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.

Sugar Falls

Sugar Falls was a splendid discovery in the Santa Lucia Mountains of Big Sur. The falls is tucked into a steep canyon and not visible from any trails or nearby high points. There are many gems of the Ventana Wilderness and Big Sur that have little or no information which makes it that much more fun adventuring in these mountains.

Canogas Falls

With excellent memories of Canogas Falls from last year I was eager to return during this year’s open house at Big Creek Reserve. Located deep in Devils Canyon on the South Fork Devils Canyon Creek which drains the remote north side of Cone Peak, Canogas Falls is one of the most stunning waterfalls in Big Sur. The falls includes multiple steps totaling 80 ft with spectacular turquoise pools in between each step. The falls is nestled between rugged cliffs with a lush redwood forest at the base of the falls making it a magical setting. Part of what makes Canogas and all of the falls in Devils Canyon so special is the thick mineral accumulation on any surface submerged in water. This accumulation creates an overhanging apron over the tallest segment of the falls and also produces the striking turquoise water in the pools. The accumulation also serves as a growing opportunity for moss and other lush vegetation producing a hanging garden beside the water channel.  While Canogas Falls is within the Ventana Wilderness, the easiest access entails passing through Big Creek Reserve which is closed to the public for all but one day of the year. The following includes many photos of one of my favorite waterfalls in Big Sur and a few shots from the rest of our day at the Big Creek Reserve including the hot springs along Big Creek.

Between Julie Pfieffer Burns State Park and Limekiln State Park is a long stretch of amazingly beautiful Big Sur coastline that unfortunately lies on private land precluding exploration beyond the turnouts along Highway 1.  However, on one day of the year a section of this coastline opens to the general public at the Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve. This reserve is part of the University of California Natural Reserve System with a mission to further university-level teaching, research and public service at protected natural areas.  In order to foster the on-site research and education principles, the reserve is closed to the public for all but one day of the year (usually the second Saturday in May). The Big Creek reserve encompasses rugged canyons that drain the region to the north and west of Cone Peak, the King of Big Sur, and is located within arguably the most scenic region in all of Big Sur. Big Creek is a treasure and well-deserving of its protection. It was great to explore a section of the Big Sur coast that I have never seen and I look forward to returning next year.

Church Creek & Pine Valley

I have always been intrigued by the Church Creek and its massive sandstone formations. This canyon is rich in history and significance dating back to the Essalen Native Americans. I finally got around to visiting this awesome corner of the Ventana Wilderness on a beautiful spring day with patches of thick lupine on the ridges, a diverse display of wildflowers in the drainage, verdant green meadows in the heritage oak woodlands, and pleasant temperatures. I also made it over the other side Church Divide to the beautiful Pine Valley with it’s stately stand of Ponderosa Pines. I continued down the Carmel River to the very pretty Pine Falls, situated in a narrow canyon filled with Santa Lucia Firs. This is a beautiful part of the Ventana and I look forward to further explorations here. Strava GPS route here. Full photo album here.

I was tempted to make my visit to Church Creek a loop by running down the road, but I’m not a fan of roads if there is sweet single track nearby so I took the Pine Ridge trail to Church Divide and did an out-and-back into the Church Creek drainage. It turns out this was the right call with ideal morning light over lupine patches on the ridge above the Church Creek sandstone formations and excellent views to Ventana Double Cone. From the Church Creek Divide descending into Church Creek the trail is a bit eroded in spots with some brush but overall passable. There are peaks of beautiful sandstone formations among Santa Lucia Firs and pines that are certainly worth exploring in the future. Lower down, the foliage transitions from chaparral to a beautiful grassland with oak trees. After a lovely stretch the Bruce Church Ranch is reached. The dirt access road to the ranch is taken for awhile through more oak woodland and grassland before the single track resumes. This section of single track proved the most difficult of the day with brush encroaching in many spots along with very faint tread after spring growth. The trail drops into a small side drainage before steeply climbing out of the drainage on the other side and emerging onto grassy fields. From the grassy fields, the trail descends once more before making a climbing up to some of the best sandstone formations in the drainage. Along this fairly brushy climb a reportedly perennial creeklet is passed. The trail emerges from the brush into a flatter section that appears to have been brushed not too many years ago and reaches the high point where there are some awesome sandstone formations. One can climb to point 3,038 and explore the many sandstone caves and formations in the vicinity, known as the Church Creek Wind Caves.  These formations were formed over eons of wind, rain and erosion process. Beyond this point the trail descends to Wildcat Camp before one final climb through sandstone before the trail desends to meet the Tassajara dirt Road.

Church Creek is amazing spot and I could spend multiple days exploring the sandstone formations in the area, but I also wanted to return to the pleasant Pine Valley to visit PIne Falls. The trail into Pine Valley drops on the north side of Church Divide. It’s an excellent stretch of trail into Pine Valley passing through heritage oaks, ponderosa pines and Santa Lucia firs. The trail gradually descends into Pine Valley with its lovely meadows and stands of Ponderosa Pines. It really feels like a mountain environment and whenever I run through Pine Valley I get the feeling like I’m in the Sierra Nevada. From Pine Valley a use path follows the Carmel River, still in its incipient stages, downstream 0.7 miles to Pine Falls. The Carmel River quickly enters a narrow, rocky canyon filled containing one of the best groves of Santa Lucia Fir I have seen. The canyon is predominantly filled with this species, the rarest fir in the world and endemic to the northern Santa Lucia Mountains. This seems to be a perfect growing environment for the tree as some of the old growth Santa Lucias are enormous! The Carmel River progressively becomes steeper withe some small cascades before it plunges an estimated 40 feet into a clear pool. Flow over the falls is rarely large since it’s near the Carmel River headwaters, but the falls is particularly photogenic in a lush setting with moss clinging to the rocks and a very pretty forest of old growth Santa Lucia firs surrounding the falls.  Less than a quarter of a mile downstream of Pine Falls is another waterfalls and it appears few people know about it. I call it Lower Pine Falls and it’s an impressive sight worthy of the extra rock hop downstream. Lower Pine Falls is very different in character from Pine Falls. There is no large pool at Lower Pine Falls or lush canopy overhead. Instead, the falls is a series of large cascades over smooth bedrock scrubbed clean of moss in the open. This smooth bedrock is rather hazardous for climbing, but a hand line has been placed in the most precarious spot to assist. It’s a rather chaotic scene as Lower Pine Falls tumbles down the numerous steps strewn with large boulders and sculptured bedrock. The highest segment of the falls is the most impressive and concentrated while lower down the water course splits. This would be an amazing falls to see in higher flow. Back in beautiful Pine Valley, there are also interesting sandstone formations to explore. In particular there is a nice sculpted alcove tucked away in the sandstone block behind Jack English’s cabin. Strava GPS route here. Full photo album here