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Big Sur Off-Trail Hiking

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Having bushwhacked extensively in the Ventana and Silver Peak wilderness areas of the Los Padres National Forest, I want to provide some useful information for others so inclined. 


Off-trail travel is permitted in the National Forest but prohibited in State Parks.  Off-trail travel in the Ventana/SilverPeak wilderness areas can be very easy or very difficult, largely depending upon the amount of brushiness - and impossible where brush is interlocked.  Off-trail hiking is generally much easier in the Silver Peak wilderness than in the Ventana wilderness due to Silver Peak's more extensive grassy slopes and valleys. 

Many "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.  Many are depicted as orange "use trails" on my Big Sur Trailmap.  But of course their ease-of-use depends upon how frequently they've been recently used, which can wax and wane.  Most usetrails degrading with time, becoming more like bushwhacks than ever. 

Consider taking routes along "impassable" trail sections - those show in red on my trail conditions map.  These give a "no tread" experience requiring some route finding, but where the brush is not (usually) interlocked. 

Also consider taking routes along former firebreaks (almost always ridgelines), which can be gleaned from studying GoogleEarth imagery.  These can give a "no tread" experience where brush is sparse.  (But note "burnt area warning" below.) 

Burnt Area Warning:  fire produces toxic substances, left in the soil which with other dust can be inhaled when disturbed by hiking.  I myself started coughing after hiking in burnt areas, later developing into asthma.) 

Off-trail hiking is easier in recently burned areas, apparent in GoogleEarth imagery.  Though brushiness has been greatly reduced, remaining fire-hardened branches can be troublesome.  Areas burnt by recent wildfires are shown as gray overlay on my Big Sur Trailmap(But note "burnt area warning" above.) 

For true "bushwhacking", i.e. routes which are "off-trail" and "off-usetrail" and "off-firebreak", I've learned to choose my routes carefully, by examining GoogleEarth imagery before a hike to see where I should and should not try to go.  Nearby clear areas often cannot be seen once inside tall brush, so for difficult situations I've plotted a route on GoogleEarth, threading it through the less brushy areas, and loaded that into my GPS.  GPS and GoogleEarth error are such that the track is only a rough guideline, eyeballs are first used to find the best route - but if thick brush is encountered, the GPS track proves a direction to head for easier travel and keeps one from straying into impassable brush. 

Knowledge and planning pays off for off-trail hikers in this region of brushy chaparral!  The time to sunset does not slow down if you are slowed down, and you do not want to be stuck in brush after dark!  wink

Traditional Routes

"Sea-to-Sky" route up Cone Peak:  Though officially off-trail and once a "route", due to frequent usage this has become a "use trail" in many respects easier than many official trails - except that it is STEEP ! 

"The Window" via Jackson Creek:  The traditional route to a Ventana namesake, the distinctive ridgeline notch visible all over the Ventana wilderness.  At one time getting to "La Ventana" was a rite of passage with a well-defined route, but much of the path up Jackson Creek was destroyed after the 2008 wildfire and subsequent creek erosion - so is now essentially a bushwhack.  Note that the webpage is somewhat out-dated, as the route has become increasingly difficult due to further degradation with time and lack of consistent use. 

Jack Glendening
Trailmap Forum

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