Silver Peak Wilderness Loop

After being inspired and captivated by the awesome scenery of the South Big Sur Coast and Silver Peak Wilderness on the South Coast Adventure, I was eager to return for more exploration in the region, this time for a very aesthetic loop that comes in around 25-26 miles. Aside from repeat visits to the incredible Mount Mars and Buckeye Trail, this loop added a lot of new terrain for me, including upper Villa Creek, Lion Peak, the Three Peaks area and Dutra Flats. If a point-to-point is too cumbersome to arrange (this is, after all, the most remote section of the Big Sur coast), than this loop is the perfect way to hit hit the highlights and see a lot of the terrain in the region. I’ll definitely be returning for further exploration in the South Big Sur region. Strava GPS route here.

The loop starts with switchbacks on the Cruikshank Trail on a south facing chaparral slope that can be hot even in the morning. However, the trail soon rounds a corner and enters the lovely Villa Creek Canyon and begins one of the best sections of single track in all of Big Sur. From top to bottom, the Cruikshank Trail packs an incredible amount of biodiversity in its six miles, including redwoods, various pine species, Douglas fir, Santa Lucia Firs, Sargent’s cypress, various oak species, and madrone. Note that there is also plenty of poison oak alongside the trail in its  upper portion.  The trail also has excellent views to the ocean and a rugged section of Villa Creek canyon with reddish rocks characteristic of this region. About 5.75 miles from the start, the Cruikshank Trail crosses a saddle with a young Sargent’s cypress forest where a spur path heads west to Silver Peak while the main trail heads down to the beautiful Lion Den camp.  This camp has to be one of the best in Big Sur, complete with a spring, ample shade under the pines, and a commanding view overlooking Salmon Creek canyon, Silver Peak and the Pacific Ocean. Beyond Lion Den Camp, the Cruickshank heads uphill a short distance to meet the South Coast Ridge Road. A short ways south along the road is an optional side trip to Lion Peak. While the road comes close to the summit, a small bushwhack is still necessary to reach the top. Most of the unpleasantness can be avoided by leaving the road at a small saddle near the peak and entering a dense thicket. While not entirely devoid of bushwhacking, travel is reasonable and the distance is short so it only takes 10-15 minutes. It is well worth the troubles with an excellent 360 degree panorama from the exposed reddish summit block. The vista includes Cone Peak and Junipero Serra Peak to the north, Silver Peak and Lion Den camp, Three Peaks, the Salmon Creek canyon, and interior views to Burro Mountain.

After Lion Peak, more quick running along South Coast Ridge Road leads to the Three Peaks Trail, which is an old firebreak along the ridge with vegetation that has filled in to make it a single track. Overall, the trail is in fairly good condition and largely brush-free save for a couple spots.  It’s an efficient way to go from the South Coast Ridge Road to the Dutra Flats area. The land is mainly covered in chaparral and exposed to sunlight, but there are some pretty stands of coulter pine and gray pine along the way with nice views back to Lion Peak and terrain to the south. Most of the way to Dutra Flats, the Three Peaks trail crosses a prominent ridge and on the other side are awesome views of the meadows in Dutra Flat and County Line Ridge. Dutra Flat is a peaceful meadow area with heritage oaks and pines. A camp is located at the flats under cypress trees and it appears this area is used for cattle grazing. From Dutra Flat, the Murray Mine Track which leads down to Dutra Creek and then steeply up to County Line Ridge. This is a pretty section with straightforward navigation and nice views of Mount Mars and the surrounding region. 

From County Line ridge, take the Mount Mars use path up and over a couple false summits to the summit of Mount Mars, with nice views of Salmon Creek canyon, Lion Peak and Silver Peak. Descend through the vegetation tunnel on Mount Mars and emerge onto the grassy ridge with an outstanding view down the ridge to the Pacific Ocean and Salmon cone. From Kozy Kove meadows at the bottom of the very steep ridge, take the use path to the Salmon Creek Trail which quickly descends to the trailhead along Hwy 1. The Buckeye trail is a short distance away and climbs steeply at first (can be hot) but becomes more reasonable as it enters oak woodland beyond the junction with the Soda Springs Trail. There is typically water in Soda Spring Creek about halfway to Buckeye Camp.  The Buckeye Trail features marvelous coastal vistas back to Mount Mars and Piedras Blancas, and is one of the best coastal trails in Big Sur.  Buckeye Camp is always a treat with its cool fresh spring water and shady heritage oaks in the meadow. Beyond Buckeye Camp, the Buckeye Trail makes one final climb to Buckeye Vista before entering a pine forest that switchbacks down to upper Cruikshank camp. The final downhill portion along the lower Cruikshank Trail bring  you back to the Cruikshank trailhead. 

Buckeye Loop

For our first visit to the Silver Peak Wilderness we did a great 13 mile loop out of Salmon Cove including the Cruickshank Trail, the Buckeye Trail, the Soda Springs Trail and a couple miles along Hwy 1. The Silver Peak Wilderness is located along the Southern big Sur Coast.  It encompasses 31,555 acres and was established in 1992, making it the little brother of the Ventana Wilderness which spans 240,026 acres and was designated in 1969.  Within this wilderness lies the southernmost stand of coastal redwood at Redwood Creek. Our route traversed above these redwoods and also through the nearby redwood groves along Villa Creek. 

Our route began with a steep climb up the Buckeye Trail to gain a small saddle. From the saddle, the trail traverses a coastal chaparral hillside to the Soda Springs Trail junction with great views of the Pacific Ocean and Mount Mars. The Soda Springs Trail descends through oak woodland back to Highway 1. A fire crew has recently brushed out the stretch from Salmon Cove to the Soda Springs turnout on Highway 1 so this section of trail is in great shape. From Soda Springs trailhead we ran along Hwy 1 which began with a slight ascent, but was largely downhill for a couple miles to the Cruickshank Trailhead. This stretch of Highway 1 is narrow in spots, but we found minimal traffic in the morning. The Cruickshank Trail ascends an exposed hillside (note: hot in summer) in coastal chaparral with numerous switchbacks. Eventually, the trail rounds a corner into Villa Creek Canyon, thereby entering a new forested ecosystem with a pleasant mix of oak woodland, pines and redwoods. Lower and Upper Cruickshank camps are situated in pretty spots within this forest. Beyond these camps, the Buckeye Trail branches off the Cruickshank Trail and heads uphill through more oak and pine forest.

Unlike the Ventana Wilderness, which was largely burned in the 2008 Basin Complex Fire, the Silver Peak Wilderness has been spared major fires for a couple decades. The result is a mature forest of oaks and pines. After ~1,000 ft of climbing on the Buckeye Trail, the path reaches a pass. A short diversion from the pass leads to a magnificent viewpoint spanning a good chunk of the Southern Big Sur Coast. We enjoyed a snack here with a great view above the fog. Back on the Buckeye Trail, it begins a traverse across steep slopes and multiple small drainages. The tread is often in poor condition with a lot of erosion along the trail but there are excellent views down Redwood Creek to distract from the relatively slow progress. We next reached lovely Buckeye Camp which is at the south side of expansive meadows and near a natural spring with cool, pure and refreshing waters. On a very dry year, the spring was still flowing nicely. A few heritage coastal live oaks of colossal proportions play host to the camp making this a great place for a shady break. Beyond Buckeye Camp, we found some forested sections that were in reasonably good condition while some other spots were quite eroded and needing re-alignment. Ending up at the Soda Creek Junction, we were back on familiar ground for the last mile back to Salmon Cove. Overall, the entire Buckeye Trail from Cuickshank to Soda Springs is in decent shape and and an excellent choice for coastal views.  The trail has minimal encroaching brush, but there are sections that traverse steep slopes that are badly eroded which will slow you down. My impression of the Silver Peak Wilderness after my first visit was very positive. This is extremely beautiful terrain and well deserving of its wilderness designation. I look forward to future explorations on the Southern Big Sur Coast!  Strava route here