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!