Pick Creek Loop

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.

Mocho Loop Featuring Mocho Falls

The Mocho Loop is another Big Sur Classic combining spectacular coastal views, a magical walk through a lush river canyon, and a rarely seen waterfall on the main stem of the South Fork Big Sur River. I started the loop with an always-inspiring hike up Boronda Ridge and then ran down the Coast Ridge Road with more marvelous coastal vistas all the way to the top of the Terrace Creek trail. Terrace Creek descends into an old growth redwood grove with a cascading stream along the way. At the bottom of Terrace Creek I took the Pine Ridge Trail to Sykes Hot Springs. The Pine Ridge trail is in awesome condition; the best I have seen it personally. The Pine Ridge Trail is also very runnable with excellent views of the Big Sur River canyon. When the Pine Ridge Trail crosses the Big Sur River, instead of going downstream to the springs I went upstream to the confluence of the North and South Forks of the Big Sur River. This mile-long stretch to the confluence is very pretty with cliffs walls on both sides of the river. At the confluence I went right onto the South Fork Big Sur River. For about 3 miles from the confluence I made my way up the South Fork fairly efficiently as a combination of flood channels, sand bars and rock hopping meant I only had to be in the stream part of the time. Higher flow on the river would make this a more arduous trek as I as continuously crossing the stream. GPS route here.After a major tributary, the canyon walls along the South Fork Big Sur River narrow into a gorge and I could sense a waterfall was coming. Indeed around a cliffy corner the lower section of Mocho Falls appeared. Since the falls is on the main stem of the river, the volume is impressive and the pool beneath the falls is big and deep. Perhaps most impressive is the amphitheater of smooth rock surrounding the falls and pool. The vertical walls around the falls meant I had to backtrack to find a route above the falls to continue upstream. A weakness in the cliffs allows one to ascend a very steep slope above the gorge and then traverse steep, sometimes loose slopes above the waterfall gorge. Mocho Falls has two distinct steps, but what was most fascinating about the falls was a twisty chasm of elegantly sculpted and polished rock separating the two steps. The depth of the chasm was such that it was impossible to see both steps of the falls at the same time cleanly (at least without a wetsuit and ropes). Nonetheless, what is visible is an amazing sight and it was a treat to experience this rarely seen falls. I can only imagine what Mocho Falls would look and sound like after a heavy rain when the water is squeezed through the chasm. In fact, after such rains the roaring sound of the falls is so great that it can be easily heard from the Devils Staircase climb up the Big Sur Trail.

Above Mocho Falls the lovely scenery continues with slick rock pools with fern and moss-covered cliffs a constant. At the junction with Mocho Creek I ate lunch under a lovely canopy of Santa Lucia Firs, incense cedars and redwoods – a rare occasion to have all three of these amazing tree species living side-by-side – yet another wonder of Big Sur! After lunch I went up Mocho Creek a short distance to see Mocho Creek Falls, which is a pretty falls in a lush setting – well worth the visit. Instead of continuing up Mocho Creek to intersect the Big Sur Trail I decided to backtrack to the South Fork Big Sur River to take the river all the way to Rainbow Camp. It was so beautiful I didn’t want it to end and I also wanted to do the Devils Staircase climb a little later in the day when it would be shaded. This turned out to be a good decision with more beautiful pools and cascades along the river lined with Santa Lucia Firs. At Rainbow Camp I turned onto the Big Sur Trail for the climb up to Cold Springs and Coast Ridge, known as the Devils Staircase due to the relentless switchbacks and substantial elevation gain. In all, it took me about 1.5 hours to go from Rainbow Camp to Cold Springs up the Devils Staircase, hardly “impassable” as some have commented (although a big pack would certainly slow things down). Bright green flagging marks the trickiest spots in the riparian zones. There are blowdowns along the climb and the brush is thick at times, but progress is reasonable. Back on the Coast Ridge Road I knew I was setting myself up for another awesome descent down Boronda Ridge in evening light. Going down this special ridge is always a fantastic way to end an adventure run, particularly a classic like the Mocho Loop! GPS 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