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.
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!
Deep within the Ventana Wilderness along a high ridge that separates the Carmel River drainage from the Big Sur River drainage lies some of the most remote, wild and unforgiving coastal terrain in the United States. Along this ridge are the three “Ventana Cones” including Ventana Double Cone, Ventana (single) Cone and South Ventana Cone. While there is a history of exploration and climbs along this ridge, Bob Burd was the first person to envision a traverse of this entire ridge in a single day including summits of all three Ventana Cones, a route he coined the “Ventana Triple Crown.” After a couple failed attempts, Bob succeeded his dayhike aspirations in 2006, a feat that has not been repeated until now. I have done several routes to get acquainted with the terrain of this amazing region including visits to Kandlbinder, the Window (aka La Ventana), Ventana Double Cone, Ventana (single) Cone and the Ventana Spires. Over time I became intrigued by the ridge and the collection of rocky summits between Ventana Double Cone and Ventana (single) Cone. Completing the Triple Crown offered a great way to explore this extremely remote and rugged stretch. The volume of experiences I’ve had in the area enabled me to carefully study the terrain and utilize the path of least resistance. Admittedly, the path of least resistance still entailed much resistance, but I knew what to expect and doing my homework certainly helped as I was able to complete the Triple Crown in 14 hours, 15 minutes roundtrip from the China Camp TH of the Pine Ridge Trail. It was both a mentally and physically challenging journey, but it was also incredibly rewarding and a route that I enjoyed a lot, as manifested by the nearly 500 (!) photographs that I took. I look forward to further explorations in this amazing region and also repeating the Triple Crown. GPS route here. Full photo album here. Overview of the Triple Crown from Mount Manuel below: Chaparral & Santa Lucia Firs: Much of the difficulty of the Triple Crown is due to the unavoidable bushwhacking through California chaparral, a hardy, drought-adapted mix of shrubs that covers much of the land and includes ceanothus, chamise, oak scrub and manzanita. The chaparral provides copious fuel to fires that periodically sweep over the ridges and down into the canyons. The same fires also encourage explosive reproduction of the shrubs and in as little as four years the chaparral can return as thick as ever, sometimes so thick that it is virtually impenetrable. On rocky, mostly north facing slopes, a rare forest of Santa Lucia Fir can be found. Endemic to the Santa Lucia Mountains and the rarest fir in the world, the Santa Lucia Fir is not fire resistant, but has survived in these mountains by habituating fireproof terrain on rocky slopes and the bottom of moist canyons. This amazing tree is symbolic of the Ventana Wilderness with its slender, spire-like form. The largest concentration of Santa Lucia Firs in the world can be found in the canyons and peaks of the upper Carmel River watershed. Often times, the steep, rocky terrain characteristic of the Santa Lucia Fir habitat is the ticket to efficient travel. The 2008 Basin Complex fire roared through this area of the Ventana with ferocious speed and heat leaving a maze of deadfall in spots. However, it appears the Santa Lucia Fir forest largely survived, a testament to the fir’s unique adaptability in a region where fires occur periodically. The Intermediary Summits: There are several intermediary summits along the ridge connecting the three Ventana Cones with no official names. Several of these summits are worthy of distinction for their prominence, location and outstanding character. Moreover, passing over these intermediary summits entail some of the most arduous terrain on the route. For reference, I have dubbed Peak 4,455 between Pine Ridge and Ventana Cone as “Blue Peak” since it has a commanding view of the Blue Creek drainage. Peak 4,387, located north of Ventana Cone is arguably the most impressive unnamed summit in the Ventana with steep, cliffy terrain on all sides. In particular, the southwest face of Peak 4,387 is an impressive cliff facade overlooking the Lion Creek drainage. Thus, “Lion Rock” seems like a fitting name for this awesome summit. Peak 4,260+ does not even get a marker on the USGS map, but it’s a prominent summit along the ridge and also overlooking the wild headwaters of the East Fork Ventana Creek. The point is also a milestone on the Triple Crown traverse. When viewed from Ventana Double Cone, Peak 4,260+ has a rounded top characteristic of knobs with a Santa Lucia Fir forest in a scree gully on its north slope. Thus, “Ventana Knob” seems like an appropriate name. Finally, Peak 4,452 is labelled on the map, but there are actually three high points along the narrow ridge separating Ventana Mesa Creek and the unnamed creek draining the north side of Ventana (single) cone. The label on the USGS map is placed on what is the middle high point, but the highest point is actually the southern point (verified by GPS) by a few feet. The northern point along the ridge is considerably lower than its southern neighbors, but is still a prominent point along the ridge. All three high points contain impressive cliff faces, particularly on their southeast sides, with sharp drops on all sides and pointy summits so the “Ventana Spires” is a very apt name to describe these three rugged pinnacles with south, middle and north spires used to identify each of the three high points. Preparation: There are several aspects of this route which require planning. First, and perhaps the most critical aspect of this route, is water, or lack thereof. There is no water source from Pine Ridge all the way to past Ventana Double Cone. Essentially the entire off-trail portion of the route does not have water. There is water in the canyons beneath the ridge but the water is several hundred to over a thousand vertical feet below ridge and difficult to access at best. Thus, one must plan to carry sufficient water for several hours of bushwhacking on an exposed ridge or risk dehydration. The first reliable source of water on the trail without a side trip is beneath Puerto Suello Gap. Reliable water can be found near Lone Pine Camp with a short detour. The lack of water on the ridge is closely related to the second important aspect: weather. As the ridge is exposed to direct sunlight most of the way, it is not a good idea to be up there when it is hot or when there is any kind of inclement weather or limitation on visibility. I did the traverse on a relatively cool spring day and I still found it hot in the middle of the day. Attempting the route on a warmer day increases the difficulty proportionately and being on the ridge on a hot day (typical of late spring and summer) would be tortuous and would require substantially more water, amounts that could be prohibitively heavy and cumbersome to carry efficiently through the brush. Third, come prepared for full-on bushwhacking. There is some unavoidable brush and sharp deadfall, particularly between Ventana (single) Cone and Ventana Double Cone, that will shred any exposed skin. It is critical to cover the legs with durable material. You cannot have hesitation charging through the brush and dead vegetation to get through some sections with any kind of decent forward progress. For clarification, decent forward progress can be as little as 1 mph in this brushy, complex terrain. Fourth, understand the topography. The first leg between Pine Ridge and Ventana (single) Cone has fairly gentle topography with light to moderate brush. Most of the time-consuming complexities and arduous terrain is located after Ventana (single) Cone and it persists all the way to Ventana Double Cone. There are several sharp drops between the intermediary summits of Lion Rock, Ventana Knob and the Ventana Spires with incredibly thick brush to avoid and copious sharp deadfall and trees to engage in bushwhacking gymnastics. The terrain is much steeper and contains cliffs with some unavoidable rock scrambling. It definitely pays to study this section carefully and anticipate that the segment between Ventana (single) Cone and Ventana Double Cone will take significantly longer than the segment between South Ventana Cone and Ventana (single) Cone. The Route: The route begins at the China Camp TH with the first several miles along the Pine Ridge Trail to Church Creek Divide. This stretch of trail is immensely scenic with excellent views into the Church Creek drainage and also views to Ventana (single) Cone and Ventana Double Cone. From Church Creek Divide, the Pine Ridge Trail traverses a number of drainages as it traverses to Pine Ridge. The most prominent drainage contains the headwaters of the Carmel River and is the last reliable source of water all the way to Lone Pine Spring or the stream below Puerto Suello Gap. It may be tempting to climb South Ventana Cone directly from the Pine Ridge Trail but the upper section is choked with thick brush. Better to save the energy for later. Instead, continue along the Pine Ridge Trail to the junction with the Black Cone Trail and take the Black Cone Trail south to the southwest side of Ventana Double Cone where there is a corridor of light brush to the summit. The SW side requires pushing through a short section of very thick brush beside the trail, but just above the southwest slope is user friendly and becomes less brushy as one ascends. The SW slope is likely the most efficient way to reach South Ventana Cone in present conditions (i.e. no fire in a number of years). After South Ventana Cone retrace steps to the Black Cone/Pine Ridge junction and head toward Pine Ridge on faint use paths. A few majestic ponderosa pines survived the Basin fire and the view from the reddish summit rocks is spectacular. The descent from Pine Ridge is fairly efficient as there are wide swaths of open ground between the bushes. Eventually the open ground becomes lesser and the brush closes in requiring some light to moderate bushwhacking. This bushwhacking continues through the low point between Pine Ridge and Blue Peak but once on the upper part of the ridge to Blue Peak the terrain opens up and the final part is an easy walk on rocks to the summit of Blue Peak. From Blue Peak there is more brush to contend with leading to another intermediary summit. I found it best to stay a few feet below the ridge crest on the south side on this section. At the intermediary summit Ventana Cone appears close and the brush becomes lighter for the final stretch to the summit of Ventana Cone. The view from Ventana Cone is stellar and includes all of the remaining highpoints on the way to Ventana Double Cone. From Ventana Cone, descend several hundred feet on the north side of the ridge through Santa Lucia Fir forest and traverse talus slopes and Santa Lucia Firs toward the pass between Ventana Cone and Lion Rock, but stay below the pass. Ascend Lion Rock remaining on the north side of the ridge utilizing more talus in Santa Lucia Firs. Near the top of Lion Rock regain the ridge and ascend the final rocks to the summit. The summit area is surprisingly spacious with some relatively flat rocks. Descending the north side of Lion Rock entail some downclimbing through rocks. The next section was severely burned by the Basin fires leaving a maze of dead trees and branches to navigate. New brush is beginning to sprout through the dead vegetation in spots making forward progress especially taxing. The going is especially tough just after a small pass between Lion Rock Ventana Knob. Eventually, the brush gives way to a pleasant open stretch of grass and yuccas that leads almost all the way to the top of Ventana Knob. Ventana Knob has one of the best views in the Ventana looking across to the rugged South Arete of Ventana Double Cone and the towering Ventana Spires and down the wild East Fork Ventana Creek.From Ventana Knob, downclimb some rock and then take a scree gully down through Santa Lucia Firs. Once below cliffs on the skiers right, veer toward Heartbreak Pass, so named because of incredibly thick brush that grows in this low point. Before reaching Heartbreak Pass, traverse west through some brush to a talus gully, which is the ticket to avoiding the thick brush above Heartbreak Pass. Most of the way up the talus gully is a convenient chute that leads to the ridge below the South Ventana Spire. This chute has some fun third class scrambling on solid rock in the lower part which transitions to second class loose talus on the upper part. From the ridge, the summit of South Ventana Spire, the highest spire, is a short third class scramble away. At Ventana Spires most of the complexities of the Triple Crown have already been overcome. It may appear that brush has taken over the entire saddle between the Ventana Spires and Ventana Double Cone, but the thick brush can largely be avoided by staying on the left side near the cliffs that drop into the East Fork Ventana Creek. In fact, this terrain includes some enjoyable scrambling on blocky third class rock. From Ventana Double Cone, it’s all trail back to the China Camp Trailhead, but still many miles fairly of overgrown trails. As of this writing, the Ventana Double Cone trail is overgrown but has seen some substantial work to clear out the brush and blowdowns. The upper mile of the Puerto Suello Trail was cleared of dozens of blowdowns which is incredibly helpful. The middle part is still a challenge with some overgrown parts and blowdowns while the final stretch into Hiding Canyon Camp is in good condition. From Hiding Canyon Camp, cross the Carmel River and head up Hiding Canyon on the Carmel River Trail, which has become quite overgrown through this section. The trail becomes better on the final climb into Pine Valley. It’s a pleasure to come through Pine Valley with its lovely pastures and forest of ponderosa pine. From Pine Valley, it’s up to Church Divide and retracing steps on the Pine Ridge Trail back to China Camp Trailhead.
Last Updated: February 12, 2015
A special post on Big Sur Waterfalls here.
The Big Sur region is an adventure running playground. The Ventana Wilderness, Silver Peak Wilderness and a handful of state parks form a network of protected public land over the northern half of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range that is one of the greatest coastal wilderness regions anywhere. The steep degree of relief from the ocean to the mountaintops is unmatched in the contiguous United States providing dramatic vistas throughout the coast. Perhaps one of the most magical Big Sur experiences is a clear day when the ridgetop views include a backdrop of the deep blue Pacific Ocean transitioning to turquoise near the coastline. However, a foggy day along the coast can be equally fascinating as the marine layer interacts with the terrain. In the interior of the wilderness, deep, shady canyons slice through the Santa Lucia Mountains and are filled with ancient redwoods, waterfalls, gorges and mystique. The higher reaches of the wilderness are characterized by rugged, rocky summits with rare groves of the stately Santa Lucia Fir, endemic to these mountains and one of my favorite tree species. Iconic spots like Bixby Bridge and McWay Falls draw millions of visitors to the Big Sur Coast, but with the exception of Sykes Hot Springs, a minuscule fraction travel far from the highway leaving a vast wilderness where solitude, intrigue, and a substantial amount of brush can be found.
Adventuring in Big Sur and the Ventana Wilderness is certainly possible in the summer months if travel is restricted to the immediate coast and the cool canyons, but the higher terrain can be extremely hot resulting in copious sweat, biting black flies, and active rattlesnakes. Therefore, the ideal time for exploration is from late fall through late spring when the air temperature is cooler, bugs are minimal, and the snakes are dormant. Furthermore, the winter months can provide a special treat when the occasional storm drops several inches of snow on the summits providing a unique experience of coastal views combined with snow. These same storms bring downpours to the lower elevations, enlivening the vegetation and numerous waterfalls. I have done several adventures in Big Sur over the years, but it took until last winter for me to become captivated by the phenomenal beauty of this region and gain a desire to explore the land in-depth. The result has been a bevy of awesome explorations and much inspiration for future adventures. This post compiles all of my Big Sur outings separated by sub-region categories that I came up with that made sense to me, generally organized from north to south. Most of the trips link to a dedicated blog post with many photos and a description of the adventure, but some only link to photo albums. This post also includes an array of some of my favorite photos from the region. The best resource to use when planning your adventure is Big Sur Trail Map, which includes wilderness trail conditions, donwloadable topographic trail maps and a route metrics generator. The Ventana Wliderness Aliance Forum also includes trip reports where the most recent conditions can be found. Feel free to ask me for any additional tips or information. As there is still a lot for me to explore in Big Sur I will continue to update this post.
North Big Sur Coast:
- Doud Peak & Rocky Ridge (April 13, 2013) – Garrapata State Park
- Doud Peak & Rocky Ridge (May 11, 2013) – Garrapata State Park
- Sierra Hill at Brazil Ranch (December 22, 2013)
- Soberanes Loop (January 2, 2015)
North Interior Ventana; the Carmel River:
- Carmel River Point-to-Point (October 2009)
- Carmel River-Ventana Double Cone Loop (January 10, 2015)
- Ventana (single) Cone Adventure (January 17, 2014)
- Carmel River Falls & Gorge (February 1, 2015)
- Other: Pine Falls, Church Creek, Miller Canyon
Cabezo-Molera, Coast to Ridge:
- Post Summit & East Molera Ridge (April 14, 2013)
- Andrew Molera (October 13, 2013)
- Cabezo-Molera Loop (January 4, 2014)
- Cabezo-Molera Loop (February 23, 2014)
- East Molera Ridge & Post Summit (April 20, 2014)
Little Sur featuring Pico Blanco, Prince of the Ventana:
- Pico Blanco via Little Sur (May 12, 2013)
- Circular Pools (January 26, 2014)
- Pico Blanco-Little Sur Loop (February 16, 2014)
- Pico Blanco’s North Ridge (November 28, 2014)
Ventana Double Cone, Queen of the Ventana:
- Ventana Double Cone (December 24, 2013)
- La Ventana Loop (January 15, 2014)
- Kandlbinder & Ventana Double Cone via the Drain (April 13, 2014)
- Big Sur Station to Bottcher’s Gap via Ventana Double Cone (May 4, 2014)
Big Sur River, Wild & Scenic:
- Sykes Hot Springs (November 2009)
- Into the Wild on the Big Sur Trail (January 11, 2014)
- Redwood Creek & Sykes Hot Springs (July 27, 2014)
- Mocho Loop featuring Mocho Falls (January 24, 2015)
Coast Ridge including Marble Peak and Mining Ridge:
- Limekiln to Big Sur via the Coast Ridge (December 28, 2013)
- Coast Ridge: Stone to Boronda (December 28, 2014)
Arroyo Seco, the Gorge:
- Marble Peak 50k+ (December 6, 2014): A trans-Ventana route from the Arroyo Seco Gorge to Mable Peak on Coast Ridge
- Last Chance Falls, Jeff Falls and Santa Lucia Creek Gorge (February 10, 2015)
Memorial Park featuring Junipero Serra Peak – Grandfather of the Ventana:
- Junipero Serra Peak (December 8, 2013): The highest point in the Santa Lucia Mountains at 5,857 ft
- Santa Lucia Three Peaks (January 25, 2014): A classic route that includes the summits of three major peaks in the Ventana Wilderness – Cone Peak, Twin Peak and Junipero Serra Peak
- Cone Peak’s North Ridge & Lost Valley (March 8, 2014)
Central Big Sur Coast, Big Views:
- Boronda/De Angulo Loop (December 21, 2013)
- Partington Cove to McWay Falls (December 22, 2013) – Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park
- Partington to McWay, Julia Pfieffer Burns (March 15, 2014) – Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park
- Big Creek Reserve (May 10, 2014) – Open to the public one day each year!
- Prewitt & Boronda Wildflowers (May 11, 2014) – One of the greatest wildflower displays
- Boronda Turkey Trot (November 27, 2914)
- Big Sur condor Loop (December 13, 2015)
- Ewoldsen & Alta Vista (December 27, 2015)
Cone Peak, King of Big Sur:
- Cone Peak via Vicente Flat (January 10, 2010)
- Cone Peak via Vicente Flat (January 15, 2011)
- Cone Peak via Stone Ridge Direct (April 20, 2013)
- Cone Peak Marathon (November 3, 2013)
- Cone Peak via Stone Ridge and North Coast Trail (December 15, 2013)
- Stone Ridge Direct (February 1, 2014)
- Stone Ridge Direct Loop & Cone Peak (April 19, 2014)
- Cone Peak via Vicente Flat FKT & Stone Ridge Descent (April 26, 2014)
- New Year’s Day Stone Ridge Loop (January 1, 2015)
- Stone & Cone (January 19, 2015)
- Cone Peak Climbs (January 31, 2015)
South Coast – Pacific Valley:
- Prewitt Ridge (December 29, 2013)
- Shouey-Plaskett Loop (February 1, 2014)
- Shouey-Plaskett Loop (February 15, 2014)
- Kirk Creek Ridge (February 15, 2014)
- Prewitt Ridge & South Coast Ridge (April 6, 2014)
South Coast – Silver Peak Wilderness featuring Silver Peak, Princess of Big Sur, and Mount Mars, the Duke of the South Coast:
- Buckeye Loop (January 5, 2014)
- Mount Mars (January 5, 2014)
- South Coast Adventure (February 24, 2014)
- Silver Peak Wilderness Loop, Lion Peak and Mt. Mars (March 16, 2014)
- Dutra Loop and Soda Peak (November 23, 2014)
- Dutra Loop (January 3, 2015)
- Point Lobos: Located at the northern end of the Big Sur Coast, Point Lobos State Reserve is very popular, especially on sunny weekends. The park features numerous rocky promontories, picturesque coves and a pretty Monterey pine forest. There are many trails in the reserve that are good for a shorter run or a post-adventure stroll.
- Bixby Bridge: An essential photograph spot for tourists, this famous historic bridge is indeed very photogenic
- Soberanes Point: Rugged scenery at Garrapata State Park
- Point Sur: Historic site
- Pfieffer Beach – purple sand from manganese garnet deposits
- McWay Falls: Iconic Big Sur location and another must-photo location for tourists, located just off Hwy 1 at Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park
- Pacific Valley Bluff: Spectacular sea stacks with Cone Peak & Stone Ridge as a backdrop.
- Sand Dollar Beach: Largest beach in Big Sur with beautiful sand and scenery
Back in January I explored the Boronda-De Angulo Loop and thought it would be fitting to return to Boronda Ridge during the short spring period of green. Boronda Ridge rises steeply from the ocean with magnificent vistas of the Pacific Ocean and surrounding terrain. It’s one of the most amazing spots in all of Big Sur. The trail also provides an efficient access point to the central part of the Coast Ridge Road and Marble Peak, with its suburb views of the interior Ventana. I view Boronda Ridge as Stone Ridge’s little sister. 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. 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. 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 truly a remarkable spot and one of my favorite spots along the Big Sur Coast. The top of Boronda Ridge is a peaklet known as Timber Top, with a camping area (no water) and more phenomenal views. Boronda Ridge also provides efficient access to the middle section of the Coast Ridge Road (a gravel road closed to public vehicles). Boronda Ridge also provides efficient access to the middle section of the Coast Ridge Road (a gravel road closed to public vehicles). Heading north from Timber Top, the road passes through more grassy meadows as it gradually descends to the Ventana Inn at Big Sur. To the south, the road gradually gains elevation in a predominantly chaparral and pine forest environment with plenty of interior and coastal vistas along the way. The road skirts Michael’s Hill and then has a dip, followed by an ascent and another dip before the final climb to near the broad summit of Anderson Peak. Anderson Peak itself is property of the federal government and contains some buildings, aviation equipment and weather sensors. The summit area is surrounded by fencing and is closed, but fortunately Marble Peak (of nearly the same height) is only a half mile beyond. In fact, Marble Peak arguably has the better 360 degree view because it is more of a pinnacle. Running down the road from Anderson Peak, turn off just past a sign that says “Marble Peak” and briefly take a trail cuts through a brush tunnel. Near the crest of the ridge, leave the trail and take use paths traversing grass on the west side of Marble Peak until you’re almost beneath the summit. From here, a virtually brush free route to the summit presents itself. Marble Peak has excellent views of the interior Ventana Wilderness. Looking north is an excellent view of the rugged ridge from Kandlbinder to La Ventana to Ventana Double Cone. To the south is Cone Peak, Twin Peak, Mining Ridge, and the Lost Valley. To the east is Junipero Serra Peak, Black Cone and the upper drainage of the South Fork Big Sur River. All told, it’s about 7.5 miles each way from the Timber Top to the summit of Marble Peak for a 15 mile roundtrip. Combined with the 6 miles round trip to Timber Top up Boronda Ridge, the route becomes a 21 miles total. The extension to Marble Peak is an excellent way to tack on some miles on relatively fast runnable road, but still enjoy grand views along the way.
This was an excellent route linking the spectacular North Ridge of Cone Peak and the remote Lost Valley. I have been wanting to visit Lost Valley for some time so it was great to finally make it out there and also incorporate the excellent scenery of Cone Peak and South Fork Devils Canyon. We started from Memorial Park campground and went up the Arroyo Seco Trail. There is quite a bit of new downfall from a winter storm in February with one particularly cumbersome tree, but the canyon forest of incense cedar and Santa Lucia Fir was as beautiful as I remembered from the Santa Lucia Three Peaks adventure. Once on the North Coast Ridge, we made good progress to Cone Peak’s amazing north ridge where we left the trail. The ridge has awesome views in all directions, including the rugged South Fork Devils Canyon and the upper reaches of the San Antonio River. It’s also great to climb amid sugar pines and Santa Lucia Firs. After summiting Cone, we took the Cone Peak Trail back to Trail Springs and then up the Gamboa Trail to complete the small lollipop loop. We then took the North Coast Ridge Trail all the way to the junction with the Rodeo Flats Trail where Erica turned off to head back down to Memorial Park while I continued along the ridge to the Lost Valley Connector Trail. Continued below… The Lost Valley Connector is marked by a stake where the old road bed of the North Coast Ridge Trail emerges onto the firebreak. The first part is single track with some encroaching brush and the next part is on an old firebreak that is quickly narrowing into single track as brush fills in. It is important to carry and study a map for the Lost Valley Connector as I saw a backpacking group heading down a wayward ridge and experiencing difficulties in thick brush. As long as you stay on the route, the trail is in fair condition and an efficient way to get form the coast ridge to Lost Valley. Lost Valley is a beautiful, peaceful spot with grassy meadows, pines, and chaparral covered hillsides. The best meadows are beyond the Lost Valley camp and a crossings of both Lost Valley Creek and Higgins Creek. This stretch of meadows is nearly a mile long and picturesque. While the meadows are beautiful, it is prime tick territory and I removed a number of them from my socks. After my out-and-back through Lost Valley I returned via the Lost Valley Trail which was recently brushed and cleared by a crew. The trail is in good shape except for a few new downfalls from the February storm. From 1,800 ft in Lost Valley, the trail climbs over 1,000 feet to a pass at ~2,900 ft that provides access back to the main stem Arroyo Seco drainage. Part of the way up to this pass is a pretty waterfall known as Pothole Slide Falls. The waterfall is a series of two slides down a smooth rock face with a pool in between, the “pothole.” Beyond the pass is a steep descent to the Arroyo Seco River. After crossing the river an 500+ ft vertical ascent leads to Escondido Camp where the trail concludes. From Escondido Camp it was a run along the Indian Rd. dirt track back to Memorial Camp. Stava route here, but note that actual mileage is 33+ miles.
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.