in the background. The south spire has perhaps the most dramatic view looking back to the middle spire and its sheer SE cliffs. All of the spires have amazing views across the expanse of wilderness and Santa Lucia Firs to Ventana Cone including the intermediary summits I dubbed “Lion Rock” and “Ventana Knob.”  I traversed the two highest spires (Middle and South) and then descended to the saddle between the Ventana Spires and Ventana Double Cone (VDC). Last time I experienced some thick brush in this section, but this time I was able to avoid most of the brush by staying on the south side of the ridge where there was a corridor of brush free scrambling between the cliffs and the brush. The 3rd class scrambling on the Ventana Spires traverse and the East Ridge of VDC were highly enjoyable in a stunning setting. I enjoyed the afternoon light from VDC and then began the trail run back to Bottcher’s Gap along the Ventana Double Cone Trail to Pat Springs and the Skinner Ridge Trail from pat Springs to Bottcher’s Gap. The Ventana Double Cone Trail from the summit to Puerto Suello Gap was characteristically overgrown. As usual, the cold and clear water at Pat Springs was a most welcome sight. Strava GPS route for the Drain and Ventana Spires here

Pick Creek Loop

Pick Creek features some of the most beautiful creek walking I have seen in the Ventana Wilderness. The centerpiece is stunning Pick Creek Falls which shoots over a ledge with an 80 ft free-fall into a large, clear pool surrounded by lovely grove of old growth Santa Lucia Firs. Just downstream of Pick Creek Falls is a confluence with Bathtub Creek, which is aptly named since just upstream of this confluence are a series of gorgeous cascades and pools that look like bathtubs. Downstream of the confluence with Bathtub Creek, Pick Creek winds its way down a steep canyon to the South Fork Big Sur River. Along the way, the creek has numerous picturesque cascade and two impressive gorges with deep pools and small waterfalls. The gorges and pools are deep enough to require a bypass, each time on the north side of the creek. The entire canyon is filled with moss, ferns, cliffs and Santa Lucia Firs in a pristine setting.

Upon reaching the end of Pick Creek at its confluence with the South Fork Big Sur River, the fun does not end. While the South Fork Big Sur River is more mellow in its character than Pick Creek and there is a trail (albeit very faint in spots), the deep canyon features a remarkably beautiful forest composed of Santa Lucia Firs and Incense Cedars. In fact, the cedars are the dominant species in certain spots and many of the trees are old growth making this the largest and most intact grove of Incense Cedar that I have seen in the Santa Lucia Mountains, which are otherwise quite rare in teh range. Within about 0.5 miles of Rainbow Camp is picturesque Rainbow Falls, which tumbles into a lush amphitheater of ferns. The 55 ft falls is never a high volume falls since its upstream drainage is small, but its beauty lies in the lush setting and delicate nature. The Pick Creek Loop is an aesthetic 27 mile loop that I designed which packages all of the beauty of Pick Creek and the South Fork Big Sur described above, with some magnificent coastal scenery along Anderson Direct and the De Angulo Trail.  Along with dozens of photos of the scenery, the remainder of this post describes the sites and experiences along this phenomenal loop. I completed the loop a week after a winter storm with substantial rain and I recommend seeing it when the falls and creeks have decent flow. GPS track here.

The day started with one of the steeper climbs in Big Sur up 3,500+ feet from McWay falls to Anderson Peak. The brush on the lower part is filling in vigorously but the upper part is the same blowdown mess. Definitely an arudous route, but overall it’s still an efficient and scenic route to Anderson Peak from Hwy 1. Only three condors today. From Anderson Peak I ran north along Coast Ridge Road for 2 miles before dropping into the Pick Creek drainage. The upper part of Pick Creek drainage is fairly mellow with a valley including some nice meadows. Downstream of the meadows the cross country travel is fairly easy. The watercourse quickly becomes rugged requiring walking beside or in the watercourse and before I knew it I was on top of Pick Creek Falls, a picturesque 80 foot drop into a circular pool with hanging gardens of ferns. I especially like the setting of this falls amid Santa Lucia Firs. I went down to the pool and my timing was good as while I was there sunlight illuminated the entire falls. After enjoying the falls I headed downstream and took the Bathtub Creek tributary a short ways upstream to a series of pools and waterfalls known as the Bathtubs. I suspect there might be more pools further upstream that would be worth checking out next time. After the Bathtubs, I returned to Pick Creek and headed downstream to the South Fork Big Sur River. Pick Creek is stunning with numerous cascades, moss, ferns, and lined with Santa Lucia Firs the entire way. I followed the stream with two exceptions where the creek entered into narrow gorges withe deep pools and small waterfalls. The bypasses was fairly straightforward. Despite the creek walk in Pick Creek being time-consuming and arduous, it was bittersweet to reach South Fork Camp since I enjoyed Pick Creek so much. From South Fork Camp I was able to follow the South Fork Trail most of the way but there were a few sections that were uncertain. I enjoyed the forest of incense cedars and Santa Lucia Firs. I also saw the infamous South Fork wild board. There was an annoying blowdown section before Rainbow Falls, but that was soon forgotten when I saw the beautiful 50 foot falls with an amphitheater of hanging ferns. I went down to the base of the falls, had a snack, and then returned to the trail. Last time I was at Rainbow Falls it was merely a trickle so it was great to see it in flow and the fern gardens happy after recent rains. The final section of the South Fork Trail to Rainbow Camp is in great shape. From Rainbow Camp, it was up the Devils Staircase to Cold Springs and Coast Ridge Road. The ticks and other insects were out in abundance on this section, the downside to summer-like weather in February. I reached Cold Springs just after 5 pm and figured I had a chance to reach McWay Falls before darkness. I ran down the DeAngulo Trail with a pretty sunset and then hustled down Hwy 1 back to McWay Falls before the last light had faded. Another amazing day in the Ventana!  GPS track here.

Last Chance Falls

When in flow, Last Chance Falls is arguably the most dramatic waterfall in the Ventana Wilderness. The falls flows over an overhanging precipice with a 120 foot free fall with a large cavern behind the falls. A natural amphitheater of cliffs surrounds the falls. The ephemeral nature of Last Chance Falls perhaps makes it more special and requires planning, or more accurately, waiting, for the ideal conditions. The drainage upstream of the falls, the headwaters of the South Fork Santa Lucia Creek, is relatively small and in a climatologically dry part of the range. However, in early February an atmospheric river impacted the central coast interrupting months of virtually dry weather. Rainfall amounts were healthy over the Ventana Wilderness but particularly over the Santa Lucia Creek drainage, which is typically a drier region on the east side of the range but received impressive rainfall  totals of around ~6 inches in just a couple days. This provided a great opportunity to see Last Chance Falls in flow. By “in flow” I mean a solid stream of water from the top to the base of the falls. The falls becomes merely a trickle in summer and fall and otherwise has no flow or low flow for all but a handful days of the year immediately following heavy rains. This is a quintessential flashy waterfall, and especially flashy after an atmospheric river event during an unprecedented multi-year drought. GPS route here.

A great viewpoint of the falls is located on the Santa Lucia Trail as it switchbacks out of the Canyon. One can also travel cross country following the South Fork Santa Lucia Creek upstream to immediately underneath the falls with exploration of the pool and cavern. The setting of the falls is magical. Visiting Last Chance Falls also provides an opportunity to explore the immensely scenic Santa Lucia Creek gorge, including the 35 ft Jeff Falls, which is picturesque, particularly in the high flow we experienced. Next to Jeff Falls is Mutt Falls, a tall but skinny falls from a side tributary. Both Jeff and Mutt Falls are visible at the same time and are aptly named by Jack Glendening (http://bigsurtrailmap.net/ creator) after the historically popular comic strip with similarly proportioned characters.  Dr. Jack also named Last Chance Falls after the the camp downstream in beautiful meadows of the same name. In my opinion, Last Chance is a great name for this ephemeral falls.  Jeff Falls is much less flashy than Last Chance Falls since its water source includes the main stem of Santa Lucia Creek which drains a region several times the size of the South Fork Santa Lucia Creek alone. Thus, if Jeff Falls is running low, Last Chance Falls may be a trickle or bone dry.

As a shorthand, I’ve determined that flow of 250cfs or greater on the Arroyo Seco River will yield a an “in flow” Last Chance Falls but to really bring out the beauty of the falls it seem flow of 500cfs or greater is needed on the Arroyo Seco. The Santa Lucia Creek gorge entails several crossings of Santa Lucia Creek which was running high (Arroyo Seco was ~550 cfs on this day). If the flow was much higher the lower part of the Santa Lucia trail would be impassable. Thus, it would not be advisable to access Last Chance Falls via the Santa Lucia Creek gorge if at peak flow immediately after big rainfall events. Instead, use the Arroyo Seco-Indians Road and drop down into the drainage after the South Fork Santa Lucia Creek has branched off. The Arroyo Seco-Indians Road has some awesome views of the Arroyo Seco canyon and the interior of the Ventana Wilderness. Another great addition is the ridge immediately above the Arroyo Seco campground. A use path runs across the spine of this ridge and includes some fantastic views of the Arroyo Seco region. 

Carmel River Gorge

The headwaters of the Carmel River drains the northeast side of the Ventana Wilderness in some of the most rugged and remote terrain in the Santa Lucia Mountains. I have greatly enjoyed exploring some of this terrain recently and look forward to returning for more adventures in this stunning region of the Ventana. Deep in the Carmel River canyon is a remarkable gorge that is one of the highlights of the Carmel River and in my opinion, the entire Ventana. The gorge contains towering cliffs, a deep pool, a beautiful slick rock cascade and a major waterfall along the main stem of the Carmel River. This extremely rugged section of the river is remarkably hidden despite the Carmel River Trail and Round Rock Camp Trail passing nearby. Accessing the gorge from Hiding Canyon Camp one must simply follow the river upstream instead of taking the trail uphill toward Hiding Canyon. At first alders line the river with a splendid grove of Santa Lucia Firs on the hillsides. Soon the canyon walls narrow requiring travel in the river bed. At the confluence with Ventana Mesa Creek, a picturesque waterfall tumbles off slick rock into a pool on Ventana Mesa Creek just above the river.

Beyond the confluence with Ventana Mesa Creek, the Carmel River gorge grows even narrower and one must avoid deeper pools by scrambling on the slick rock. The tall cliffs shield the gorge from sunlight most of the day resulting in a lush environment of moss and ferns. However, lower down the polished rock is bare and smooth manifesting the tremendous power of water that comes through during winter storms. This is obviously not a good place to be in high volume! Approaching the climax of the chiseled gorge the cliffs become overhanging. At this point one arrives at a deep pool and further progress requires swimming to reach a major waterfall along the river which is located around a corner. While a good view of the falls from cannot be achieved from this point without swimming, it is possible to gain a great vantage from above via the Round Rock Camp Trail that passes upstream of the gorge and falls. The Round Rock Camp Trail descends from the junction with the Carmel River Trail to a crossing point of the Carmel River that is remarkably calm. The only thing hinting at a major waterfall and gorge downstream is the noise of falling water, but even this is fairly muted compared to what actually lies below. A short distance downstream the river enters a beautiful slick rock cascade. The cascade includes a swift “luge track” on a slick rock and a couple circular mini pools I like to call the “teacups.”  Just downstream of the teacups is the most dramatic feature of the gorge, the ~50 ft falls on the main stem of the Carmel River. When viewed from above on ledges, the setting for this beautiful falls is stunning with the deep gorge below and tall cliffs above with overhanging shelves at the top of the gorge with Santa Lucia Firs clinging to the rocks. I visited the gorge in relatively low flow but I’m very interested to return in medium flow. Upstream of the gorge and falls the Carmel River is relatively mellow but still beautiful with occasional cascades and lush sections with ferns and moss. While I have not ventured beyond the confluence with Blue Creek, I understand that it remains fairly mellow until reaching Pine Falls. This blog post contains many photos of the magnificent gorge and the Carmel River canyon. I’ve also included a video which is perhaps the best way to capture the scope of the falls.