Pine Valley

Jack English’s passing on March 3 at the age of 96 brought back memories of my first visit to the Ventana Wilderness in November 2009, a point-to-point run from China Camp down the Carmel River to Los Padres Dam with Gary Gellin and Jim Moyles. It was an amazing introduction to the Ventana and I feel grateful to have met Mr. English. Jim Moyles has a wealth of knowledge on the Ventana, some of which he shared on this trip and sparked my interest in the region that would only grow in the coming years. We started at China Camp and descended to beautiful Pine Valley where we met Jack English, who warmly welcomed us into his cabin for tea and cookies. Jack English is a legend of the Ventana Wilderness and built the cabin in Pine Valley with his wife in the late 70s after becoming enamored with the valley.  He lived in the cabin for the next 30+ years and even in the last couple years when he could no longer live in the cabin independently or walk the 5.5 miles from the China Camp trailhead to the valley, a helicopter would drop him off in Pine Valley so he could spend time at his favorite spot over the weekends. Back in 2009, Jack showed us the exceptional violin bows that he made. His masterful craftsmanship resulted in demand for his bows from world class violinists. Jack told us stories about his beloved wife Mary, who passed away in 2001, and life at Pine Valley, including the quiet winters with few visitors and the fires that periodically swept through the valley.  Jack thoroughly enjoyed living in the valley, and unlike some folks who live off-the-grid, Jack was incredibly welcoming to all visitors. I included a few clips and photos of our visit in a video that I made at the time, included below (the English cabin starts at 1:24). The English cabin still stands in Pine Valley and Jack’s spirit will continue to be felt throughout the valley. This video also reminds me that fall is a wonderful time in Pine Valley with some of the best fall color in the Ventana to be found on the oaks and maples in Pine Valley and along the Pine Ridge Trail west of Church Divide.

I have been to Pine Valley several times since 2009, including twice this spring. It’s a magical spot with the towering Ponderosa pines, pretty meadows, spectacular sandstone rock formations and a pretty waterfall downstream along the Carmel River. Like Jack English, it’s become one of my favorite spots in the Ventana. In addition, the area has great opportunities for exploration including the Pine Ridge Trail toward Pine Ridge, Bear Basin and Church Creek. Complete photo albums:

The Church Creek Valley is particularly enjoyable with more spectacular sandstone formations, meadows, oak woodland and scenic vistas. Church Creek sees a fraction of the visitation of Pine Valley so the trail contains much more brush and faint tread, particularly the southern portion which has non-existent tread in some of the meadow areas.  

Pine Ridge is another fascinating spot with a remnant forest of Ponderosa pine, Coulter pine, incense cedar and Santa Lucia Fir. Before the Marble Cone and Basin Fires the forest was more expansive, but a good swath of the forest remains intact on the northern side of the ridge. The southern side of the ridge was largely obliterated by the fire, however a clump of ancient ponderosa pines stands near the top of Pine Ridge and is visible from many parts of the Ventana Wilderness. Many of the trees along this ridge are contorted and grizzled manifesting the harsh weather conditions on the ridge including strong winds, frigid winter temperatures, and scorching summer heat. 

Bear Basin is a location I have yet to explore, but look forward to visiting. It appears the greatest grove of incense cedar remaining in the Ventana is in the basin with the distinctive shape and light green color of the incense cedar visible from the Pine Ridge Trail. Similar to Pine Ridge, a good deal of the forest in Bear Basin was burned in the fires, but many of the old growth trees did make it out alive. A trail used to traverse Bear Basin but has long been lost with virtually no tread remaining.  


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.