Sugar Falls was a splendid discovery in the Santa Lucia Mountains of Big Sur. The falls is tucked into a steep canyon and not visible from any trails or nearby high points. There are many gems of the Ventana Wilderness and Big Sur that have little or no information which makes it that much more fun adventuring in these mountains.
With excellent memories of Canogas Falls from last year I was eager to return during this year’s open house at Big Creek Reserve. Located deep in Devils Canyon on the South Fork Devils Canyon Creek which drains the remote north side of Cone Peak, Canogas Falls is one of the most stunning waterfalls in Big Sur. The falls includes multiple steps totaling 80 ft with spectacular turquoise pools in between each step. The falls is nestled between rugged cliffs with a lush redwood forest at the base of the falls making it a magical setting. Part of what makes Canogas and all of the falls in Devils Canyon so special is the thick mineral accumulation on any surface submerged in water. This accumulation creates an overhanging apron over the tallest segment of the falls and also produces the striking turquoise water in the pools. The accumulation also serves as a growing opportunity for moss and other lush vegetation producing a hanging garden beside the water channel. While Canogas Falls is within the Ventana Wilderness, the easiest access entails passing through Big Creek Reserve which is closed to the public for all but one day of the year. The following includes many photos of one of my favorite waterfalls in Big Sur and a few shots from the rest of our day at the Big Creek Reserve including the hot springs along Big Creek.
Between Julie Pfieffer Burns State Park and Limekiln State Park is a long stretch of amazingly beautiful Big Sur coastline that unfortunately lies on private land precluding exploration beyond the turnouts along Highway 1. However, on one day of the year a section of this coastline opens to the general public at the Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve. This reserve is part of the University of California Natural Reserve System with a mission to further university-level teaching, research and public service at protected natural areas. In order to foster the on-site research and education principles, the reserve is closed to the public for all but one day of the year (usually the second Saturday in May). The Big Creek reserve encompasses rugged canyons that drain the region to the north and west of Cone Peak, the King of Big Sur, and is located within arguably the most scenic region in all of Big Sur. Big Creek is a treasure and well-deserving of its protection. It was great to explore a section of the Big Sur coast that I have never seen and I look forward to returning next year.
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.
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 here. The 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.
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 here. My 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. The 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 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.