Devils Pool & Gorge

Some places were created perfectly. Devils Canyon is one such place. I have visited this region several times over the past months including Sugar Falls and the Devils Loop. Each time I have found an enchanting and magical environment of spectacular waterfalls with turquoise and emerald pools surrounded by lush vegetation, all in a pristine setting. Travel has also involved complexities entailing rock scrambling, thick brush and copious poison oak. A waterfall downstream of the south and middle fork confluence was the last major feature I had yet to see in the area and it did not disappoint. The most remarkable aspect of this falls is not the falls itself (which is very pretty too), but the expansive and deep plunge pool, which is likely the greatest of its kind in Big Sur, hence I named the feature “Devils Pool.”  Similar to the other plunge pools in Devils Canyon, the pool takes on a bright turquoise with sunlight and changes to emerald in the shade. This is also due to thick calcification of minerals on all surfaces in which the water passes. This process is unlike anywhere else I have seen in Big Sur. Due to the large size and depth of Devils Pool, the colors are enhanced making the setting especially magical.  The waterfall drop into the pool is around 35 ft but has twice as much flow as any of the falls in Devils Canyon since it’s downstream of the middle and south fork confluence. The creek walking in the vicinity of the pool is very rugged with considerable scrambling and maneuvering around countless smaller cascades and pools to avoid swimming. Travel through this gorge is rather arduous and slow going but the beauty more than compensate. I call this part of the canyon the “Devils Gorge.” 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.

Devils Loop featuring Devils Falls, Canogas Falls, Hellhole Falls

Note: the following describes my experiences on an extremely arduous off-trail adventure on one of the most challenging creek walks in the Ventana. This is an advanced route requiring advanced skills and prior experience with off trail canyon navigation.  It’s 2015 so I expect every major waterfall in a place like the Ventana Wilderness, so close to a megalopolis, to have been “discovered” with information readily available or at least knowledge that somebody had actually visited them. My assumption was incorrect! Deep within a remote corner of the Ventana Wilderness lies a gem: a major waterfall with two segments and two clear turquoise pools in a stunning setting of cliffs and spires. Strava GPS route here.

Beautiful Canogas Falls left an impression on me last weekend and I wanted to see more turquoise pools, more elegant falls over mineral-encrusted cliffs and more wild and pristine Big Sur canyons. I scoured the topo maps and satellites images of the Devils Canyon region with reasoning that if the South Fork Devils Canyon has a major falls there is also a good chance there is a major falls on the Middle Fork. I zeroed in on a region of the Middle Fork where the topography lines come remarkably close indicating an immense cliff, which I would later call the “Devils Spire”, and topography that would support a major falls. Close satellite inspection revealed turquoise pools and falls. Could this be the jackpot?! There was a high potential this was a major falls like Canogas and I knew this was the next place I wanted to visit. Brian had visited Canogas with me the prior week, and similarly inspired, he was game for the waterfall discovery adventure.

We ascended the Arroyo Seco Trail to coast ridge and then descended through some brush and steep oak woodland to the Middle Fork Devils Canyon Creek. Travel in the upper portion of the creek was reasonable with sections of dry talus amid Santa Lucia Firs where the water was flowing underneath and spots where it emerged above the rocks. The most difficult sections were within stands of thick alder trees that created a cluttered understory of debris and branches. There were two main observations in the headwaters of the Middle Fork: birds and ladybugs. For over an hour as we descended we heard a constant cacophony of birds chirping and patches of thousands of ladybugs. As we descended further, the creek became more mature with increasingly deeper and larger pools and more impressive waterfalls. When we got our first view of the imposing cliffs of Devils Spires I knew we were getting close and before I knew it we were standing atop Devils Falls gazing down over its two impressive waterfall sections and two large turquoise pools. In the aggregate, the falls is ~80-90 ft tall with two separate drops close in height, the upper segment being slightly taller. There is also a pretty “lead-in” falls around a corner above the falls that is approximately 20 ft tall. We backtracked a bit to find a way down to the base of the falls and then enjoyed the setting beside the lower and upper pools for a long time over lunch. It was special to be in a pristine spot beside a major falls with absolutely no evidence of humans and a major falls that few human eyes have ever seen. Perhaps most remarkable about Devils Falls is its setting nestled in an incredibly rugged cirque with vertical cliffs several hundred feet high towering above. This is one of the largest vertical cliffs in the Ventana, a feature I dubbed “Devils Spire” since the cliffs culminate in a distinctive point. I am more accustomed to seeing cliffs of this size in the Sierra Nevada.
I wanted to spend more time at this stunning falls but it was time go if we wished to keep open the possibility of accomplishing our reach goal of a large loop entailing creekwalking the entire length of the Middle Fork down to its confluence with the South Fork and then taking the South Fork up to Ojito Camp and the Gamboa Trail. There were many unknowns about this plan with virtually no information on any part of the creekwalk except Canogas Falls itself which we had just visited the prior week. We delayed the decision and decided to continue down the Middle Fork for an hour to see how it looked. Ultimately we decided to continue the loop, but we would have to be efficient to get out of the canyon before dark. With so many unknowns I did not want to be in the canyon micro-navigating in the dark. Things started out very well. The lower part of the Middle Fork has some pretty cascades and falls but the micro-navigating was fairly straightforward and not time-consuming. We made good time to the confluence and I was optimistic. 20 minutes later after ascending the lower reaches of the South Fork we were at beautiful Canogas Falls. We had certainly taken the more arduous route to Canogas this time vs the prior week! I will be having a special blog post dedicated to Canogas Falls from this prior trip since we were able to spend much more time (and swim!) at this spectacular falls on that trip.  
After another snack, we climbed up Canogas Falls and continued up the South Fork Devils Canyon. My research identified a mile long stretch above Canogas Falls that had potential for additional waterfalls. My suspicion proved true as we encountered a relentless set of waterfalls and challenging obstructions to overcome. At one point we stopped to look at the terrain ahead when Brian remarked “we’re f$^ked!” I thought he was just joking, especially since he was smiling, but he wasn’t. Ahead of us was a falls spitting out of a narrow notch in the vertical rock completely surrounded by tall cliffs extending well downstream. I knew there was a decent chance we could get around the falls on the south side so I was not ready to entertain ideas of aborting the route, which would require somehow getting a ride back to Memorial Park from Hwy 1. Brian wanted to visit the falls up close and despite copious poison oak and some awkward climbing moves it was a great decision. It’s a truly spectacular chasm as the falls tumbles out of a V-shaped notch in the cliffs with a large turquoise pool beneath it and an amphitheater of tall cliffs. Above the falls is a distinguished spire-like Santa Lucia Fir. I called the falls “Hellhole Falls” to fit with the Devil theme of the canyon and also the fact that it’s basically a hole presenting an impasse. We backtracked from Hellhole Falls and traversed some sloping rock to get into a loose and extremely steep chute that would enable us to get above the cliffs and traverse above the cliffs. After battling some thick brush we reached a rocky point where optimism grew that we would find another chute above the falls to descend back to the stream. Success! We had found a way around Hellhole Falls, which turned out to be the crux navigation of the route. 

As much as I wanted Hellhole Falls to be the last obstruction I knew that the topography supported more falls ahead. Indeed, we encountered several more falls with deep pools, rock scrambling and continuous micro-navigation. None of these falls required as extensive loop arounds as Hellhole Falls but the South Fork Devils Canyon is relentless with its challenges and complexities. Even after a long mellow part of the stream when I thought we would simply rock hop to Ojito Camp, the South Fork produced one last cavernous falls that required us to scramble some poison oak and moss covered rock. Needless to say, it was a great feeling to finally reach Ojito Camp. Despite all of the mental and physical challenges of the south fork, we actually made better time than I was expecting at the point where we decided to go for the loop. It was 7 pm and we would be well on our way back to Memorial Park on the trail before light faded. Ojito Camp itself is in disrepair and it looks like this camp rarely gets used since no trail reaches the camp. Meanwhile, Ojito Usecamp, at the base of the Ojito Camp Trail, seems to be the camp of choice for most these days. In fact, we met a couple who were surprised to see us. We told them what we had just done but I think it didn’t make any sense to them.

The Ojito Camp Trail up to Ojito Pass has a number of trees down over the trail but they are easy to get over and it was a highway compared to the 11 hours of creek walking we had just done. We enjoyed great evening light on the Gamboa Trail gazing down at South Fork Devils Canyon which we had just ascended. I turned my headlamp on at the junction with the Arroyo Seco Trail and from there it was a relatively quick run back to Memorial Park although the Arroyo Seco Trail is becoming quite brushy making quick running impossible. The adventure went about as well as I could have expected, especially considering how arduous and rugged the terrain is in the Devils Canyons.This is probably the premiere creek-walking adventure in the Ventana Wilderess based on the metrics of challenge, ruggedness, and major waterfalls encountered. While the route is mentally and physically exhausting, it also immensely rewarding. The beauty of the falls and pools in the Devils Canyons is enhanced by a distinct mineral deposit that accumulates on everything under water. Nowhere else in the Ventana have I seen such mineral deposits. I suspect that this deposit is limestone and it produces magical turquoise pools and ultimately turquoise waters along the Big Sur coastline between Big Creek and Limekiln. It was great to share the experience with Brian and I look forward to discovering more gems in this amazing region! 

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

Boronda and Coast Ridge Lupine

Last year was a prolific bloom on the Big Sur coast that I called the mother of lupine blooms since it occurred around Mother’s Day. Locals told me then that the last time the hillsides were covered with such density of lupine was back 1999, fifteen years prior. Last year was truly remarkable and I was spoiled. While I wanted more lupine this spring, I was anticipating that an event like last year would not repeat itself so soon. It didn’t. This year the lupine bloom peaked a full a month earlier and was much more patchy with only a few select spots approaching the level of density from last year. However, if you picked the spots correctly it was still lovely to experience the lupine combined with stupendous coastal vistas characteristic of the Big Sur Coast. GPS route hereI’ve found that the lupine are highly susceptible to weather including rainfall amounts, when the rain falls, temperatures, etc. Last year it was virtually bone dry until late February and then there were some decent late season storms in March and April that allowed the lupine to pop prolifically. This year was the opposite with most of the rain falling in an atmospheric river event in December followed by abnormally warm and dry conditions for the remainder of winter. My theory is that the soil simply became too dry to support a major bloom and the warm late winter and early spring produced a remarkably early bloom. While last year the immense lupine fields were on the lower slopes of the ridges generally below 2,500 ft, this year the best lupine patches were higher up, generally above 2,500 ft.  For this lupine tour I returned to Boronda ridge and also ran along Coastal Ridge to Marble Peak. I found some nice lupine patches on Boronda Ridges and also along Coast Ridge Road above Grimes Canyon (north of Timber Top). I also found an excellent lupine patch in the meadows below Marble Peak, aka Marble Meadows. Finally I found some more beautiful lupine patches during explorations of an aesthetic grassy ridge descending from Point 3,956 toward the headwaters of the North Fork Hot Springs Canyon Creek. This grassy ridge had lovely views down Hot Springs Canyon, Rock Slide Peak, Cone Pea and Junipero Serra. On the way back I tagged Marble Peak which is always a treat to visit with its superb 360 degree vista.