Remnants of the past: Hiking in Big Sur

“This is not a trail!”, my friend Ethan noted quite truthfully, pushing another thick brush aside. We were lost. Well, we weren’t lost in the closest sense of the word. We knew where we were (roughly), but we had literally taken ourselves down a path that proved to be somewhat impossible to make our way through. “This is ridiculous! It should have been marked at the trailhead as closed!”, I barked. Our emotions were running high, it was getting dark fast and colder even faster. Luckily we were prepared, making the chances of having to camp out in the Ventana Wilderness without our tents quite slim, but nevertheless it got a bit scary. Where the h*** is the trail?

Junipero Serra Peak

We decided to head down to Big Sur over Thanksgiving weekend in order to not feel too bad about all the food we had consumed on this very american foodfest holiday. Embarking on the 3 hour drive Friday afternoon, and navigating to the Memorial Park Campground while passing through the Fort Hunter Liggett US Army Garrison and making it through two river crossings, we got to our resting spot for the night around 8pm. Apart from pitching our tents and playing a round of cards, there was nothing else left to do except going to bed.

After a chilly night (it got down to the high 30s), we started our journey up towards Junipero Serra Peak at 7am on the Santa Lucia Trail, which originated right where we camped. It was still fairly cold in the morning, which suited us well since we were on the move up the mountain and warming up fairly quickly. The area at the start of our hike was dominated by about knee-high grass/bushland, colored in yellow and giving a distinct sense of autumn. The further up we went, the grasses gave way to trees at first and to brush later on, but the trail was well maintained and used so not much fighting against mother nature was necessary. Not today, at least.

Getting out of the treeline, we were greeted by the first stunning views of the area, including the valley we came up from. The sun was now distinctly up in the sky while we headed up the ridge west of the summit. Interestingly, the trail ended up circling around the summit and we eventually approached the peak from north and northeast. The views were outstanding, the visibility so far that we were able to see the snow-covered mountains of the Sierra in the far east. After a break for lunch at the top, we made our way back down the way we came from.

Throughout the hike, we encountered a few items that were giving a window into past events. For instance, a very old tractor, or rather what was left of it, we bumped into very early into the hike. The building we could make out from the approach was on closer examination an observation tower that only had the actual steel structure to it. The wooden planks that made out the platform were piled up at the bottom. Close to the top, we found the remains what probably used to be some sort of shelter building that must have burnt down a while ago–only the metal bed frame was still distinctly recognizable. At last, at the actual summit, we stumbled upon the summit register, sheltered in an opening made of cinder blocks, which had presumably belonged to some sort of summit structure as well. But apart from a few of those columns, nothing what resembled a structure was to be seen. All remains of events and intentions that some had deemed important in the past, but were clearly abandoned at some point, yet they still pose the questions of “What?”, “When?” and “Why?” at the few hikers encountering them every year.

Cone Peak

Juniperro Serra was a great hike, but not challenging. The next day, we decided to step it up a bit and try to reach Cone Peak, the highest coastal mountain in the continuous United States. For that, we moved closer to the Carrizon Trail trailhead, camped in the wilderness and were up to an even earlier start than the day before. We headed up the trail and encountered low grassland at first and getting nice views of Juniperro Serra from the day before, covered in reddish early morning sunlight. Soon enough, the vegetation got thicker and more hostile to the hiker which led us to eventually lose the trail and struggle for about an hour to find it again. A precursor, it turned out, of things to come. After going up and down across multiple ridges we eventually made it to the final approach, with the trail significantly better marked and maintained at this point.

Instead of then descending down and back up again to the summit, we were hoping for a more direct approach along the ridge we were already on. It turned out to be a bit more perilous than we had wished for, with multiple class 3 scrambles up a few bumps on quite lose rock along the ridgeline before we were finally at the summit and enjoying the absolutely stunning views of the coastline and the ocean.

After a little lunch break, we plotted which way to take back and made the critical mistake that would bite us badly later on. We decided to take the Cone Peak Trail down to Cone Peak Road and then take the San Antonio Trail back to the trailhead. Longer, but nice and consistent downhill. Piece of cake. Getting down to the San Antonio trailhead proved to be easy, however the partly overgrown distance marker should have given us an indication that this trail had not been in proper use in years. Nevertheless, we headed down. Pretty soon we encountered logs on the trail (we stopped counting at 30), the thickest probably 3 feet in diameter, heavy vegetation and the trail being more and more overgrown. In some cases, the trail was completely covered in brush, forcing us to make our way around and praying to find a distinct trail after the obstacle. After progressing at only 2 miles per hour, we eventually made it to Fresno Camp, realizing for the first time that we probably did not stand a chance of making it back in daylight. Luckily we had a GPS and a map, however the map suggested a route that clearly had not been there in years.

“I brought 2 firestarters”, I said in an attempt at humor to cover up my slight fear of not making it out of this jungle.

After Fresno Camp, our progress slowed even more. The trail was essentially nonexistent and at this point we were just trying to figure out the path of least resistance through the underwood. We also encountered various colored plastic ribbons along the way, giving us confidence that someone was here at least at some point not too long ago. We also had to cross the river multiple times, since there was no way around it in this valley. We did ascend up to the flanks of the canyon we were in a couple of times, only to find out that there wasn’t any trail there either and that we had to eventually go back down because the terrain proved to be too treacherous.

Eventually the inevitable happened: it got dark and temperatures dropped. We could see our breath in the beam of our headlamps, that we, luckily, had brought along. With the sun as a light source gone, navigating through thick shrubbery was even more difficult now, despite our artificial light helpers. The map showed the trail finally reaching and passing through the Salsipuedes Ranch land. When knew we had reached the boundary of the private property when we encountered a maybe 5 feet high gate, which we decided to climb, since there was really no other way to go for us at this point. The continuation of the trail on the other side proved to be even more difficult. Immensely overgrown, we had to push ourselves forcefully through and branches aside a couple of times. Needless to say, trying to find hints of a trail now seemed futile.

Encountering a creek gave us a rough idea of our definitive position and we bumped into a faint old type of vehicle/forest road that we followed up a hill, but lost immediately. We decided to head straight up the cliff before us and then recheck our position. The GPS told us that the trail (what trail, really?) should be straight south of where we were, so we descended down and, finally, we found ourselves standing on a forest road. We breathed a sigh of relief. We knew that following the road would eventually lead us back to the trailhead.

We continued on the road for quite a while, illuminating the path in front of us with our headlamps. We passed some structures and even cars along the way, but it was totally dark, no light visible in the houses. We had to climb two more gates with signs on them in faint letters clearly discouraging trespassing and that violators would be ejected, but we really couldn’t care less at this point. Almost 13 hours after we had started out in the morning, we made it back to the trailhead. Rarely was I happier to get back to a campsite.

Bushwhacking down history lane

It was only until the next day when I found some time to find out more about whether other people had similar experiences with this trail. Most of the posts on the Ventana Wilderness area forum suggested similar conditions to what we had encountered. On there, Mike Blanksma points out that San Antonio trail was actually a road built by the Army during WWII.

The Salsipuedes (span. “Get Out If You Can”) Ranch, that we essentially trespassed without permission, belongs to Timothy Bottoms, a 61 year old actor and film producer. Bottoms now trains wild horses on the ranch, which explains the “horse camp” arch sign we had encountered on the ranch road in the dark. What is interesting is that the ranch and the land it is on is the area that the great American writer John Steinbeck based one of his novels on, titled “To A God Unknown“. A distinct item in the novel is a giant oak tree that seems to still exist on ranch property today.

Resources and further reading