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(last update: Dec 6, 2023)

   Some have asked about routes which are particularly scenic in the Big Sur wilderness areas for a multi-day loop or "thru-hike" backpack, so here are some thoughts for those unfamiliar with the Ventana or Silver Peak Wilderness. 


The primary consideration for route planning is the trail conditions you are willing to tackle, recognizing this will affect the quality of your experience.  As I've written elsewhere, 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.  So trail conditions are spotty, making long loop hikes difficult to route - consider instead doing a shorter loop hike interspersed with side trips. For current trail conditions, see the Wilderness Trail Conditions Map - detailed trail reports can be obtained by clicking on a trail line. 

The second route planning consideration is time of year.  Locals consider the fall to be 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 weather must be watched, since large rain events can swell the larger streams to make trail crossings dangerous.  The least desirable season is summer since trails get hot, bugs abound at lower elevations, seasonal water sources dry up, campfires are banned, and often stoves are also banned - if hiking in summer, carry a bug net and consider cooler trails along higher elevation ridges (though water sources are then more of a concern) or in shaded forests or along a river (though bugs are then more prevalent)

For any such hike, you should ask what kind of experience you are looking for.  Are you looking for ridge views?  Or a hike through a redwood forest?  Or a walk along a river?  I'd encourage you to increase the quality of your experience by seeking out places which are special to these wildernesses, even backtracking at bit if necessary to see an iconic Ventana feature, instead of simply accumulating mileage.  Check out my Big Sur Wilderness Places to Visit for locations/descriptions of some of these special places, which will be mentioned below. 

Use the Route Metrics Calculator to help give a route meeting your desired daily hiking distance and trip length. 

Whatever you decide to do, I hope you have an enjoyable trip with memories to last a lifetime. 

Thru and Loop Hikes

     Routes below were originally based upon those feasible in July 2015.  In later years many have been made more difficult by wildfire and storm aftereffects - longer hikes are increasingly difficult due to lack of trail maintenance
      My last update of these was in March 2023.  For current conditions, see the continually updated Trail Conditions map !  Note that hike routes planned using my Route Metrics Calculator will have route segments highlighted with a color indicating my rating of its current conditions. 

I'll describe longer backpacks from a North-to-South thru-hike perspective - those seeking shorter loop hikes can pick a segment from the options described.  For loop hikers, a red asterisk ala * indicates places with nearby vehicle access to a trailhead, though high-clearance vehicles are recommended for some dirt roads.  Thru-hikes will be generally north-south, so the question is how much back-and-forth east-west travel you want to do.  Consider doing more of the latter at the expense of the former to have a more memorable trip, instead of just adding another notch to your hiking pole. 

Ventana Wilderness

Starting from the north, the traditional entry point at Bottchers Gap has a long-term closure along its road, so current access is via parking at its closure point "The Hoist" and hiking Long Ridge Road (private dirt road). The route provides a scenic ridgeline view hike along Skinner Ridge, with a possible side-trip to the iconic Ventana Double Cone (recommended despite its brushiness).  A thru-hike would require hiking the Puerto Suelo Trail, a nearly lost trail, or backtracking to Los Padres Dam along the Big Pines Trail, now very difficult after the Soberanes fire. 

Another northern entry point is Los Padres Dam, allowing a trip down the Carmel River (with many crossings).  The routes meet at Hiding Camp, where the trail is very difficult until Pine Valley

At beautiful Pine Valley there are two options: "west", and "east": 

The "west" option then takes the Bear Basin Connector to the Pine Ridge Trail, hiking above the Big Sur River, to the Terrace Creek Trail to reach the North Coast Ridge Road* (dirt, restricted to local owners so few vehicles).  This allows one to visit iconic Sykes Hot Spring as well as a redwood forest.  Continuing south, with ridge views of the ocean, gets you to the North Coast Ridge Trail where a gate blocks all vehicles. 

The "east" option continues down the Carmel River Trail to the Pine Ridge Trail, where two suboptions lead to the Marble Peak Trail:

    • taking the Church Creek trail to view the "Wind Caves", to Tassajara Road* (dirt, little vehicle traffic) where there are three options: the Horse Pasture Trail, the Tony Trail, or the Tassajara Connector Trail. 


    • taking the Pine Valley Trail a short distance east to the Black Cone Trail.  But this last trail has become badly overgrown in recent years.

Whichever way you choose to get to the Marble Peak Trail, the "east" option then provides another two sub-options:

    • heading east to hike down the ArroyoSeco-Indians "Road" (dirt, no vehicle access), possibly after a short backtrack to visit the Arroyo Seco gorge* with ridgeline views to reach Memorial Campground* from which you can hike to the North Coast Ridge Trail via either the Rodeo Flat Trail or the Arroyo Seco Trail or the Carrizo Trail (all of these provides some views of "The Rocks").


    • heading west to eventually reach the North Coast Ridge Road (dirt, owner access only so few vehicles), with its ridge views of the coast, which shortly becomes the North Coast Ridge Trail as you hike further south. UPDATE:  the foot bridge spanning the Arroyo Seco River was destroyed in 2023, so this option is now seldom useful since crossing requires a difficult ford which can only be done in very dry conditions.

At this point both the "east" and "west" options are on the North Coast Ridge Trail.  You then head toward Nacimiento-Fergusson Road (paved) eventually along the Cone Peak Road (dirt, public vehicle access) but with options to visit Cone Peak and/or Vicente Flat via the Stone Ridge Trail

Silver Peak Wilderness

Due to fewer connector trails, there are fewer loop/thru-hike options in the Silver Peak Wilderness.  Longer backpacks require some travel along lightly used dirt roads and water is available less frequently.  Thru-hikes starting from Nacimiento-Fergusson Road* will take the South Coast Ridge Road (dirt, little vehicle traffic), with its ridge views of, at times, both the coast and the interior, and with a side trip to Plaskett Ridge Campground offering an iconic view of the Cone Peak ridgeline.  If one really wants to get off the ridge, to reach water or a forest, you can take the Kinder Mine Road(dirt, no vehicle access) to the Willow Creek Trail - but much of this trail is sketchy so travel will be slow and difficult - and afterward you must take the Willow Creek Road* (dirt with significant traffic) to ascend back up to the ridge roads.  Since continuing along the entire length of the South Coast Ridge Road becomes boring, you will likely drop down to the Buckeye Trail to reach Villa Creek Camp in the redwoods and continue on to Salmon Creek Falls* and Salmon Creek Trail to Spruce Creek Trail.  The latter winds through grass-covered meadows to reach Baldwin Ranch Road (dirt, no vehicles) which ascends westward to give ocean ridge views and then back to CA Route 1, either directly or further south via the Williams Ranch use trails. 

More info

Compilation of 13 routes by Iain MacDonald - for trail runners or backpackers, ranging from 22 to 44 miles

Jack Glendening
Trailmap Forum

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