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 (http://bigsurtrailmap.net/ 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.
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 here. Most 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.
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.
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.
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!
The Santa Ynez Mountains are an east to west coastal mountain range part of the greater Transverse Ranges of Southern California. The range is essentially a high ridge with steep and rugged terrain on either side mostly inhabited by chaparral vegetation but there is oak woodland on the lower slopes and some pine tree stands on the ridge crest. Immediately above Santa Barbara is one of the higher points along the ridge, La Cumbre Peak, rising nearly 4,000 ft in short order from downtown and the highest point by the city. The Cathedral Peak route is an amazing line up the spine of a rugged ridge to La Cumbre Peak in the Santa Barbara front country. Along the route is an exquisite section of Matilija sandstone that is ubiquitous on the ridge leading to Arlington Peak and is sustained for over 2 miles of rock hopping and scrambling totaling nearly 2,000 vertical feet. Add in astounding view of the coastline, Channel Islands and Santa Ynez Mountains and you have one of the finest coastal scrambles along the west coast. The route starts at the end of the road in foothill residential community of Santa Barbara. Parking is limited and challenging so expect to walk an extra section of road on weekends. From the trailhead, travel about a mile along the paved Edison access road and then turn left to follow a short section on the Jesusita Trail. When the Jesusita Trail crosses Mission Creek, turn right and take a use path that rises steeply above the Mission Creek canyon. This rugged canyons was basically dry when we ascended the route, but after rains there are several pools and waterfalls. The trail continues to rise steeply to the distinct southeast ridgeline of Arlington Peak. From this point is a sustained 2 mile rock hop scramble on beautiful Matilija sandstone with it’s distinctive rock formations and orange color to the 3,275 ft summit of Arlington Peak. This section is arduous and steep, but the views of the Santa Barbara and Ventura County coastline are incredible. As one ascends higher, the views become increase with an excellent vantage into the Mission Creek Canyon and beyond to the spine of the Santa Ynez Mountains, the Santa Barbara region and the Channel Islands. The summit of Arlington marks the end of the sustained scrambling and the trail levels off as it continues to Cathedral Peak, with its impressive south buttress cliff face visible from many points in Santa Barbara. A use path continues from Cathedral Peak in a chaparral tunnel down to a saddle from which a final very steep section that leads to the summit of La Cumbre Peak. La Cumbre Peak is vehicle accessible via the East Camino Cielo Road. For an excellent loop back to the trailhead, travel along the road east to the upper trailhead of the Tunnel Trail, one of the more popular trails in the Santa Barbara Frontcountry. The Tunnel Trail traverses along the canyon of Mission Creek and then switchbacks down to the access road with excellent views back to Arlington Peak and Cathedral Peak. This is a super fun route that I hope to do again next time I’m in Santa Barbara. GPS route here.
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.