The Science of Snow Cone

The “Snow Cone” is somewhat of a mythical event to experience. A snow on Cone Peak is not rare in itself, but rather the ability to experience and capture a fresh snow. Most years have snow on Cone Peak, and sometimes multiple times per year, but as I will describe, they are virtually always difficult to forecast more than a day in advance and the snow is fleeting and hard to capture. Timing is therefore very important to get the full winter wonderland effect (with trees and vegetation cloaked in snow) above the spectacular Big Sur coast. When it all comes together, standing in fresh snow while marveling at the turquoise and blue waters of the Pacific Ocean thousands of feet below indeed feels like something out of a dream or mythology! The challenges of timing a Snow Cone reminds me of growing up in the Seattle area wishing for lowland snow. As with the Snow Cone, there were many more teases than actual snow storms in the Seattle area, but when the ingredients came together it was always magical.  In many ways, the forecasting challenges for lowland snow in Western Washington and Cone Peak are similar and I’m just as fascinated now as when I was young.

I’ve been captivated by the possibility of a Snow Cone for some time. I’d seen enough from others who’d witnessed past events to know that it was something special and an event that I wanted to experience for myself but I also knew that if timed correctly it could be that much more amazing. Along the way I’ve sought to understand what weather patterns might make for a good Snow Cone in order to be at the right place at the right time when an opportunity presents itself. The drought got in the way of my plans for a few years but I finally got the opportunity to implement some of this knowledge during Snow Cones on January 21st and January 24th. In particular, the snow on January 24th measured 15 inches on the summit with snow down to 2,500 feet, the most significant snow in many years. The winter wonderland we encountered even exceeded my dreams. The following is a discussion of some of the science behind what it takes to get a Snow Cone. Note that these are just the thoughts and observations of a weather enthusiast and I have no formal training in meteorology. Also please note that all photos are © Leor Pantilat, All Rights Reserved. Please request permission for any use.

At 5,164 feet one might guess that the summit of Cone Peak receives quite a bit of snow, both in terms of number of events per year and aggregate number of inches. However, this is not the case since there are many counteracting factors that turn many promising snow events into merely teases. For a Snow Cone you need the ingredients – namely cold air and moisture – to come together just right. If you continue reading, you’ll see there are a number of moving parts that make it challenging to get these two ingredients together at the same time. Then, assuming a snow does happen, it’s sometimes a challenge to obtain the visibility of the coast from the summit. In my opinion, it’s not the same if the mountain is stuck in a cloud. What makes a snowfall on Cone Peak so unique is the ocean vistas and while certainly not a requirement of a Snow Cone, having visibility of the coast elevates the experience to another level.

Snow Cone is a fairly infrequent event. I’d estimate that a “normal” season probably sees a handful of times where the summit receives more than a dusting and one to two events in the 6-8 inch range on the summit. Any event that exceeds 8 inches on the summit or drops snow below 3,000 ft happens much less frequently and cannot be counted on every season. In fact, using the term “normal” may be somewhat of a misnomer considering California’s climate which swings wildly between drought and big winters. In fact, one of the winters in the recent drought likely did not even have one snow event the entire season. On the other hand, “big” winters with a persistent flow out of the Gulf of Alaska may see several good snow events.  A snow Cone is possible as early as the end of November, but the season really only gets started in January with the best possibilities residing in January through mid March.

Any discussion of Snow Cone needs to start with geography. The summit of Cone Peak is only 3 miles from the coast making it the steepest gradient from ocean to summit in the contiguous United States. This topography is what makes Cone so special. However, since the mountain is essentially right over the ocean that is a problem for snow prospects. Even in January the ocean temperature is typically in the mid 50s. Water holds heat better than land does and it therefore warms the air above it. Thus, the Pacific Ocean has an enormous moderating effect on coastal temperatures. Right at the coast temperatures are very mild even in the heart of winter and also mild in the middle of summer with a persistent marine layer. With onshore flow out of the south or southwest, warmer maritime air envelops the summit and snow is out of the question.  

The next problem is that Cone Peak is not a naturally cold spot. Colder air from elsewhere is needed. Cone Peak resides at a relatively south latitude with a Mediterranean climate characterized by hot, dry summer and cool, wet winters. I would go so far as to say that most of the year is warm to hot on Cone, especially on its sun-baked south facing slopes. Even during the winter it’s rarely cold. Most of the precipitation that falls on Cone occurs during warmer “Atmospheric River” events that pull in copious moisture from the subtropics and raise snow levels well above the summit. The vast majority of snow events are “fringy” meaning that the temperature on the summit is just barely cold enough to snow. Even when it does snow, it is almost always very fleeting. Once the sun comes out it’s only a matter of hours before the south facing slopes melt out and the snow and ice drop from the trees and chaparral. With a big enough snow the north facing slopes will hold onto snow on the ground quite a bit longer, but the chaparral vegetation and trees will start dropping snow from their limbs as soon as the sun comes out and temperatures rise above freezing. 

So how does it get cold enough to snow?  The answer is usually not arctic air. It is very rare for continental arctic air masses originating in Canada to reach Cone Peak’s latitude on the central California coast. The path of least resistance for these air masses is east of the Rocky Mountains, but even when the cold air manages to sneak through the Rockies, it still has to get over the Cascades and the Sierra Nevada. That means there are several barriers impeding the progress of these cold air masses. Due to these challenges, I’d estimate that a modified arctic front only reaches Cone Peak once every five years or so. When these fronts do reach central California the next problem is moisture. These systems tend take an inland trajectory more often than not which usually means they are moisture starved. The northern end of the Santa Lucias can be efficient at squeezing out snow in these scenarios, but Cone lies in an unfavorable “snow shadowed” position in this situation. When the already-rare arctic front happens to swing off the Northern California coast and gather moisture off the Pacific, this becomes the textbook setup for low elevation snowfalls in coastal California. However, there’s a reason snow is so rare in San Francisco and Monterey. That’s because arctic fronts are rare as-is and then to have them swing offshore just enough to gather moisture (but not too much to warm the air up) is even more rare. Despite the rarity, history has been marked with just this sort of event many times, and it seemingly happened more in the past with several records of measurable snow in downtown San Francisco in the late 1800s, 1951 and 1976 from just this sort of pattern. While it’s been 40 years since this pattern came together just right to produce snow in San Francisco, arctic fronts are always something to watch for and the December 2008 snow was associated with an arctic front.  That said, arctic fronts do not happen frequently enough to be considered the primary producer of a Snow Cone.

So if it’s not from the arctic where do the ingredients for a Snow Cone usually come from? The answer is the Gulf of Alaska. These systems tend to be much more reliable in the moisture department as they take an over-water trajectory. They also tend to occur with much greater frequency in a normal winter (the drought years were a notable exception when it seemed like years passed without a strong Gulf of Alaska storm). However, with Gulf of Alaska systems, since the cold air is of maritime origins it’s usually more cool rather than cold.  In most cases this takes lowest elevation snow out of the equation, but the snowline with these systems is more nuanced as a strong enough Gulf of Alaska system with a low pressure tracking to just the right spot can lower the snow level to 2,500 feet or even lower.

Gulf of Alaska systems come in many flavors that have consequences on snow possibilities. These systems typically include a cold front moving down the coast which will draw up warmer air ahead of the front from the south and southwest. Most of the heavier precipitation usually resides ahead the frontal band and, frustratingly, it’s going to be too warm in this sector of the storm. Once the frontal band passes the wind direction turns to northwesterly and this allows the cooler air out of the Gulf of Alaska to filter in. Within this cool, unstable air resides cumulus and showers. If this transition to cooler air is prompt, then these showers can start producing snowfall over the summit soon after frontal passage. It helps if there has been preceding systems already establishing cool air over the region so the warm sector of the system is brief. If the cooler air takes its time to arrive it’s likely not a good sign for a Snow Cone. Once the front passes and the cooler air has arrived attention turns to the “shower game” which can be equally frustrating. Not all Gulf of Alaska systems have a deep reservoir of showers after the front passes. Many times there isn’t enough moisture in the post-frontal airmass to produce more than hit and miss showers once the cool air has arrived. Other times the trajectory of the shower flow is out of the northwest which is a great setup for the northern Santa Lucias like Ventana Double Cone and Chews Ridge, but once again Cone Peak is “snow shadowed” by these peaks to its north. For post-frontal showers to be successful for Cone Peak the flow of showers needs to be more from the west and it needs to be fairly strong with a lot of post-frontal shower activity.

After the frontal band passes things get more interesting when discussing the track of the low pressure. Most times the parent low will track north into the Pacific Northwest but sometimes with a deep and digging trough over the western United States the low will descend into the base of the trough by sliding down the coast and moving inland over Big Sur or to the south. The low serves as a mechanism to organize shower activity and produce heavier snowfall and is entirely within the cold part of the system. The success of this type of setup is highly sensitive to the track of the low. A track too far north may draw up warmer from the south and southwest and raise snow levels too high.  A track too far south or offshore will take away the moisture to make snow. Thus, a track that either closely parallels the coast or comes in just to the south is likely ideal. This Goldilocks setup does not happen very often but when it does you can get lower elevation snowfall and heavier snow totals up top.

In late winter and early spring instead of frontal bands coming out of the Gulf of Alaska, the systems sometimes take on the form of a cutoff low, which is a low that has been cutoff from the basic westerly flow. Instead of a widespread precipitation event with a well-defined frontal band, these cutoff lows can sit off the coast quasi-stationary for a day or longer and spin up showers. It can be quite cold underneath these lows and if they are positioned correctly they can result in substantial snow over Cone Peak along with hail and thunderstorms at lower elevations. In fact, these cutoff lows are responsible for many of the late season snows in March and April. Since the cold air is typically confined to right underneath the low, once the low does “eject” the temperatures usually warm up rapidly.

The final type of Snow Cone doesn’t originate in the Gulf of Alaska or the arctic. Sometimes systems will come directly out of the west with a low making landfall somewhere on the central coast. As Cone Peak is on the cooler north side of such a system and the air flow can become weakly offshore (cutting off the moderating influence of the Pacific) the air can be marginally cold enough for a higher elevation snow event (generally above 4k) and possibly lower if there is some antecedent cooler air in place.

If all of the ingredients line up correctly then Cone can be an efficient snow producer and create a unique and magical winter wonderland. In a matter of hours 6-8+ inches can accumulate. The northwest facing Devils Canyon is masterful at orographically enhancing precipitation and generating clouds. If it’s below freezing and the mountain is in a cloud rime ice begins to build up on vegetation within these clouds despite the fact that there are no higher based clouds and precipitation. After several hours the ice can accumulate to impressive amounts, particularly on the very exposed ridge lines, as manifested by an event on January 21st that produced 2-3 inches of ice accumulation.

Let’s assume the ingredients came together and a snowfall happened. The next problem is visibility and whether there will be any. Being so close to the moist environment of the Pacific Ocean, it’s often a difficult task to clear the mountain of clouds. Even if the mountain is clear in the morning, cumulus development in the afternoon is a good bet if a substantial snow has occurred and onshore flow persists. On some occasions a dry northerly wind will follow a snow and blow away all the clouds, but these winds might also blow the snow off the vegetation. Other times the mountain is socked in for the entire day after a snow. For me personally, what makes a  Snow Cone so special is the proximity to the ocean and having the visibility to the ocean takes it to another level. Thus, not only is timing the snow important, but also timing the breakout from the clouds! 

The January 24th snow event produced 15 inches of snow on the summit of Cone Peak with spots along the north ridge approaching 2 feet. These totals are significant and have not been seen in several years (likely back to 2011 or 2008). This was a classic Gulf of Alaska storm that was the the final system of three. The preceding two systems served to progressively cool the atmosphere. In fact, it was already cold enough to produce 2-3 inches of rime rice and 4+ inches of snow with the second storm on January 21st. On Saturday evening, January 21st, the frontal band with third storm approached but precipitation fell as rain in the pre-frontal band with strong onshore flow out of the south and southwest drawing up warmer air. However, temps on the summit only rose into the mid 30s as the warm sector was brief and once the front passed early Sunday morning it did not take much to lower the snowline back below the summit. In addition, the post-frontal shower game with this third system was especially strong. There would be a constant stream of moisture flowing into the Santa Lucias in the cold and unstable environment. The topography of Cone Peak would only serve to enhance these showers and since the showers were coming out of the west the mountain would not be “snow shadowed” by peaks to the north.     The showers in the post-frontal environment were most numerous Sunday night when around 1 inch of liquid precipitation fell as snow on the summit (~10 inches). Snow levels during this part of the storm were around 4,000 feet. There was a bit of a break during the day Monday, January 23rd, but the snow was not done. The parent low would track down the coast during the day and spread showers back over Cone Monday night. The track of this low and the timing at night allowed snow levels to come down to 2,500 ft. Showers produced snow accumulations of 2 inches at 3,000 feet and around 5 inches on the summit (on top of the 10 inches already fallen). Chilly temperatures at around 26 degrees on the summit (as determined by the temperatures recorded at the comparable Chews Ridge weather station) allowed for higher snow to liquid ratios with unusually light and fluffy snow for the Ventana. This final burst of snow on Monday night was largely responsible for creating the winter wonderland scene that we experienced on Tuesday morning. The low ended up weakening as it continued south and largely stayed offshore during the day Monday resulting in clearing skies on Tuesday morning. Had the low stayed closer to the coast or swung inland over Big Sur snow totals would have likely been even higher, but then we wouldn’t have had the beautiful clear skies in the morning

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Sugar Falls

Sugar Falls was a splendid discovery in the Santa Lucia Mountains of Big Sur. The falls is tucked into a steep canyon and not visible from any trails or nearby high points. There are many gems of the Ventana Wilderness and Big Sur that have little or no information which makes it that much more fun adventuring in these mountains.

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. 

 

Reyes Peak & Haddock Mountain

Between the Pacific Coast and the Cuyama badlands of Ventura County lies a high mountain ridge that supports a beautiful forest of sugar pines, Jeffrey pines and white fir. The lengthy ridgeline is named Pine Mountain Ridge with two prominent points along the ridge named Reyes Peak (7,514 ft) and Haddock Mountain (7,431 ft). Most of the ridge is located within the Sespe Wilderness of Los Padres National Forest, a 219,700 acre wilderness established in 1992 and includes Sespe Creek, the last remaining undammed river in southern California. A 53,000 acre portion of the wilderness is designated as the Sespe Condor Sanctuary to protect California condors in the Condor re-introduction and recovery program. While Reyes Peak is the highest point along Pine Mountain Ridge, Haddock Mountain is more rugged in character with steep cirques and picturesque cliffs on the south side of the ridge. Haddock Mountain is also the more remote summit requiring a four mile hike from the trailhead. Typical of high mountains in southern California, the south side of the ridge transitions to chaparral fairly rapidly while the north side is a lush ecosystem of pine and fir forest for several thousand feet to canyons below, including Beartrap Creek Canyon and Piedra Blanca Creek Canyon. Deep within this canyon lies the Gene Marshall Piedra Blanca National Recreation Trail which I’d like to run in the future. From the trailhead, we took the maintained trail through the beautiful pine forest to Haddock Mountain. The trail largely stays on the north side of the ridge where it tends to be shady with the occasional section along the ridge crest with excellent views to Haddock Mountain. From Haddock Mountain, views to the north include Mount Pinos and the Cuyama Badlands while views to the south include the Sespe Wilderness and coastal mountains of Santa Barbara and Ventura County. Mount Pinos to the north is a substantially higher summit reaching above 8,800 ft and is high enough to support cross country skiing in the winter. However, the terrain of the Mount Pinos massif is more gentle in nature. On the way back, we left the maintained trail and took use paths up the east ridge of Reyes Peak to its summit. A lookout used to exist above the summit rocks but all that remains now is the foundation posts. From Reyes Peak, the Reyes Peak Trail leads down to the west side of Reyes Peak to near the trailhead. Pine Mountain Ridge is a gem of interior Ventura County and certainly exceeded expectations. I look forward to exploring other parts of the Sespe Wilderness including the Gene Marshall Piedra Blanca Trail and the Sespe Hot Springs. 

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!