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By Meade Fischer • Photos by Bob Burd
Most people have put away their hiking boots by this time of year and will forget about them until fair weather returns. But for those willing to put slick sole to muddy trail year-round, the area around the Ventana Wilderness in Big Sur offers spectacular winter hiking. Free from the fog apron and camera-toting hordes that descend every summer, the famous coastline in the winter offers 400 miles of trail, boundless solitude and equally unimpeded views.
Many of the day hikes along the northern Big Sur coast are always enjoyable, but the hikes below are especially compelling during the winter months.
East Molera Trail to Post Summit (strenuous), Andrew Molera State Park
For the sure-footed, the East Molera Trail to Post Summit makes for an excellent day’s journey. The trail is an approximately eight-mile round trip to the 3400-foot Post Summit with stunning views waiting at the top. For the altitude wary, however, the trail may be too exposed and steep—it boasts a 20-30 percent grade in stretches.
To access the trail, drive south on Highway 1 from Monterey, pass the entrance to Andrew Molera State Park and immediately park on the wide shoulder of the road. The trail is an opening in the trees and brush on the east side of the highway, 0.3 miles south of the Molera park entrance.
The trail starts with a gradual uphill and soon hits the bottom of a steep rise, where it heads right and angles upward, making a switchback before reaching the top of the ridge.
There is a small grove of trees on the ridge top which mark a good resting stop with a view over Cooper Point. From there, the trail continues in a series of up-over-and downs along the ridge line, with vista spots that often feature circling raptors.
The winding ridge trail leads to a rock fall that appears vertical. At the top of that talus pile is Post Summit, one of two peaks that tower above the Little Sur Valley—climbing this vertiginous final section is easier in the cooler months.
The reward at the top is an almost 360-degree view with Mount Manuel a short distance to the south and Pico Blanco located a few miles north. The stunning coastline seems almost directly below you. Be careful on the decent as the loose rock and steep hillside make for poor footing.
Tan Bark Trail (moderate),
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Across from Partington Cove on Highway 1, at about mile marker 37.5, the Tan Bark Trail heads up Partington Creek. This short hike up to the old Tin House in Big Sur offers a living definition of a “redwood canyon.” Within 50 yards of the parking spot, the trail enters a wonderland, suddenly shifting from open grasslands into a dense redwood forest complete with a picturesque bridge over a frothy, tumbling creek.
The first mile follows the continual series of small cascades and waterfalls that make up the creek. The narrow, rock-walled canyon is perpetually damp and covered with ferns. It’s one of the most scenic canyons on the Big Sur coast and with just a bit of wet weather, the creek is at its best.
The trail soon leaves the creek and starts up a short, steep, very wet section before becoming a meandering forest trail again. The route changes from mixed forest to redwoods several times as it branches into side canyons. It finally arrives at the headwaters of one branch of the creek at a place known as the “bench.” The bench is a slab of redwood that’s been cut and placed along the trail. It’s a quiet and peaceful place to stop.
The trail continues up past the redwood forest and out of the canyon. Soon you can see the coast again through the trees, before the trail drops quickly to a fire road. Before turning right and down towards the highway, go left a few yards, then right down to the old Tin House, which was built as a retreat for FDR by one of his friends. FDR never made it there but in front of the house is a hillside meadow with a wonderful view.
From there, head back to the fork in the road and walk down to the highway. Then it’s almost a mile walk back along the highway to the trail head. Turner Creek and Skinner Ridge (moderate), Los Padres National Forest I led a hike here in a driving rain, and everyone had a wonderful time; there is no bad day to do this hike.
Palo Colorado Road is 11 miles south of the signal at Highway 1 and Rio Road in Carmel. It’s best to have two cars for this hike. Leave one at the “hoist” (the hoist is an old block and tackle on a beam between mailboxes), 3.5 miles up the road. Then drive seven miles to Bottchers Gap at the end of the road, where you can leave the second car.
On the left, upper side of Bottchers Gap, the Ventana Double Cone Trail heads up the hill toward Skinner Ridge. At the top of the ridge, in a grove of madrone and oak, you can walk a few yards off the trail to the top of the hill where you can see the eponymous Ventana (window) and the ocean at the same time. This view is obscured during summer.
After enjoying the view, return to the trail which soon drops into a saddle about three miles from Bottchers Gap. Ahead and uphill is the main trail, while down and to the left is the Turner Creek trail which follows Turner creek through Apple Tree and Turner Creek Camps. This area is at its best when rainwater fills the creek, making it run faster. Turner Creek Camp offers a great place to stop for lunch and mull over the area’s previous inhabitants—just over the creek and up the far bank is a rock with old Indian mortar holes.
The trail continues down and then along the side of a hill before coming out on a dirt road. Head downhill on the road which leads back to the “hoist.” If you didn’t bring two cars, turn around at Turner Creek Camp and hike back up Skinner Ridge, continuing on to Bottchers Gap. Coast Ridge Road to Boronda Ridge (moderate to strenuous) Boronda ridge drops 3600 feet in three miles. On a clear day following a rainfall, most of the Big Sur coast is visible from the ridge. It’s a 10-mile hike to reach the view from the top but the waiting panorama is worth every mile.
A shuttle is a must for this trail and you will definitely need two cars. Twelve miles after passing Andrew Molera State Park you will pass the Coast Gallery on your left. Drive about 500 yards south of the gallery to some wooden pens where cattle were once loaded on trucks. There is room for several cars on the inland side of the highway. Leave one car here.
Then drive back north on Highway 1 to the Ventana Inn and turn up the hill. There is a public parking area below the Inn. Walk out of the parking lot to the Coast Ridge Road and head up past a locked gate. The road continues up with outstanding views of Mount Manuel and the coast. After four miles you’ll see the Terrace Creek Trail cut off, which leads down to the Big Sur River and the Pine Ridge Trail. Save that for another day and continue along the road, which undulates for two or three more miles high above the ocean. There are stands of massive red-barked madrone trees along the way.
Eventually, you’ll get to Timber Top, where the road curves away from the coast. You’ll exit the main road to the right; go over a slight bank and along the side of the hill to the Timber Top camping area. There are the remains of stock pens there, along with a water tank and camp stove.
If you turn inland, downward and away from the coastal views, you’ve passed the point where the trail branches. The trail you want goes over a slight rise to the right and drops into the Timber Top camping area. The wide trail leading down will take you to your shuttle in less than three miles.
Rocky Ridge – Wildflowers! (moderate to strenuous), Garrapata State Park
Depending on the winter rain patterns, Rocky Ridge explodes in color sometime from mid-February to late April. This wind-swept coastal ridge is home to almost every native wildflower left on the central coast. Take a camera on this two to three mile hike, as the views are breathtaking, and the flowers, when in season, make the ridge look like an impressionist painting. Pack light for this hike, though—there is a nearly 2000-foot elevation gain to reach the ridge.
To reach the trailhead, drive almost exactly seven miles past the Rio Road signal in Carmel. You’ll see many cars parked on the left, along with a row of trees and an old farm structure. You can hike up Sobreranes Creek and up the ridge, but the more scenic route is to walk a few yards south and pick up the Rocky Ridge Trail. After working its way up to the ridge, it follows the ridge to the top, always just above an almost vertical drop to the highway. About three-quarters of the way up is a bench where people stop to enjoy the view of Sobreranes Point and Point Lobos.
Continuing up, you’ll reach the top, covered with wildflowers if you time your visit right. From there, you can continue inland, above the Mal Paso Canyon to the newly acquired Palo Corona Open Space. The return trip allows you to enjoy the majestic ocean views you might have missed on the way up. You also have the option to walking out toward the ocean, south to the point, and up to the top of Whale Peak, a few hundred yards south.