We had been planning a backpacking trip to Big Sur for months. We both had the same winter break from school, and although there are many places to backpack in California during the winter, bringing the dog narrows options down a bit (no state or national parks, essentially. We try to stick to National Forest and designated Wilderness).
I have driven through Big Sur before on a family road trip, and only scratched the surface of this awe-inspiring place. Since then, it has been one of my favorite places in the world. Redwoods and oaks, mountains, ocean views, foggy coasts, sunny hillside meadows, clear, trickling streams and waterfalls…. I am in love.
We planned a loop to include a section of the Pine Ridge Trail that also passes by Sykes Hot Springs. A storm over new years closed down surrounding trails, so we edited the agenda a bit, and we were happy with the outcome.
After a 7 hour drive up the beautiful and stunningly green coast, we couldn’t find the turnoff for our trail. We had left early around 5, and had made excellent time (no traffic!). We stopped by the ranger station to figure things out. Turns out the trail we planned on was now also closed, and there were not a lot of options. We managed to find something else that would work ok for a four day trip, and retraced back down the coast 35 miles toward Kirk Creek Campground. Across the road, the trailhead ascended the steep mountains quickly. We packed up our things, laced boots, and headed upwards.
By the time we started hiking it was about 2:30/3 and it was a VERY warm, heavy climb. There were a bunch of weekends hikers heading down, and the narrow trail hugging the cliffs of the mountain made passing a bit treacherous. For the record, uphill hikers have the right of way…
The trail began to level out a few hundred feet from the summit. The views overlooking the Pacific were incredible. The cars and RVs at the campsite looked like miniature models. Giants chunks of rock in the water along the coast looked less ominous from above. It was serene. And breathtaking.
We turned the corner around a finger and the trail headed east. The coastal sage scrub started to change into damper coniferous zones. Wild cucumber, berry brambles, and herbs hugged the trail. From the look of the undeveloped berry flowers, I would say early/mid June would be an excellent time to come back to the area before it gets too hot.
After a grueling climb, and the oncoming golden light, we settled at the first campsite. Espinoza was only about 2.5 miles in from the trailhead, but we were not sure about the terrain of the next 2.5 miles to the next campsite and didn’t want to be hiking in the dark.
Two dirt clearings presented themselves on the edge of the mountain. Surrounded by a mixed woodland of oaks and conifers, with trails meandering steeply down the slope. We chose the lower campsite and set up. The sun was beginning to set over the ocean between the pines. Blissful.
Not 20 minutes later, a loud and struggling group settled into the 2nd site. They were not friendly, and they were obnoxious. We enjoyed a delicious Mountain House meal, and tried to get to bed quickly. I was up all night listening to our lovely drunk neighbors and their VERY loud sexual musings. Finally they fell quiet.
We woke up with the sunrise the next morning. We started packing up camp and ate breakfast. We gladly left our annoying neighbors behind. There was no way they were hiking further.
We decided to pass the next camp and continue up through the shady redwood canyons to the ridge line. The hike was beautiful… cold, clear water flowed through brooks and waterfalls. Small river crossings on rocks added a little adventure.
We started the squeeze out of the canyon, the terrain warming to rocky switchbacks beneath Coulter pines and the most beautiful, giant Mazanitas I have ever seen hanging over the cliffs. We broke out into the more barren trail and could see we were not far from the top.
We came onto a ridge road and could look west to the ocean (with Cone Peak flanking one side), and looking east into damp blue valleys. We walked along the road a few hundred feet and found the next trailhead down into the eastern valley towards Fresno campsite. Camp was only slightly more than a mile away.
We descended into thick deciduous shrubbery and started bushwacking. The hike down was unpleasant, the the surrounding scenery did nothing to improve it. Dead, fallen leaves littered a trail obliterated with fallen, decaying trees. The trail was shrouded in overgrown, dormant sticks. It was cold and shady. Think Blair Witch Project feeling. We decided to hit the first camp rather than keep going. The trail was incredibly overgrown.
We did see some interesting mushrooms and banana slugs though.
We eventually made it to the bottom, and found a lovely campsite stocked with loads of firewood and a luxurious bench. A CA sycamore framed the campsite on high bank above a cold, bubbling river. The dog jumped in right away and frolicked. We set up camp and filtered water for dinner and the next morning.
Our campsite started to feel a bit spooky as the valley was enveloped in darkness. It was near freezing temps on this side of the ridge. We were constantly hearing what sounded like voices, which we attributed to our close proximity to the river. We found several shotgun shells around camp. We ate a homemade dehydrated meal of miso soup mixed with noodles, and followed it with a backpackers cobbler (not so good). We played cards in the tent and fell asleep to the restless river. The dog woke us up in the early morning hours trying to escape something outside the tent. We were both overcome with creeped out feelings. I left the tent to pee under a landscape illuminated by a full moon. We packed up camp as soon as the sun rose and decided to head back up to head for the camp in the redwoods.
We finally shook the ominous vibes when we reached the sunny ridge. I would have liked to ascended to cone peak, and the campsite near by, but the rest of the pack was set on heading towards the road.
We went back down the way we came and settled at a wide open meadow campsite near an old river bed. We dried out our wet gear from the previous night and lounged in the sun. The fire ring even had a “couch” (a log pushed up against a boulder, with the addition of our sleeping pads). It was glorious. The dog ran around checking out the smells.
Then we all went down into the main campsite area by the stream to filter water. We had another lovely homemade meal of mac and cheese and added some mashed potatoes. Heavenly. We played cards in the tent before turning out the headlamp. As we were falling asleep, we heard a loud animal call. I thought it was a bird or a fox. It sounded like a whooping primate. I tried to look up animal sounds when we got home but nothing really matched. I fell asleep to the sound of owls nearby.
The fourth morning we packed up and headed back to the car. We lounged on the grass by the car, packing up and heading to In n Out before heading home.
We were a bit disappointed by this hike, just because it wasn’t the one we planned and we only covered about 15 miles total as opposed to the 35 we had planned. We still want to return at a later time to hike our original plan!