The Caribou Lakes area is one of the finest regions of the Trinity Alps with fantastic scenery and beautiful alpine lakes. This would be my second visit to the region (first time in 2013) and this time I made a point to visit the summit of Caribou Mountain which provides a commanding view of the Caribou Lakes region and the heart of the Trinity Alps. The trailhead is at the end of a long and slow gravel road that is quite rocky in spots. It’s passable in low-clearance sedans but caution must be exercised and it takes a long time to cover the last 12 miles (1 hour or more). It’s surely a more enjoyable drive in a high clearance vehicle. The extra effort and time required to reach the trailhead makes the Caribou Lakes area less popular than Canyon Creek Lakes, but in my opinion the trail-accessible terrain is more scenic. There are two trails that access Caribou Lakes: the Old Caribou Trail and the New Caribou Trail. In general, the New Caribou Trail is significantly longer but contains a very gradual grade largely traversing the mountainside. In contrast, the Old Caribou Trail is more direct, but steeper and contains more elevation gain reaching a high point that is only a few hundred feet short of Caribou Mountain’s summit. While both trails are worthwhile and make for an excellent figure-8 loop to visit the basin, I personally prefer the New Caribou Trail for the first part, which is smooth and runnable both as an ascent and descent, and the Old Caribou Trail for the second part up and over Point 8,118 into the Caribou Lakes Basin. The views and much shorter mileage on the second part of the Old Caribou Trail more than make up for the steeper gradient in my opinion. Full album here.
This time I made the traverse over to Caribou Mountain from Point 8,118 (the high point of the Old Caribou Trail). This traverse can be accomplished by descending a few hundred feet from Point 8,188 to pass underneath a cliff band or one can stay closer to the ridge crest avoiding loss of elevation. Either way the scrambling stays in the class 2 range, and if one opts for the ridge route, stay on the north side of the ridge to avoid some more difficult scrambling that is found by staying on the ridge crest proper. The views improve as one traverses the ridge to Caribou Mountain and the panorama from the summit is outstanding and worth the effort to make the somewhat long traverse from Point 8,118. From the rocky peak one has a bird’s eye view of the Caribou Lakes and Snowslide Lake and an excellent vantage into the heart of the Trinity Alps, including Sawtooth Mountain, Mount Hilton, Caesar Peak and Thompson Peak. To the south one can see Josephine Lake and the high summits of the Four Lakes Loop region including Mount Gibson, Seven Up Peak and Siligo Peak. To the northwest Mount Shasta rises proudly. It’s a swell vista and I spent a lot of time taking photos and enjoying the sweet panorama.
After returning from Caribou Mountain to Point 8,118 we continued along the Old Caribou Trail as it makes a series of switchbacks down the hill toward Caribou Lakes and Snowslide Lake. These switchbacks pass through a mix of meadows and alpine forest with excellent views of the lakes below, which are nestled in a spectacular granite bowl underneath Caribou Mountain. All of the lakes are very inviting for a swim and I did just that in Upper Caribou Lake. As the basin was still covered in snow and the lake has just melted, the water was frigid making for a short swim, but it was still refreshing and the warm July sun provided a quick warm-up once exiting the icy water. Upper Caribou Lake is the largest lake in the Trinity Alps and is particularly scenic with an amphitheater of white granite surrounding its eastern shore. Last time we continued up from Upper Caribou Lake to a small notch along Sawtooth Ridge which is the top of the Caribou scramble. The view from Sawooth Ridge to Emerald Lake, Sapphire Lake and Mirror Lake is magnificent. The last visit was in the September and the snow had melted so this time we enjoyed similar views but with snow-capped peaks and fields of wildflowers. Once again, the Caribou Lakes area far exceeded my expectations and is a real gem of the Trinity Alps.
One can find some wildflowers in Big Sur virtually any time of the year, but the time of year when the hillsides erupt with sky lupine and poppy lasts only a few short weeks in the Spring. The season can start as early as mid March and can run as late as mid May with the wildflowers starting first in the lower elevations and finishing at the highest elevations. Most years the peak of the bloom is sometime in April and the two primary species are sky lupine and California poppy. The scope and location of the bloom varies substantially year to year and this post describes some of this variability in just the past three years. Sometimes poppy blooms before the lupine while other years they bloom concurrently. Moreover, some seasons have had great blooms of other wildflower species including early-rising shooting star. All of the photos in this post are from this year’s lupine bloom on Boronda Ridge and Coast Ridge from Grimes Canyon to Marble Meadows. Full album here. The spring of 2014 produced the “mother” of all lupine blooms and featured a ridiculous display of sky lupine that covered entire mountainsides, particularly those at lower elevations below 2,500 ft that don’t often see big wildflower concentrations. The lower elevation bloom was particularly stunning with a background of the deep blue ocean close at hand. This bloom occurred at the height of the drought with virtually no rain until late February, at which point a series of atmospheric rivers put down several inches of rain. This rainfall was just enough to cause the lupine to pop. With no grass to impede their growth, the lupine flourished and grew to great height and concentration. The result was an amazing, fairy tale display that peaked on mother’s day weekend, hence the “mother” of all blooms. It was a relatively late peak due to the late start to germination. Long-time Big Sur residents commented that such a display had not been seen in a decade and a half and it has not been repeated since; not even close. Most grassy ridges along the coast had tremendous displays of lupine which made for a truly memorable experience. I just wish it would happen more often! The winter of 2014-2015 was substantially wetter and resulted in more grass growth at lower elevations. The spring of 2015 featured nice lupine fields at mid and higher elevations, but nothing like the 2014 bloom (you already knew that). While in 2014 the best patches were below 2,000 ft, in 2015 the best patches were generally above 2,000 ft. Due to the ongoing drought and uneven nature of the rainy season, the lupine bloom was still quite good in favored spots, but it was functionally more of a typical bloom with the best spots where you would normally expect. This year’s winter was wetter than both of the prior two preceding winters and the result was that grass grew vigorously throughout winter at lower elevations and crowded out most flowers down low. This year’s best patches were even higher than 2015 – generally above 3,000 ft where the grass was unable to grow as much due to the cooler temperatures at elevation. At lower elevations lupine was sparse and small, unable to compete for water and light amid the tall grass. While not as good at 2015 and nowhere near the super bloom of 2014, there were still some nice patches at higher elevations, including the highest reaches of Boronda Ridge, Marble Meadows and interior meadows along the Pine Ridge Trail. While this year’s bloom wasn’t quite as good as 2015 and nowhere near 2014, it was still quite beautiful when I found myself in a lupine patch and these photos show there was still some great displays to enjoy. This post includes some photos from a run up Boronda and along Coast Ridge to Marble Meadows. As mentioned above, sky lupine fields only started at ~2,500 on Boronda and the patches became more impressive as one gained elevation on coast ridge toward Anderson Peak and Marble Peak. Marble Meadows, located beneath Marble Peak at around 3,800 ft in elevation, had the best lupine display on the route and likely the best lupine display with coastal Big Sur views this season. I love sky lupine fields, especially when there’s a background of green hills and the blue Pacific Ocean! A later post will showcase the lupine and owl clover patches along the Pine Ridge Trail (2015 Pine Ridge Trail flowers), which is another favorite spot for springtime wildflowers.
Last year was a prolific bloom on the Big Sur coast that I called the mother of lupine blooms since it occurred around Mother’s Day. Locals told me then that the last time the hillsides were covered with such density of lupine was back 1999, fifteen years prior. Last year was truly remarkable and I was spoiled. While I wanted more lupine this spring, I was anticipating that an event like last year would not repeat itself so soon. It didn’t. This year the lupine bloom peaked a full a month earlier and was much more patchy with only a few select spots approaching the level of density from last year. However, if you picked the spots correctly it was still lovely to experience the lupine combined with stupendous coastal vistas characteristic of the Big Sur Coast. GPS route here. I’ve found that the lupine are highly susceptible to weather including rainfall amounts, when the rain falls, temperatures, etc. Last year it was virtually bone dry until late February and then there were some decent late season storms in March and April that allowed the lupine to pop prolifically. This year was the opposite with most of the rain falling in an atmospheric river event in December followed by abnormally warm and dry conditions for the remainder of winter. My theory is that the soil simply became too dry to support a major bloom and the warm late winter and early spring produced a remarkably early bloom. While last year the immense lupine fields were on the lower slopes of the ridges generally below 2,500 ft, this year the best lupine patches were higher up, generally above 2,500 ft. For this lupine tour I returned to Boronda ridge and also ran along Coastal Ridge to Marble Peak. I found some nice lupine patches on Boronda Ridges and also along Coast Ridge Road above Grimes Canyon (north of Timber Top). I also found an excellent lupine patch in the meadows below Marble Peak, aka Marble Meadows. Finally I found some more beautiful lupine patches during explorations of an aesthetic grassy ridge descending from Point 3,956 toward the headwaters of the North Fork Hot Springs Canyon Creek. This grassy ridge had lovely views down Hot Springs Canyon, Rock Slide Peak, Cone Pea and Junipero Serra. On the way back I tagged Marble Peak which is always a treat to visit with its superb 360 degree vista.
The mother of lupine blooms! Around Mother’s Day of this year a prolific and memorable bloom of lupine peaked along the Big Sur coast. Locals told me that the last time the hillsides were covered with such density of lupine was back 1999, fifteen years prior. Perhaps the amazing display can be explained by the unprecedented weather conditions of the past year. A record dry 2013 was followed by an extremely dry January and February of this year. Hills that typically sprout with green grass by January remained golden well into February. In late February an impressive storm system dropped over a foot of rain along the Big Sur Coast. This storm only put a small dent in the ongoing exceptional drought conditions, but was enough to enable the lupine plants to sprout en masse. My hypothesis is the antecedent dry conditions prevented grasses from germinating and when the heavy rains arrived in late February the lupine were able to proliferate without being crowded out by other grasses which were unable to take hold over the winter. Additional rainfall in late March provided just enough water to keep the lupine growing and by early May entire hillsides were covered with amazingly dense gardens of lupine.
The lupine bloom was not specific to a particular location along the coast as we enjoyed spectacular displays at Prewitt Ridge, Boronda Ridge and Dolan Ridge (Dolan lupine photos here). The meadows were generally found between 800 feet to 2,000 feet in elevation. Prewitt Ridge was unique in that the lupine fields were interspersed with yellow poppies creating a fascinating mixture of colors in the foreground with Cone Peak, the King of the Big Sur Coast, looming in the background. Boronda Ridge featured perhaps the most impressive display with homogeneous, lush and dense lupine covering the spectacularly steep relief to the Pacific Ocean. The bloom was so prolific that the scent of lupine could be identified several hundred meters away from the flowers, a smell that became more pungent as one neared the meadows. This lupine bloom was an amazing sight to see and these photos are unaltered from what my camera captured.
What’s the most impressive and prominent grassy ridge in all of Big Sur? The answer, without question, is Stone Ridge. I’ve featured this striking ridge on my blog several times so what haven’t I already said about Stone Ridge? Nothing (see links to prior posts below). That being said, here are a few thoughts and many more photos from one of my favorite spots in Big Sur and the Ventana Wilderness.
Stone Ridge is an awesome place to be any time of the year, but the few weeks during spring when the meadows turn verdant are particularly special. As Stone Ridge is a south-north oriented ridge, I have learned that the setting photographs best in the afternoon and evening as the coast to south gets better light. This year, Erica and I ascended to Twitchell Flat and lower Stone Ridge, and then took the Stone Ridge Trail and Gamboa Trail around Twin Peak to the summit of Cone Peak. From Cone Peak we traversed to Twin Peak and then descended Stone Ridge from top to bottom during evening light. The advantage of going down Stone Ridge as part of this loop was manifold: (1) it enabled us to catch evening light on the ridge and still return to the car before dark, (2) by descending you’re looking at the incredible view with each and every step, and (3) it’s easier to descend the steep ridge than ascend it. While I obviously put a lot of thought into when and how do this particular loop, the reality is that Stone Ridge is amazing any time of day, as an ascent, descent, or a destination in itself (I can attest since I have done all of the above). Finally, just in case you haven’t had enough Stone Ridge, I’ve got some more photos from Stone Ridge coming soon.
Rocky Ridge is located in Garrapata State Park on the northern end of the Big Sur Coastline. The terrain of the park is characterized by a rugged and rocky coastline with steep mountain slopes rising to over 2,000 ft. The vegetation is predominantly chaparral and coastal scrub with the exception of a pocket of redwoods at the bottom of Soberanes Canyon and some grassy meadows on top of Rocky Ridge to Doud Peak. The aforesaid meadows come to life in the spring with a palette of beautiful wildflowers. Owing to its close proximity to Monterey and Carmel, the Rocky Ridge hike is very popular, especially on weekends. Two routes lead to the ridge crest allowing for a logical loop, but both are quite steep with some loose sections. The grade is so steep in spots that it’s more efficient to power hike than run. The trail heading up to the ridge from Soberanes Canyon is technically closed, although it seems as if people ignore the signs en masse. However, the more scenic route in my opinion is the sanctioned route that follows the ridge from its base and provides continuous sweeping views of the coastline below. Near the top of the ridge there are several rock outcroppings with excellent views to soak in. Once on top of Rocky Ridge, virtually all hikers either turnaround or complete the loop, but few continue on a faint path to Doud Peak. This stretch of trail is particularly pleasant with little elevation gain and wonderful meadows. The panoramic views from Doud Peak are also excellent and look into a redwood canyon and beautiful hillsides along the Malpaso Creek canyon. One can continue beyond Doud Peak on yet fainter paths to the park border where more colorful meadows and great views are found along the way. See my hike route for the day on Strava.
The meadows on East Molera Ridge burst with color during the spring producing one of the best coastal wildflower displays along the Big Sur Coast. The top of Post Summit provides a logical culminating destination with sweeping views of the coast and the interior Ventana Wilderness from a perch 3,455 ft above sea level. The East Molera Ridge Trail begins along a dirt road behind a white barn at the main parking area for Andrew Molera State Park. The trail goes under Highway 1 through a tunnel and then heads uphill, soon joining a wider trail that heads up through oak woodland and then chaparral. The path narrows to single track at the base of the ridge. On this day there was a stunning display of California poppy in incredibly dense patches. The density and vibrant orange color of these flowers was simply amazing. Continuing up, the single track makes a long switchback across the steep slope with views improving with each step. Ultimately the designated trail ends at a point on top of the ridge with a strip of redwoods and views across the Little Sur Valley to Pico Blanco.
From the end of the official trail, an informal use path continue south along grassy ridges and wonderful meadows for a couple miles. The views of Point Sur, Andrew Molera, the LIttle Sur Valley, and Pico Blanco are remarkable and improve as you progress up the ridge. Pico Blanco, or “white peak,” is aptly named with a large deposit of exposed white limestone composing its distinctive pyramidal summit. The peak forms an aesthetic background for the wildflowers on East Molera Ridge and begs to be climbed! The grassy meadows end at a knoll (2,500 ft) and the final 1,000 feet of ascent to Post Summit is on a steep path through brush (fairly tame by Ventana standards). Note that there are ticks in this brush so make sure to check your skin and clothing after passage. Soon enough we were on the summit and enjoying the views. One can continue along the use paths via a route to Manuel Peak and Pfieffer Big Sur State Park via Cabezo Preito. This route along the ridge crest was obvious, but a continuation of the tick-infested brush is inevitable. On this day, we decided to forgo the ticks and bushwhacking and returned the way we came, enjoying even better light for photography while coming down through the wildflower meadows. The aesthetic loop to Manuel Peak, down to Big Sur Valley, and back to Andrew Molera is definitely on my list for the future, although the best views and scenery are on the grassy meadows of the East Molera Ridge portion.