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.

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.

Junipero Serra Peak

It’s fairly rare for a modified arctic cold front to sweep into central California. However, in early December a cold, dry continental airmass overspread the region. With the cold air in place, attention turned to the possibility of low elevation snow on local mountains. All we needed was moisture. It seemed like wishes would come true with a system coming in from the north late in the week. In fact, the National Weather Service office in Monterey issued a winter weather advisory two days out from the event, specifically calling out the Santa Lucia Mountains for up to 6 inches of snow. Stoke level was high for a snow day on Cone Peak’s Stone Ridge. Well, things didn’t turn out as initially forecasted and the winter weather advisory did not verify. Snow levels wound up being much higher and only the highest peaks in the Santa Lucia Mountains received snowfall (>4,500 ft). Why?  The low pressure tracked from near Crescent City, California to Lake Tahoe placing the central coast on the south side of the low. In this sector, onshore winds brought in relatively mild air off the Pacific Ocean just as the heaviest precipitation arrived. In fact, temperatures increased as the event unfolded despite it being in the middle of the night. Once the cold front passed, snow levels plummeted once again, but by then very little moisture was left. All things considered, it seemed highly unlikely snow accumulated on Stone Ridge between 2,500-3,800 ft (we were right).  At this time Joey came up with a plan B – Junipero Serra Peak. As the highest point in the Santa Lucia Mountians at 5,862 ft, Junipero Serra Peak stood the best chance of having some snow accumulation. The route would be only 12.4 miles roundtrip but feature over 4,000 ft of climbing.  It turned out to be a great idea!   Strava route here

The group for this adventure included Joey Cassidy, Flyin’ Brian Robinson and Brian Rowlett. From the trailhead we could see some snow accumulation on the summit, but we were not prepared for how remarkably awesome the wintry scene would become on the last thousand feet of vertical on the mountain.  As we ascended above the snow line, we found a unique combination of snow, rime ice, and glaze ice (from freezing rain).  It felt as if we were entering an ice box as everything was glazed in ice, sometimes approaching over an inch thick.  I have never seen so much ice accumulation!  After ascending to the summit ridge, we traversed to the north side where we hiked through a coniferous forest which had become a winter wonderland with snow and ice covered Coulter Pines (largest pine cones in the world, weighing up to 8 pounds!) and Sugar Pines (the longest pine cones in the world, growing up to 24 inches long).  The entire mountain was burned in the Basin Complex Fire in 2008, but it’s good to see a large portion of the conifer grove survived the fire. In fact, Coulter Pine saplings were thick in spots. The chaparral slopes on the mountain did not fare as well with virtually all of the older woody chaparral charred. Five years later new chaparral vegetation is growing back aggressively, but the old burned snags remain making for an interesting sight when glazed with ice.

The flora and fauna of the Santa Lucia Mountains is often rare and fascinating. The pine forest of Coulter Pines and Sugar Pines atop Junipero Serro was so striking I decided to do a little research. It turns out Sugar Pines are not common in the Santa Lucia Mountains and can only be found on a few of the tallest peaks in the range, including Cone Peak and Junipero Serra Peak. The grove at Junipero Serra is particularly large with several tall old-growth trees.  Interestingly, the Sugar Pines in the Santa Lucias are genetically distinct from other populations of Sugar Pine due to large geographic separation. The two populations cannot mix. I wonder how these trees got the summit area of Junipero Serra in the first place as everything surrounding the grove is either chamise or montane chaparral. 

Another favorite topic of mine is meteorology. What caused such an impressive accumulation of glaze ice on Junipero Serra? As mentioned above, the weather system that pulled in some relatively warmer air off the Pacific in the middle and upper levels of the atmosphere, but colder air lingered at the lower levels of the atmosphere. Rain droplets formed in the warmer clouds but then became supercooled when they descended into the colder air below and froze upon contact with any object on the upper part of the mountain. This is freezing rain. The resulting ice from freezing rain is aptly named glaze ice and was at least an inch thick in spots. After the cold front passed on Saturday night, the entire atmosphere became cold enough to support snowfall on the highest elevations of Junipero Serra. This phase of the storm dropped 3+ inches of snow to complete the unique winter wonderland scene.  

While I’m a big fan of winter sports in general, seeing places snowcovered that don’t typically receive much snow is always a special experience. After this adventure I’m even more pumped for the winter season and the potential for a few more chances to see local mountains snowcovered. You can bet I’ll be chasing the snow!