Santa Lucia Three Peaks

The Santa Lucia Three Peaks is classic route that includes the summits of three major peaks in the Ventana Wilderness – Cone Peak, Twin Peak and Junipero Serra Peak. Along the way there are great views of both the Big Sur Coast and the interior Ventana Wilderness. While mostly utilizing trails, the route does feature three prominent cross-country ridges, the North Ridge of Cone Peak, the traverse between Cone Peak and Twin Peak, and the West Ridge of Twin Peak.  These prominent off-trail ridges are probably the highlight of the route and make it an adventure.  With the exception of redwoods, the route contains the entire array of Ventana vegetation, including perhaps the best Santa Lucia fir forest in existence, the most extensive stand of old growth Sugar Pines in the Santa Lucia Mountains, and rare grove of incense cedars in the Arroyo Seco river canyon. It’s a big route coming in over 32 miles with nearly 10,000 feet of elevation gain and the off-trail portions are fairly arduous and slow compared to the trails.  Strava route here.

The route starts at Santa Lucia Memorial Park Campground after a drive through Fort Hunter Liggett (note: Del Venturi Road is closed after heavy rain). From Memorial Park, the Arroyo Seco Trail provides quick access to the North Coast Ridge Trail on a great single track.  This upper section of the Arroyo Seco canyon is surprisingly lush and enchanting with madrone, oak, Santa Lucia Firs and a rare grove of Incense Cedars. Climbing out of the canyon, the vegetation turns more chaparral with a young forest of knobcone pine. On the north coast ridge, the trail climbs to Tin Can Camp with a great view looking back to Junipero Serra Peak and an awesome stretch through Sugar Pine and Coulter Pine forest.  At the junction with the Gamboa Trail, veer left to continue on the North Coast Ridge Trail. Cross a rocky slope and then begin descending on the east side of Cone Peak before finding an easy gap to gain the crest of the north ridge of Cone Peak. The first part of the north ridge is easy open terrain with a use path in sections. The second part of the north ridge becomes more rugged with bits of scrambling in spots and a couple places where you must come off the ridge to the west side to avoid loose rock formations on the ridge crest proper. This second part of the north ridge has phenomenal views and an airy feeling with lots of relief on both sides of the serrated rocky ridge, especially on the east side where cliffs plunge several hundred feet. 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 scrambling is very enjoyable on the north ridge, but it doesn’t last long before the familiar fire lookout atop 5,155 ft Cone Peak comes into view. Cone Peak is the King of the Big Sur Coast and third highest point in the Santa Lucia Mountains. It features the most dramatic relief from the ocean in the contiguous United States as only 3 miles separate its summit from the sands. After enjoying the marvelous views from Cone Peak, descend the Cone Summit Trail for a short distance and take the ridge connecting Cone Peak to Twin Peak. This cross country route features a couple scrambling moves but is largely a use path along the ridge.  

After summiting Twin Peak, continue down the West Ridge of Twin. At first, it is best to stay on the north side of the ridge in old growth Sugar Pine forest with an open understory. Some large downfalls slow travel but ultimately you reach the grassy slopes of the lower part of the ridge. The only paths on this ridge are made by game and their feet are much narrow than humans. The result is steep sidehilling than can become tiring but the views more than compensate. Eventually the grassy ridge terminates at the Stone Ridge Trail-Gamboa Trail junction at Ojito Pass. From Ojito Pass take the Gamboa Trail as it traverses through the headwaters of the South Fork Devils Canyon passing through arguably the most complete Santa Lucia forest in existence. A reliable spring is located at Trail Spings (can be a seep in late summer and fall). Continue along the Gamboa Trail past Trail Springs and climb to the junction with the North Coast Ridge Trail. From this junction retrace steps back to Santa Lucia Memorial Park Campground.

From Memorial Park, head south down the road a short distance and find the Santa Lucia Trail/Junipero Serra Peak Trailhead. For the first couple miles, the Santa Lucia Trail is very runnable as it undulates through grassland and oak woodland. However, the final four miles to the summit of Junipero Serra Peak become steep rising over 3,500 feet over that distance. This climb is a real challenge after the preceding climbs of Cone Peak and Twin Peak. It is not advisable on a warm day, especially in the afternoon since most of the climb is exposed south-facing chaparral. The vegetation changes in the last mile to the summit when the trail rounds a corner onto the north side of the peak where there is a pleasant forest of Sugar Pine and Coulter Pine. The broad summit of Junipero Serra Peak (aka Pimkolam by the Native Americans) is the highest point in the Santa Lucia Mountains at 5,862 feet. The summit has a nice vista looking west to Cone Peak, the Silver Peak Wilderness region, and also north to Ventana Double Cone. If Cone Peak is the King of Big Sur and Ventana Double Cone is the Queen of the Ventana, Junipero Serra is the grandfather of the Santa Lucias (Pico Blanco is the prince of Big Sur and Silver Peak is the princess of the South Coast). There is a summit a register on the east side of the ridge located on a cement foundation. The old dilapidated fire lookout on the west side of the ridge has virtually nothing left but its steel frame. There are also some old artifacts on the ridge, including an old cot frame. Enjoy the descent, which is virtually all downhill to the finish at Memorial Park; you will have earned it!  Strava route here.

Into the Wild on the Big Sur Trail

The Big Sur Trail is a rugged, overgrown trail, but the reward for the arduous effort is passage through the remote north and south forks of the wild and scenic Big Sur River. We also visited Rainbow Falls along the South Fork Big Sur River, rock hopping through the spectacular stream bed to reach this remote, hidden waterfall. Perhaps only in the bottom of the South Fork Big Sur River canyon can one find a forest composed of redwoods, Santa Lucia Firs and Coulter Pines, all living side by side. The wilderness feeling in these canyons is unparalleled.  It was a treat to see the wild and scenic canyons of the Big Sur River, arguably the heart of the Ventana Wilderness. It’s no wonder the trail posses the name “Big Sur,” the descriptive name for this rugged section of California coastline. The Basin Complex Fire in 2008 served to temporarily clear out the brush, but 5 years later the vegetation and impediments have returned with a vengeance. The remote nature of the route, and its reputation for brush, blowdowns and route finding issues explains why so few people venture into these canyons. The grand finale was a run down Boronda Ridge in evening light with an amazing sunset over the golden hills and Big Sur coastline. I had the pleasure of joining Brian Robinson for this adventure. Brian knows this trail well and spoke highly of the beauty of this region which got my imagination going and was the impetus for this trip. After seeing the Big Sur Trail for myself, I agree that it’s a gem and worth the effort. I will definitely be returning for further exploration. Strava route here.

We began by running up the Pine Ridge Trail to Sykes Hot Springs. Unlike most of the Ventana trail network, the 10 mile stretch of the Pine Ridge Trail is a well-maintained wilderness freeway with no severe ups and downs making it an enjoyable trail run. Beyond Sykes Hot Springs, the terrain was new for me and the quality of the trail decreased. After some switchbacks above Sykes, the trail traverses a steep slope (erosion in spots) with excellent views down to the confluence of the south and north forks of the Big Sur River and up the rugged canyon of the north fork. Rounding a corner in to the Redwood Creek drainage is an excellent view of an ancient redwood grove that was miraculously spared in the Basin Complex Fire. The trail descends into this beautiful grove where an excellent camp spot is located among towering redwoods and a verdant stream. Emerging from this redwood grove, one begins to see more evidence of the devastation of the 2008 fires. Along most of the Big Sur River, the redwoods have filled in and the scars of fire are becoming less striking. However, in the section from redwood camp to Cienega Creek the fire burned hot and the survival rate much less. The trail descends down the brushy and fire-scarred Cienega Creek drainage to the North Fork of the Big Sur River.

Beyond the North Fork, the trail begins many brushy switchbacks up to a small pass along a ridge that separates the north and south forks of the Big Sur River. The top of this pass represents a dividing line in fire behavior. On the south fork side, the vegetation was much less impacted with pines and oak woodland seemingly unharmed. I very much enjoyed the descent into the South Fork of the Big Sur River with some brush-free stretches of trail and excellent views into the wild and remote south fork canyon.  At the bottom of the canyon is a spectacular forest of redwoods, pine trees, and Santa Lucia Firs. It’s an ethereal scene seeing Santa Lucia Firs standing proud at the bottom of the canyon when I’m more accustomed to seeing them high on rocky ridges. At Rainbow Camp along the South Fork Big Sur River we took the remnants of the South Fork Trail to a sport where we could descend back to the river. From here, we rock hopped downstream to a small tributary that I guessed (correctly) was flowing from Rainbow Falls. We scrambled a short distance up this tributary and were treated to an awesome 55 foot drop of Rainbow Falls with a gorgeous amphitheater setting of rock and hanging gardens. The environment was relatively dry and water volume low due to the drought, but it was an awesome sight to see.  After the waterfall, we rocked hopped all the way back to Rainbow Camp. Along this stretch of the river I felt the genuine wilderness feeling in this rarely trodden canyon. It was as if we were traveling into the wild of the Ventana Wilderness. Back at Rainbow Camp, we had a snack and then continued on the Big Sur Trail to Mocho Camp about 0.5 miles distant.

Along the way there is a fantastic view looking down the South Fork with Santa Lucia Firs, Redwoods and pines filling the canyon and Ventana Double Cone towering above (first photo below). In my opinion this vista epitomizes the Ventana.  Beyond Mocho Camp is a section known as the Devil’s Staircase, so named after the long and arduous climb up numerous switchbacks from Mocho Creek to Logwood Creek. I had read reports of this section having heinous brush, routefinding problems and lots of blow downs, but I found that while the trail was brushy and difficult, travel was not unreasonable and we actually made good progress the entire way to Cold Springs, the end of the Big Sur Trail. In fairness, we came prepared for the conditions.  I wore gaiters and board shorts while Brian wore pants so our legs were completely covered from the scratchy brush. We also had gloves to push aside anything in our way. I highly recommend an outfit that protects the legs to make the Big Sur Trail an enjoyable experience. After grabbing some water at Cold Springs we took the Coast Ridge Road down to Timber Top just in time for evening light down Boronda Ridge. The run down Boronda Ridge that evening culminating in sunset is about as good as it gets; nothing short of amazing!  Boronda is the most elegant grassy ridge in all of Big Sur and timing was perfect. The clarity down the coast was phenomenal and I soaked it all in as much as I could while filling my cameras with as many photos as could take. It was one of those magical stretches in Big Sur that keep me coming back for more. All I could say upon arriving at the trailhead along Hwy 1 was “Wow!”  Strava route here

Ventana Double Cone

If Cone Peak is the King of the Big Sur Coast, Ventana Double Cone is the Queen of the Ventana Wilderness. Rising 4,853 ft above sea level, no other peak in the Ventana Wilderness possesses such a rugged face as Ventana Double Cone’s west and south aspects. Aptly named, the mountain features twin summits of nearly identical height, but it’s the southern summit that contains an astounding 360 degree view of the surrounding wilderness and Big Sur coastline. The peak serves as the divide for three major drainages in the northern Ventana Wilderess: the Little Sur River, the Big Sur River and the Carmel River. On a clear day, one can look north to Monterey Bay, Santa Cruz, the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Diablo Range. To the south lies the wild and scenic Big Sur River drainage, the Coast Ridge, Junipero Serra Peak and Cone Peak. To the east is Pine Valley, Chews Ridge, Ventana Cone, Pine Ridge, and South Ventana Cone.  Immediately below is the immensely rugged and wild cirque that forms the headwaters of Ventana Creek. Across this impressive cirque and close at hand is La Ventana (aka the Window) and Kandlbinder Peak with Pico Blanco’s unmistakable white apron rising directly above La Ventana notch. Strava route here.

Adding to the allure of Ventana Double Cone is its remote position. The mountain is viewable from the trailhead at Bottcher’s Gap, but it requires nearly 15 miles on trail each direction (nearly 30 miles total) to reach. Moreover, there is quite a bit of undulating up and down en route which means lots of elevation gain can be expected in both directions (nearly 9,000 feet in all).  Finally, the trail (particularly after Little Pines) can become brushy with sharp and scratchy chaparral so it’s advisable to cover the legs as much as possible for a more pleasant experience. While it’s a long way to Ventana Double Cone, the route is immensely scenic the entire distance. Largely following the ridge crest that forms the rim of the Little Sur River drainage, the scenery is spectacular and the forested sections are very pleasant. The first miles are in a madrone and oak forest up Skinner Ridge and then up to Devils Peak, which provides the first panoramic views from the route. From Devils Peak to Pat Springs, there are plenty of gorgeous grassy meadows with spectacular vistas to Pico Blanco, Ventana Double Cone and Kandlbinder Peak. Approaching Pat Springs, the vegetation transitions to ponderosa pine with a magnificent stand of old growth trees near the springs that survived the 2008 Basin Complex Fire. Pat Springs features cool, pure spring waters and it’s a must stop for any traveler continuing beyond to Ventana Double Cone. While there may be water in the springs beyond, none are as easy to access and as reliable as Pat Springs.

Beyond Pat Springs, the trail ascends through ponderosa pine forest to Little Pines and then gradually descends around the west side of Uncle Sam Mountain to Puerto Suello Pass. At this point the trail becomes more brushy with the worst brush located in the miles immediately south of Puerto Suello. Eventually the trail emerges from the brush on the final ridge leading to Ventana Double Cone. As one nears the summit, Coulter pines and Santa Lucia Firs grow strong next to the trail with increasingly broader views into the valleys and canyons below. The culmination of the journey is an amazing summit panorama where one feels like they’re on top of the world, or at least the Ventana! A fire lookout once stood at the summit, but has long been dismantled (I recommend similarly dismantling the ugly lookout atop Cone Peak which only serves to get in the way of the views).  From Ventana Double Cone, it’s hard to not spend a lot of time soaking in the spectacular summit views, staring down into the rugged cirque of Ventana Creek, and admiring the tenacity of the Santa Lucia Firs clinging to the steep and rocky mountainsides. The following photos and route map are from a trip Ventana Double Cone on a clear day in late December, but we have since returned to the region to complete an off-trail traverse from Kandlbinder to La Ventana to Ventana Double Cone, which formed a large loop including the Jackson Creek route and the Ventana Double Cone Trail described above. We have called this route the “La Ventana Loop.”  Stay tuned to this blog for details and many more photos from the La Ventana Loop and other Big Sur adventures!  Strava route here.

For a 360 annotated panorama from the summit of Ventana Double Cone click here or the image below: 

Cone Peak & Beyond

Cone Peak is the King of the Big Sur Coast and a visit to the region is always awesome. Rising 5,155 ft above the Pacific Ocean in around 3 miles as the crow flies, the summit has a commanding view of the region with stunning coastal vistas. The rugged topography is simply spectacular with a background of deep blue ocean a constant. The diversity of vegetation on the mountain is fascinating, including redwood, grassland, oak, and Santa Lucia alpine forest with the rare Santa Lucia Fir, Coulter Pines, and Sugar Pines. This time, I joined Brian Robinson for a repeat of the Stone Ridge Direct “Sea to Sky” route that I did last Spring. We also added on a very worthwhile extension from Trail Spring to Tin Can Camp. Iinstead of taking the Twitchell Flat use trail from Hwy 1, we took a more aesthetic route from Limekiln Beach and through Limekiln Park to a new trail (currently under construction) that links up with the Twitchell Flat use path in the West Fork Limekiln Creek drainage. Stone Ridge was every bit as amazing the second time around with mesmerizing ocean views with each step; perhaps my favorite route in all of the Big Sur coast. From the top of Twin Peak we traversed the rocky ridge all the way to the Cone Peak Trail which included a couple rock moves on the spine of the ridge. After visiting the Cone Peak lookout, we descended the trail on the north side which was an extremely treacherous ice skating rink of snow and ice. We gingerly walked through this section utilizing any kind of traction we could find. We arrived at Trail Spring happy to be done with that stretch.

After filing up water bottles at Trail Spring we continued along the Gamboa Trail north. This section was brand new to me and I enjoyed the views down the South Fork Devils Canyon and the beautiful alpine forest of Santa Lucia Firs and Sugar Pines. After a climb, we reached the junction with the North Coast Ridge Trail and continued north along North Coast Ridge Trail, entering a lovely Sugar Pine forest near Cook Camp. Beyond Cook Camp, the North Coast Ridge Trail emerges from the forest along a high ridgecrest with amazing views down the wild and rugged Middle Fork Devils Canyon on one side and Junipero Serra Peak (Pimkolam Summit in Native American) on the other side. We made Tin Can Camp the logical turnaround spot and enjoyed the spectacular views from a rocky outcropping. From this point, we talked about continuing along the North Coast Ridge Trail and then Coast Ridge Road all the way to Big Sur, a future project we were eager to tackle. After retracing our steps to Trail Springs and filling up water one last time, we continued along the Gamboa Trail west, one of my favorite stretches of single track in the Santa Lucia Fir forest. We took the Stone Ridge Trail back to the rocky knoll and ~2,100 ft and then the Stone Ridge use path down into Limekiln Park. After the adventure run, I drove out to Pacific Valley Bluff and snapped some great sunset photos of Stone Ridge and Cone Peak.  It was another great day Cone Peak and I’m already planning future adventures on the mountain!  Strava route here.