Mar 11

Cone Peak Experience

Last month I went out with Mike Heard to inventory remaining camps around the Cone Peak area-- known to be the steepest elevation gain within three miles of the ocean anywhere in the contiguous United States,  showcasing the dynamism that makes the Big Sur region and the Ventana Wilderness a spectacular place.   VWA Trail Crew foreman Mike Heard has been graciously heading the effort to reopen the Cone Peak trail after some 5 years of dedicated work to make this glorious area accessible once again to the public.  Repair of the Cone Peak road has also been in progress, however yet complete;  but perhaps soon.
Looking south from Cone Peak Road

Looking south from Cone Peak Road

Snow was on the ground and we got a nice taste of Winter atop this 5,154 foot peak as well as upon approach on the road.  Mike and I began the day by bushwhacking to find the lost 'Redwood Spring' camp, near the junction of Cone Peak Road and Nacamiento-Ferguson.
Approach to Cone Peak, seen in the distance

Approach to Cone Peak, seen in the distance

Redwood Spring Camp

Redwood Spring Camp

We successfully found the overgrown site at the base of this cluster of Redwoods.  The trail to it is pretty much gone at this point and a great example of what happens to a trail in this wilderness without attention from trail crews;  the vigorous chaparral regrowth after fires can easily consume a trail or camp in just a few years.Lost camp of Redwood Spring Lost camp of Redwood Spring

 My good friend Demian Bartholomew, Santa Cruz artist/naturalist, accompanied me on this voyage and we met up with Mike Heard at the Twitchell Road connect just north of the rock-shed construction on Highway 1,  just up from Limekiln State Park, to be shuttled up to the Cone Peak trailhead.   It was great to have such a knowledgeable guide on this trip to give us the pertinent aspects of this majestic place.  After tagging the Redwood Spring camp we continued on to the Cone Peak trailhead and donned our backpacks and followed Mike up the trail, listening to the lore of the land along the way. Fire lookouts have a rich and fabled mystique in the canon of wilderness-inspired literature,  with such famous writers as Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Ed Abbey and poet Philip Whalen all having lived and written about these lonely mountaintop abodes, in service to the public lands and people.   In an era of satellites and cell phones the Forest Service no longer deems it necessary to have folks living for months in these lookouts on watch for wildfire.  According to Mike Heard, the last person to be stationed at the Cone Peak lookout was a woman with long blonde hair who liked to sit out and play the harp up there.  When the wind blows just right, you can almost still hear her playing...
Mike Heard in the old lookout

Mike Heard in the old fire lookout


Looking Eastward

The Window in the distance

Looking north to The Window in the distance


A Santa Lucia Fir, Abies bracteata, sapling on the ridge to Twin Peak


Canine track

After lunching at the lookout, Demian and I departed from Mike and walked along the ridge toward Twin Peak.  On  the ridge here is a gorgeous stand of Sugar Pines, Pinus Lambertiana, which John Muir considered to be "the king of the conifers".  And for good reason, these wonderful pines sport such massive cones and a deep maroonish purple bark that certainly has a royal flair when they grow to the larger girths.  I love finding these trees in the Ventana, they seem to like the higher elevations.  One can also find them on the ridge along the trail to Junipero Serra Peak.
Sugar Pine, Pinus Lambertiana

Pinus lambertiana


Sugar Pine cone


Twin Peak, taken by a wave of cloud

We were treated to a wonderful display of cloud acrobatics as we hiked the ridge toward Twin Peak.  What was initially clouds swirling well down below, ended up traveling up and dancing the ridge line above and around us.  At one point I saw clouds curling just like a wave in the ocean, crashing off the lip of the ridge and vanishing into nothingness. Truly an extraordinary experience that had Demian and I in awe.
Peaking through the clouds

Peaking through the clouds

Looking back

Looking back

It was some steep going down the ridge but a great trek to follow the mountain in its natural curvature and motion.  We followed down to the saddle where the Gamboa trail meets with the Stone Ridge trail.  From there you can get down to Ojito Camp, a brushy walk into a little creek valley and camp   We made our camp at Goat for the night; a splendid little camp perched up high on a ridglet finger looking westward.  The camp saw lots of action through this long period of trail work and is now recovering from unusually high use.  The hard work of the trail crews is evident throughout this section of the wilderness and a welcomed relief from the oft brushy trails one encounters in the Ventana.
the work of a cross-cut saw

The work of a cross-cut saw


Thanks trail crews

Demian on a nice stretch

Demian on a scenic stretch

In the Oak

In the Oak

A view from the grassy slopes

A view from the grassy slopes

Oh so scenic

Oh so scenic

The hike down the Stone Ridge trail is an amazing hiking experience, descending down steeply toward the mighty ocean, we felt like mountain goats having come from the snowy peak and rock, at a quick down-sloping pace hoping along and feeling the salty sea breeze in our face.

Ceanothus thyrsiflorus

blue blossom, Ceanothus thyrsiflorus

I encountered my first bloom of blue blossom this season, also known as wild lilac or California lilac, as we came closer to the ocean.  The smell of this plant is quite alluring and makes me smile deep for the sweetness of spring and the wonderful smatterings of blue seen across the mountainsides.  The white flowered ceanothus, buckbrush and the smaller dark green ceanothus, warty leaf, are also common to the Ventana Wilderness and Big Sur coast.  Ceanothus is a rather large genus with some 60 species in the genus, many of which occur in California.

The last section of trail we traveled on Twitchell Road, which enters through a redwood ravine before dipping down to the highway.  What an abrupt and beautiful transition, from meadowy coast chaparral into the cool moist trees and running stream.

Exit through the redwoods

Exit through the redwoods

Rock-shed project

Rock-shed project, north of Limekiln State Park

  IMG_1707Popping up out of the trees we looked down and there it was, good old Highway 1, the most expensive stretch of road to take care of on planet earth.  People of Big Sur and the world are thankful to the dutiful men and women who help keep our roads and trails clear for travel along this special stretch of coastal California.  If it wasn't for volunteers, I wonder how much it would cost to keep our trails open; we might need a budget the size of CalTrans. The rock-shed is the first of its kind on the west coast, an architectural design they've copied from the Swiss and their roads in the Alps where rock tumbles and shifting landscapes are the norm as well. The workers were stoked to see us backpack laden and dirty heading out from the wild and gave us big smiles and thumbs up.  I suggested they take the jaunt up Twitchell one day and check the redwood ravine just above them on a lunch break.  

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