The Drain & Ventana Spires

This post covers the first in a series of routes in the Ventana Double Cone region which features arguably the most rugged and wild coastal terrain in the contiguous United States. This first route is a repeat of “The Drain” route I did last year with Joey Cassidy with a mini-loop addition to visit the “Ventana Spires” which are stunning rocky pinnacles situated on a narrow ridge across from Ventana Double Cone with the headwaters of Ventana Mesa Creek in between. The next two posts will detail (1) the Ventana Triple Crown which is a spectacular high ridge traverse from South Ventana Cone to Ventana Cone to Ventana Double Cone and (2) a point-to-point route up beautiful Ventana Creek past 50 ft Ventana Falls to The Window (aka La Ventana) and Kandblinder carrying over into the Little Sur drainage to finish at Bottcher’s Gap.  Strava GPS route for the Drain and Ventana Spires hereMy route on this day was a repeat of the Drain Route from April 2014 plus a mini-loop to visit the awesome Ventana Spires.  The Drain became one of my favorite routes that I’ve done when I did it in April 2014 so I knew it was amazing, but I was still in awe of the sheer ruggedness and beauty of the cirque between Kandlbinder and Ventana Double Cone on the second time. In fact, this time may have been more enjoyable knowing that the route would go without issue. The Ventana Creek cirque provides a real sense of adventure in a truly wild canyon that is rugged and unspoiled and it was a pleasure to revisit. A route description and more details on the Drain route between Kandlbinder and Ventana Double Cone can be found here, but I’ve included a whole bunch of photos in this post from this year’s trip through the drain.    After completing the Drain route and topping out on Ventana Double Cone, I descended into the headwaters of Ventana Mesa Creek via an efficient gully through Santa Lucia Fir groves and talus. From the creek I took another steep talus gully with some rock scramblingn up to the Ventana Spires, which have remarkably rugged and precipitous SE faces. “Ventana Spires” is an unofficial name for these rocky pinnacles, but seems very fitting. Their position in the most remote region of the wilderness makes them particularly special. Few people have have stood atop the spires. There are three prominent points along the ridge make up the Ventana Spires and I’ve chosen to call them the north, middle and south Ventana Spires. The spires increase in height from north to south. From the north spire the ridge continues north gradually losing elevation on terrain that looks fairly brush free; a potential future project to explore down the ridge. Drain Spires routeDrain Spires route closeThe middle spire has an impressive view of the south spire with the wild east fork of Ventana Creek in the background. The south spire has perhaps the most dramatic view looking back to the middle spire and its sheer SE cliffs. All of the spires have amazing views across the expanse of wilderness and Santa Lucia Firs to Ventana Cone including the intermediary summits I dubbed “Lion Rock” and “Ventana Knob.”  I traversed the two highest spires (Middle and South) and then descended to the saddle between the Ventana Spires and Ventana Double Cone (VDC). Last time I experienced some thick brush in this section, but this time I was able to avoid most of the brush by staying on the south side of the ridge where there was a corridor of brush free scrambling between the cliffs and the brush. The 3rd class scrambling on the Ventana Spires traverse and the East Ridge of VDC were highly enjoyable in a stunning setting. I enjoyed the afternoon light from VDC and then began the trail run back to Bottcher’s Gap along the Ventana Double Cone Trail to Pat Springs and the Skinner Ridge Trail from pat Springs to Bottcher’s Gap. The Ventana Double Cone Trail from the summit to Puerto Suello Gap was characteristically overgrown. As usual, the cold and clear water at Pat Springs was a most welcome sight. Strava GPS route for the Drain and Ventana Spires here

Waterfalls of Big Sur

Updated November 25, 2015

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. 
  • 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.  
  • 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

Last Chance Falls

When in flow, Last Chance Falls is arguably the most dramatic waterfall in the Ventana Wilderness. The falls flows over an overhanging precipice with a 120 foot free fall with a large cavern behind the falls. A natural amphitheater of cliffs surrounds the falls. The ephemeral nature of Last Chance Falls perhaps makes it more special and requires planning, or more accurately, waiting, for the ideal conditions. The drainage upstream of the falls, the headwaters of the South Fork Santa Lucia Creek, is relatively small and in a climatologically dry part of the range. However, in early February an atmospheric river impacted the central coast interrupting months of virtually dry weather. Rainfall amounts were healthy over the Ventana Wilderness but particularly over the Santa Lucia Creek drainage, which is typically a drier region on the east side of the range but received impressive rainfall  totals of around ~6 inches in just a couple days. This provided a great opportunity to see Last Chance Falls in flow. By “in flow” I mean a solid stream of water from the top to the base of the falls. The falls becomes merely a trickle in summer and fall and otherwise has no flow or low flow for all but a handful days of the year immediately following heavy rains. This is a quintessential flashy waterfall, and especially flashy after an atmospheric river event during an unprecedented multi-year drought. GPS route here.

A great viewpoint of the falls is located on the Santa Lucia Trail as it switchbacks out of the Canyon. One can also travel cross country following the South Fork Santa Lucia Creek upstream to immediately underneath the falls with exploration of the pool and cavern. The setting of the falls is magical. Visiting Last Chance Falls also provides an opportunity to explore the immensely scenic Santa Lucia Creek gorge, including the 35 ft Jeff Falls, which is picturesque, particularly in the high flow we experienced. Next to Jeff Falls is Mutt Falls, a tall but skinny falls from a side tributary. Both Jeff and Mutt Falls are visible at the same time and are aptly named by Jack Glendening ( creator) after the historically popular comic strip with similarly proportioned characters.  Dr. Jack also named Last Chance Falls after the the camp downstream in beautiful meadows of the same name. In my opinion, Last Chance is a great name for this ephemeral falls.  Jeff Falls is much less flashy than Last Chance Falls since its water source includes the main stem of Santa Lucia Creek which drains a region several times the size of the South Fork Santa Lucia Creek alone. Thus, if Jeff Falls is running low, Last Chance Falls may be a trickle or bone dry.

As a shorthand, I’ve determined that flow of 250cfs or greater on the Arroyo Seco River will yield a an “in flow” Last Chance Falls but to really bring out the beauty of the falls it seem flow of 500cfs or greater is needed on the Arroyo Seco. The Santa Lucia Creek gorge entails several crossings of Santa Lucia Creek which was running high (Arroyo Seco was ~550 cfs on this day). If the flow was much higher the lower part of the Santa Lucia trail would be impassable. Thus, it would not be advisable to access Last Chance Falls via the Santa Lucia Creek gorge if at peak flow immediately after big rainfall events. Instead, use the Arroyo Seco-Indians Road and drop down into the drainage after the South Fork Santa Lucia Creek has branched off. The Arroyo Seco-Indians Road has some awesome views of the Arroyo Seco canyon and the interior of the Ventana Wilderness. Another great addition is the ridge immediately above the Arroyo Seco campground. A use path runs across the spine of this ridge and includes some fantastic views of the Arroyo Seco region. 

Coast Ridge: Stone to Boronda

The Coast Ridge point-to-point was one of my favorite routes of the 2013-2014 Ventana season. I love point-to-points since I feel they are the best way to maximize viewing as much terrain as possible. The second annual Coast Ridge route was largely the same as the first with a few important variations that enhanced the route including (i) taking Stone Ridge Direct to Cone Peak, (ii) descending Cone Peak via its North Ridge, (iii) making a small detour to fill water at pretty Cooks Spring, and (iv) descending Boronda Ridge instead of continuing on Coast Ridge Road to Ventana Inn. The net result of these changes was about 6 fewer miles but we gained a summit of Cone Peak, more ridge walking, more single track and more elevation gain. Overall, the route was still many miles of amazing and constantly changing scenery for its entire 33 mile 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. GPS route here. Full photo album hereMost of the elevation gain is accomplished within the first 6.5 miles and after one last climb up to Anderson Peak, a running-friendly dirt road provides a net gradual downhill for 7 miles to Timber Top and then a beautiful tour down single track on Boronda Ridge in evening light. 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. 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, instead of taking the trail into the West Fork Limekiln drainage we continued up Stone Ridge direct to Twin Peak enjoying the spectacular views from this prominent grassy ridge. From Twin Peak we traversed over to Cone Peak and descended Cone Peak’s North Ridge with excellent views of the South Fork Devils Canyon and also the San Antonio River Drainage. At the end of the North Ridge we joined 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. We made a small detour off the trail to Cooks Spring Camp and spring, set amid towering old growth sugar pines and a few incense cedars. Back on the North Coast Ridge Trail we exited 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 traverse across the terrain (mostly on the west side) 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. The firebreak can be taken up and over Mining Ridge 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 in the journey. Along this ridge we were happy to find water at the Coast Ridge Spring (aka Redondo Spring) as this spring’s location is miraculous considering the surrounding dry terrain.  We also found water in a stream about a mile earlier that was not running last year but was flowing after the December rains. 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. The North Coast Ridge Trail ends at the Coast Ridge Road, which is a dirt road that would take us all the way to Boronda Ridge. While closed to 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. We stuck to the road except for a small diversion to the rocky summit of Marble Peak which has another stupendous view of the surrounding region. The Coast Ridge Road skirts around Anderson Peak, which is fenced off government property, but after this point it’s mostly all downhill along the dirt road with amazing views throughout. At Timber Top we left the road and descended Boronda Ridge as the final chapter of the route.  The views of the Big Sur coast from Timber Top and Boronda Ridge are truly spectacular and a fitting finish to a gorgeous point-to-point route. GPS route here. Full photo album here

Big Sur Condor Loop

The Big Sur condor loop is an awesome coastal loop at the heart of the Big Sur coast. The route starts with a direct route up Anderson Peak (aka “Anderson Direct”) from McWay Falls, gaining 4,000 feet in less than 3 miles by following an old firebreak/underground utilities line up the prominent ridge between McWay Canyon and Anderson Canyon. Anderson Direct is to Anderson Peak what Stone Ridge is to Cone Peak; an extremely steep ridge climb with stunning coastal views. Unlike Stone Ridge, Anderson Direct is not grassy and the upper two-thirds are essentially a continuous blowdown with literally thousands of burnt snags over the route from the 2008 Basin Complex fires. There are also some patches of festering poison oak to wade through, but the good news is the brush is relatively light. It’s an arduous route, but it’s easily the most efficient way to reach Anderson Peak on foot and remarkably scenic with enormous views up and down the Big Sur coast . GPS data here.

About 1 mile up the ridge we passed right next to the home of the local condor population. They were resting on the crowns of the redwoods in the early morning sunshine, presumably drying off from the recent rains. The condors were the closest I have ever seen so I could see their features in detail. The condor has a very prehistoric look. An extensive reintroduction program has allowed the majestic California condor to return to its native habitat soaring over the Santa Lucia Mountains. In 1987, the California condor was eradicated from the wild due to poaching, lead poisoning and habitat destruction. The remaining 22 birds were taken into captivity to prevent species extinction. Starting in 1992, the birds were reintroduced into the wild and Big Sur was one of the earliest release sites. Currently there are an estimated 237 free-flying condors in California, many of which still reside in Big Sur but the population’s range has expanded to Pinnacles National Park, Ventura County and the Transverse Ranges. On this day we were grateful to see 9 of these magnificent birds. Later on our ascent the condors took off and flew as a group showcasing there remarkable wing span that is up to 9.5 feet! The wings are so big that when the bird flies above enough air is pushed aside that it makes a sound like a kite. At one point we saw all 9 condors circling above us. It seemed as if the condors followed us throughout our journey as we continued to see these majestic birds from Coast Ridge Road and on the descent of the DeAngulo Trail, hence the name I gave this loop. While there is no guarantee of seeing condors in this area, let alone 9 at the same time, this was not the first time I’ve seen condors soaring above Torre Canyon, Partington Canyon and McWay Canyon. From Anderson Peak, we took the Coast Ridge Road for about 4 miles with a continuation of coastal vistas and also great views of the interior Ventana including the South Fork Big Sur River drainage, Ventana Double Cone, Black Cone and Junipero Serra. We then descended the DeAngulo Trail. Overall, the DeAngulo trail was in decent condition, and now even better since we cleared out branch debris and Brian did substantial pruning with his loppers. There were excellent views to Boronda Ridge and looking north up the coast. At the bottom of DeAngulo, we ran along Hwy 1 for one mile to connect into the Julia Pfieffer Burns Trail network including the Tanbark Trail, Waters Trail and Ewoldsen Trail, ultimately depositing us at McWay Falls to complete the loop. The highlight of this section was beautiful Partington Canyon, lush as ever with nice flow through Partingon Creek’s cascades. While McWay Falls is definitely touristy, it’s popular for a reason and a great way to finish the loop with afternoon light on the falls. GPS data here

Dutra Loop & “Soda Peak”

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.   

2014 Adventure Recap

From Big Sur to the High Sierra, 2014 was another tremendous year of adventures. As I did in 2013 and past years (links to past year’s recaps located on right sidebar of homepage), this post lists all of the adventures for 2014 in chronological order with a link to the blog post, where available, or photo album. My most notable adventure the year was completing the John Muir Trail in a new FKT, and in the process holding the FKTs for three of the most famous and iconic trails in the High Sierra at the same time: the High Sierra Trail, the John Muir Trail and the Rae Lakes Loop.  I am grateful to have the opportunity to make these improvements in the FKT/adventure sport in the High Sierra. I also achieved FKTs in the California coastal ranges including Big Sur and the Lost Coast. I have no doubt these times will be lowered in the future. However, much more than any time or split, what stands out the most as I look back on 2014 and my entire portfolio of adventures is the volume of experiences I’ve had exploring wild and rugged places in the mountains. The greatest award or achievement I can find in this sport is not a place or a ranking, but the joy of exploration and discovery of the splendors of nature. Being in the wilderness is a visceral and spiritual experience that is far form the pageantry and commercialization of organized sports. From sea to summit, I hope 2015 finds me on many more adventures!

  1. Cabezo-Molera Loop (January 4, 2014)
  2. Buckeye Loop (January 5, 2014)
  3. Mount Mars (January 5, 2014) 
  4. Big Sur Trail (January 11, 2014) 
  5. La Ventana Loop (January 15, 2014)
  6. Santa Lucia Three Peaks (January 25, 2014) 
  7. Circular Pools (January 26, 2014) 
  8. Shouey-Plaskett Loop (February 1, 2014)
  9. Stone Ridge Direct (February 1, 2014)
  10. Shouey-Plaskett Loop (February 15, 2014)
  11. Kirk Creek Ridge (February 15, 2014)
  12. Pico Blanco-Little Sur Loop (February 16, 2014)
  13. Cabezo-Molera Loop (February 23, 2014) 
  14. South Coast Adventure (February 24, 2014)
  15. Berry Creek Falls via Waddell Beach (March 1, 2014) 
  16. Cone Peak’s North Ridge & Lost Valley (March 8, 2014)
  17. Partington to McWay, Julia Pfieffer Burns (March 15, 2014)
  18. Silver Peak Wilderness Loop, Lion Peak and Mt. Mars (March 16, 2014)
  19. King Range 50, King Range Wilderness (March 23, 2014)
  20. Boronda Ridge & Marble Peak (April 5, 2014)
  21. Prewitt Ridge & South Coast Ridge (April 6, 2014)
  22. Kandlbinder & Ventana Double Cone via the Drain (April 13, 2014)
  23. Stone Ridge Direct Loop & Cone Peak (April 19, 2014)
  24. East Molera Ridge & Post Summit (April 20, 2014) 
  25. Cone Peak via Vicente Flat FKT & Stone Ridge Descent (April 26, 2014) 
  26. Big Sur Station to Bottcher’s Gap via Ventana Double Cone (May 4, 2014)
  27. Big Creek Reserve (May 10, 2014)
  28. Prewitt & Boronda Wildflowers (May 11, 2014)
  29. Humboldt Redwoods – Bull Creek, Rockefeller, Founders (May 23 & 26, 2014)
  30. Jedediah Smith Redwoods (May 24, 2014) 
  31. Damnation Creek – Del Norte Coast Redwoods (May 24, 2014) 
  32. Prairie Creek Redwoods (May 24 & 25, 2014): Fern Canyon; Rhododendron 
  33. Patrick’s Point and Trinidad (May 25, 2014) 
  34. Goat Mountain (May 31, 2014)
  35. Mt. Bago and Mt. Rixford via Road’s End (June 1, 2014)
  36. Granite Balconies (June 8, 2014)
  37. Complete Lost Coast (June 15, 2014) 
  38. Roof of Yosemite Loop (June 23, 2014)
  39. Virginia Peak via Viginia Lakes (June 28, 2014)
  40. Arrow Peak Northeast Ridge via Taboose Pass (June 29, 2014)
  41. Conness Lakes (July 4, 2014) 
  42. Observation Peak and Palisades Sierra High Route (July 5, 2014)
  43. Whorl Mountain & Sawtooth Loop (July 12, 2014)
  44. Mount Davis (July 13, 2014)
  45. Redwood Creek & Sykes Hot Springs (July 27, 2014)
  46. Tower Peak (August 2, 2014)
  47. John Muir Trail FKT (August 15-18, 2014)
  48. Pyramid Peak & Window Peak Lake (August 31, 2014)
  49. Electra Loop – Electra Peak and Lyell Fork Merced River (September 7, 2014)
  50. Black Giant, Charybdis & Mini Evolution Loop (September 13, 2014)
  51. Santa Lucia Wilderness (September 20, 2014)
  52. Montaña de Oro State Park Loop (September 21, 2014) 
  53. Andrew Molera (September 28, 2014)
  54. Ericsson & Genevra (October 4, 2014)
  55. Crique Crest Loop: Windy Point & Marion Peak (October 12, 2014)
  56. Red Mountain Basin Loop: Mount Henry and Red Mountain (October 26, 2014)
  57. Stone Ridge and Cone Peak Loop (November 2, 2014) 
  58. Diving Board (November 8, 2014)
  59. Wildcat Point, Cold Mountain & Tuolumne Domes (November 9, 2014)
  60. Pine Mountain Ridge, Reyes Peak and Haddock Mountain (November 15, 2014) 
  61. Cathedral-Tunnel Loop (November 16, 2014) 
  62. Dutra-County Line Loop (November 22, 2014)
  63. Pt. 2866 (Soda Peak) (November 22, 2014) [coming soon]
  64. Boronda Turkey Trot (November 27, 2014) [coming soon]
  65. Pico Blanco North Ridge (November 28, 2014) [coming soon]
  66. Marble Peak 50k+ (December 6, 2014) [coming soon]
  67. Big Sur Condor Loop – Anderson Peak Direct (December 13, 2014) [coming soon]
  68. Berry Creek Falls Loop via Waddell Beach (December 20, 2014) [coming soon]
  69. Soberanes Loop (December 21, 2014) [coming soon]
  70. Summit Rock-Castle Rock Loop (December 25, 2014) [coming soon]
  71. Big Sur Paradise (December 26, 2014) [coming soon]
  72. Alta Vista and Ewoldsen Loop (December 27, 2014) [coming soon]
  73. Coast Ridge including Twin, Cone, Mining Ridge, Marble and Timber Top (December 28, 2014) [coming soon]