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 2016 Soberanes wildfire, subsequent 2+ year closure of Ventana trails, and the 2020 Dolan wildfire
with its still-on-going closure of Ventana/SilverPeak trails,
means much trail maintenance has not been performed,
resulting in much trail degradation since the below was written in 2015. Many routes are no longer viable.
Rather than re-write, I've left this to illustrate the variety of possible routes with the hope they will be restored.
Bottom line: be sure to check out current trail conditions on the
Wilderness Trail Conditions Map !
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
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.
Whatever you decide to do, I hope you have an enjoyable trip with memories
to last a lifetime.
Thru and Loop Hikes
I'll describe longer backpacks primarily from a 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.
These hikes are based upon trail conditions as of July 2015 - in 2018 many have been made more difficult by
Soberanes wildfire aftereffects.
Starting from the north, the two usual entry points are Bottchers Gap and
the Los Padres Dam. Bottchers Gap provides a scenic ridgeline view
hike along Skinner Ridge, with a possible side-trip to the iconic
Ventana Double Cone (recommended despite its brushiness), but also
requires a hike down the very brushy Puerto Suelo Trail for a
thru-hike. Alternatively, Los Padres Dam provides a trip down
the Carmel River (with many crossings). The routes meet at
Hiding Camp, where the trail is brushy until Pine Valley.
[An alternative starting point, allowing a longer hike, is the west end of the
Little Sur Trail. Although its middle section is currently
brushy, it provides a nice transistion from redwoods to open views of
impressive Pico Blanco back to redwoods, with an intermediate visit
to Pico Blanco Public Falls, after which you can ascend to the above-mentioned Bottchers Gap
via the dirt Palo Corona Road.]
At beautiful Pine Valley there are two options: "west", and "east":
The "west" option 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
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.
However you get to the Marble Peak
Trail, the "east" option then provides another two suboptions:
• 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.
• 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").
At this point both the "east" and "west" options ar 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 - I
recommend the latter since it is an iconic Big Sur trail currently in
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 (though it's a bit brushy) 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.