Cone Peak Climbs

Another phenomenal day on the mountain I call the King of Big Sur! Cone Peak rises 5,155 ft above the Pacific Ocean in less than three miles as the crow flies, making it one of the steepest gradients from ocean to summit in the contiguous United States. It’s nearly a vertical mile above the glimmering ocean with a commanding view of the Big Sur Coast. My first visit to this grand mountain was in 2010 via the “standard” all-trail route from Kirk Creek to Vicente Flat and the Cone Peak Trail. I repeated this route in 2011.  It was only in 2013 when I did the Stone Ridge Direct route that the possibilities for off-trail exploration on Cone Peak really clicked for me. Since then I’ve visited Cone Peak frequently exploring the various trails and routes on this amazing mountain. GPS route here.

On this day, I joined Joey Cassidy for the next step of my personal discovery of Cone Peak by tackling a series of rock scramble routes. In the process we ascended all three of Cone Peak’s prominent ridges: the Southeast Ridge, the North Ridge and the ridge linking Cone Peak to Twin Peak. We also included an ascent of the short but sweet West Rib, arguably the finish of the Cone-Twin Ridge, which makes up for its short length with relatively solid rock (for the Santa Lucia Mountains) and an outrageous setting of stunning views in the background.  A special thanks goes to Joey Cassidy for showing me the northeast face and the west rib, routes he had previously scoped out and climbed. It’s always a pleasure to join Joey on adventures, especially since he’s an extremely talented photographer. His photos of me on these scrambles were so awesome I’ve included a few in this post so double thanks goes to Joey for contributing (credit indicated below or above his photos).  We started with an ascent of Stone Ridge Direct, as beautiful as ever, rising from the redwood-filled canyons of Limkiln to the exposed grassy slopes and finally the Ventana alpine zone with Santa Lucia Firs, Coulter Pines and Sugar Pines. Once we crossed over to Cone Peak via the Twin-Cone Ridge we took the Cone Peak trail down to a point where we could access the Southeast Ridge, a prominent ridge separating the Limekiln drainage from the San Antonio River drainage.Southeast Ridge: The Southeast Ridge is extremely scenic with amazing views of Stone Ridge and also the rugged cirque on the northeast side of Cone Peak giving a nice angle on the face that we would climb later that day. The Southeast Ridge included some sections of class 3 scrambles. The more difficult sections could by bypassed by dropping off the north side of the ridge and traversing underneath, but we chose to stick to the crest of the ridge and enjoy as much rock scrambling as we could. The most difficult part of the Southeast ridge is a loose downclimb from the prominent knob along the ridge into a deep notch. Once in the notch the route is finished with a straightforward scramble up to the Cone Peak Trail.


West Rib: The west rib of Cone Peak (pictured above) is a short pitch of remarkably solid rock for the Santa Lucia Mountains. Most rock in the Santa Lucias is very crumbly so when a pitch is fairly solid it’s automatically a gem! However, what makes the West Rib so sweet is its amazing position above Twin Peak, Stone Ridge and the South Fork Devils Canyon. A stunning panorama surrounds you as you ascend the rib to the summit. Instead of traversing around the mountain and taking the switchbacks to the top, simply scramble up the boulder field to the base of the rib. There are easier and looser routes to the summit from this point, but the prominent west rib is the line to climb with its relatively solid rock and mixture of enjoyable 3rd/4th class moves. Credit goes to Joey Cassidy for introducing me to this sweet little finish to summit Cone and it’s going to be hard for me to resist climbing the west rib every time in the future versus taking the trail. Northeast Face: The Northeast Face is the most dramatic, committing and steepest scramble offered by Cone Peak’s topography. The route starts from a talus field along the North Coast Ridge Trail where you look up into a cliffy cirque with the lofty summit of Cone Peak perched 1,200 ft above. After ascending loose talus, the route enters a gully filled with Santa Lucia Firs. Depending on where you enter the gully dictates how much of the gully you ascend but you ultimately look to exit the gully onto rock on climbers right where you officially start the climb up the northeast face. The rock becomes more vertical and the scrambling begins in earnest. It should be noted that staying in the gully will take you away from the Northeast Face and toward the deep notch on the Southeast Ridge – not the route I am describing. Once you’ve exited the gully and are on the Northeast Face there are numerous possibilities and micro-route finding challenges to ascend the class 3 face interspersed with class 4 climbing. Some lines will be more difficult than others, but the inhibiting factor in tackling the more vertical, exposed rock on the face is the inherent poor quality of the rock. This results in sometimes using vegetation as holds or foot steps. That being said, the rock is solid enough where you need it to be on the 4th class sections that it’s a very fun scramble.The crux moves are near the top where the holds become thin for a few moves but after surmounting this final cliff you emerge onto easier terrain near the top of the north ridge.  As with the other scramble routes described, the setting is amazing with a view of the 5th class cliffs along the north ridge, and a vista above a pristine grove of old growth Santa Lucia Firs leading down to the San Antonio River drainage.    Photo by Joey CassidyPhotos above and below by Joey Cassidy of me ascending the NE Face.North Ridge: We descended the North Ridge to reach the North Coast Ridge Trail which we took to the base of the Northeast Face route. The lower part of the north ridge is easy open terrain with a use path in sections. The upper part of the north ridge is more rugged with bits of scrambling in spots and a couple places where it’s most efficient to come off the ridge slightly to the west side to avoid loose rock formations and gendarmes on the ridge crest proper. This upper part of the north ridge has phenomenal views with lots of steep relief on both sides of the serrated rocky ridge, especially on the east side where cliffs plunge several hundred feet, including the cliffs of the northeast face route described above. 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 scenery makes for some very enjoyable scambling on the north ridge, a classic route of Big Sur.  In the photo below Joey enjoys the amazing views from the Southeast Ridge to Stone Ridge, the Middle Fork Limekiln Creek and Hare Canyon. Photo below by Joey Cassidy of me ascending the West RibPhoto by Joey CassidyAfter the scramble routes we cruised down the Cone Peak Trail to Trail Spring and then ran the Gamboa Trail underneath the forest of Santa Lucia Firs and Sugar Pines in the headwaters of the South Fork Devils Canyon to Ojito Saddle, where we took the Stone Ridge Trail back to the lower part of Stone Ridge and down to Limekiln Canyon. The more time I spend exploring Cone Peak, the more I love the mountain! Photo by Joey CassidyPhoto above and below  by Joey Cassidy of me ascending the SE Ridge. Photo by Joey CassidyPhoto above and below by Joey Cassidy of the SE RidgePhoto by Joey CassidyPhoto above by Joey Cassidy of me ascending the short but sweet West Rib. 


Cone Peak via Stone Ridge Direct 2014

What’s the most impressive and prominent grassy ridge in all of Big Sur? The answer, without question, is Stone Ridge. I’ve featured this striking ridge on my blog several times so what haven’t I already said about Stone Ridge? Nothing (see links to prior posts below). That being said, here are a few thoughts and many more photos from one of my favorite spots in Big Sur and the Ventana Wilderness.

Stone Ridge is an awesome place to be any time of the year, but the few weeks during spring when the meadows turn verdant are particularly special.  As Stone Ridge is a south-north oriented ridge, I have learned that the setting photographs best in the afternoon and evening as the coast to south gets better light. This year, Erica and I ascended to Twitchell Flat and lower Stone Ridge, and then took the Stone Ridge Trail and Gamboa Trail around Twin Peak to the summit of Cone Peak. From Cone Peak we traversed to Twin Peak and then descended Stone Ridge from top to bottom during evening light. The advantage of going down Stone Ridge as part of this loop was manifold:  (1) it enabled us to catch evening light on the ridge and still return to the car before dark, (2) by descending you’re looking at the incredible view with each and every step, and (3) it’s easier to descend the steep ridge than ascend it. While I obviously put a lot of thought into when and how do this particular loop, the reality is that Stone Ridge is amazing any time of day, as an ascent, descent, or a destination in itself (I can attest since I have done all of the above). Finally, just in case you haven’t had enough Stone Ridge, I’ve got some more photos from Stone Ridge coming soon.

Prior (and future) Stone Ridge posts:

Limekiln to Big Sur via the Coast Ridge

A point-to-point is the best way to maximize covering and experiencing a lot of terrain. The complete Coast Ridge route is no exception with 39+ miles of amazing and constantly changing scenery for its entire length.  This aesthetic route is a masterpiece and one of the “super” classics of Big Sur and the Ventana Wilderness. The route essentially parallels the coast from south to north and is mostly right on the crest of Coast Ridge.  As you might expect from a ridge of this prominence, there are wide vistas in all directions for virtually the entire route. On the west side of the ridge, the Pacific Ocean and Big Sur Coast are ever present, with views into some of the most wild and rugged drainage basins along the entire coast, including the forks of Devils Canyon and Big Creek. On the east side of the ridge are vistas into the remote interior Ventana Wilderness including the Lost Valley, Junipero Serra and the South Fork Big Sur River. Most of the elevation gain is accomplished within the first 9 miles and after one last climb up to Anderson Peak, a running-friendly dirt road provides a net gradual downhill for the final 15 miles all the way to the terminus of the Coast Ridge Road at Ventana Inn. The middle section on the North Coast Ridge Trail is the most remote and has some brushy sections and a few small blowdowns, but no major bushwhack and route finding is straightforward. Strava route here.   

The route beings with a steep climb out of the redwoods in Limekiln Canyon onto lower Stone Ridge.  At the intersection with the Stone Ridge Trail, we took the trail into the West Fork Limekiln Canyon traverseing lovelly oak woodland and redwood-filled ravines. Eventually we climbed out of the canyon to “Ojito Pass” where the Stone Ridge Trail turns into the Gamboa Trail and curves into the South Fork Devils Canyon. The Gamboa Trail is one of the my favorite trails in all of the Ventana and passes through an amazing forest of Santa Lucia Fir, Sugar Pine and Coulter Pine with excellent views down canyon to the Pacific. The trail ends at a junction with the North Coast Ridge Trail which has sublime views of the surrounding terrain. After an open area, the North Coast Ridge Trail enters a spectacular sugar pine forest with a nice smooth trail covered in pine needles. The trail exits the forest near Tin Can Camp, which possesses one of the best views of the entire route. To the west is the remote, rugged and trail-less Middle Fork Devils Canyon and to the east is the imposing massif of Junipero Serra Peak. Beyond Tin Can Camp, the North Coast Ridge Trail descends through one last stand of Sugar Pine and Coulter Pine forest before exiting into a largely chaparral landscape that was burned in the 2008 Basin Complex fire. The trail is easily followed, but contains areas of brush and downfall to negotiate. The firebreak and the trail are mostly in unison on the ridge ridge crest, however they sometimes diverge when the firebreak sticks to he crest religiously while the trail will traversing across the terrain to avoid intermediary high points and unnecessary ups and downs. We mostly stayed to the trail except we took the firebreak over Mining Ridge. As the highest point between Ventana Double Cone and the Cone Peak area, Mining Ridge has a fantastic 360 panorama. We enjoyed lunch here and then continued down the east side of the firebreak to rejoin the North Coast Ridge Trail near the junction with the Redondo Trail (which leads down into Memorial Park).  

The next section was one of the best ridge sections with excellent views to Ventana Double Cone, which appears noticeably closer at this point. Along this ridge we were happy to find water at the Coast Ridge Spring (aka Redondo Spring). This indicates the spring is fairly reliable even in dry years, but with as dry as it’s been this year, I wouldn’t count on it much longer. The final portion of the North Coast Ridge Trail is becoming more overgrown. It was nice to see some pine trees survived the fire in this section as well as many new pine saplings emerging from the chaparral. After about 20 miles, the trail emerges onto the Coast Ridge Road, which is a dirt road that would take us all the way to Ventana Inn. While closed to the public vehicular traffic, pedestrians have a right of way on this dirt road that is in reasonably good shape to allow access to a few homes and private properties along the way. I made a side trip to climb Marble Peak which has another A+ view of the surrounding region.  I also found a nice use path on my way down that emerges from a vegetation tunnel onto the Coast Ridge road directly across from a sign that says “Marble Peak.”  I also ascended to the top of Anderson Peak by skirting fences (but not surmounting any) and ascending steep grass. The summit of Anderson Peak is federal government property with some old flight radio equipment and a few buildings. The top of the peak is paved with a signal at its center. It’s an odd sight after hardly seeing any infrastructure all day, but the summit “platform” has great views of the coast and the rugged ridge between Kandlbinder and Ventana Double Cone. After Anderson Peak, it’s mostly all downhill along the dirt road with amazing views throughout. At Timber Top we briefly left the road and ascended over Timber Top instead of taking the circuitous road. The views of the Big Sur coast from Timber Top are truly spectacular. The final section of Coast Ridge Road was marvelous with the grassy hills and Mount Manuel illuminated by the soft evening light. We arrived at the finish just as the sun had set to wrap up a special day in the Ventana.

Click on the image below for a 360 degree panorama from Marble Peak:

Note: Save for the very last image, the remaining photos are basically in chronological order. 

Cone Peak Marathon Loop

California’s spectacular natural landscape ranges from the Pacific coastline to the Sierra crest, each filled with many inspiring destinations and experiences. As the seasons shift into late autumn and winter I gravitate to coastal adventures. This time of year has reliably less fog along the immediate coast and interior locations are comfortably cooler. This is also the time of year when winter rains begin to revitalize the redwood forests.  One of my favorite regions for coastal scenery is the Ventana Wilderness along the Big Sur coastline. The premier destination within this vast wilderness is Cone Peak. Arguably the most aesthetic and complete route on Cone Peak is the “Cone Peak Marathon,” a classic lollipop loop from the ocean to the summit of 5,155 ft Cone Peak and back down via the Gamboa Trail and Stone Ridge Trail. This route thoroughly covers the trail network around Cone Peak and passes through three of the canyons formed by forks of Limekiln Creek. In addition, there are great views down the rugged and wild South Fork Devils Canyon.  The route showcases the wide variety of ecosystems on Cone Peak including coastal scrub, redwood forest, grassy meadows, oak woodland, chaparral, and a unique high elevation forest composed of Santa Lucia Fir and Sugar Pine forest. This is a top notch route in a stellar region! Strava route here.

As of this writing, the Vicente Flat Trail is in excellent condition all the way up to the Cone Peak Road. The route beings with about 1,200 feet of climbing over the first couple miles and then levels off as it rounds a corner into the Hare Canyon. Just before 4 miles from the trailhead, the trail makes a short descent to the bottom of Hare Canyon where the junction with the Stone Ridge Trail is reached after a creek crossing. Shortly after this junction, the Vicente Flat trail gets down to business with the steepest chunk of climbing between miles 5 and 7. Over these two miles, the trail ascends around 1,600 feet. The Vicente Flat trail ends at a gravel road that can be driven from the Nacimiento-Fergusson Road. Turning uphill on the dirt road, the ascent is more gradual than the preceding steep climb out of hare Canyon, but it’s still a bit of a slog. After about a mile on the dirt road, you turn onto the Cone Peak Trail for the final chunk of climbing. The trail first makes a lengthy traverse beneath the summit and then switchbacks up Cone Peak’s South Ridge to a junction with the Summit Trail. The final set of switchbacks on the Summit Trail to the abandoned fire lookout are steeper once again but the spectacular views are a great distraction. The view from the summit is outstanding with a 360 degree panorama including the interior Ventana Wilderness and views for miles up and down the Big Sur coastline.

Back at the junction with the Summit Trail, turn left down the backside of Cone Peak. This section of trail is still called the Cone Peak Trail and passes through a section where trail crews recently cut through enormous Sugar Pine downfall. Descending off the backside of Cone Peak into the South Fork Devils Canyon is a treat with passage through a rare forest of Santa Lucia Fir, the rarest species of fir in the world. These beautiful conical trees are only found in small pockets at high elevations of the Santa Lucia Mountains.  Somewhat counter intuitively, the Santa Lucia Fir is not fire resistant and therefore fares best in areas of fireproof topography (i.e. rocky sheltered locations).  The backside of Cone Peak is a perfect example of this rocky and rugged, fireproof terrain and therefore contains one of the finest Santa Lucia Fir forests in existence. Ultimately, the Cone Peak Trail ends at Trail Spring Camp where it intersects the Gamboa Trail.  From Trail Spring commences a particularly pleasant stretch of single track traverses the hillside below Twin Peak all the way to a small pass along the West Ridge of Twin Peak. It is at this pass that the Gamboa Trail becomes the Strone Ridge Trail and descends into the West Fork of Limekiln Creek canyon. Extensive trail work was completed this year on the Gamboa and Stone Ridge trails removing a lot of brush and downfall. It should be noted that the tread on these trails is narrow and sometimes technical; generally not fast tread or terrain for running but they are runnable. In addition, the descent via the Stone Ridge Trail entails some deceiving climbs, including an ascent up to Stone Ridge and an ascent out of Limekiln Creek. Both of these climbs are not long, but any substantial climbing after the initial climb up Cone Peak can be taxing. All told, there is over 7,000 ft of climbing on this route. Stone Ridge is the most prominent feature in the region and includes an excellent direct route to the summit, the true “Sea to Sky.” A good chunk of the Stone Ridge Direct route is visible from the Stone Ridge Trail as it crosses Stone Ridge at around 2,200 ft and again from the slopes above Limekiln Creek. This winter I hope to visit Cone Peak during a relatively rare winter snow event.  With outstanding scenery, lots of vertical, and engaging trails, I will surely be back for more runs on Cone Peak soon. Strava route here.