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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!