Last Chance Falls

When in flow, Last Chance Falls is arguably the most dramatic waterfall in the Ventana Wilderness. The falls flows over an overhanging precipice with a 120 foot free fall with a large cavern behind the falls. A natural amphitheater of cliffs surrounds the falls. The ephemeral nature of Last Chance Falls perhaps makes it more special and requires planning, or more accurately, waiting, for the ideal conditions. The drainage upstream of the falls, the headwaters of the South Fork Santa Lucia Creek, is relatively small and in a climatologically dry part of the range. However, in early February an atmospheric river impacted the central coast interrupting months of virtually dry weather. Rainfall amounts were healthy over the Ventana Wilderness but particularly over the Santa Lucia Creek drainage, which is typically a drier region on the east side of the range but received impressive rainfall  totals of around ~6 inches in just a couple days. This provided a great opportunity to see Last Chance Falls in flow. By “in flow” I mean a solid stream of water from the top to the base of the falls. The falls becomes merely a trickle in summer and fall and otherwise has no flow or low flow for all but a handful days of the year immediately following heavy rains. This is a quintessential flashy waterfall, and especially flashy after an atmospheric river event during an unprecedented multi-year drought. GPS route here.

A great viewpoint of the falls is located on the Santa Lucia Trail as it switchbacks out of the Canyon. One can also travel cross country following the South Fork Santa Lucia Creek upstream to immediately underneath the falls with exploration of the pool and cavern. The setting of the falls is magical. Visiting Last Chance Falls also provides an opportunity to explore the immensely scenic Santa Lucia Creek gorge, including the 35 ft Jeff Falls, which is picturesque, particularly in the high flow we experienced. Next to Jeff Falls is Mutt Falls, a tall but skinny falls from a side tributary. Both Jeff and Mutt Falls are visible at the same time and are aptly named by Jack Glendening (http://bigsurtrailmap.net/ creator) after the historically popular comic strip with similarly proportioned characters.  Dr. Jack also named Last Chance Falls after the the camp downstream in beautiful meadows of the same name. In my opinion, Last Chance is a great name for this ephemeral falls.  Jeff Falls is much less flashy than Last Chance Falls since its water source includes the main stem of Santa Lucia Creek which drains a region several times the size of the South Fork Santa Lucia Creek alone. Thus, if Jeff Falls is running low, Last Chance Falls may be a trickle or bone dry.

As a shorthand, I’ve determined that flow of 250cfs or greater on the Arroyo Seco River will yield a an “in flow” Last Chance Falls but to really bring out the beauty of the falls it seem flow of 500cfs or greater is needed on the Arroyo Seco. The Santa Lucia Creek gorge entails several crossings of Santa Lucia Creek which was running high (Arroyo Seco was ~550 cfs on this day). If the flow was much higher the lower part of the Santa Lucia trail would be impassable. Thus, it would not be advisable to access Last Chance Falls via the Santa Lucia Creek gorge if at peak flow immediately after big rainfall events. Instead, use the Arroyo Seco-Indians Road and drop down into the drainage after the South Fork Santa Lucia Creek has branched off. The Arroyo Seco-Indians Road has some awesome views of the Arroyo Seco canyon and the interior of the Ventana Wilderness. Another great addition is the ridge immediately above the Arroyo Seco campground. A use path runs across the spine of this ridge and includes some fantastic views of the Arroyo Seco region. 

Carmel River Gorge

The headwaters of the Carmel River drains the northeast side of the Ventana Wilderness in some of the most rugged and remote terrain in the Santa Lucia Mountains. I have greatly enjoyed exploring some of this terrain recently and look forward to returning for more adventures in this stunning region of the Ventana. Deep in the Carmel River canyon is a remarkable gorge that is one of the highlights of the Carmel River and in my opinion, the entire Ventana. The gorge contains towering cliffs, a deep pool, a beautiful slick rock cascade and a major waterfall along the main stem of the Carmel River. This extremely rugged section of the river is remarkably hidden despite the Carmel River Trail and Round Rock Camp Trail passing nearby. Accessing the gorge from Hiding Canyon Camp one must simply follow the river upstream instead of taking the trail uphill toward Hiding Canyon. At first alders line the river with a splendid grove of Santa Lucia Firs on the hillsides. Soon the canyon walls narrow requiring travel in the river bed. At the confluence with Ventana Mesa Creek, a picturesque waterfall tumbles off slick rock into a pool on Ventana Mesa Creek just above the river.

Beyond the confluence with Ventana Mesa Creek, the Carmel River gorge grows even narrower and one must avoid deeper pools by scrambling on the slick rock. The tall cliffs shield the gorge from sunlight most of the day resulting in a lush environment of moss and ferns. However, lower down the polished rock is bare and smooth manifesting the tremendous power of water that comes through during winter storms. This is obviously not a good place to be in high volume! Approaching the climax of the chiseled gorge the cliffs become overhanging. At this point one arrives at a deep pool and further progress requires swimming to reach a major waterfall along the river which is located around a corner. While a good view of the falls from cannot be achieved from this point without swimming, it is possible to gain a great vantage from above via the Round Rock Camp Trail that passes upstream of the gorge and falls. The Round Rock Camp Trail descends from the junction with the Carmel River Trail to a crossing point of the Carmel River that is remarkably calm. The only thing hinting at a major waterfall and gorge downstream is the noise of falling water, but even this is fairly muted compared to what actually lies below. A short distance downstream the river enters a beautiful slick rock cascade. The cascade includes a swift “luge track” on a slick rock and a couple circular mini pools I like to call the “teacups.”  Just downstream of the teacups is the most dramatic feature of the gorge, the ~50 ft falls on the main stem of the Carmel River. When viewed from above on ledges, the setting for this beautiful falls is stunning with the deep gorge below and tall cliffs above with overhanging shelves at the top of the gorge with Santa Lucia Firs clinging to the rocks. I visited the gorge in relatively low flow but I’m very interested to return in medium flow. Upstream of the gorge and falls the Carmel River is relatively mellow but still beautiful with occasional cascades and lush sections with ferns and moss. While I have not ventured beyond the confluence with Blue Creek, I understand that it remains fairly mellow until reaching Pine Falls. This blog post contains many photos of the magnificent gorge and the Carmel River canyon. I’ve also included a video which is perhaps the best way to capture the scope of the falls.

Mocho Loop Featuring Mocho Falls

The Mocho Loop is another Big Sur Classic combining spectacular coastal views, a magical walk through a lush river canyon, and a rarely seen waterfall on the main stem of the South Fork Big Sur River. I started the loop with an always-inspiring hike up Boronda Ridge and then ran down the Coast Ridge Road with more marvelous coastal vistas all the way to the top of the Terrace Creek trail. Terrace Creek descends into an old growth redwood grove with a cascading stream along the way. At the bottom of Terrace Creek I took the Pine Ridge Trail to Sykes Hot Springs. The Pine Ridge trail is in awesome condition; the best I have seen it personally. The Pine Ridge Trail is also very runnable with excellent views of the Big Sur River canyon. When the Pine Ridge Trail crosses the Big Sur River, instead of going downstream to the springs I went upstream to the confluence of the North and South Forks of the Big Sur River. This mile-long stretch to the confluence is very pretty with cliffs walls on both sides of the river. At the confluence I went right onto the South Fork Big Sur River. For about 3 miles from the confluence I made my way up the South Fork fairly efficiently as a combination of flood channels, sand bars and rock hopping meant I only had to be in the stream part of the time. Higher flow on the river would make this a more arduous trek as I as continuously crossing the stream. GPS route here.After a major tributary, the canyon walls along the South Fork Big Sur River narrow into a gorge and I could sense a waterfall was coming. Indeed around a cliffy corner the lower section of Mocho Falls appeared. Since the falls is on the main stem of the river, the volume is impressive and the pool beneath the falls is big and deep. Perhaps most impressive is the amphitheater of smooth rock surrounding the falls and pool. The vertical walls around the falls meant I had to backtrack to find a route above the falls to continue upstream. A weakness in the cliffs allows one to ascend a very steep slope above the gorge and then traverse steep, sometimes loose slopes above the waterfall gorge. Mocho Falls has two distinct steps, but what was most fascinating about the falls was a twisty chasm of elegantly sculpted and polished rock separating the two steps. The depth of the chasm was such that it was impossible to see both steps of the falls at the same time cleanly (at least without a wetsuit and ropes). Nonetheless, what is visible is an amazing sight and it was a treat to experience this rarely seen falls. I can only imagine what Mocho Falls would look and sound like after a heavy rain when the water is squeezed through the chasm. In fact, after such rains the roaring sound of the falls is so great that it can be easily heard from the Devils Staircase climb up the Big Sur Trail.

Above Mocho Falls the lovely scenery continues with slick rock pools with fern and moss-covered cliffs a constant. At the junction with Mocho Creek I ate lunch under a lovely canopy of Santa Lucia Firs, incense cedars and redwoods – a rare occasion to have all three of these amazing tree species living side-by-side – yet another wonder of Big Sur! After lunch I went up Mocho Creek a short distance to see Mocho Creek Falls, which is a pretty falls in a lush setting – well worth the visit. Instead of continuing up Mocho Creek to intersect the Big Sur Trail I decided to backtrack to the South Fork Big Sur River to take the river all the way to Rainbow Camp. It was so beautiful I didn’t want it to end and I also wanted to do the Devils Staircase climb a little later in the day when it would be shaded. This turned out to be a good decision with more beautiful pools and cascades along the river lined with Santa Lucia Firs. At Rainbow Camp I turned onto the Big Sur Trail for the climb up to Cold Springs and Coast Ridge, known as the Devils Staircase due to the relentless switchbacks and substantial elevation gain. In all, it took me about 1.5 hours to go from Rainbow Camp to Cold Springs up the Devils Staircase, hardly “impassable” as some have commented (although a big pack would certainly slow things down). Bright green flagging marks the trickiest spots in the riparian zones. There are blowdowns along the climb and the brush is thick at times, but progress is reasonable. Back on the Coast Ridge Road I knew I was setting myself up for another awesome descent down Boronda Ridge in evening light. Going down this special ridge is always a fantastic way to end an adventure run, particularly a classic like the Mocho Loop! GPS route here.

Kandlbinder & Ventana Double Cone via “The Drain”

Intro:  Building on our La Ventana Loop adventure, Joey Cassidy and I descended into the extremely rugged headwaters of Ventana Creek to climb Ventana Double Cone via “The Drain,” a prominent rocky gully that funnels all of the water in the wild cirque that stretches from Ventana Double Cone to Kandlbinder. From within this chiseled canyon, we gazed up at the ridge that separates the Little Sur River drainage from the Big Sur River drainage, a formidable rampart with massive cliffs and buttresses along its entire length. We walked among old growth Santa Lucia Firs that stand proud in quintessential columnar fashion and have seen few, if any, humans beneath their shadows. A picturesque waterfall part of the way up the Drain blocks easy progress, but this obstacle is surmounted with a couple class 4 moves. Additional scrambling in the Drain and the final chute was mostly solid and enjoyable. Note: Advanced navigation skills and comfort on very steep, rugged terrain with sustained scrambling are essential for any explorations into Ventana Creek Cirque. Prior experience with off-trail travel in the Ventana Wilderness is extremely helpful before attempting this route since the Ventana backcountry posses its own unique set of challenges.

To set the stage for this climb, we ascended Jackson Creek, with its lovely waterfalls and old growth redwoods, and then climbed Kandlbinder via its direct north face talus gully. With prior experience traveling up Jackson Creek, we were able to reach the summit of Kandlbinder 3h59m after leaving the Bottchers Gap Trailhead. On the way back from Ventana Double Cone to Bottchers Gap we were treated to a spectacular display of wildflowers in the meadows near Pat Springs and Devils Peak. The Ventana Double Cone Trail is heavily overgrown south of Puerto Suello, but recent trail work to Puerto Suello (we met some of the trail crew) has greatly improved the condition of the trail from Pat Springs to Puerto Suello – thank you! With much photography along the way, we were still able to complete the loop in 10h49m confirming my suspicion that this route would be a more efficient way to connect Kandlbinder and Ventana Double Cone without any of the hideous brush present on the ridge crest.  This is easily one of the most aesthetic, spectacular routes I have done anywhere.  The Ventana Creek cirque provides a real sense of adventure in a truly wild canyon that is rugged and unspoiled. GPS route here.

Concept:  Back in January we completed the La Ventana Loop, becoming the first individuals to tag Kandlbinder, La Venana (aka the Window), and Ventana Double Cone all in the same day. On that 13 hour outing, our route stuck to the ridge crest (or near it) resulting in some atrocious Ventana bushwhacking, particularly between La Ventana and Ventana Double Cone. There had to be another way.  The talus gully route up Kandlbinder was brush-free and beautiful so I knew that I wanted to return for that excellent climb. From the summit of VDC and Kandlbinder, I also had my eye on the prominent drainage of Ventana Creek wrapping around the west ridge of Ventana Double Cone.  This drainage seemed to provide a non-technical and brush-free route up VDC but questions remained regarding the descent into this drainage from Kandlbinder. These questions were answered when Toshi Hosaka an Sachin Sawant successfully descended into the Ventana Creek cirque from Kandlbinder on the way to their awesome scramble route (likely a first ascent) up the west ridge of VDC.  With further satellite inspection, I identified a gully that would provide an excellent descent route from Kandlbinder directly to Ventana Creek that avoids both brush and sketchy loose rock, and efficiently deposit us into Ventana cirque. We would then ascend the upper reaches of Ventana Creek all the way to VDC via the prominent gully I call “the Drain” since a complex network of chutes and gullies from La Ventana all the way to VDC funnel into the main gully. See below for a detailed route description. GPS route here.

Route Description: The Drain route is identical to the La Ventana Loop with the exception of the portion between Kandlbinder and VDC, so that is the section I will focus on in the following route description: From the summit of Kandlbinder, descend the east ridge a short distance until you are below white cliffs that compose the southern aspect of the summit block. From here descend straight down on loose talus or rock ribs aiming for a large patch of red talus below. Before reaching the red talus field, begin traversing left, utilizing user friendly dirt patches for quick plunge steps. At ~4,000 ft, traverse over to a sub-ridge where the terrain drops off steeply to the east. Descend this sub-ridge to ~3,700 ft and drop into a gully. While the terrain is steep the ground is generally stable. The main section of the gully has a nice section of plunge stepping underneath oaks and Santa Lucia Firs. At one point the gully reaches a constriction that may require downclimbing. We trended skiers right a short distance and then traversed back into the gully below the constriction. The balance of the route down to Ventana Creek and the start of the Drain is a straightforward trip down a dry streambed. At the junction with Ventana Creek (~2,850 ft), the water flows underneath large talus blocks, but just around the corner from this point the water is exposed over solid rock. This section of accessible water is fairly short before the stream disappears under the rocks once again, only to reappear before a series of cascades and a small waterfall. The scrambling is easy before this waterfall, but surmounting the falls involves a couple class 4 moves. Shortly after this waterfall, the water disappears for good leaving a dry streambed of fairly stable talus.  At around 4,200 feet, the gully appears to reach a headwall, but turn climbers right and cross a loose rock rib to reach more solid talus blocks underneath an old growth forest of Santa Lucia Firs.  This section of talus is littered with rusting parts of the structure that once existed atop Ventana Double Cone. It seems as if the at least part of the structure was simply thrown off the summit cliffs.  At ~4,400 feet, the final chute appears providing non-technical access to the summit ridge a few feet from the summit. This final chute has some loose sections of class 3 scrambling so care must be taken. From VDC, the remainder of the route is all on trails back to Bottchers Gap. If done correctly, the Drain route avoids much of the infamous Ventana brush, and in fact, the worst brush is on the Ventana Double Cone Trail in the miles south of Puerto Suello Pass. Despite being a “trail” this stretch of brush is not trivial. GPS route here

Gear: The La Sportiva Bushido handled the scrambling, creek walking and trail miles masterfully. In particular the sticky rubber provided confidence on the rocks. The Ultimate Direction PB Adventure Vest provided more than enough capacity and was comfortable all day (Joey used the SJ Ultra Vest). These lightweight vests are essential pieces of equipment for these long adventures, but note that sharp Ventana brush can wreak havoc on the light material so be careful!   

Little Sur Circular Pools

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

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