Marble Meadows & Boronda Lupine

One can find some wildflowers in Big Sur virtually any time of the year, but the time of year when the hillsides erupt with sky lupine and poppy lasts only a few short weeks in the Spring. The season can start as early as mid March and can run as late as mid May with the wildflowers starting first in the lower elevations and finishing at the highest elevations. Most years the peak of the bloom is sometime in April and the two primary species are sky lupine and California poppy.  The scope and location of the bloom varies substantially year to year and this post describes some of this variability in just the past three years. Sometimes poppy blooms before the lupine while other years they bloom concurrently. Moreover, some seasons have had great blooms of other wildflower species including early-rising shooting star.  All of the photos in this post are from this year’s lupine bloom on Boronda Ridge and Coast Ridge from Grimes Canyon to Marble Meadows. Full album hereThe spring of 2014 produced the “mother” of all lupine blooms and featured a ridiculous display of sky lupine that covered entire mountainsides, particularly those at lower elevations below 2,500 ft that don’t often see big wildflower concentrations. The lower elevation bloom was particularly stunning with a background of the deep blue ocean close at hand. This bloom occurred at the height of the drought with virtually no rain until late February, at which point a series of atmospheric rivers put down several inches of rain. This rainfall was just enough to cause the lupine to pop. With no grass to impede their growth, the lupine flourished and grew to great height and concentration. The result was an amazing, fairy tale display that peaked on mother’s day weekend, hence the “mother” of all blooms. It was a relatively late peak due to the late start to germination. Long-time Big Sur residents commented that such a display had not been seen in a decade and a half and it has not been repeated since; not even close. Most grassy ridges along the coast had tremendous displays of lupine which made for a truly memorable experience. I just wish it would happen more often! The winter of 2014-2015 was substantially wetter and resulted in more grass growth at lower elevations. The spring of 2015 featured nice lupine fields at mid and higher elevations, but nothing like the 2014 bloom (you already knew that). While in 2014 the best patches were below 2,000 ft, in 2015 the best patches were generally above 2,000 ft. Due to the ongoing drought and uneven nature of the rainy season, the lupine bloom was still quite good in favored spots, but it was functionally more of a typical bloom with the best spots where you would normally expect. This year’s winter was wetter than both of the prior two preceding winters and the result was that grass grew vigorously throughout winter at lower elevations and crowded out most flowers down low. This year’s best patches were even higher than 2015 – generally above 3,000 ft where the grass was unable to grow as much due to the cooler temperatures at elevation. At lower elevations lupine was sparse and small, unable to compete for water and light amid the tall grass. While not as good at 2015 and nowhere near the super bloom of 2014, there were still some nice patches at higher elevations, including the highest reaches of Boronda Ridge, Marble Meadows and interior meadows along the Pine Ridge Trail. While this year’s bloom wasn’t quite as good as 2015 and nowhere near 2014, it was still quite beautiful when I found myself in a lupine patch and these photos show there was still some great displays to enjoy. This post includes some photos from a run up Boronda and along Coast Ridge to Marble Meadows. As mentioned above, sky lupine fields only started at ~2,500 on Boronda and the patches became more impressive as one gained elevation on coast ridge toward Anderson Peak and Marble Peak. Marble Meadows, located beneath Marble Peak at around 3,800 ft in elevation, had the best lupine display on the route and likely the best lupine display with coastal Big Sur views this season. I love sky lupine fields, especially when there’s a background of green hills and the blue Pacific Ocean!  A later post will showcase the lupine and owl clover patches along the Pine Ridge Trail (2015 Pine Ridge Trail flowers), which is another favorite spot for springtime wildflowers. 

The Window & Kandlbinder

“The Window” or “La Ventana” is a prominent and historically significant feature in the most rugged corner of the Ventana Wilderness. The deep notch along the high ridge between Kandlbinder Peak and Ventana Double Cone is clearly visible from the north and south. The first visitors to the Window were almost certainly Native Americans who intimately knew these mountains. The name “La Ventana” likely originates with Spanish explorers and the significance of the feature resulted in the entire wilderness of the northern Santa Lucia Mountains bearing the name “Ventana.”   Modern interest in the Window began in the 1960’s with a multi-year effort to clear a route to the Window highlighted by a 25 person meeting at the the Window in May 1968 with parties arriving from three different directions (likely from Venatana Creek to the south, Jackson Creek to the North and Ventana Double Cone to the east). More details on the history and route can be found here.  

Unofficially named Kandlbinder Peak is the high point at the west end of the ridge. Formerly known as “No-Name Peak,”  members of the Ventana Chapter of the Sierra Club renamed the peak in 1971 in memory of then-recently passed Dr. Alfred Kandlbinder who was a founding member of the Ventana Chapter of the Sierra Club and an avid hiker of the Ventana. The 360 degree vista from Kandlbinder if arguable the best summit view in the Ventana Wilderness with the centerpiece feature being the wild and rugged west face and entire drain feature of Ventana Double Cone. To the north the expansive Little Sur drainage is at one’s feet including Pico Blanco’s distinctive southern apron of white limestone. To the west is Point Sur, the Cabezo Prieto ridgeline, Coast Ridge and the mighty Pacific Ocean. To the south is Cone Peak, Santa Lucia Peak and the Big Sur river drainage. 

Close to 50 years and several large fires after the famous meeting of the paths to the Window, access has deteriorated substantially with innumerable blowdowns and brush making for an arduous adventure by any direction. However, the Jackson Creek route via the Little Sur River is still the shortest and quickest approach to the Window and several parties visit the Window each year via this route. Most of the entries in the register are from boy scout groups climbing up the Jackson Creek route from nearby Pico Blanco Boy Scout Camp although it seems scout interest has waned in recent years. Parties who backpack tend to camp in the Window itself where there’s a large flat spot and fire ring. Most of the register entries are in the summer months when the many biting flies who inhabit the Window are at their peak intensity and aggression.  The other formerly-established camping spot at Happy Fork was largely destroyed by a large oak tree that fell directly over the camp last year though camping is still feasible in the grass next to the blowdown.  

The old route that once traversed the ridgeline to Ventana Double Cone has completely disappeared and is now an advanced bushwhack with a grueling combination of dead wood from the Basin Fire and aggressive new chaparral growth. Approaching from the south via Ventana Creek entails a long creek walk and then a sketchy scramble around Ventana Falls. The traverse to Kandlbinder is an entirely off-trail route, but one can avoid the worst brush by staying on the north side of the ridge when leaving the Window and then returning to the ridge crest for the final couple hundred feet to the summit. Inside the Window the view is largely obstructed by trees and the surrounding cliffs. However, one can climb a pinnacle on the SW side of the Window which has a magnificent view of cliffs descending from the Window down more than two thousand feet to headwaters of Ventana Creek and the impressively rugged west face of Ventana Double Cone.  

Ventana Cone & Lion Rock

I enjoyed last year’s Ventana (single) Cone Adventure so much that I came back to explore a new ascent route up Ventana Cone and a new descent route from Lion Rock. I climbed both peaks on the Ventana Triple Crown route last year, but in my opinion climbing Ventana Cone and Lion Rock from the Carmel River is more aesthetic as it includes some amazing creek walking, waterfalls and Santa Lucia Fir groves. Both routes went as planned and proved to be efficient ways to climb both Ventana Cone and Lion Rock with relatively light brush in a trail-less region where bushwhacking is notoriously arduous. Ventana Cone is not visited very often (I was the first entry of 2016) and Lion Rock is visited even less frequently with only on a few parties known to have stood on its rocky summit in the last several decades. The stretch from Kandlbinder to Ventana Cone is the most rugged and wild region in all of the Ventana (and arguably the coastal ranges of the West Coast) so it is always a pleasure to visit this area.  As with last year, the first part of the morning entailed running the Carmel River Trail from Los Padres Dam traveling nearly 10 miles deep into the canyon to Hiding Canyon Camp, a nice camp with Santa Lucia Firs and a tall ponderosa pine. Another 1.5 miles leads to Round Rock Camp. The trail to Round Rock Camp has some brush and blowdowns but still seems faster than walking in the river. Beyond Round Rock Camp is all off-trail, mostly creek-walking through a stunningly beautiful canyon of turqoise pools, slick rock, cascades, house-sized boulders, ferns, and moss. The amazing lushness of this deep canyon with several different varieties of ferns, and moss covering virtually everything creates a scene fit for Jurassic Park. Almost everything is photogenic. However, unlike last year, I took the first creek that enters the main tributary instead of continuing to the head of the canyon (my return route would include the entire canyon). This small creek does not produce enough flow to clear out the riparian brush so it is difficult in its lower reaches and I found much progress on the slopes above the stream bed. Eventually the stream opens up into a long talus field, at first under oak trees but increasingly a Santa Lucia Fir forest as one ascends the steepening slopes. The old growth Santa Lucia firs in the upper part of this drainage are simply amazing. The talus staircase is fairly stable and therefore an efficient route all the way up to a high notch where one must traverse into another drainage for the final climb up to Ventana Cone. This traverse includes some light brush with the burnt vegetation being the greater impediment. A final talus slope provides efficient access to the ridge near the summit of Ventana Cone. The view from Ventana Cone was just as I had remembered it from prior visits with a 360 degree panorama taking in the entire northern part of the Santa Lucia Mountains. Close at hand are the Ventana Spires, Ventana Double Cone, Kandlbinder and Lion Rock. From Ventana Cone to Lion Rock I used the same route as I did on the Triple Crown, generally staying on the east side of the ridge in talus slopes with Santa Lucia Firs. Lion Rock is an unofficial name I gave this majrestic peak that sits at the head of Lion Creek. Lion Rock is rugged and steep on all sides and an attractive peak from every direction. In fact, it’s one of my favorites in all of the Ventana. An old scrap register was left by legendary Ventana pioneer Ward Allison and Toshi Hosaka placed a new mini-register last year (no other signatures after his visit). From Lion Rock I descended the class 3 rock face and worked north to the top of a long and steep talus slope. Unlike the earlier talus slope, this one had much smaller, looser rock and the descent was rather tedious, but still much more efficient and pleasant than a bushwhack. This talus slope continued virtually unabated for over a thousand vertical feet before I reached more more mixed terrain. As the creek picked up flow I found myself increasingly in the stream descending into the lovely canyon with bedrock cascades, fern gardens and moss covered rocks. There are several beautiful waterfalls in this drainage including Spire Falls, Lion Rock Falls, Ventana Cone Falls, Carmel Falls and the Carmel Gorge.

Vicente Falls & Limekiln Falls

While the average annual number of rainy days on the central coast is not particularly notable, the terrain on Big Sur is capable of immense orographic enhancement and staggering rainfall totals when Pacific moisture and jet stream energy align with the terrain. Rises steeply from the ocean to its 5,164 ft summit, Cone Peak is particularly adept at squeezing out the moisture from clouds and when combined with its rugged and extremely steep topography you get some impressive waterfalls on the mountain’s flanks. Two such waterfalls are Vicente Falls and Limekiln Falls.

  Limkiln Falls is a relatively accessible 90 ft drop at the bottom of Middle Fork Limekiln Creek. The short hike to reach the falls from the Limekiln State Park day use and camping area passes through an attractive redwood grove with a carpet of redwood sorrel and pretty cascades along Limekiln Creek. After taking the main trail along Limekiln Creek, turn right at a junction and head up the Middle Fork Limekiln Canyon to the falls, crossing the creek four times along the way. These crossings are usually dry but will be wet in higher flow with no bridges in place. The main drop is measured at 90 ft and that is all that is visible from below, but there are additional drops upstream. The falls has two distinct prongs separated by a massive mineral apron. The prongs spreading outward from the top are reminiscent of the tusks of a mammoth. In the very highest flows, this apron is entirely covered in water, but the general character of the falls is the two prongs with moss and vegetation growing on the mineral accumulation in between. Due to high visitation, vegetation at the base of the falls has been largely trampled to dirt. The falls only features a small, shallow plunge pool.

When in flow, Vicente Falls is a very pretty falls spanning 190 ft from top to bottom. The falls drains the region immediately below the southeast face of Cone Peak, which is the drier, hotter side of the mountain. Thus, appreciable flow is not the norm for this falls (especially in the last few years of drought) and the falls is light at best or more accurately a drip most of the year. However, after a heavy rain, the falls transforms into a beautiful cataract over the immense cliffs tumbling over at least four distinct drops into the redwood forest. From below, the uppermost drops are not visible, but around 120 vertical feet of the falls is visible. Similar to Limekiln Falls, the plunge pool at the base of Vicente Falls is shallow and small. Vicente Falls is located upstream of Vicente Flat in a side canyon of the main Hare Canyon. The trek up to the falls includes some photogenic cascades and small pools in a narrow canyon along with some poison oak and blowdown debris. It is interesting to note that for most of the year the main stem of Hare Canyon has higher flow but after heavy rain the side canyon containing Vicente Falls greatly exceeds the main stem. This is indicative of some large springs in the canyon along the main stem while the Vicente Falls side canyon is largely runoff based flow. Visiting Limekiln Falls, Vicente Falls, or both gives an excuse to spend some time on lovely Cone Peak, one of the centerpiece features of Big Sur with amazing vistas and scenery, some of which I’ve highlighted here.  For additional waterfalls in Big Sur, see the Waterfall Project

Lion Creek Adventure

There are many magical canyons in the Ventana Wilderness and Lion Creek is definitely one of them. The creek drains the southern slopes of Ventana Cone, “Lion Rock” and “Ventana Knob”, a vast expanse of exceptionally rugged and wild terrain that is some of the most remote and pristine in all of the coastal ranges along the U.S. West Coast. In fact, parts of the Lion Creek headwaters have likely never seen human eyes. I joined Flyin’ Brian Robinson for an introductory adventure up this canyon to visit a pair of picturesque waterfalls. The lower falls is a single 40+ ft drop into a large circular pool while the upper falls has two segments with two large pools (main segment 50 ft and lower segment 20 ft).

The entrance to the creek features a very cool twisty gorge culminating in a pair of circular pools separated by a 15 ft falls and some required wading through pools. A fortuitous old growth redwood log stuck in place enables passage from the first pool to the second. The creek then passes through a flatter area with burned old growth redwoods that were sizzled in the Basin Fire in 2007 but appear to have largely survived. These redwoods have sprouted new branches and at this stage look like tall, regal columns. The lower falls seemingly appears out of nowhere and it’s a lovely sight with a consolidated drop fanning out into a horsetail. The lower falls features a lovely bedrock section above the drop including a series of mini pools, aka tea cups. The creek walking above the Lower Falls becomes more arduous leading to the upper falls which flow over a smooth rock face in a spectacular cirque. Our visit came on one of the last days suitable for swimming in the pools and we made sure to take a couple swims underneath the falls. There is much to explore upstream of the waterfalls and also on the tributaries of the main stem creek where perhaps more waterfalls reside. Access is likely very difficult in the winter with some hypothermic swimming becoming a necessity in higher flows. Full Photo album. 

Devils Pool & Gorge

Some places were created perfectly. On the way back I checked out the road leading to the New Camaldoli Hermitage which has breathtaking views of the coastline and a great angle on the entire length of Stone Ridge leading to Twin Peak and Cone Peak. Numerous benches and even some picnic tables are placed along the road for enjoyment of the view and contemplation of the amazing gift of nature. I’m not a religious guy, but the monks certainly found a nice spot for prayer. The Hermitage is open to the public and I highly recommend the diversion off the highway to drive up the road to enjoy the views.   

Ventana Mesa Creek Loop

Ventana Mesa Creek and South Fork Devils Canyon vie for the most rugged streams in the Ventana. Both canyons contain stunning waterfalls, large pools, rock scrambling complexities, micro-navigation and a true feeling of unspoiled wilderness where few humans have set foot. In fact, it may have been 20 years since Ventana Mesa Creek’s last visitor. I have been intrigued by Ventana Mesa Creek for awhile and the ruggedness and beauty of the stream exceeded my lofty expectations. I had previously attempted the creekwalk last winter but didn’t get far, getting turned around at the top of the first falls by high flow and treacherously slick rock. During the winter the steep, narrow walls preclude sunshine from penetrating into the canyon so seeps from the cliffs keep the rock wet. Moreover, since the canyon is shaded frigid air tends to pool into the canyon. This produces a dangerous combination of shivering and slippery rock. It turns out Ventana Mesa Creek is most safely negotiated in late spring or summer when flow is low and the sun reaches the bottom of the canyon to dry out the rock scrambling portions. Attempting Ventana Mesa Creek in high flow would likely require ropes and wet suits. The Ventana Mesa Creek Loop is close to a complete loop and came in nearly 35 miles with around 10 miles of that off-trail and many of the trail miles being very brushy making it one of the most arduous routes I have done in the Ventana. As with most of my routes in the Ventana, the incredibly scenery more than compensates for the effort and the knowledge that few humans have experienced the depths of Ventana Mesa Creek make this route especially rewarding. GPS route on Strava.Ventana Mesa Creek meets the Carmel River at its gorge, with its towering cliffs, deep pool and a beautiful waterfall. This is one of the most rugged stretches of canyon in the Ventana Wilderness and Ventana Mesa Creek is right in the middle of it. Just upstream of the confluence with the Carmel River is a very nice ~25 foot falls spitting over a smooth rock ledge. I was impressed with this falls in the winter and was not expecting additional falls of this magnitude upstream, but I was surprised to find two major waterfalls upstream of the “Entrance Falls,” both taller and more impressive. Above the Entrance Falls is a pretty turquoise pool and around the next corner is a spectacular emerald pool with another smaller falls over slick rock. There are countless smaller cascades and pools and a few are particularly picturesque. These pools and cascades culminate in an stunning waterfall I called “Ventana Mesa Falls.” This falls contains a large pool with a circular amphitheater of tall cliffs. The water tumbles at least 50 ft, all in free-fall. After Ventana Mesa Falls, the creek becomes more subdued and even retreats underground for a stretch before reemerging near the tallest falls along Ventana Mesa Creek at ~2,750 ft. This upper falls contains two segments, with the upper segment being much taller, in an aggregate height of 70-80 ft. Similar to Sugar Falls near the headwaters of South Fork Devils Canyon, this falls is located near the headwaters of Ventana Mesa Creek and is not a high flow falls, but instead achieves its beauty through its delicate nature. The falls does not really contain a plunge pool, but its 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. Above Hanging Garden Falls I scrambled up to the Ventana Spires Ridge via a talus gully and some fairly solid rock scrambling amid Santa Lucia Fir groves. This narrow ridge separates the Ventana Mesa Creek drainage from the unnamed tributary draining Ventana Cone. This is one of the more remote regions in the Ventana Wilderness and the heart of the Santa Lucia Fir growing region, the rarest fir in the world. The ridge features excellent views in all directions including Ventana Cone, South Ventana Cone, Cone Peak, Ventana Double Cone, the Big Sur River watershed, and virtually all of the Carmel River watershed. This ridge is the most alpine I have seen in Big Sur with Santa Lucia Firs, pines, steep cliffs and wildflower meadows. Unlike the Ventana Triple Crown route, this ridge contains little brush, a rarity in the Ventana, One can walk along the ridge and enjoy unfettered views and enjoyable scrambling up the three rugged pinnacles that form the Ventana Spires. From the Venana Spires I retraced familiar ground and headed up to Ventana Double Cone and returned to Los Padres Dam via Pat Springs and the Big Pines Trail. As of late May the ceanothus on the Ventana Double Cone trail has had a strong spring growth and there are extended sections of brush push throughs where the trail is essentially invisible but for the tread underfoot. Volunteers have worked on some sections of the trail, but others sections are deteriorating with another year of brush growth. I have also noticed a lot of low brush growth on the traverse beside Uncle Sam Mountain. This is more of an invonenience, but more evidence that the trail to Ventana Double Cone is not going to become a wilderness freeway or “easy” anytime soon. The trail is in great shape from Little Pines to Pat Springs, a heavenly spot under the pines with refreshingly cool spring waters. The upper part of the Big Pines trail is in good shape as many big blowdowns have been removed, but the middle section is becoming very brushy and the infamous Big Pines poison oak jungle is as healthy as ever. The Big Pines Trail gets very little use and the brush growth, tall grass, and flourishing poison oak is making the trail tough to follow in spots. This pretty trail is an aesthetic connector from Los Padres Dam to Pat Springs so I hope it will not lost.