2014 Adventure Run Ideas

It should come as no surprise that I have many ideas for adventure runs (see 2013 post here and 2012 post here).  Listed below are several potential routes in the High Sierra, Trinity Alps and Coastal Region (mostly Big Sur/Ventana, but some Lost Coast).  Many of these ideas are rather obscure, but the Ventana Wilderness and Sierra Nevada are filled with hidden gems and I expect all of these will be aesthetic routes with outstanding scenery. Hopefully I’ll get to several of these ideas this year and several more routes that I haven’t thought about yet!  I also hope to visit the North Cascades in Washington State at some point, but since my opportunities to travel up north are limited I won’t dedicate a special ideas post to the Cascades this year.  All photos by me from adventures in 2013 and 2014.

Sierra: 

  • Mount Kaweah and Second Kaweah: Fantastic views from the summits compensate for otherwise chossy climbing. The approach is also highly scenic through Little Five Lakes.
  • Whitney Zone Loop: Full meal deal with the Cleaver, Tunnabora, Carillon, Russell, Whitney, Muir, and maybe some of those other pinnacles between Whitney and Muir. 
  • Tyndall & Williamson: Double the fun for these two fourteeners via Shepherd’s Pass and Williamson Bowl.
  • Mount Rixford, Dragon Peak & University Peak: These all look like fun peaks to ascend. Mount Rixford, with its position west of the crest, is a particularly good viewpoint. Dragon Peak looks impressively rugged from the Rae lakes Basin. I’d also like ascend Mount Bago via its walk-up side.   
  • Comb Spur & Goat Mountain: Great early season route with huge views.
  • Cirque Crest Loop: An area I have yet to explore with some cool peaks I’d like to climb including Mount Ruskin and Observation Peak. This region also contains some of the range’s most remote basins including Dumbell Basin, Lake Basin and Amphitheater Lake.
  • Arrow Peak and Bench Lake: An adventure via Taboose Pass that has been on the list for many years, but I haven’t made it out yet to see the classic Sierra view of Arrow Peak from Bench Lake. Perhaps this trip could be combined with the Cirque Crest Loop described above.
  • Ionian Basin – Scylla & Hansen: Accessed via Sabrina Basin and Echo Col, this region is near Muir Pass and the JMT, but far away from the beaten path and features spectacular peaks and many high lakes amid one of the most rugged and strikingly desolate settings in the High Sierra.
  • The Black Divide Loop – Charybdis, Black Giant, McDuffie: A three peak loop tour of of the Ionian Basin, accessed via Bishop Pass and South Lake.
  • Bench Valley: Another western approach to the LeConte Divide, featuring a string of remote high alpine lakes off-trail.
  • Mt. Henry, Red Mountain and Hell for Sure Lake: A beautiful area with lots of easy cross country terrain.
  • Evolution Loop:  Last time I did the horseshoe loop from north to south, but I’m wondering if south to north is actually faster. The argument for south to north is that most of the steep climbing is completed earlier rather than later, which may work better for me as I’ll be able to attack the long and at times steep climb out Pate Valley to Muir Pass early in the route.  Despite it being a long uphill slog from the JMT junction to Piute Pass, it’s fairly gradual and I think most of it is runnable for me if I’m feeling good at that point in the run, whereas the climb from Pate Valley to Bishop Pass is too steep for any running late in the run. I also like the idea of running down through Evolution Basin and Valley.  Finally, the South Lake trailhead is also marginally higher by about 500 feet.  I guess I’ll have to find out if south to north is faster. 
  • Bench Canyon Loop: At the remote headwaters of the North Fork San Joaquin River this loop entails a section of the Sierra High Route from Thousand Island Lake to Tuolumne Meadows.
  • Northern Yosemite 50 miler: This is a fantastic loop including Peeler Lake, the Benson Lake riviera, Smedberg Lake, Matterhorn Canyon and Burro Pass.
  • Boundary Lake and Cherry Canyon: In northwest Yosemite and the Emigrant Wilderness.
  • John Muir Trail: The classic trail through the range of light. I’ve seen most of the trail over the years so it’s my hope to put it all together. 
  • Sierra High Route: Another big project. Over 195 miles, largely off trail through some of the best scenery the High Sierra has to offer.

Trinity Alps:

  • Sawtooth Mountain & Smith Lake: Easily the most rugged peak in the Trinity Alps and ironically it’s also arguably the most rugged mountain north of Sawtooth Ridge in the High Sierra (Yosemite/Hoover Wilderness). This route will include the remote Smith Lake nestled in a granite basin underneath Sawtooth Mountain, which is accessed via Alpine Lake, another fitting spot for an afternoon swim.
  • Caesar Peak via Stuart Fork: A trip up the Stuart Fork Trinity River to Emerald, Sapphire and Mirror Lakes finishing with a climb of Caesar Peak.
  • Caribou Mountain and Sawtooth Ridge: Beautiful views overlooking the Caribou Lakes basin, Stuart Fork Canyon and the Trinity Alps.

Coastal

  • Lost Coast: I have done the entire Lost Coast from the Mattole River to Usal Beach twice over two days each. The idea is to do the entire 53 mile stretch of the coast in one single day push.
  • King Crest 50: A 50 mile route in the King Range portion of the Lost Coast, including the entire King Crest, the Cooskie Creek route to Gorda 2, and a spectacular section of the Lost Coast beach walk [completed March 23rd, blog post coming soon].
  • Pico-Cabezo Route: A point-to-point tour of the peaks from Bottcher’s Gap to Pfieffer Big Sur State Park, incluidng Pico Blanco, South Fork Little Sur River, East Molera Ridge, Post Summit, Cabezo Prieto and Mount Manuel. 
  • Ventana Loop: Finding some inspiration in my La Ventana Loop report, Sachin and Toshi put up an awesome variation by descending into the rugged cirque between Kandlbinder and Ventana Double Cone and then ascending the rugged west ridge of Ventana Double Cone via what appears to be an instant classic scramble route.This is an awesome region with a lot left for me to explore.
  • Mocho Falls along the South Fork Big Sur River: A trail run to Sykes Hot Springs and then a creekwalk along the Big Sur River and then the South Fork Big Sur River to an enigmatic waterfall that is apparently 80 feet tall on the main stem of the south fork, but has seen few visitors and no photographs that I can find.
  • South Big Sur Coast Adventures: I have done several trips in the Silver Peak Wilderness recently, including the South Coast Adventure point-to-point and the Silver Peak Wilderness Loop, but it’s got some of the best scenery along the entire Big Sur coast so I look forward to returning for more exploration.
  • Arroyo Seco River Gorge: For a hot day in the summer I would like to see the entire Arroyo Seco Canyon from top to bottom in a ~25 mile loop, 13 miles on old road and the balance walking in and swimming the Arroyo Seco.

Pico-Little Sur Loop

If Cone Peak is the King of the Big Sur Coast and Ventana Double Cone is the Queen of the Ventana Wilderness, then Pico Blanco is the Prince of the Little Sur. The mountain rises steeply between deep, redwood filled canyons which contain the two major forks of the Little Sur River. Pico assumes a regal position above East Molera Ridge and its coastal plain with phenomenal views of the entire Little Sur drainage and the rugged ridge from Kandlbinder to Ventana Double Cone. While Pico Blanco has relatively modest altitude at 3,709 ft, its unmistakable cone shape visible from most Ventana highpoints and along Hwy 1, along with its blazing white shield of limestone that covers its entire south face, gives the mountain gravitas and significance. It’s no wonder this peak was sacred to the Essalen Native American people who lived in this region. A service road reaches high on Pico Blanco’s slopes but a much more interesting and rewarding route is a scramble of the north ridge accessed via Bottchers Gap, the trailhead for many excellent adventures. Folded into this aesthetic loop is the beautiful Pico Blanco Camp Falls on the South Fork Little Sur River. 

From Bottchers Gap run down the dirt road to the Pico Blanco Scout Camp and then take the Little Sur Trial to a pass between the South Fork Little Sur River and the Little Sur River (this pass is also a low point on Launtz Ridge). From this pass, head cross country WNW through beautiful oak and madrone forest staying on the ridge crest. Eventually the ridge crest opens up into a face with some brush amid white limestone rocks which leads to the north ridge. Once on the north ridge, peer into the chiseled, redwood filled canyon of the Little Sur River. Look ahead to the north ridge route with white limestone cliffs and forested Dani Ridge in the distance . From here, it is easiest to initially stay on the south side of the crest of the north ridge to avoid brushy sections. However, make sure to regain the crest for the second half of the north ridge for some enjoyable scrambling on sticky white limestone. The scrambling is never difficult with little exposure, but the impressive relief on both sides and the outstanding views in all directions make this a highly enjoyable scramble. In fact, it’s so good that you’ll wish it kept going for much longer!

At the summit, some equipment was recently removed which enhances the view as it is now unobstructed (this equipment, including a weather station, were moved about 400 feet down the mountain at the end of the service road). From the summit enjoy the excellent views of Point Sur, East Molera Ridge and coastal plain, Post Summit, Kandlbinder, Ventana Double Cone and the entire Little Sur River drainage. Perhaps the most impressive view looks northwest down Dani Ridge which separates the deep, redwood-filled canyons of the South Fork Little Sur River and the (main stem) Little Sur River.  On the south side of the mountain, the service road comes within a few hundred vertical feet of the Little Sur Trail. A short and easy cross country section connects to the Little Sur Trail which can be taken to lovely Pico Blanco Camp Falls. The falls is set in amid old growth redwoods, a lush carpet of redwood sorrel, five finger ferns and smooth river rocks. The pool beneath the falls has a turquoise color and would make for an excellent swimming destination on a warm summer afternoon. Beyond the falls, take the Little Sur Trail back to the Pico Blanco Scout Camp (with an intermediary climb up to the pass between Little Sur forks) and then ascend the dirt road back to Bottchers Gap.  Future aspirations in this region include a grand point-to-point from Bottchers Gap all the way to Pfiefffer Big Sur State Park including Pico Blanco, East Molera Ridge, Post Summit, Cabezo Prieto and Mount Manuel. Strava route here

Little Sur Circular Pools

The trek to the Circular Pools entails an adventure up the wild and trail-less Little Sur River to an otherworldly scene of clear pools, delicate waterfalls, and precipitous cliffs deep in a lush, redwood filled canyon. The most straightforward access to the pools begins from Bottcher’s Gap (notice a lot of excellent terrain for adventures begin at this trailhead) where it’s 3.5 miles downhill on the dirt road to the Pico Blanco Boy Scout Camp. Just beyond the Scout Camp, the Jackson Camp Trail continues 1.5 miles to Jackson Camp. The Jackson Camp Trail is in good shape and generally traverses on the slopes a couple hundred vertical feet above the Little Sur River. The trail passes through a shallow gully with a stream that is particularly lush with a carpet of redwood sorrel and a nice grove of redwoods.   The Jackson Camp Trail reaches False Jackson Camp where the first crossing of many Little Sur River crossings is located. The real Jackson Camp is only one more river crossing away (0.2 miles), but from Jackson Camp to Fox Usecamp there are numerous more crossings of the Little Sur River (a total of 12 by one count). These crossings can be rock hops in low flow or thigh deep crossings after heavy rains. In general, it does not seem prudent to travel along the Little Sur River in rainy period. The official trail ends at Jackson Camp, but the use path to Fox Camp 1.3 miles upsteam is fairly easy to follow with the numerous river crossings either obvious or marked with orange tape. This section features some truly immense redwoods that a treat to pass underneath. These colossal trees have thrived deep in this canyon for centuries and the forest looks healthy considering the fire that roared through these mountains in 2008.

Beyond Fox camp, the use path becomes more faint as it seems less people venture further upsteam. However, the general idea is the same: follow the river upstream and the use path virtually always coincides with the path of least resistance. The scenery is spectacular the entire way with smooth white river rocks littering the stream bed and alders, bay trees, and redwoods alongside the river. Soon after Fox camp, the canyon narrows considerably with precipitous cliffs closing in on the waterway. Usually the cliffs are only on one side of the river allowing fairly easy access on the opposite side, but in one section the Little Sur enters a small gorge with steep rock walls on both sides. After this narrow portion, the canyon opens a bit before narrowing once again just before reaching the primary Circular Pool. At first only the sound of a waterfall can be heard, but as you round a bend around some rocks a paradisaical scene presents itself with a large, nearly-circular pool virtually completely surrounded by cliffs. This rock amphitheater contains an assortment of lush hanging vegetation including five finger ferns and moss. The first circular pool and waterfall is the most impressive, but more adventure lies upstream. A few feet downstream of the main pool a weakness in the cliffs on the north side of the Circular Pool allows for passage upsateam. The next section of the Little Sur River features a series of small pools and cascades culminating in the second circular pool, which is significantly smaller, both in size of the pool and the waterfall plunging into it. This pool does not have an easy walk-around and a small rock step must be surmounted to proceed. A nylon rope aids in this climbing which is particularly helpful as the rock is slick, especially when downclimbing. After the second pool there is a sweet area of rock formations known as the bathtubs. Beyond the bathtubs there is apparently a third circular pool and one of the most remote camps in the Ventana Wilderness (the North Fork Camp) located at the confluence of Puerto Suello Creek and the Little Sur River. On this day, I did not have time for additional exploration beyond the bathtubs so I look forward to returning soon to reach the remote upper reaches of the Little Sur River near North Fork Camp.  I’m also excited to see the Little Sur River in the spring when the lushness of the environs will be at its maximum and a swim in the Circular Pools will refreshing as opposed to frigid! Stava route here

Santa Lucia Three Peaks

The Santa Lucia Three Peaks is classic route that includes the summits of three major peaks in the Ventana Wilderness – Cone Peak, Twin Peak and Junipero Serra Peak. Along the way there are great views of both the Big Sur Coast and the interior Ventana Wilderness. While mostly utilizing trails, the route does feature three prominent cross-country ridges, the North Ridge of Cone Peak, the traverse between Cone Peak and Twin Peak, and the West Ridge of Twin Peak.  These prominent off-trail ridges are probably the highlight of the route and make it an adventure.  With the exception of redwoods, the route contains the entire array of Ventana vegetation, including perhaps the best Santa Lucia fir forest in existence, the most extensive stand of old growth Sugar Pines in the Santa Lucia Mountains, and rare grove of incense cedars in the Arroyo Seco river canyon. It’s a big route coming in over 32 miles with nearly 10,000 feet of elevation gain and the off-trail portions are fairly arduous and slow compared to the trails.  Strava route here.

The route starts at Santa Lucia Memorial Park Campground after a drive through Fort Hunter Liggett (note: Del Venturi Road is closed after heavy rain). From Memorial Park, the Arroyo Seco Trail provides quick access to the North Coast Ridge Trail on a great single track.  This upper section of the Arroyo Seco canyon is surprisingly lush and enchanting with madrone, oak, Santa Lucia Firs and a rare grove of Incense Cedars. Climbing out of the canyon, the vegetation turns more chaparral with a young forest of knobcone pine. On the north coast ridge, the trail climbs to Tin Can Camp with a great view looking back to Junipero Serra Peak and an awesome stretch through Sugar Pine and Coulter Pine forest.  At the junction with the Gamboa Trail, veer left to continue on the North Coast Ridge Trail. Cross a rocky slope and then begin descending on the east side of Cone Peak before finding an easy gap to gain the crest of the north ridge of Cone Peak. The first part of the north ridge is easy open terrain with a use path in sections. The second part of the north ridge becomes more rugged with bits of scrambling in spots and a couple places where you must come off the ridge to the west side to avoid loose rock formations on the ridge crest proper. This second part of the north ridge has phenomenal views and an airy feeling with lots of relief on both sides of the serrated rocky ridge, especially on the east side where cliffs plunge several hundred feet. Old growth Santa Lucia Firs and Sugar Pines are at home in this environment clinging to the cliffy slopes and thereby avoiding the periodic wildfires that sweep through these mountains. The scrambling is very enjoyable on the north ridge, but it doesn’t last long before the familiar fire lookout atop 5,155 ft Cone Peak comes into view. Cone Peak is the King of the Big Sur Coast and third highest point in the Santa Lucia Mountains. It features the most dramatic relief from the ocean in the contiguous United States as only 3 miles separate its summit from the sands. After enjoying the marvelous views from Cone Peak, descend the Cone Summit Trail for a short distance and take the ridge connecting Cone Peak to Twin Peak. This cross country route features a couple scrambling moves but is largely a use path along the ridge.  

After summiting Twin Peak, continue down the West Ridge of Twin. At first, it is best to stay on the north side of the ridge in old growth Sugar Pine forest with an open understory. Some large downfalls slow travel but ultimately you reach the grassy slopes of the lower part of the ridge. The only paths on this ridge are made by game and their feet are much narrow than humans. The result is steep sidehilling than can become tiring but the views more than compensate. Eventually the grassy ridge terminates at the Stone Ridge Trail-Gamboa Trail junction at Ojito Pass. From Ojito Pass take the Gamboa Trail as it traverses through the headwaters of the South Fork Devils Canyon passing through arguably the most complete Santa Lucia forest in existence. A reliable spring is located at Trail Spings (can be a seep in late summer and fall). Continue along the Gamboa Trail past Trail Springs and climb to the junction with the North Coast Ridge Trail. From this junction retrace steps back to Santa Lucia Memorial Park Campground.

From Memorial Park, head south down the road a short distance and find the Santa Lucia Trail/Junipero Serra Peak Trailhead. For the first couple miles, the Santa Lucia Trail is very runnable as it undulates through grassland and oak woodland. However, the final four miles to the summit of Junipero Serra Peak become steep rising over 3,500 feet over that distance. This climb is a real challenge after the preceding climbs of Cone Peak and Twin Peak. It is not advisable on a warm day, especially in the afternoon since most of the climb is exposed south-facing chaparral. The vegetation changes in the last mile to the summit when the trail rounds a corner onto the north side of the peak where there is a pleasant forest of Sugar Pine and Coulter Pine. The broad summit of Junipero Serra Peak (aka Pimkolam by the Native Americans) is the highest point in the Santa Lucia Mountains at 5,862 feet. The summit has a nice vista looking west to Cone Peak, the Silver Peak Wilderness region, and also north to Ventana Double Cone. If Cone Peak is the King of Big Sur and Ventana Double Cone is the Queen of the Ventana, Junipero Serra is the grandfather of the Santa Lucias (Pico Blanco is the prince of Big Sur and Silver Peak is the princess of the South Coast). There is a summit a register on the east side of the ridge located on a cement foundation. The old dilapidated fire lookout on the west side of the ridge has virtually nothing left but its steel frame. There are also some old artifacts on the ridge, including an old cot frame. Enjoy the descent, which is virtually all downhill to the finish at Memorial Park; you will have earned it!  Strava route here.

La Ventana Loop: Kandlbinder – La Ventana – Ventana Double Cone

The La Ventana Loop is a tremendous route that was as difficult as it was beautiful. To my knowledge Kandlbinder, La Ventana (aka The Window), and Ventana Double Cone have never been climbed together as a day trip. It took Brian Robinson, Whit Rambach, Joey Cassidy and me a little over 13 hours to complete the loop (start at 6:40 a.m. and finish at 7:50 p.m.).  The route had a little bit of everything: spectacular scenery (including coastal Big Sur and interior Ventana), remoteness, ruggedness, hideous brush, stream crossings by the dozen, waterfalls, old growth redwood groves, old growth Santa Lucia Firs, exposure, commitment, rock scrambling, treacherously loose rock, and a beautiful sunset. In all, the La Ventana Loop is around 30 miles with 9,500 ft of elevation gain, but the stats belie the difficulty of the 3 mile traverse between Kandlbinder and Ventana Double Cone. Garmin Connect Data: http://connect.garmin.com/activity/430728534

Back in December on the Ventana Double Cone trip, I was captivated as I gazed across the immensely rugged cirque to La Ventana and Kandlbinder and hoped to one day stand on those points. I recalled hearing about a route up Jackson Creek that provided direct access to La Ventana and wondered if a giant loop could be made that would include the summits of Kandlbinder and Ventana Double, essentially encircling the Little Sur drainage. In order to make the loop a reality, one must traverse between La Ventana and Ventana Double Cone, a stretch that has virtually no recent information and looked like brush hell on satellite. For a couple weeks I focused more on ascending Kandlbinder as an out-and-back via the Jackson Creek Route which has some recent route beta, but discussion with Joey reignited my interest in tackling the La Ventana Loop sooner rather than later. In a matter of days I was ready to tackle the challenge after discussion and careful satellite analysis. With a great weather forecast, the team of four was assembled at Bottcher’s Gap in the pre-dawn hours and pumped to give the La Ventana adventure a go.

Click for a full-size annotated view from Kandlbinder PeakLa Ventana Altitude

There is little information on this wild and rugged area of the Ventana Wilderness and virtually no information about the traverse between La Ventana and Ventana Double Cone. It’s a committing route that is extremely arduous, requiring advanced navigational skills and wherewithal to persevere through extremely difficult terrain and hideous brush. That being said, here are my thoughts on the segments of the La Ventana Loop:

  1. The Little Sur River: After a 3.5 mile run down the dirt road to the Pico Blanco Boy Scout Camp from Bottcher’s Gap, we took the Jackson Camp Trail to Jackson Camp. This trail is in good condition and a pleasant run through lush redwoods. Beyond Jackson Camp there are numerous crossings of the Little Sur River and we walked right through the water in the interest of time (although rock-hopping is possible in low flow). The use path is fairly easy to follow between crossings and most of the crossings are flagged. 1.3 miles from Jackson Camp is Fox Usecamp, a nice flat spot amid redwoods where Jackson Creek flows into the Little Sur River. At Fox Usecamp, we turned up Jackson Creek and soon came across a pretty waterfall known as Firehose falls.
  2. Jackson Creek:  The Jackson Creek route proved highly enjoyable. The old growth redwoods in the canyon were amazing and the stream was pretty with small cascades and pools. By taking the path of least resistance we were able to make decent progress. There are lots of down trees to go under, over and across. Beyond Happy Fork Camp, we traversed a little above the stream before heading up grassy slopes in oak woodland to a small saddle above Jackson Creek. A quick descent from the saddle brought us to a dry streambed that drains the slopes of La Ventana and Kandlbinder in periods of heavy rain.  This area had plentiful poison oak but travel through the brush was reasonable.
  3. Kandlbinder Direct:  We took a talus gully up ~1,400 feet from the bottom of the canyon below La Ventana directly to the summit of Kandlbinder. The climbing was sustained and sometimes loose, but brush-free. This is a phenomenal route amid old growth Santa Lucia Firs and the view from Kandlbinder is amazing, perhaps the best in all of the Ventana Wilderness. We arrived at Kandlbinder in under 5 hours from Bottchers Gap. This turned out to be the easy part.
  4. Kandlbinder to La Ventana: From Kandlbinder, we stayed below the ridge crest to avoid copious deadfall from the Basin Complex fire immediately on top of the ridge. While the terrain is mostly brush-free, it is very steep with cliff bands and the rock is treacherously loose requiring care and extreme caution.
  5. La Ventana:  We traversed around some cliffs and ascended the final slopes (much poison oak) to the famous notch known as La Ventana (aka the Window) for which the Ventana Wilderness is named. La Ventana is a fascinating spot, although it’s largely filled with brush these days. 
  6. The Impasse: The cliffs on the east side of the La Ventana notch are a formidable obstacle to continuing the traverse to VDC. Such an impasse is something I would expect in the High Sierra, not the Santa Lucias. We couldn’t find any safe ledges (without technical gear) in the vicinity of the notch and descended several hundred feet where we found a safe passage with some class 3 moves. 
  7. The Crux: Once we got through the cliff band, we encountered fairly thick brush as we made an ascending traverse back to the ridge crest. From here to the next high point on the ridge had truly hideous, atrocious brush. The dead manzanita and other spiny vegetation combined with the flourishing new brush growth made travel extremely arduous and slow. The brush was worst right on the ridge crest where deadfall was abundant. After careful investigation of satellite imagery before and after the trip, I’ve concluded that this section is a slog no matter which way you cut it.  
  8. The Ridge Traverse: From an intermediate high point along the ridge, the next section was rocky with little brush and we made good progress for awhile and enjoyed the exposure on both sides of the ridge.  However, we soon encountered another wall of brush and deadfall. We descended off the ridge a couple hundred feet down extremely steep and loose slopes to traverse around this brush. We ascended back to the ridge via another talus gully that was brush-free. Now back on the ridge, we enjoyed another nice rocky section with amazing views into Ventana Creek and VDC. After this point we made a direct line across the basin to the Ventana Double Cone trail. The brush in this final portion is much more manageable.
  9. Ventana Double Cone: Elated to be back on the trail, we ran up to the top of VDC and enjoyed the late afternoon views from this awesome summit. In all, it took over 3.5 hours to complete the traverse from Kandlbinder to La Ventana to VDC. 
  10. Completing the Loop: From VDC we took the trail back to Pat Springs and Bottchers Gap. We had a spectacular sunset from Little Pines overlooking Pico Blanco and drank up the cool, fresh waters in Pat Springs. A full moon and warm evening temps made the last 7 miles from Pat Springs a pleasant night run. The trail is getting some more work and is in decent shape, or maybe it just felt like a highway compared to the brush we endured on the traverse. 

Note: The following photos are in chronological order from the Little Sur River at daybreak to the group shot at Bottcher’s Gap after finishing in the dark.

Into the Wild on the Big Sur Trail

The Big Sur Trail is a rugged, overgrown trail, but the reward for the arduous effort is passage through the remote north and south forks of the wild and scenic Big Sur River. We also visited Rainbow Falls along the South Fork Big Sur River, rock hopping through the spectacular stream bed to reach this remote, hidden waterfall. Perhaps only in the bottom of the South Fork Big Sur River canyon can one find a forest composed of redwoods, Santa Lucia Firs and Coulter Pines, all living side by side. The wilderness feeling in these canyons is unparalleled.  It was a treat to see the wild and scenic canyons of the Big Sur River, arguably the heart of the Ventana Wilderness. It’s no wonder the trail posses the name “Big Sur,” the descriptive name for this rugged section of California coastline. The Basin Complex Fire in 2008 served to temporarily clear out the brush, but 5 years later the vegetation and impediments have returned with a vengeance. The remote nature of the route, and its reputation for brush, blowdowns and route finding issues explains why so few people venture into these canyons. The grand finale was a run down Boronda Ridge in evening light with an amazing sunset over the golden hills and Big Sur coastline. I had the pleasure of joining Brian Robinson for this adventure. Brian knows this trail well and spoke highly of the beauty of this region which got my imagination going and was the impetus for this trip. After seeing the Big Sur Trail for myself, I agree that it’s a gem and worth the effort. I will definitely be returning for further exploration. Strava route here.

We began by running up the Pine Ridge Trail to Sykes Hot Springs. Unlike most of the Ventana trail network, the 10 mile stretch of the Pine Ridge Trail is a well-maintained wilderness freeway with no severe ups and downs making it an enjoyable trail run. Beyond Sykes Hot Springs, the terrain was new for me and the quality of the trail decreased. After some switchbacks above Sykes, the trail traverses a steep slope (erosion in spots) with excellent views down to the confluence of the south and north forks of the Big Sur River and up the rugged canyon of the north fork. Rounding a corner in to the Redwood Creek drainage is an excellent view of an ancient redwood grove that was miraculously spared in the Basin Complex Fire. The trail descends into this beautiful grove where an excellent camp spot is located among towering redwoods and a verdant stream. Emerging from this redwood grove, one begins to see more evidence of the devastation of the 2008 fires. Along most of the Big Sur River, the redwoods have filled in and the scars of fire are becoming less striking. However, in the section from redwood camp to Cienega Creek the fire burned hot and the survival rate much less. The trail descends down the brushy and fire-scarred Cienega Creek drainage to the North Fork of the Big Sur River.

Beyond the North Fork, the trail begins many brushy switchbacks up to a small pass along a ridge that separates the north and south forks of the Big Sur River. The top of this pass represents a dividing line in fire behavior. On the south fork side, the vegetation was much less impacted with pines and oak woodland seemingly unharmed. I very much enjoyed the descent into the South Fork of the Big Sur River with some brush-free stretches of trail and excellent views into the wild and remote south fork canyon.  At the bottom of the canyon is a spectacular forest of redwoods, pine trees, and Santa Lucia Firs. It’s an ethereal scene seeing Santa Lucia Firs standing proud at the bottom of the canyon when I’m more accustomed to seeing them high on rocky ridges. At Rainbow Camp along the South Fork Big Sur River we took the remnants of the South Fork Trail to a sport where we could descend back to the river. From here, we rock hopped downstream to a small tributary that I guessed (correctly) was flowing from Rainbow Falls. We scrambled a short distance up this tributary and were treated to an awesome 55 foot drop of Rainbow Falls with a gorgeous amphitheater setting of rock and hanging gardens. The environment was relatively dry and water volume low due to the drought, but it was an awesome sight to see.  After the waterfall, we rocked hopped all the way back to Rainbow Camp. Along this stretch of the river I felt the genuine wilderness feeling in this rarely trodden canyon. It was as if we were traveling into the wild of the Ventana Wilderness. Back at Rainbow Camp, we had a snack and then continued on the Big Sur Trail to Mocho Camp about 0.5 miles distant.

Along the way there is a fantastic view looking down the South Fork with Santa Lucia Firs, Redwoods and pines filling the canyon and Ventana Double Cone towering above (first photo below). In my opinion this vista epitomizes the Ventana.  Beyond Mocho Camp is a section known as the Devil’s Staircase, so named after the long and arduous climb up numerous switchbacks from Mocho Creek to Logwood Creek. I had read reports of this section having heinous brush, routefinding problems and lots of blow downs, but I found that while the trail was brushy and difficult, travel was not unreasonable and we actually made good progress the entire way to Cold Springs, the end of the Big Sur Trail. In fairness, we came prepared for the conditions.  I wore gaiters and board shorts while Brian wore pants so our legs were completely covered from the scratchy brush. We also had gloves to push aside anything in our way. I highly recommend an outfit that protects the legs to make the Big Sur Trail an enjoyable experience. After grabbing some water at Cold Springs we took the Coast Ridge Road down to Timber Top just in time for evening light down Boronda Ridge. The run down Boronda Ridge that evening culminating in sunset is about as good as it gets; nothing short of amazing!  Boronda is the most elegant grassy ridge in all of Big Sur and timing was perfect. The clarity down the coast was phenomenal and I soaked it all in as much as I could while filling my cameras with as many photos as could take. It was one of those magical stretches in Big Sur that keep me coming back for more. All I could say upon arriving at the trailhead along Hwy 1 was “Wow!”  Strava route here

Cabezo Molera Loop

The Cabezo Molera Loop is a stunning route and among the finest adventure runs in all of the Big Sur Coast and Ventana Wilderness. The loop includes an aesthetic mixture of excellent views atop a rugged ridgeline followed by excellent coastal vistas and a beautiful beach.  The route comes in around 26 miles with 6,700 ft of elevation gain and some off trail travel makes it a challenging marathon route. While the loop can be done in either direction, the preferred direction is as described, which starts with East Molera Ridge and finishes with the coastal section in Andrew Molera State Park.  This direction optimizes photography which includes morning light on East Molera Ridge, midday light on Ventana Double Cone from Mount Manuel, and afternoon light on the coast at Andrew Molera State Park. The route begins at Andrew Molera State Park and ascends up to East Molera Ridge, one of my favorite grassy ridges in Big Sur. The last time I was on East Molera Ridge it was bursting with wildflowers and vibrant green grass. While the meadows were golden this time, it was still an amazing trip up the ridge and to Post Summit with the white limestone apron of Pico Blanco commanding attention the entire way. Strava route here.

Beyond Post Summit the section of the traverse to Mount Manuel was all new terrain for me and it far exceeded expectations. The route sticks to the ridge crest and therefore provides amazing views down to the South Fork Little Sur River on the east side and down the rugged Juan Higuera Creek canyon on the west side. Ascending up to the high point of Cabezo Prieto, the view of Pico Blanco’s limestone face is as striking as anywhere. There were even some Santa Lucia Firs growing on this cliffy slope that proved particularly photogenic with a backdrop of a low marine layer off the coast. Beyond Cabezo Prieto, we found the use path to Mount Manuel reasonably easy to follow through the brush, ultimately emerging at a series of lovely viewpoints on Mount Manuel with stellar views to Ventana Double Cone, the interior Ventana Wilderness, and the Big Sur Coast. Cabezo Molera Route annotatedCabezo Molera altitude

My favorite viewpoint was from a prominent knoll on the way down from Mount Manuel off slightly off the trail, a viewpoint that I call “Manuel Vista.” This point features a remarkable, unobstructed 360 degree view from Ventana Double Cone to the entire Big Sur River drainage to Point Sur. Contuing the descent off Mount Manuel the trail is in pretty rough shape in spots in the upper elevations but becomes better in the last couple miles into Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Descending to the valley bottom by the Big Sur River suddenly transitioned to a completely different ecosystem with redwoods instead of the parched chaparral slopes on Mount Manuel.  After a break at the State Park near the Big Sur River we continued along a couple miles of road on Hwy 1 to a back entrance into Andrew Molera State Park Trails. This back entrance is a little tricky to find.  Just past the River Inn is a gated bridge across the Big Sur River that contains a window for pedestrian passage. Just after the bridge, turn right onto single track for around 0.3 miles before coming to a junction. To the left is the start of the South Boundary Trail (as of January 2014 the trail sign was on the ground). The path ascends through redwoods and oak woodlands to great views of Pico Blanco, Post Summit, Cabezo Prieto and Mount Manuel. Ascending higher up on the Ridge Trail we reached the a point on Pfieffer Ridge with views into the recent devastation caused by the Pfieffer Fire (Andrew Molera State Park and its trails were not impacted by the fire). From the viewpoint, we headed down Panoramic Trail and then Bluffs Trail to Molera Beach with with some awesome afternoon light on the coast. Finishing along the coast with a cool ocean breeze served as a perfect way to finish a great run and complete the loop. Strava route here

Limekiln to Big Sur via the Coast Ridge

A point-to-point is the best way to maximize covering and experiencing a lot of terrain. The complete Coast Ridge route is no exception with 39+ miles of amazing and constantly changing scenery for its entire 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. Most of the elevation gain is accomplished within the first 9 miles and after one last climb up to Anderson Peak, a running-friendly dirt road provides a net gradual downhill for the final 15 miles all the way to the terminus of the Coast Ridge Road at Ventana Inn. 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. Strava route here.   

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, we took the trail into the West Fork Limekiln Canyon traverseing lovelly oak woodland and redwood-filled ravines. Eventually we climbed out of the canyon to “Ojito Pass” where the Stone Ridge Trail turns into the Gamboa Trail and curves into the South Fork Devils Canyon. The Gamboa Trail is one of the my favorite trails in all of the Ventana and passes through an amazing forest of Santa Lucia Fir, Sugar Pine and Coulter Pine with excellent views down canyon to the Pacific. The trail ends at a junction 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. The trail exits 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 traversing across the terrain 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. We enjoyed lunch here and then continued down the east side of the firebreak 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. Along this ridge we were happy to find water at the Coast Ridge Spring (aka Redondo Spring). This indicates the spring is fairly reliable even in dry years, but with as dry as it’s been this year, I wouldn’t count on it much longer. 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. After about 20 miles, the trail emerges onto the Coast Ridge Road, which is a dirt road that would take us all the way to Ventana Inn. While closed to the 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. I made a side trip to climb Marble Peak which has another A+ view of the surrounding region.  I also found a nice use path on my way down that emerges from a vegetation tunnel onto the Coast Ridge road directly across from a sign that says “Marble Peak.”  I also ascended to the top of Anderson Peak by skirting fences (but not surmounting any) and ascending steep grass. The summit of Anderson Peak is federal government property with some old flight radio equipment and a few buildings. The top of the peak is paved with a signal at its center. It’s an odd sight after hardly seeing any infrastructure all day, but the summit “platform” has great views of the coast and the rugged ridge between Kandlbinder and Ventana Double Cone. After Anderson Peak, it’s mostly all downhill along the dirt road with amazing views throughout. At Timber Top we briefly left the road and ascended over Timber Top instead of taking the circuitous road. The views of the Big Sur coast from Timber Top are truly spectacular. The final section of Coast Ridge Road was marvelous with the grassy hills and Mount Manuel illuminated by the soft evening light. We arrived at the finish just as the sun had set to wrap up a special day in the Ventana.

Click on the image below for a 360 degree panorama from Marble Peak:

Note: Save for the very last image, the remaining photos are basically in chronological order. 

Ventana Double Cone

If Cone Peak is the King of the Big Sur Coast, Ventana Double Cone is the Queen of the Ventana Wilderness. Rising 4,853 ft above sea level, no other peak in the Ventana Wilderness possesses such a rugged face as Ventana Double Cone’s west and south aspects. Aptly named, the mountain features twin summits of nearly identical height, but it’s the southern summit that contains an astounding 360 degree view of the surrounding wilderness and Big Sur coastline. The peak serves as the divide for three major drainages in the northern Ventana Wilderess: the Little Sur River, the Big Sur River and the Carmel River. On a clear day, one can look north to Monterey Bay, Santa Cruz, the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Diablo Range. To the south lies the wild and scenic Big Sur River drainage, the Coast Ridge, Junipero Serra Peak and Cone Peak. To the east is Pine Valley, Chews Ridge, Ventana Cone, Pine Ridge, and South Ventana Cone.  Immediately below is the immensely rugged and wild cirque that forms the headwaters of Ventana Creek. Across this impressive cirque and close at hand is La Ventana (aka the Window) and Kandlbinder Peak with Pico Blanco’s unmistakable white apron rising directly above La Ventana notch. Strava route here.

Adding to the allure of Ventana Double Cone is its remote position. The mountain is viewable from the trailhead at Bottcher’s Gap, but it requires nearly 15 miles on trail each direction (nearly 30 miles total) to reach. Moreover, there is quite a bit of undulating up and down en route which means lots of elevation gain can be expected in both directions (nearly 9,000 feet in all).  Finally, the trail (particularly after Little Pines) can become brushy with sharp and scratchy chaparral so it’s advisable to cover the legs as much as possible for a more pleasant experience. While it’s a long way to Ventana Double Cone, the route is immensely scenic the entire distance. Largely following the ridge crest that forms the rim of the Little Sur River drainage, the scenery is spectacular and the forested sections are very pleasant. The first miles are in a madrone and oak forest up Skinner Ridge and then up to Devils Peak, which provides the first panoramic views from the route. From Devils Peak to Pat Springs, there are plenty of gorgeous grassy meadows with spectacular vistas to Pico Blanco, Ventana Double Cone and Kandlbinder Peak. Approaching Pat Springs, the vegetation transitions to ponderosa pine with a magnificent stand of old growth trees near the springs that survived the 2008 Basin Complex Fire. Pat Springs features cool, pure spring waters and it’s a must stop for any traveler continuing beyond to Ventana Double Cone. While there may be water in the springs beyond, none are as easy to access and as reliable as Pat Springs.

Beyond Pat Springs, the trail ascends through ponderosa pine forest to Little Pines and then gradually descends around the west side of Uncle Sam Mountain to Puerto Suello Pass. At this point the trail becomes more brushy with the worst brush located in the miles immediately south of Puerto Suello. Eventually the trail emerges from the brush on the final ridge leading to Ventana Double Cone. As one nears the summit, Coulter pines and Santa Lucia Firs grow strong next to the trail with increasingly broader views into the valleys and canyons below. The culmination of the journey is an amazing summit panorama where one feels like they’re on top of the world, or at least the Ventana! A fire lookout once stood at the summit, but has long been dismantled (I recommend similarly dismantling the ugly lookout atop Cone Peak which only serves to get in the way of the views).  From Ventana Double Cone, it’s hard to not spend a lot of time soaking in the spectacular summit views, staring down into the rugged cirque of Ventana Creek, and admiring the tenacity of the Santa Lucia Firs clinging to the steep and rocky mountainsides. The following photos and route map are from a trip Ventana Double Cone on a clear day in late December, but we have since returned to the region to complete an off-trail traverse from Kandlbinder to La Ventana to Ventana Double Cone, which formed a large loop including the Jackson Creek route and the Ventana Double Cone Trail described above. We have called this route the “La Ventana Loop.”  Stay tuned to this blog for details and many more photos from the La Ventana Loop and other Big Sur adventures!  Strava route here.

For a 360 annotated panorama from the summit of Ventana Double Cone click here or the image below: 

Boronda-De Angulo Loop

The Boronda-De Angulo Loop is a classic route of Big Sur.  I like to describe Boronda Ridge as Stone Ridge’s little sister. Similar to Stone, Boronda is a prominent grassy ridge that rises steeply from the ocean with magnificent vistas of the Pacific Ocean and surrounding terrain. While Stone Ridge tops out at over 4,800 ft at the summit of Twin Peak, Boronda ridge reaches just over 3,000 feet at the summit of Timber Top. Boronda packs nearly as much punch as Stone Ridge in terms of rate of elevation gain per mile. The distance from the ocean to Twin Peak via Stone is around 5.5 miles with 5,000 ft of elevation gain while Boronda is only 3 miles with over 2,500 feet of gain. Despite its lower vertical, Boronda Ridge rises more steeply immediately from the ocean with truly impressive relief on the lower part of the ridge. From a vista at 1,500 feet above sea level, the topography is so steep that it’s almost as if you could dive into the ocean! The amazing views on Boronda are virtually non-stop owing to the fact that the ridge crest is almost entirely devoid of vegetation other than grass.  The ridge culminates in an elegant arm at the upper part of the ridge, the highlight of the trail in my opinion. This photogenic rounded arm is separated by deep canyons of oak and redwood with the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean shimmering below. It’s a remarkable sight and now one of my favorite spots along the Big Sur Coast. 

Beyond the elegant arm, a short traverse and final climb brought us to the summit of Timber Top.  The view from Timber Top is gorgeous and worth spending some time to enjoy. From Timber Top, we took the access road down to the Coast Ridge Road, which clings to the crest of the ridge with more spectacular vistas towards Big Sur amid the many grassy ridge lines that characterize this beautiful section of Coast Ridge. Heading north along the Coast Ridge Road from the junction withTimber Top is also beautiful with more open grassy hillsides and excellent views to Ventana Double Cone and the Big Sur River drainage. After exploring to the north we retraced our steps and took the Coast Ridge Road south to the De Angulo trail. The De Angulo Trail starts by traversing a steep hillside and then descends the spine of Partington Ridge with a jumble of loose rocks. The trail then turns off the spine of Partington Ridge and commences a series of steep switchbacks down the hillside with very loose, poorly defined, and sharply angled tread. Suffice it to say this stretch is not very runnable, but at least it has been recently brushed. The De Angulo Trail finally pops out on an old fire road which is taken down to Highway 1. This fire road provides very nice views of Boronda Ridge and north along the rugged Big Sur Coast.  Once at the highway, a 1.5 mile run brought us back to the Boronda trailhead. While the traffic can be annoying, there are enough turnouts and awesome views to make it worthwhile to complete the loop. The base Boronda-De Angulo Loop is a little over 10 miles but extensions along the Coast Ridge Road are worthwhile. The route is also near McWay Falls at Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park. We visited this iconic destination of Big Sur in nearly ideal afternoon light and I’ve posted those photos at the end of this post. Strava route here.