Silver Peak rises steeply from the south coast of Big Sur to a lofty perch at 3,590 ft. The summit sits at the center of the 31,555 acre namesake Silver Peak Wilderness, which encompasses some of the most spectacular terrain and scenery in all of Big Sur. Silver Peak is a broad massif with relatively gradual topography at its uppermost elevations becoming progressively steeper as one descends toward the canyons of Salmon Creek and Villa Creek. One of my favorite aspects of the Silver Peak Wilderness is the amazing biological diversity. The upper elevations are generally a mix of chaparral, Gray Pine and Coulter Pine. The eastern end of the Silver Peak massif includes a rare grove of Sargent Cypress. Middle elevations, especially in riparian corridors, tend to feature oak woodland and bay laurel trees. The upper Villa Creek Canyon includes a rare grove of Santa Lucia Firs and the middle and lower sections of Villa Creek Canyon feature one of the southernmost stands of old growth redwood. Meanwhile, Salmon Creek Canyon has a nice stand of Douglas Fir. Silver Peak stands apart from the south coast ridge crest so the 360 degree panorama from its summit is tremendous. To the north is an excellent view of Cone Peak, Twin Peak and Junipero Serra. Close at hand is San Martin Top, Alder Peak and Lion Peak. To the south is a commanding view of the Dutra Flats area, Mount Mars, County Line Ridge, Bald Top, Piedras Blancas and the mountains of Hearst Ranch in San Luis Obispo County. The steep topographical relief results in immense orographic enhancement of precipitation in winter storms. This results in a number of impressive waterfalls and beautiful streams flowing over bedrock that drain Silver Peak. The Silver Peak Wilderness includes a lovely network of trails. A loop around Silver Peak can be made utilizing the Cruickshank, Salmon Creek and Buckeye Trails and is a wonderful way to enjoy the many facets of this wilderness, but it does not reach the summit of Silver Peak. In order to reach the summit of Silver Peak, a use path on a narrowed old fire road starts at the divide between Villa Creek and Salmon Creek along the Cruickshank Trail. The old fire road has narrowed to single track in spots as it passes thorugh Sargent Cypress, a stand of Coulter Pines and chaparral. The old fire road passes within a few feet of the summit, at which point a short path cuts through the brush to the summit rocks, which includes a summit register. One may continue along the old fireroad west of the summit to complete the traverse of the Silver Peak massif. The old fire road terminates near Silver Peak usecamp. From the Silver Peak usecamp, “Soda Wildtrail” cuts through the chaparral to prominent point 2,866 (aka “Soda Peak”) which sits near the headwaters of Soda Gulch. “Soda Peak” has one of the best views of the south Big Sur coastline looking south to Piedras Blancas and Mount Mars. The final portion of the Silver Peak traverse continues down from Soda Peak toward the Buckeye Trail and features lovely meadows interspersed with pines and oak trees with spectacular vistas the entire way.
I’ve written in great detail about Santa Lucia Firs recently so I won’t repeat myself and describe the awesomeness of this tree again. The highest concentration of Santa Lucias (by far) is in the Carmel River drainage where the rocky, rugged terrain provides an ideal fire-proof habitat for the trees to thrive. The second greatest concentration stretches from Devils Canyon up to Cone Peak, also very rugged and rocky. South of Cone Peak there are only a few isolated groves in existence, perhaps fewer than a half dozen, making each of these groves especially unique. The most accessible of these groves is located in the upper part of Villa Creek in the Silver Peak Wilderness. The Cruickshank Trail passes among the firs with good views into the canyon bottom where the firs are highly concentrated. As I’m a Santa Lucia Fir aficionado, I decided to visit a more remote stand that has piqued my interest ever since I saw the familiar narrow conical crowns of the Santa Lucia Firs from a nearby ridge. Since the grove is tucked away in a hanging valley with no easy access I decided to name it the Lost Grove. Unlike the larger stands in the Carmel River drainage and Cone Peak, the growing habitat in the Lost Grove is restricted to a narrow mile-long strip along a rocky stream. The vast majority of the trees reside on the cooler northeast facing slope and the density of firs is some of the greatest I have seen; it’s almost as if the trees are huddling together to keep cool. There is a sharp gradient between the Santa Lucia Firs and the hot chaparral slopes with only a few Coulter and gray pines mixed in. It appears destructive fire has largely avoided this grove for many years and the result is some amazing old growth trees with impressively tall spire-like crowns that epitomize the Santa Lucia Fir. A few of the firs appeared drought stressed or have already succumbed to drought so hopefully this winter’s rain will be sufficient to help these trees survive the next summer. This grove resides in a relatively hotter and drier location than most Santa Lucias so it did not come as a surprise that the effects of the drought were visible, but the vast majority of trees still appeared healthy and there were hundreds of new saplings on the shady forest floor poised to become the next generation. I also suspect that the lifespan of the Santa Lucia Fir is not all the great as every grove I have visited includes several old snags. Access to the grove entails either a moderately brushy approach from a nearby ridge with excellent views to the Pacific Ocean or a creek walk with an extended stretch of beautiful bedrock and boulder cascades.
Recently I have been trying the new Clif Organic Energy Food on adventures and I really like the stuff for quick but quality calories on the go and they will definitely be a part of my nutrition plan on adventures this summer where REAL food is a necessity. Pizza Margarita and Sweet Potato Sea Salt are the salty flavors while Banana Beet and Banana Mango taste like delicious smoothies. I’m hosting a giveaway and the winner will get two samples of each flavor (eight total). Just post a comment and a random winner will be drawn sometime next week. Good luck!
The South Coast of Big Sur has some of the best scenery of the entire Big Sur coast. The majority of the region is protected by the Silver Peak Wilderness, a 31,555 acre wilderness established in 1992. While only a fraction of the size of the better known Ventana Wilderness to the north, there are several awesome trails and great opportunities for exploration in the Silver Peak Wilderness. The region has great biodiversity of vegetation including redwoods, chaparral, oak woodland, pine forest, and even some groves of the rare Santa Lucia Fir. This post contains photos from several destinations in the wilderness, including: (1) Pt. 2,866 or “Soda Peak“; (2) the wilderness’s namesake summit, 3,520 ft Silver Peak; and (3) Cinnamon Falls along Alder Creek. Our first destination was Pt. 2,866, a vista I had seen last fall and was eager to see again. This point has no official name but “Soda Peak” makes geographical sense since it sits at the head of the Soda Creek drainage. Soda Peak is on the WSW ridge coming off Silver Peak. The ridge contains several high points but the last one and most dramatic is Point 2866. Since Soda Peak is the last point of prominence along the ridge it has a commanding view of the south Big Sur coast. The rocky limestone summit is also mostly free of brush enabling an excellent 360 degree panorama including San Martin Top, Silver Peak, Cone Peak and Mount Mars. The easiest way to reach Soda Peak is via the Soda Creek Trailhead and then the Buckeye Trail. At about 2,100 ft along the Buckeye Trail take a use trail that starts near a bent lone pine tree on the southern of two spur ridges coming off Soda Peak. The use path is fairly easy to follow and in about 750 vertical feet you’re on top and gazing across the Soda Creek drainage to Mount Mars and beyond, a truly spectacular vantage. It’s only about 3 miles each way to Soda Peak, but the few miles pack around 2,500 ft of elevation gain. I have been around Silver Peak many times but never summited until now. The Cruickshank Trail is beautiful as it traverses the hillside above Villa Canyon passing through numerous different plant and forest communities. It’s a nice trek from the Villa-Salmon Saddle to the peak passing through young forests of Sargeant’s Cypress and Coulter Pine with excellent views in both directions. Silver Peak contains an entertaining summit register placed by Boon Hughey who has accounted for many of the summit entries over the years. Erica and I were the 14th and 15th visitors this year so there is not too much traffic to this fairly remote summit. We enjoyed a unique view as a 2,500 ft marine layer filled the canyons and crested over Mount Mars and County Line Ridge into a fog bank cascade. Silver Peak also has a very nice view to Cone Peak.After enjoying the descent down Villa Canyon with its rugged reddish canyon rocks, I took the Buckeye Trail and then went off trail to check out a falls I had identified on the topographic map and satellite. It turns out this multi-step falls is one of the tallest on a main stem creek in the entire Big Sur region. The falls includes two main segments and a couple smaller ones totaling over 150 ft (a conservative estimate based on my watch altimeter). The rocks surrounding the falls are reddish brown, hence I have called the falls “Cinnamon Falls.” The descent down to the base of the falls was precarious on loose rock and very steep hardpan but I enjoyed the lowest two pools and imagined how tremendous this falls would be in high flow after winter rains. I will definitely put Cinnamon Falls on my calendar for next winter. With a strong El Nino developing for winter 2015-2016 there are some decent odds that this falls and other waterfalls in Big Sur will have some big flows next winter. Upon exiting the base of the falls, I found a better route which was still steep but had some oak trees to hang on to and reasonably solid rock to climb. This will be my route into the base of Cinnamon Falls in the future. Perhaps the best view of Cinnamon Falls is along the spine of this rocky sub-ridge where you can get a good overview of the falls and see most of it at once. From the bottom it is impossible to see the entire falls.
Mount Mars is one of my favorite spots in coastal Big Sur. Despite being the furthest destination along the coast when approaching from the Bay Area, I find myself returnign to this region time and time again. The incredibly steep west ridge of the Mars rises over 2,600 ft in a little over 1.25 miles as the crow flies from the ocean. During a visit in the spring, the spectacular grassy ridge of the mountain became a paradise with a field of lupine on the north side of the ridge overlooking a deep blue and turquoise ocean with excellent clarity. South of Mars is County Line Ridge with more beautiful grassy ridges tumbling toward the ocean. On the ocean side of County Line Ridge there are numerous use paths and old roads to explore in the area known as Williams Ranch with excellent panoramas of Piedras Blancas to the south and the rugged South Big Sur coastline to the north. A dirt road exists on the crest of the ridge with borad views into the interior of the Silver Peak Wilderness around Dutra Flats, the San Carpoforo River drainage to the south and peaks on the Hearst Castle lands. GPS route here.
The peaceful meadows of Dutra Flats are a delight and I made sure to return to this beautiful spot on the route I did this day. After descending the pleasant Spruce Creek Trail from Dutra Flats, I made a side trip to visit Upper Salmon Creek Falls, which is a gem. Located off trail, the 25 ft falls is not impressive by most metrics, but it has a beautiful unspoiled setting with a large circular pool. About 3.5 miles from the trailhead, one can catch glimpses of Upper Salmon Creek Falls from the trail, but bay trees and tan oak largely consceal the falls and a steep loose slope guards easy access. The easiest way to access Upper Salmon Creek Falls and its circular pool is to continue along hte Salmon Creek Trail beyond the falls and then head downhill off trail towards Salmon Creek. Then, take the creek a short ways downstream to the top of the falls where once can scramble down to the pool on skier’s left. Meanwhile, by all metrics the main Salmon Creek Falls is impressive: it has great volume with its location near Salmon Creek’s outlet into the ocean, its a strikingly tall falls (for Big Sur), and the setting is stunning with a large pool, boulders and cliffs. The only detraction from an otherwise beautiful falls is its close proximity to the highway and the resultant overuse of the area with careless visitors leaving trash and tramping over everything.
Latest updates on the Waterfalls Project Page.
While most of the content on this blog is based on photography and experiences from specific trips, I occasionally like to produce special posts that gather my thoughts from numerous experiences into a cohesive list. This special post includes a description and photos from a few dozen waterfalls I have visited in the Big Sur region, from cataracts deep in the most remote and wild corners of the Ventana Wilderness to the easily accessible falls near the highway. The Big Sur region has incredible topographical relief from the summits of the Santa Lucia Mountains down to the rocky shores of the Pacific Ocean so it should come as no surprise that the rugged canyons draining the peaks hold many amazing waterfalls. The list of falls range from delicate 15 ft falls to towering 200 ft falls. The setting of the falls is equally varied including coastal falls, lush redwood-filled canyons, rocky slopes with Santa Lucia Firs and ephemeral falls in the drier chaparral zones. Other intricacies include varying degrees and type of mineral calcification and the depth and size of plunge pools. This list includes photos of each falls I have visited along with a short description. Where I have made a video of a falls I have also included the video footage as I have come to discover that video is a particular great medium to capture the movement of water. While this is a fairly comprehensive catalog of the major waterfalls in the Big Sur region, including the Silver Peak and Ventana Wilderness, there is a growing list of falls the author has yet to visit. This post will be updated as additional waterfalls are visited and/or discovered. It should be noted that many falls require substantial rainfall for optimal viewing which may not happen until winter rains.
- Last Chance Falls (120 ft): When in flow, Last Chance Falls is arguably the most dramatic waterfall in the Ventana Wilderness. The falls flow over an overhanging precipice in an impressive free fall with a large cavern behind the falls. A natural amphitheater of cliffs surrounds the falls and the setting surrounding the falls is fit for a scene out of Jurassic Park. The ephemeral nature of Last Chance Falls makes it particularly special and requires planning, or more accurately, waiting for the ideal conditions which occur during a small window after heavy rains.
- Canogas Falls (80 ft total): Canogas Falls is one of the most stunning waterfalls in Big Sur. The falls includes multiple steps 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.
- Devils Falls (80-90 ft est): I identified Devils Falls by satellite and topography with essentially no information about the drainage prior to my visit. Much to my excitement, Devis Falls turned out to be one of the great gems of the Ventana. The falls contains two primary steps with spectacular turquoise pools in between. The upper segment is a few feet taller than the lower segment. Just above the main waterfall step is a lead-in falls of about 20 ft with another turquoise pool (not included in the height). Perhaps most amazing about Devils Falls is its spectacular setting tucked into an incredibly rugged cirque of vertical cliffs culminating in a spire I dubbed “Devils Spire”.
- Hellhole Falls (40 ft est): Hellhole Falls tumbles from a V-shaped notch into a chasm and ultimately into a large turquoise pool. Together with Canogas Falls and a half dozen other smaller falls within a relatively short distance, this is arguably the most rugged and impressive stretch of canyon in all of Big Sur. The lead up to Hellhole Falls is just as striking as the falls itself with a number of cascades and waterfalls over smooth bedrock. Behind the falls is a distinguished spire-like Santa Lucia Fir epitomizing the Ventana. I dubbed the falls “Hellhole” since it fits with the naming of the canyon and also because of the impasse that this falls presents to the adventurer to continuing upstream. However, the falls is not a true impasse since a very steep and loose gully downstream of the falls can be used to gain the cliffs where a bushwhacking traverse leads back to the creek upstream of the falls. Video of Hellhole Falls is in the last minute of the Devils Falls video above.
- Sugar Falls (40 ft): Sugar Falls was a splendid discovery. The falls has an extremely lush setting of hanging green vegetation and a deep turquoise pool that is magical. There is heavy mineral accumulation on everything submerged in water and especially on the face of the waterfall. This thick mineral accumulation provides the basis for vegetation to grow next to the falls, channels the watercourse and creates the spectacular turquoise color in the plunge pool. We named the falls “Sugar Falls” since this is the only falls I know of in the Big Sur/Ventana region near a grove of Sugar Pines and the water appears like falling sugar as it passes through the mineral-encrusted channel.
- Devils Pool (35 ft): The most remarkable aspect of this falls is not the falls itself (which is very pretty too), but the expansive and deep plunge pool, which is likely the greatest of its kind in Big Sur, hence I named the feature “Devils Pool.” The pool takes on a bright turquoise with sunlight and changes to emerald in the shade. This is also due to thick calcification of minerals on all surfaces in which the water passes. This process is unlike anywhere else I have seen in Big Sur. Due to the large size and depth of Devils Pool, the colors are enhanced making the setting especially magical.
- Chasm Falls (50 ft): Deep in one of the most rugged canyons in Big Sur lies a falls that slices through the cliffs and free falls into a chasm with a large and deep pool.
- Rock Slide Falls (45 ft estimate): A picturesque falls flows into a cavernous cirque with a nice plunge pool and pretty cascades downstream.
- Upper Lion Falls (70 ft; main segment 50 ft; lower segment 20 ft): Two waterfall segments over smooth bedrock and two lovely plunge pools deep in the wild of the Ventana. See Lower Lion Falls below for video footage of Upper Lion Falls.
- Lower Lion Falls (40 ft): This falls plunges into a spectacular circular pool surrounded by cliffs and tall redwoods. Upstream of the falls lies a series of beautiful cascades and pools on the bedrock.
- Condor Falls (60 ft; main segment 40 ft): A remote and scenic waterfall with several picturesque small falls culminating in the main cataract. The falls looks and feels very similar to Sugar Falls except more vertical without a deep plunge pool. I named this falls Condor Falls since the majestic bird can often be seen flying overhead this rugged coastal canyon.
- Estate Gorge (110 ft): A series of small falls in an extremely rugged gorge culminating in an 80 ft cataract. The lowest segment of the falls is a pretty 15 ft drop into a large plunge pool surrounded by tall cliffs.
- Pick Creek Falls (80 ft): A picturesque falls which shoots over a ledge with an 80 ft free-fall into a large, clear pool surrounded by a lovely grove of old growth Santa Lucia Firs (Abies bracteata aka Bristlecone Fir), with their unmistakable slender, spire-like stature. The Santa Lucia Fir is endemic to the northern part of the Santa Lucia Mountains and the rarest fir in the world. An impressive rock amphitheater surrounds Pick Creek Falls with hanging ferns making a magical setting. Also in the vicinity are the beautiful bathtubs at Bathtub Creek. Creek walking downstream of Pick Creek Falls features more spectacular gorges and cascades all the way to the confluence with the South Fork Big Sur River with more Santa Lucia Firs lining the stream.
- Discovery Falls (90+ ft): A gem hidden deep in the steepest canyon draining Cone Peak, this nearly vertical falls flows over an immense wall. I named the falls “Discovery” since this is a major falls for the Santa Lucia Mountains but so carefully hidden by nature. The falls contains heavy mineral accumulation characteristic of waterfalls in the region. The falls was visited at the end of a long, hot summer and fall in a drought year but there was still some flow, albeit low. Discovery Falls promises to be extremely impressive after winter rains.
- Terrace Falls (200+ ft & 50 ft lower falls): A 200 ft cateract over a mineral encrusted wall with moss and ferns. Below the main falls is another falls, a picturesque 50 footer with several channels and weeping moss. Prior to my visit I could find no photos taken from below the falls and no documentation on the size or nature of this falls (except that a tall falls existed). Thus, it was exciting to find this prolific falls.
- Ventana Falls (50 ft est.): One of the most remote falls in all of the Ventana and Big Sur, this stunning falls is not easy to reach as it entails a 5 mile creek walk along beautiful Ventana Creek from Ventana Camp. The rock facade surrounding the falls is especially striking with white and reddish rock. The creek walk to reach the falls entails numerous log jams, gorges, clear blue pools, and cascades. Ventana Falls guards access to the terrain upstream which is arguably the most rugged, wild and awe-inspiring in any coastal area of the contiguous United States. Bypassing the falls is not trivial and entails a scramble on loose rock.
- Hanging Garden Falls (70-80 ft est.): Located near the headwaters of Ventana Mesa Creek this falls is not high flow, but instead achieves its beauty through its delicate nature. There are two segments, with a shorter segment around 15 ft and the balance the much taller upper segment for 70-80 ft in the aggregate. The falls does not really contain a plunge pool, but the lush setting is unmatched by any of the Ventana waterfalls I have seen. Thick moss cloaks the entire rock facade, both underneath the watercourse and on the surrounding cliffs. Other vibrant green vegetation, including a large colony of five finger ferns, hangs from the cliffs besides the falls. Hanging Garden Falls seems like a very fitting name for this magical cataract with its hanging garden of ferns and moss.
- Ventana Mesa Falls (50 ft est.): Countless picturesque cascades and pools in the lower part of Ventana Mesa Creek above the Entrance Falls culminate in a stunning waterfalls that contains a large pool with a circular amphitheater and tall cliffs. The water tumbles at least 50 ft, all in free-fall. This falls is more impressive than the Entrance Falls, both in height and setting. Video footage of Ventana Mesa Creek below, including Ventana Mesa Falls.
- Ventana Mesa “Entrance Falls” (25 ft est.): Right at the confluence of Ventana Mesa Creek and the Carmel River within the Carmel River gorge, the Entrance Falls to Ventana Mesa Creek is part of the magic of the Carmel River gorge described above. The falls shoots over sloping slick rock with ferns and moss in a very pretty setting. Above the Entrance Falls are a pair of beautiful pools, one turquoise and the other emerald.
- Carmel River Falls and Gorge (40 ft est.): 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.
- Pine Falls (40 ft est.): Pine Falls is located near the headwaters of the Carmel River about three quarters of a mile downstream from lovely Pine Valley. As such, flow over the falls is rarely large, but the falls is particularly aesthetic with a section of free fall and a large clear pool. The setting is lush with moss clinging to the rocks and a very pretty forest of old growth Santa Lucia firs fills the canyon.
- Lower Pine Falls (est. 100 ft aggregate): Located less than a quarter of a mile downstream of Pine Falls, it appears few people know about Lower Pine Falls but it’s an impressive sight and very different in character from Pine Falls making it worthy of a visit. There is no large pool at Lower Pine Falls. Instead, the falls is a series of large cascades over smooth bedrock scrubbed clean of moss. 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 the 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.
- Cinnamon Falls (150 ft est.): A multi-step falls that is one of the tallest on a main stem creek in the entire Big Sur region. The falls includes two main segments and a couple smaller sections totaling over 150 ft (a conservative estimate based on my watch altimeter). The rocks surrounding the falls are reddish brown, hence I called the falls Cinnamon Falls. Perhaps the best view of Cinnamon Falls is along the spine of a rocky sub-ridge where you can get a good overview of the falls and see most of it at once. This overview spot is located just below the bottom of a grassy ridge, which can be accessed from the Buckeye Trail. From the base of the falls it is impossible to see the entire cataract and reaching it is more difficult as one must descent the very steep and sometimes loose sub-ridge. Cinnamon Falls would be tremendous in high flow after winter rains.
- Salmon Creek Falls (100 ft est.): By all metrics Salmon Creek Falls is impressive: it has great volume with its location near Salmon Creek’s outlet into the ocean, its a strikingly tall falls, and the setting is stunning with a large pool, boulders and cliffs. The only detraction from an otherwise beautiful falls is its close proximity to the highway and the resultant overuse of the area and careless visitors leaving trash.
- Upper Salmon Creek Falls (25 ft): While only about a quarter of the height of the main Salmon Creek Falls with significantly less volume, Upper Salmon Creek falls possess a pristine and unfettered beauty that is lost at the main falls. Unlike the main falls, Upper Salmon Creek Falls is not easily accessible and it appears few venture to the shores of its large circular pool. Upper Salmon Creek Falls is a gem. Video footage above.
- Circular Pool #1 (15 ft est.): The first circular pool along the Little Sur River is the largest pool of three and features the tallest falls and also the most vertical cliff amphitheater surrounding the pool. A large section of the cliff above the first pool collapsed over the winter depositing a large pile of rock debris into about 30% of the pool so for the time being the first circular pool is not very circular. Video footage of all three pools is below Circular Pool #3.
- Circular Pool #2 (5-10 ft steps): The second circular pool is significantly smaller than the first, both in size of the pool and height of its falls. However, immediately above this pool lies a series of small cascades and mini-pools over slick rock that are stunning, particularly in periods of moderate flow. In fact, this section is one of the highlights of the entire Little Sur River. Video footage of all three Circular Pools is below Circular Pool #3.
- Circular Pool #3 (12 ft est): The third circular pool is the culmination of a magnificent narrow gorge where the cliffs on both sides come right down into the river resulting a deep pool beneath the falls.
- Rainbow Falls (55 ft): Located about a half mile south of Rainbow Camp along the South Fork Trail, Rainbow Falls is along a small tributary of the South Fork Little Sur River. Visibility is limited from the South Fork Trail but a better view can be found just off the trail. The falls never has much volume so it is best viewed after winter rains. What makes Rainbow Falls so special is its extremely lush amphitheater of ferns and moss and the delicate nature of the falls as it plunges over a nearly vertical cliff. See video footage of Rainbow Falls in the Pick Creek Falls video above.
- Mocho Falls (total 40 ft est.): Mocho Falls has two distinct steps, but what is most fascinating about this rarely seen falls is a twisty chasm of elegantly sculpted and polished rock separating the two steps. The depth of the chasm and its twisty nature is such that it is virtually impossible to see both steps of the falls at the same time. The lower step is an estimated 20 ft and drops into a spectacular circular amphitheater with a deep and large pool. The upper step is around 10 ft est. and within the narrow rock chute there are additional small steps.
- Lion Gorge and Circular Pool (15 ft): Deep and rugged gorge in the lower part of Lion Creek culminates in a circular pool with a 15 ft falls. Additional pools and cascades upstream of the falls.
- McWay Falls (75 ft): McWay Falls is an iconic spot and probably the most photographed natural feature in Big Sur. This is a must stop for tourists driving Highway 1 and there is often a line of cars parked along the road. Sometimes the area feels like the international terminal at SFO. The falls overlook is accessed by a paved path that is under a quarter mile. The many visitors to McWay Falls range from selfie enthusiasts to professional photographers. Thank goodness access to McWay Falls beach is forbidden and even for the non-law abiding crowd it’s not an easy proposition to get down to the beach (people have been rescued trying). Thus, even if the overlook is a zoo, you can forget about the crowds when you look out onto the picturesque scene of the falls tumbling into the pristine turquoise waters and an untrammeled beach.
- Upper McWay Falls (35 ft): Heading up McWay Canyon from the iconic McWay Falls one passes through redwoods and several smaller cascades before arriving at another pretty falls which flows over an overhang into a small nook.
- Limekiln Falls (90 ft): Limekiln Falls is located near the bottom of the Middle Fork Limekiln Creek which drains the region between Twin Peak and Cone Peak. It seems like everything in this region is grand and Limekiln Falls is no different. Unless flow is particularly high, the falls is split into two prongs. The cataract is easily accessed from the main area of Limekiln State Park and includes passage through a lush redwood forest complete with a dense carpet of sorrel.
- Mutt & Jeff Falls (Jeff 35 ft; Mutt 110 ft): Named by Dr. Jack Glendening after a comic strip named Mutt and Jeff created in 1907 lasting through 1983 with a tall and thin Mutt character and his short friend Jeff. In this case, the short Jeff Falls is the real attraction as it’s along the main stem of Santa Lucia Creek. After recent heavy rain Jeff Falls roars over a 35 cliff into a large, deep pool. Tall and thin Mutt Falls is located next to Jeff Falls on a small tributary with a series of steps totaling over 100 ft but never has high volume and is likely a trickle for a large potion of the year. The two falls can be viewed in tandem. See video footage of Jeff Falls in the Last Chance Falls video above.
- Pico Blanco Camp Falls (15 ft est.): Pico Blanco Camp Falls is a lovely spot along the South Fork Little Sur River set amid old growth redwoods with a carpet of redwood sorrel. The falls is not large, but includes a blue pool beneath it and a lush surrounding of moss and ferns. Downstream of the falls is a spectacular narrows along the South Fork Little Sur River.
- Partington Falls (20 ft over two steps): Just upstream of where the Tanbark Trail switchbacks out of the Partington Creek canyon lies a nice two step falls in a lush setting.
- Ventana Cone Falls (35 ft): This two-step falls is in an extremely remote corner of the Ventana on an unnamed tributary of the Carmel River that drains the north side of the region between Vetnana cone and the Ventana Spires.
- Prewitt Falls (60+ ft): This falls was found in late fall during drought so flow was very low, but it promises to be impresive after winter rain as it plunges over a 60+ ft wall of moss and ferns. The impressive setting of this falls is highlighted by a steep cirque and redwoods.
- Pfieffer Falls (60 ft): The touristy Pfieffer Falls is among the top four most visited waterfalls in Big Sur (along with McWay, Salmon, Limekiln) but it’s probably the least impressive of the bunch. Unlike many other Big Sur waterfalls, the lush riparian vegation alongside and beneath the falls has been wiped out by heavy human visitation. The falls is also less than vertical – almost a slab waterfall. Finally, the falls is generally low flow since Pfieffer-Redwood Creek is a relatively small drainage. That said, the falls is measured at 60 ft so I’m sure it would be more impressive after rainy periods. In addition, immediately above Pfieffer Falls is a photogenic stair-step cascade; prettier than the main drop in my opinion.
- Wild Pfieffer Falls (35 ft): In my quest to catalog the known and unknown waterfalls of Big Sur I noticed a rugged canyon upstream of Pfieffer Falls and judged this to be a likely spot for additional waterfalls. I found that a pretty waterfall does indeed exist in this canyon, a secret to virtually all of the tourists who visit Pfieffer Falls below, and untamed by footprints, fences and selfies. Thus, I named the cataract “Wild Pfieffer Falls.” Unlike Pfieffer Falls, Wild Pfieffer has plentiful vegetation at its base and alongside the watercourse. While the main drop of Wild Pfieffer is only ~35 ft tall, it’s a pretty falls in a nice setting with the canyon walls surrounding the falls. It’s certainly worthy of a visit in the future when flow is higher and there are potentially additional falls upstream.
- Pothole Slide Falls (35 ft): Located next to the Lost Valley Trail as it descends into Lost Valley, Pothole slide falls is a series of two slides down a smooth rock face with a pool in between, the “pothole.” The falls is more horizontal than vertical and the drainage upstream is small so this falls is best viewed after recent rain.
- McWay Canyon Falls (20 ft est.): The other falls above McWay Falls is McWay Canyon Falls which is located on a tributary of McWay Canyon Creek with commensurately less volume. However, the falls is in a pretty setting with five finger ferns and the sprawling root system of a large redwood right next to it.
- Firehose Falls (15 ft est.): Located on Jackson Creek near its confluence with the Little Sur River, Firehose Falls spits off a ledge like a fire hose into a pretty pool surrounded by ferns and moss. See video footage of Firehose Falls in the Little Sur Circular Pools video above.
- Sierra Falls (100+ ft): A tall two-step falls off the ocean bluffs that falls virtually onto the sand. The lower segment is far and away the taller of the two. The falls is fairly ephemeral and only produces substantial flows after heavy rain.
- Ventura Falls (100+ ft): Around the corner from Sierra Falls is an even taller, but more ephemeral falls.
- Fuller’s Falls (60 ft+): Hear the sound of waves crashing ashore and water falling from above simultaneously. A unnamed stream from a small drainage flows over all ocean bluffs and nearly onto the beach. The falls is surrounded by cliffs adorned with pampas grass.
- Grimes Gorge (50 ft): A series of cascades totaling 50 ft in a picturesque narrow gorge at the mouth of Grimes Canyon and the incredibly rugged Grimes Point.
- Granite Creek Falls (15 ft): At the outlet of Granite Creek beneath Granite Creek Bridge. The falls is small but it drops into a rugged photogenic cove.
- Mocho Creek Falls (18 ft): Located just upstream of Mocho Creek’s confluence with the South Fork Little Sur River, Mocho Creek Falls is a pretty falls in a cliffy nook with a garden of hanging ferns beside it.
- Launtz Falls (100+ ft over multiple steps): Launtz Falls is at the base of a small tributary descending from Launtz Ridge that flows into the Little Sur River. The bottom of the falls is visible from the usepath to Fox Usecamp and you can get a sense there is much more above, but it is not clearly visible unless you cross the Little Sur River and ascend the ultra steep slopes on the other side. Upon climbing the slopes a tall falls presents itself flowing over a lush cliff face. See video footage of Firehose Falls in the Little Sur Circular Pools video above.
Other Falls: Eagle Creek Falls, Cienega Falls, Jewel Falls, Vicente Falls
The South Coast of Big Sur has some of the best scenery of the entire Big Sur coast. The majority of the region is protected by the Silver Peak Wilderness, a 31,555 acre wilderness established in 1992. While only a fraction of the size of the better known Ventana Wilderness to the north, there are several awesome trails and great opportunities for exploration in the Silver Peak Wilderness. The region has great biodiversity of vegetation including redwoods, chaparral, oak woodland, pine forest, and even some groves of the rare Santa Lucia Fir. Villa Canyon and Salmon Creek Canyons are the heart of the wilderness and are both spectacular. Fires have not affected this region in a number of years so the flora is generally more developed with far fewer signs of fire compared to the badly burned areas of the Ventana Wilderness from the 2008 Basin Complex fires. As the South Coast is far from both the SF Bay Area to the north and the Los Angeles basin to the south, this stretch of the Big Sur Coast is probably the least visited and an excellent location if you’re looking for solitude. On this occasion from back in November I put together a loop including Dutra Flats, County Line Ridge and Mount Mars, some of my favorite spots on the South Coast. I enjoyed this loop so much that I recently did it again in the reverse direction with Erica and it was nice to see the hills turning green after December Rains (photos here). GPS for Dutra Loop here.
The Dutra Loop route utilizes a established trails and some use paths giving an excellent taste of both the interior and coastal aspects of the Silver Peak Wilderness. Access to Dutra Flats is via the standard route of the Salmon Creek Trail and Spruce Creek Trail, both awesome single tracks in a lush canyon environment with Douglas Fir forest. The Spruce Creek Trail is especially lush and there is a glimpse of a remote Santa Lucia Fir grove high in the drainage, one of the southernmost stands of the rarest fir on earth. Dutra Flats is such a pleasant peaceful spot with its green pastures lined by gray pines, ponderosa pines and heritage oaks. From the edge of the flats a use path contours down and into the Dutra Creek drainage. The path peters out in the grassy area but is picked up again at the edge of the forest at the bottom of the hill. After crossing Dutra Creek, the well-defined use path heads uphill and emerges at the Baldwin Ranch Road. One can cross Baldwin Ranch Road and continue on more use path to the Baldwin Ranch Shortcut, passing through more beautiful meadows and then entering a pine and oak forest for a climb up to County Line Ridge. A spring about halfway up the climb to County Line Ridge appears to have perennial water. County Line Ridge is a beautiful mixture of grassland and oaks with impressive relief to the Pacific Ocean. On this day I explored two spurs off the main ridge, the better being Point 1950 which has enough horizontal prominence to yield an excellent view up and down the coast including Piedras Blancas and most of the Big Sur south coast. At the north end of County Line Ridge a use path traverses the various summits of Mount Mars through pine forest and then chapparal. Beyond the highest summit, the path emerges on the impressively steep grassy slope of Mount Mars. This steep grassy slope is a Big Sur classic with incredible relief down the deep blue ocean seemingly at your feet. At the base of this grassy ridge a use path can be taken back down to the Salmon Creek Trail. After the Dutra Loop I headed up to Point 2866 via the Soda Creek Trailhead. Point 2866 is on the WSW ridge coming off Silver Peak. The ridge contains several high points but the last one and most dramatic is Point 2866. It appears this point has no official name but “Soda Peak” makes geographical sense since it sits at the head of the Soda Creek drainage. Since Soda Peak is the last point of prominence along the ridge it has a commanding view of the south Big Sur coast. The rocky limestone summit is also mostly free of brush enabling an excellent 360 degree panorama including San Martin Top, Silver Peak, Cone Peak and Mount Mars. I guessed that evening light would be great from this spot and I was not disappointed. The easiest way to reach Soda Peak is via the Soda Creek Trailhead and then the Buckeye Trail. At about 2,100 ft along the Buckeye Trail take a use trail on the southern of two spur ridges coming off Soda Peak. The use path is fairly easy to follow and in about 750 vertical feet you’re on top and gazing across the Soda Creek drainage to Mount Mars and beyond, a truly spectacular vantage. It’s only about 3 miles each way to Soda Peak, but the few miles pack around 2,500 ft of elevation gain.
Last Updated: February 12, 2015
A special post on Big Sur Waterfalls here.
The Big Sur region is an adventure running playground. The Ventana Wilderness, Silver Peak Wilderness and a handful of state parks form a network of protected public land over the northern half of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range that is one of the greatest coastal wilderness regions anywhere. The steep degree of relief from the ocean to the mountaintops is unmatched in the contiguous United States providing dramatic vistas throughout the coast. Perhaps one of the most magical Big Sur experiences is a clear day when the ridgetop views include a backdrop of the deep blue Pacific Ocean transitioning to turquoise near the coastline. However, a foggy day along the coast can be equally fascinating as the marine layer interacts with the terrain. In the interior of the wilderness, deep, shady canyons slice through the Santa Lucia Mountains and are filled with ancient redwoods, waterfalls, gorges and mystique. The higher reaches of the wilderness are characterized by rugged, rocky summits with rare groves of the stately Santa Lucia Fir, endemic to these mountains and one of my favorite tree species. Iconic spots like Bixby Bridge and McWay Falls draw millions of visitors to the Big Sur Coast, but with the exception of Sykes Hot Springs, a minuscule fraction travel far from the highway leaving a vast wilderness where solitude, intrigue, and a substantial amount of brush can be found.
Adventuring in Big Sur and the Ventana Wilderness is certainly possible in the summer months if travel is restricted to the immediate coast and the cool canyons, but the higher terrain can be extremely hot resulting in copious sweat, biting black flies, and active rattlesnakes. Therefore, the ideal time for exploration is from late fall through late spring when the air temperature is cooler, bugs are minimal, and the snakes are dormant. Furthermore, the winter months can provide a special treat when the occasional storm drops several inches of snow on the summits providing a unique experience of coastal views combined with snow. These same storms bring downpours to the lower elevations, enlivening the vegetation and numerous waterfalls. I have done several adventures in Big Sur over the years, but it took until last winter for me to become captivated by the phenomenal beauty of this region and gain a desire to explore the land in-depth. The result has been a bevy of awesome explorations and much inspiration for future adventures. This post compiles all of my Big Sur outings separated by sub-region categories that I came up with that made sense to me, generally organized from north to south. Most of the trips link to a dedicated blog post with many photos and a description of the adventure, but some only link to photo albums. This post also includes an array of some of my favorite photos from the region. The best resource to use when planning your adventure is Big Sur Trail Map, which includes wilderness trail conditions, donwloadable topographic trail maps and a route metrics generator. The Ventana Wliderness Aliance Forum also includes trip reports where the most recent conditions can be found. Feel free to ask me for any additional tips or information. As there is still a lot for me to explore in Big Sur I will continue to update this post.
North Big Sur Coast:
- Doud Peak & Rocky Ridge (April 13, 2013) – Garrapata State Park
- Doud Peak & Rocky Ridge (May 11, 2013) – Garrapata State Park
- Sierra Hill at Brazil Ranch (December 22, 2013)
- Soberanes Loop (January 2, 2015)
North Interior Ventana; the Carmel River:
- Carmel River Point-to-Point (October 2009)
- Carmel River-Ventana Double Cone Loop (January 10, 2015)
- Ventana (single) Cone Adventure (January 17, 2014)
- Carmel River Falls & Gorge (February 1, 2015)
- Other: Pine Falls, Church Creek, Miller Canyon
Cabezo-Molera, Coast to Ridge:
- Post Summit & East Molera Ridge (April 14, 2013)
- Andrew Molera (October 13, 2013)
- Cabezo-Molera Loop (January 4, 2014)
- Cabezo-Molera Loop (February 23, 2014)
- East Molera Ridge & Post Summit (April 20, 2014)
Little Sur featuring Pico Blanco, Prince of the Ventana:
- Pico Blanco via Little Sur (May 12, 2013)
- Circular Pools (January 26, 2014)
- Pico Blanco-Little Sur Loop (February 16, 2014)
- Pico Blanco’s North Ridge (November 28, 2014)
Ventana Double Cone, Queen of the Ventana:
- Ventana Double Cone (December 24, 2013)
- La Ventana Loop (January 15, 2014)
- Kandlbinder & Ventana Double Cone via the Drain (April 13, 2014)
- Big Sur Station to Bottcher’s Gap via Ventana Double Cone (May 4, 2014)
Big Sur River, Wild & Scenic:
- Sykes Hot Springs (November 2009)
- Into the Wild on the Big Sur Trail (January 11, 2014)
- Redwood Creek & Sykes Hot Springs (July 27, 2014)
- Mocho Loop featuring Mocho Falls (January 24, 2015)
Coast Ridge including Marble Peak and Mining Ridge:
- Limekiln to Big Sur via the Coast Ridge (December 28, 2013)
- Coast Ridge: Stone to Boronda (December 28, 2014)
Arroyo Seco, the Gorge:
- Marble Peak 50k+ (December 6, 2014): A trans-Ventana route from the Arroyo Seco Gorge to Mable Peak on Coast Ridge
- Last Chance Falls, Jeff Falls and Santa Lucia Creek Gorge (February 10, 2015)
Memorial Park featuring Junipero Serra Peak – Grandfather of the Ventana:
- Junipero Serra Peak (December 8, 2013): The highest point in the Santa Lucia Mountains at 5,857 ft
- Santa Lucia Three Peaks (January 25, 2014): A classic route that includes the summits of three major peaks in the Ventana Wilderness – Cone Peak, Twin Peak and Junipero Serra Peak
- Cone Peak’s North Ridge & Lost Valley (March 8, 2014)
Central Big Sur Coast, Big Views:
- Boronda/De Angulo Loop (December 21, 2013)
- Partington Cove to McWay Falls (December 22, 2013) – Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park
- Partington to McWay, Julia Pfieffer Burns (March 15, 2014) – Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park
- Big Creek Reserve (May 10, 2014) – Open to the public one day each year!
- Prewitt & Boronda Wildflowers (May 11, 2014) – One of the greatest wildflower displays
- Boronda Turkey Trot (November 27, 2914)
- Big Sur condor Loop (December 13, 2015)
- Ewoldsen & Alta Vista (December 27, 2015)
Cone Peak, King of Big Sur:
- Cone Peak via Vicente Flat (January 10, 2010)
- Cone Peak via Vicente Flat (January 15, 2011)
- Cone Peak via Stone Ridge Direct (April 20, 2013)
- Cone Peak Marathon (November 3, 2013)
- Cone Peak via Stone Ridge and North Coast Trail (December 15, 2013)
- Stone Ridge Direct (February 1, 2014)
- Stone Ridge Direct Loop & Cone Peak (April 19, 2014)
- Cone Peak via Vicente Flat FKT & Stone Ridge Descent (April 26, 2014)
- New Year’s Day Stone Ridge Loop (January 1, 2015)
- Stone & Cone (January 19, 2015)
- Cone Peak Climbs (January 31, 2015)
South Coast – Pacific Valley:
- Prewitt Ridge (December 29, 2013)
- Shouey-Plaskett Loop (February 1, 2014)
- Shouey-Plaskett Loop (February 15, 2014)
- Kirk Creek Ridge (February 15, 2014)
- Prewitt Ridge & South Coast Ridge (April 6, 2014)
South Coast – Silver Peak Wilderness featuring Silver Peak, Princess of Big Sur, and Mount Mars, the Duke of the South Coast:
- Buckeye Loop (January 5, 2014)
- Mount Mars (January 5, 2014)
- South Coast Adventure (February 24, 2014)
- Silver Peak Wilderness Loop, Lion Peak and Mt. Mars (March 16, 2014)
- Dutra Loop and Soda Peak (November 23, 2014)
- Dutra Loop (January 3, 2015)
- Point Lobos: Located at the northern end of the Big Sur Coast, Point Lobos State Reserve is very popular, especially on sunny weekends. The park features numerous rocky promontories, picturesque coves and a pretty Monterey pine forest. There are many trails in the reserve that are good for a shorter run or a post-adventure stroll.
- Bixby Bridge: An essential photograph spot for tourists, this famous historic bridge is indeed very photogenic
- Soberanes Point: Rugged scenery at Garrapata State Park
- Point Sur: Historic site
- Pfieffer Beach – purple sand from manganese garnet deposits
- McWay Falls: Iconic Big Sur location and another must-photo location for tourists, located just off Hwy 1 at Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park
- Pacific Valley Bluff: Spectacular sea stacks with Cone Peak & Stone Ridge as a backdrop.
- Sand Dollar Beach: Largest beach in Big Sur with beautiful sand and scenery