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Big Sur Wilderness Hiking Basics

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Factors to consider when planning your Big Sur wilderness hike:

Miles:   The "Steep Terrain", "Brush", and "Rough Tread" factors described below often produce slow hiking speeds.  For "passable" trails, i.e. ones not rated "clear" or "wilderness freeway", a local rule-of-thumb is to expect to travel half the distance you can in the Sierras (and "difficult" ones take longer).  A PCT afficionado I met at one camp complained about not being able to log as many miles as he'd been expecting.  Wilderness hikers should think about "effort", not just "miles".
Steep Terrain:   Terrain contrasts make Big Sur visually spectacular.  They also create large elevation gains/losses along many trails.  Instead of directly ascending/descending such terrain, the trails tend to contour along the steep slope, often resulting in narrow tread, tread with side-slope, and washedout sections. 
Brush:   After the 2008 and 2016 fires, which burned much of the Ventana wilderness area, many formerly forested area have become more open and brushy.  Brush grows fast and trail maintenance is mostly volunteer and spotty.  So many trail sections have intruding brush and can be difficult to hike, especially with a backpack.  Intruding brush initially scrapes your arms and legs, then requires pushing through while it scrapes your face and eyes, and finally makes the trail difficult to locate.  Depending on the trail, wearing short pants or shirts may not be comfortable.  Many Big Sur hikers carry along some kind of eye protection to don when necessary and/or wear a wide-brimmed hat to help part the brush. 
Rough Trails:   Since the trails often contour along steep slopes, they are continually being degraded by erosion and usage, often resulting in rough, sloping, and narrow tread and stones and debris along the tread.  These factors can be hard on the ankles.  In particular, erosion and slides after rains can produce very narrow sections which must be carefully negotiated, especially with a backpack - falling off could result in a dangerous slide down a steep slope; poles can be helpful in such situations. 
Off-trail:   Off-trail travel is possible but can be very difficult - and impossible when brush becomes interlocked.  As an oft-time bushwhacker, I've learned to choose my routes carefully - often by examining GoogleEarth imagery prior to a hike to see where I should and should not try to go.  In difficult situations, I've even plotted a route on GoogleEarth and loaded that into my GPS - while GPS error is such that brush will still be encountered, I then know a best direction to head since nearby clear areas often cannot be seen when inside the brush. 
Water:   Many water sources dry up in the summer, particularly at higher elevations and especially in drought years - so may need to pack enough water for an entire day, which can be many liters on a hot day.  Local tip:  surface water can disappear underground but then re-appear downstream - if no water is found at an expected location, first try looking downstream, then upstream. 
River Crossings:   In the days after a winter storm, larger streams/rivers can swell to the point of being dangerous to cross. 
Campfiles and Stoves:   A California Campfire permit is required (available at Big Sur Station or on-line).  Campfires are normally banned during summer and fall, until the new rain total meets a USFS criterion (unfortunately, this is a forest-wide criterion and since the southern Los Padres, around Santa Barbara, typically gets rain later than the northern Los Padres, for Big Sur it is overly conservative).  Note that open fires may be allowed in "campgrounds" (with vehicle access) but not in backcountry "camps".  During extreme fire hazard conditions, stove use is also prohibited.  The latest fire restrictions are usually available on the Los Padres NF "Fire Restrictions" webpage.
Dogs:   Dogs are allowed in the wilderness area if "under control".  They are not allowed in State Parks.  They will bring back poison oak and ticks, so need to be checked (and do think twice about taking them)
Poison Oak:   Common all over Big Sur, except in open sunny locations.  Know how to recognize it.  Avoid it or push to the side with a pole/stick.  Wear long shirts and pants.  Wash your skin with a strong soap or solvent after inadvertent contact. 
Flies:   Common in the summer, especially around water.  The two varieties are biting flies and tiny "face flies" (they swarm around your face, apparently attracted by the moisture, and can be surprisingly annoying).  Biting fly season is the first half of the summer, face fly season is the entire hot season.  Smart summer hikers carry a bug net. 
Ticks:   Common during the rainy season, particularly in grassy areas and after a rain.  Tick checks should be made frequently.  Know how to extract a tick without pulling off the head (a slow, steady pull backward gives the tick a chance to release its jaws and let itself be pulled out).  Lyme disease is almost unknown. 
Rattlesnakes:   Occasionally seen in warmer seasons - the usual precautions should be taken.
Bears:   Bear cannisters are not required.  Bears have not been seen in the Ventana/SilverPeak wilderness areas for decades, but bear prints and scat have been found after the Soberanes Fire of 2016 - though (as of July 2018) there have been no actual sightings.  If you see one, count yourself lucky and please report it on the VWA Discussion Forum or Trailmap Forum - others will be certainly be interested (and envious)
Mountain Lions:   Yes they are out there and scat is often found along trails, but sightings are extremely rare and I have never heard of a reported problem.
Weather:   The climate is mild, but temperatures can become hot in the summer, particularly for open, low elevation, and inland locations.  Many trails at the higher elevations have little or no shade.  Along the coast, summer "fog" (actually low-lying cloud) is common, particularly in the morning, keeping temperatures cool but also restricting views - it is not uncommon to ascend from a foggy trailhead to (after an elevation gain of several thousand feet) sunshine and mountain views. 
Time of Year:   Considering all the above factors, locals consider autumn the best season for Big Sur hiking - temperatures are cool, bugs have disappeared, and rain is unlikely;  the only negative is fewer sources of water at higher elevations.  In winter and spring the cool temperatures also make for enjoyable hiking and water is more available - but weather must be watched, since rain can swell the larger streams.  The least desirable season is summer since trails get hot, bugs abound at lower elevations, seasonal water sources dry up, and campfires are prohibited (and during extreme fire conditions, stoves are also prohibited).  If hiking in summer, consider cooler trails along higher elevation ridges (though water sources are then more of a concern) or in shaded forests or along a river (but bugs are more prevalent there)

Last, but not least, below is the notice I consider important enough to place atop the main Big Sur Trailmap webpage:

You cannot assume a wilderness trail will be signed or passable or followable !
Trails may be blocked by brush or downfall or without apparent tread, especially for secondary trails and "use" trails.  Brush grows quickly in these wilderness areas, fire-damaged tree downfalls can be extensive, tread erosion along steep slopes is common, and trail maintenance is spotty.  Check the trail conditions before you go !   Too many hikers having no awareness of trail conditions have not had the wilderness experience they anticipated.  Where tread is sporadic or confusion with animal trails possible, use of a GPS loaded with accurate trail data is recommended!  Left-clicking on a Trailmap line displays an "information bubble" with a summary of latest hiker-reported trail conditions and a link to the full VWA Trail Report (when available), as well as trail distance, cumulative elevation gain, and GPS data - or you can read trail conditions on-line in the VWA Trail Report ForumFor a color-coded overview, see the wilderness trail conditions map

Jack Glendening
bigsurtrailmap.net
Trailmap Forum


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