Big Sur Wilderness
Hiking Basics

Related links:   Big Sur backpack suggestions   Wilderness places to visit   Wilderness tours   Printed maps   Trail Conditions Map

Basic backpacking webpages: (or do your own web search)   from Backcountry.com   from Backpacker.com   from REI.com  


Factors to consider when planning a Big Sur wilderness hike: 
(updated: May 26, 2020)

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. 

Miles:   The "Steep Terrain", "Brush", and "Rough Tread" factors described below often produce slow hiking speeds.  Outsiders unused to Ventana wilderness trails typically overestimate the number of miles they will comfortably travel in a day.  The Silver Peak wilderness is generally more open than the Ventana so allows more miles per day.  Of course your mileage will greatly depend upon the condition of the trail.  For "passable" Ventana trails ["yellow" on my wilderness trail conditions map] a local rule-of-thumb is to expect to travel half the distance you can on a good Sierra trail (and "difficult" ["orange" on map] 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.  This can create large elevation gains/losses along many trails.  But instead of directly ascending/descending such terrain, many trails contour along the steep slope - this often results in narrow tread, tread with side-slope, and washedout/landslide 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 prohibited in State Parks but permitted in the National Forest.  Off-trail travel in the National Forest can be very easy or very difficult, largely depending upon the amount of brushiness - and impossible when brush becomes interlocked.  Many off-trail "use trail" routes exist, i.e paths which are not official USFS-designated trails but instead created by frequent usage producing a more-or-less followable path - these are depicted as orange "use trails" on my Big Sur Trailmap.  Of course their ease-of-use depends upon how frequently they've been recently used, which can wax and wane.  For more info:  off-trail hiking webpage.

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, receding slowly after the rain stops.  This is particularly true later in the rainy season, after the ground has absorbed all the water it can easily hold. 

Camping, Campgrounds, and Camps:   State Park campgrounds all accept reservations and require fees (Julia Pfieffer Burns SP no longer allows camping)
    USFS "Campgrounds" are in the front-country, with vehicle access - those along asphalt roads have fees and will take reservations, those along dirt roads do not take reservations but can have a fee - campgrounds requiring a fee are noted in its Trailmap pop-up "info bubble".  Camping is not allowed along Route 1 or Nacimiento-Fergusson Road - it is allowed as "dispersed camping" along Forest Service dirt roads such as Cone Peak Road or South Coast Ridge Road. 
    USFS back-country "Camps" (aka "Primitive Camps") do not have either reservations or fees.  "Dispersed Camping" (i.e. simply camping off-trail) is allowed - but note that steep terrain can make finding a nice flat area difficult in many places, particularly if wanting to be close to water. 
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.

Driving:   Big Sur roads are curvey and many cars drive well below the speed limit - so driving times can be longer than expected.  Rockslides frequently cause short-term and long-term road closures along Big Sur roads - for current Route 1 closure information, see CalTrans road conditions webpage Be especially alert for rocks on road if driving in early morning after a rainy night. 

Dirt Roads:   Conditions vary greatly, very seasonal dependent.  Many roads are left to the elements during the rainy season, then (usually) scraped during the dry season.  In summer many need only a high clearance vehicle, but in the rainy season 4WD is more necessary.  Much depends upon the vehicle and the driver.  My rules of thumb for summer conditions:
  Cone Peak Road - high clearance OK to Vicente Flat Trail, iffy beyond
  ArroyoSeco-Indians Road (south of Escondido Campground)- 4WD needed.  Note ArroyoSeco-Indians Road north of Escondido Campground is permanently closed to vehicles, essentially is a trail
  Tassajara Road - high clearance OK to China Camp, iffy beyond
  South Coast Ridge Road - high clearance OK to Plaskett Ridge Campground, iffy beyond, definitely needed beyond Three Peaks
  Willow Creek Road - 4WD needed unless recently scraped

Seasonal road access:   Cone Peak Road (dirt) and ArroyoSeco-Indians Road (dirt) access to Escondido Camp are closed during rainy season, controlled by King City USFS (831-385-5434).  Willow Creek Road (dirt), and South Coast Ridge Road (dirt) are open year round but can be treacherous after heavy rain/snow events.  Tassajara Road (dirt) is occasionly closed during rains (soft closure, not gated) - see Mountery County road closure information.  Milpitas Road access to Santa Lucia Memorial Campground (trailheads for Carrizo, Arroyo Seco, Rodeo Flat, and Santa Lucia Trails) closed at ford for high water levels, controlled by Fort Hunter-Liggett (831-386-2513)

Parking:   Generally along the road by the trailhead.  Parking along Route 1 is limited to 72 hours.  Park only in grass-free areas, to prevent exhaust system induced fires - violaters are subject to citation.  Unfortunately, break-in thefts have occasionally occurred for cars parked overnight along Route 1.  Day parking also available at some campgrounds, for a fee. 

Flowers:   Abound during the spring, disappear in summer. 

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.  Most virulent in spring when oily.  In winter its leafless branches can be difficult to recognize (no thorns, see photo) but still harmful, though less virulent (and do not use to start a fire!)

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 and wear sleeves which can be rolled down when not moving. 

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 (or heard) in warmer seasons - the usual precautions should be taken.

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.

Bears:   Bear cannisters are not required.  Bears had not been found in the Ventana/SilverPeak wilderness areas for decades, but bear prints and scat began appearing after the Soberanes Fire of 2016 - though (as of May 2020) I have heard of only one actual wilderness sightings (there have been sightings outside the National Forest)

Mountain Bikes:   Prohibited in wilderness areas, which cover most of the local Los Padres National Forest.  Bikers can use the view-laden ArroyoSeco-Indian Road (a non-wilderness corridor, closed to vehicles, through a wilderness area) or the precipitous Prewitt Ridge Usetrail (down-hill!).  Or dirt roads such as Old Coast Road or South Coast Ridge Road (but note that bikes are prohibited along North Coast Ridge Road)

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)

Children:   The rough trails, steep terrain, and elevation gains can can be difficult for small children.  Do teach them to recognize & avoid poison oak and, in the rainy seasond, check them for ticks.  Plan an alternative route should they experience more difficulty than expected.  A bad experience when young can discourage them from later trips (I've heard a few reports of such) - less now can mean more later.  For the above reasons, I've personally seldom seen small children on wilderness trails (but many teenagers)

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 (credit:p.danielson)
Jack Glendening
https://bigsurtrailmap.net


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