Monterey Section 12

Upper Bee Camp Junction to Cone Peak, Ventana Wilderness, to upper Vicente Flat Trailhead, Cone Peak Road

Monterey Section 12

Upper Bee Camp Junction to Cone Peak, Ventana Wilderness, to upper Vicente Flat Trailhead, Cone Peak Road

The Big Sur high route continues through Ventana Wilderness on this remote section, the steepest in the south. Here you'll explore a spectacularly beautiful country as well as experience some challenging route-finding and steep terrain. The highlight of the entire Big Sur high route must be reaching the top of Cone Peak, the highest point on the entire California coast. We hope you find better weather than we did when we summited. Although the previous day had been crystal clear, a front moved in on the morning we left Trail Spring Camp for the summit, placing us in clouds with no view whatsoever when we topped the peak. Consider that you can also day hike to the summit from Cone Peak Trailhead. For more about the high route, be sure to read Monterey Sections 11 and 13.

From Upper Bee Camp junction (3400 feet elevation), follow Coast Ridge Trail east and southeast as it undulates along the ridgetop on a rocky firebreak. At ⅞ mile it drops to a saddle (3460 feet) where a trail once descended south and west to Lower Bee Camp. Heavy brush has obscured all signs of that spur. Coast Ridge Trail climbs east-southeast up a brushy corridor, gaining the ridgetop at a very large saddle at 1⅛ miles (3593 feet), then ascends by a winding road choked with chaparral and occasionally difficult to follow to a third saddle at 1¾ miles. From there it undulates along the ridge to reach a junction with the steep Lost Valley Connector Trail beyond 2⅜ miles at a grassy saddle with a few Santa Lucia firs, a rare tree. The spur descends north just west of a spur ridge.

Follow Coast Ridge Trail climbing east along the ridgetop. It ascends to a top around 2¾ miles, dips then contours east, regaining the ridgetop around 3 miles. Climb southeast west of the ridgetop, passing a seasonal seep in the trail at 3½ miles, usually a trickling but reliable water source in wet season. Climb southeast through a gully then across brushy slopes with conglomerate rock, once an ancient river bed, around 3¾ miles. The ascent ends and your track dips to a saddle before 4¼ miles (4330 feet). Your firebreak ridgetop trail quickly climbs east to a high point with an awesome panoramic vista spanning from ocean to the east side of the wilderness.

Descend along the ridge to another saddle before 4½ miles where the trail may be confusing. Here a berm or tank trap blocks the ridgetop firebreak rising straight ahead, and the Coast Ridge Trail turns right. If you mistakenly continue straight (we did!), you'll climb an increasingly steep hill, and when you struggle to a summit, you'll suddenly find yourself on the unmarked Rodeo Flats Trail. At the saddle with the berm across the ridgetop, Coast Ridge Trail turns right and dips slightly to cross a small gully with a seasonal stream marked by a roomy volunteer camp before the ford, then climbs south steeply with more views, coming to the signed Rodeo Flats Trail junction (4485 feet) at a broad saddle at 4⅞ miles. From the junction, Coast Ridge Trail climbs southeast along a firebreak on the ridgetop, descends slightly to a smaller saddle at 5⅛ miles, then climbs steeply south on the ridgetop. But in only 400 feet, veer left on a trail overgrown with chaparral at the junction and ignore the rest of the southbound ridgetop firebreak. Your trail contours, then climbs gradually to traverse the eastern slope of a ridge. The trail, crowded by brush, soon becomes more of a road, then enters a severely burned area where yerba santa and brush continue to impede progress. Continue south, regaining the ridgetop at 6 miles and dipping to an ocean-view saddle at 6⅛ miles, 4490 feet.

Follow the rocky, intermittently brushy road southeast past fire-scarred tanoaks and along the north side of the ridge to a long saddle at 6⅝ miles. Head east on the broad ridgetop track to 7⅛ miles, then ascend moderately on road through more fire damage offering extensive ocean vistas. Traverse a southwest-facing slope to a saddle at 7⅜ miles, then cross the ridgetop and traverse a shady northeast-facing slope to a wooded saddle at 7⅝ miles. A short climb takes you across southwest-facing slopes with more views down Devils Canyon to the sea. Then a short, steep descent leads to the Arroyo Seco Trail junction at a saddle at 8⅛ miles.

Coast Ridge Trail ascends southeast on the road, passing two more saddles by 8⅜ miles. Climb the road through a stately stand of sugar pines, passing a steeply ascending spur on your right at 8⅝ miles. Beyond 8¾ miles sandstone boulders beside the trail offer a fine view northeast to Junipero Serra Peak. The track turns southwest, then south along an open sandstone ridge to cross burned slopes littered with sandstone boulders. Then follow the crest to the Cook Springs Camp Trail junction beyond 9¼ miles, marked by a fallen sugar pine giant.
Coast Ridge Trail climbs south, then west across an ascending ridge. At the ridgetop and a junction with the old Carrizo Trail, the Coast Ridge Route reaches its high point, 4860 feet. Here the road is replaced by a trail that arcs southwest with the first great view south to nearby Cone Peak. Pass burnt snags on fire-ravaged slopes, then head west and south to a marble saddle atop the Coast Ridge at 9⅞ miles. After you pass a spur ridge on your right, be sure to look back for a view of the rugged cliffs of the spur and main ridges. Ocean vistas also excel as you reach the Gamboa Trail junction before 10¼ miles.

Here you really have two choices. The Coast Ridge Trail continues on the left, ascending toward Cone Peak but then contouring east of the ridge before dropping to the end of Cone Peak Road at 11¾ miles without a chance to gain the peak's summit. (You could still take Cone Peak Trail from the next trailhead down the road.) If you take that route, you then need to walk down Cone Peak Road for 2⅞ miles to the Vicente Flat Trail. We prefer the more strenuous, but much more scenic coastal vista route described below.

Veer right on the Gamboa Trail and make a moderate descent southwest through woodlands. After crossing a ridge beyond 11⅛ miles, the trail dips a through a brushy gully and angles south, coming to Trail Spring Camp at 11⅝ miles, elevation 3800 feet. This viewless camp nestles a few feet below the junction with the Cone Peak Trail in a narrow sloping gully beneath maples, bay laurels and madrones. You can usually find water in the adjacent broad, rocky wash. If not you'll need to descend cross-country down the wash as much as ⅜ mile. CCT ascends the Cone Peak Trail, marked by a sign near the camp. If you don't want or are unable to climb the peak, an alternate route follows the Gamboa and Stone Ridge Trails to Vicente Flat Camp, rejoining the described CCT route there. It's slightly longer but less than half the elevation gain.

The Cone Peak Trail ascends steeply southwest, then southeast up a rocky wash. Beyond 11⅞ miles the trail, much in need of maintenance at press time (many fallen trees, including large ones you must climb over), switchbacks right, crossing the rocky wash you've been following. Climb steeply south, then switchback left beyond 12 miles and ascend east and southeast. After a switchback to the right around 12¼ miles, the ascent eases. Switchback left before 12⅜ miles and ascend steeply southeast. Switchback right around 12½ miles and climb through open mixed conifer/live oak forest. Promptly switchback left in 200 feet, then again at a steep rocky wash before 12⅝ miles. Ascend steeply with two more short switchbacks, coming to the ridgetop junction with the Cone Peak spur around 12¾ miles.

We strongly recommend you drop your pack here and treat yourself to an ascent of Cone Peak, the highest point on the California coast at 5155 feet, for the best view in Ventana Wilderness and one of the best on the entire coast. The spur trail gains the summit a little more than ¼ mile from the junction.

Return to the trail fork, pick up your pack and descend the Cone Peak Trail. It drops generally south by several switchbacks to 13⅜ miles, then makes a long sidehill descent north and east. Descend generally southeast by 13⅞ miles, passing through a large burn area from 14⅛ miles. Your trail turns south, reaching a burned ridgetop saddle beyond 14¼ miles, where it turns east on a winding descent to Cone Peak Road Trailhead, elevation 3720 feet, beyond 14¾ miles. Turn right and descend Cone Peak Road for 1⅝ miles to the Upper Vicente Flat Trailhead (3190 feet) marked by a wilderness boundary sign on the right side of the road at the south end of a saddle with a small dry camp nearby at 16⅜ miles. While the main route of the CCT descends Vicente Flat Trail to return to the coast, see the discussion of several other high-route options in Alternate Routes below.

ALTERNATE ROUTES: For a route that does not require backpacking, see the highway route of Monterey Sections 11A and 12A.
Backpackers have several choices to extend the main Big Sur High Route on an arduous ridge route that avoids the CCT's highway walking through southern Big Sur. Maps, compass, routefinding ability and good planning are all essentials if you continue south on the High Route.

Instead of leaving Cone Peak Road to descend Vicente Flat Trail, follow the road south. That dirt track continues more or less along Coast Ridge for 26 more miles, with five more trail or trail/road routes offering return to the coast. We describe their distances from upper Vicente Flat Trailhead. At 4.1 miles Coast Ridge Road crosses Nacimiento Road. The unmarked Mill Creek Trailhead lies below on the right just beyond the intersection. A fire road behind a yellow gate descends to the coast in about 8 miles. though the bottom end is so overgrown that it's better to follow Nacimiento Road for the last ¾ mile to the coast. Continuing along Coast Ridge Road, you reach Road 23S14 on the right at 12.7 miles. For a 10¼mile route to the coast, that road descends to Willow Creek Trail, which ends with a 2⅜-mile hike on Willow Creek Road required to reach Highway l. Otherwise continue on Coast Ridge Road to 20.5 miles, where you can descend Willow Creek Road, turn left and drop to Alder Creek Camp, then follow the Buckeye Trail to rejoin CCT at Upper Cruikshank Camp on Monterey Section 15. Or continue along Coast Ridge Road to 25.5 miles, turn right and descend 4¼ miles on Cruikshank Trail to join Section 15 just above Upper Cruikshank Camp. A final choice continues on Coast Ridge Road to 26 miles and descends Salmon Creek Trail for 5¾ miles to meet Section 15 on Highway 1 just south of Salmon Creek. If you hike any of these, be careful, follow your progress on good maps, and carry enough food and water to reach your goal.

SUGGESTED ROUND TRIPS & LOOPS: If you don't backpack, you can still visit Cone Peak, the highlight of this route, by the following round trip or loop day hike. Call the forest service before you go to be sure the road is open. Turn east off Highway just south of Kirk Creek onto Nacimiento Road.

Drive 7.2 miles, turn left on Central Coast Ridge Road (aka Cone Peak Road) and go 5.3 miles to Cone Peak Trailhead. Ascend the Cone Peak Trail (and CCT) for 2 miles to a fork, then turn right and climb steeply to the summit, reaching the lookout tower there just beyond 2¼ miles to enjoy the panoramic view of Big Sur and the coast, quite possibly the best coastal vista in California. You can return the same way, 4⅝ miles round trip. Or take this rugged 7⅞-mile loop: when you return to the fork, turn right and descend Cone Peak Trail to Trail Spring Camp, then turn right and ascend the Gamboa Trail to the ridge and the junction with the Coast Ridge Trail. Turn right and follow Coast Ridge Trail up the ridge and across the peak's east face until the trail ends at the end of Cone Peak Road. Walk down the road 1¼ miles to Cone Peak Trailhead to finish the loop.

Distance: 16⅜ miles, plus recommended ⅝-mile side trip to top of Cone Peak (26.4 kilometers + km).

Open to: Hikers, dogs, equestrians.

Surface: Trail, dirt road, firebreaks.

Access point: Upper Bee Camp junction.

How to get there: Hike in from Ventana Inn or Cone Peak Trailhead. No vehicle access to north end.

Other access: Cone Peak Road at Cone Peak Trailhead.

Difficulty: Hard

Elevation gain/loss: 3765 feet+/3975 feet-.Add 355 feet+/355 feet- to summit Cone Peak.

Cautions: Wildfires burn this area, call before going for updates and closure information. Spring and autumn are best. In summer this route can be very hot and black flies a problem- start early each day or take highway route. Winter weather can be very cold and snow is not uncommon. Campfire permits required during fire season, May to October. Trail crosses remote, isolated country with no services and extremely limited water sources. Watch for rattlesnakes, ticks and poison oak.

Further information: Los Padres National Forest, Monterey District (831)385-5434.

Facilities: None.

Campgrounds: Trail camps at Bee Camp and Trail Spring Camp. Car camping at Kirk Creek Campground (developed) on Highway or at primitive Redwood Springs Camp on Cone Peak Road 3.5 miles south of section's south end.

Lodging: Nearest lodging on Highway at Lucia north of Kirk Creek or Gorda to south.

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