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Since 28mi the previous day wasn't enough for the two of us, Matthew and I decided to drive to Big Sur and see if we couldn't dayhike Ventana Double Cone by a different route than the one we had tried back in January. I had suggested we might be able to reach VDC via Manuel Peak, along a connecting ridge of several miles that I noticed on the topo maps. Without any beta on the feasibility of this route, we agreed to give it a try.
We left San Jose around 4a, driving my Miata south on US101, west on SR56, then south again on Highway 1 to Big Sur. It was some time before 6a, still dark outside, when we pulled into the ranger station just south of the State Park entrance. We were surprised to see a self-pay setup for most of the parking lot, evidently a way to extract some fees from the backpackers to the area. My NF Adventure Pass brought me no special privledges though both it and the Ventana Wilderness are managed by the same USFS. We decided to park in the day use part of the lot which was valid enough, except that we would be gone before daylight and expected not to return until after sunset - which didn't likely fit the definition of "day use" defined by the rangers.
We started off on the Pine Ridge Trail expecting to have the trail fork shortly for the Mt. Manuel Trail (oddly, the summit is called Manuel Peak on the maps, but the trail is called the "Mt. Manuel Trail"). This was not the case as we found out, and when the trail started its climb up the south side of the Big Sur River, we backtracked and headed cross-country at the risk of encountering poison oak towards the river. This led us through the campground, tip-toeing between tents occupied by sleeping campers, and along the driveway leading through the campground. We'd been hiking but 15 minutes and we were already lost. The only thing that seemed certain was that we had to cross to the other side of the river if we were to find the correct trailhead. When we were about to hike back out to the start again, we found a service road that bridged the river and saved us a few lost miles. This led to the non-obvious start of the Mt. Manuel Trail that starts off so overgrown that it seemed almost abandoned. Once we had climbed the first couple hundred yards, the heavy foliage gave way to the more abundant chaparral that grows on most of the hillsides in the Ventana region. By 7a the sun was rising, though we would still be in the shade for more than an hour.
Even though the fern-grotto feel had given way to manzanita and sagebrush, we continued to find the trail in poor condition. Much of the hillside was wet with winter rains, many areas had slides wiping out short portions, and poison oak was so abundant that there was no opportunity to take in the views. Our eyes were glued to the trail, scanning for, and avoiding the poison oak for mile after mile. The trail rises steadily gaining elevation seemingly for an eternity as it rises higher and higher above the Big Sur River below. Without actually checking the map, I made a mental goal of reaching the east side of the ridge expecting the slope to ease up. It was a fine view when we rounded to that side, VDC in plain view along with the Ventana Cone and much of the Big Sur drainage. But the elevation gain did not stop, rather it continued on much the same way (in fact we had climbed less than half the 3,000ft of gain the trail makes in about four miles). One difference with the east side of the ridge was that there were trees in the gullies and side canyons that the trail passed through, and most of them seemed bent on either overgrowing or falling down across the trail in a pretty good effort to reclaim the trail for impassable wilderness. We climbed under and over countless downed trees, our pace slowing to half what it had been previously. I wondered how we might fair on the cross country part of our trip if the trailed portion was this difficult. Sometime around 8a we managed to find ourselves at the white marbled top that we guessed was Manuel Peak.
Or at least that's what we thought. Looking north, the ridge continued on, rising to a still higher point. After a brief break we continued, convinced we'd yet to reach the summit. In fact we had, but that didn't really matter since our plan to reach VDC meant we had to reach the point where the connecting ridgeline intersected the north-south one we were currently one. Another peak named Kandlbinder stood along that east-west ridge in about the center of our route, and would have to be surmounted if we were to make it to VDC. From our limited vantage (hard to see through some of the trees, and it was still some distance away), we couldn't tell how difficult the ridge might be, but it was looking pretty tough from the start. We continued on for another half mile past half a dozen false summits before we found the high point along the ridge. The views were decent in most directions, except for lookng east in the direction we wanted to go. The thickets in that direction were utterly impenetrable. Maybe that isn't exactly true, but I tried about 10 feet worth and realized this next section was ridiculous. We couldn't do it in a day, probably not in several days, and most likely not without a machete which we didn't have and wouldn't have used anyway. It was clear why this route had not been considered by others before and why we'd found no beta on it. Now was a good time to devise an alternate plan.
We finally consulted the map which showed we were (well past Manuel Peak) at Peak 3554ft, and we didn't really like the prospect of returning the way we came. Heading down the west side of the ridge was nearly as crazy as the east side. Looking northwest, we had a great view of Pico Blanco and another peak about half the distance from us. The map named this point Post Summit, which seemed an interesting objective. Possibly we could find a way down to the highway heading east from Post Summit as the terrain looked more grassy from our view, but in the worst case scenario we'd have to backtrack all the way back to Manuel Peak and the Mt. Manuel Trail. It was only 9:30a, so we decided to give it a try, and off we went.
We had given up any hope of reaching Ventana Double Cone from Manuel Peak, an idea that we decided looked good on paper but impossible upon close inspection. There was simply too much wild chaparral to consider struggling through it. Instead we decided to try heading northwest along the ridge to a peak we knew nothing about which we found on the map to be named Post Summit. This turned out to be an excellent decision. While the trail was still weak, the Cabezo Prieto Ridge (as it is called on the map) had been cleared for a firebreak some years earlier and it was fairly easy to negotiate our way along it. At one point we followed some pink ribbons that started switchbacking down the northeast hillside. After we'd gone for about a mile and lost several hundred feet of elevation, we realized this was a side trail heading to a backcountry camp called Tin House. Not where we wanted to go. We climbed back up to the ridge again, and continued along the ridgetop heading generally north. It was a pleasant walk and we ran across several large fields of wildflowers dominated by lupines. Shortly before 11a we reached Post Summit. Our view of Pico Blanco was closer now but somewhat blocked by the ridge. We were treated to a fine view to the west towards Andrew Molera State Park and the Pacific Ocean. Looking inland we could see peaks from Mt. Carmel to the north, the Ventana Cone Peaks to the east, and as far south as Cone Peak. Matthew broke out his lunch that he'd been carrying around and looked to be enjoying it thoroughly.
We could see the firebreak continuing down the ridge to the northwest, and it looked like it might take us all the way down to the grass-covered ridges and an easy descent. After about 20 or 30 minutes on the summit we started down. We wondered how successful we might be trying to hitchhike the five or so miles back to our car once we got down, not really wanting to do that last couple of hours' walking along the highway. The ridge grew steep and loose, but still easily passible, no bushwhacking required. There were footprints leading up, and it appeared that this route to the summit was at least occasionally used. About three hundred feet down from the summit I spotted two hikers heading our way along the grassy ridge below. I suggested to Matthew that maybe we could talk them into hiking our route and letting us take their car back to Big Sur. We both sort of laughed at that. But once we met up further down the ridge, that was exactly the suggestion I put forth, and to our surprise they began to seriously consider it. Then we both went to work telling them we'd be happy to shuttle their car to the trailhead, that the entire route was passable, and how long it had taken us (five hours). We didn't tell them about the crappy trail conditions or the poison oak - we didn't want to discourage our new-found friends in any way. They considered how much time they had left (it was 11:30a), they had flashlights, and they didn't have any plans for the rest of the day. They must have deemed us trustworthy-looking characters as they handed over the keys to their Navigator with little hesitation. Actually they didn't hand over the keys, the owner merely told us how to find the hide-a-key he'd stashed before heading out on the hike. I joked that this was a great way to hijack cars which evoked nervous laughs, but they didn't change their minds. As a bonus they gave us excellent directions for the East Molera Trail (as we were to find this route is called) and how to get back.
We left the other two and continued down, Matthew now slowing appreciably due to problems with his knees (and the 28mi the day before probably didn't help either). Where the our side ridge off the Cabezo Prieta Ridge ended, we found ourselves atop the grassy Molera Ridge. This ridge had the finest wildflower displays I have ever seen in Big Sur or Ventana, acres of flowers in an array of colors - orange, blue, violet, and yellow. And a very swell view of Pico Blanco too. I left the trail briefly to top out on a knoll about 80 feet higher to get a better view of the coast. From there I headed north along Molera Ridge before rejoining the trail. I had expected to meet David back at the trail, but instead he had followed me up to the top of the knoll, didn't see me descend, and wondered where I'd gone. I called out futilely several times, but got no response. I began to suspect Matthew had continued down the west side of the knoll thinking I had done like-wise. Darn. I continued north along the dirt road (mostly flat now as it follows near the top of Molera Ridge). Some twenty minutes later I spotted Matthew coming off down the road as well, probably about fifteen minutes behind. Rather than wait for him I continued on, figuring I could get down and retrieve the car before he reached the trailhead.
An odd stand of redwood trees grows along the ridge (odd because they usually grow in the cooler, wetter areas of the canyons and gullies), and it was here that the two hikers had told us to head left off the road to find the East Molera Trail which was easy enough. I found a group of three backpackers lounging on a log here, evidently resting after a long climb up from the road. I ran into several other groups of dayhikers who were coming up for the wildflower displays and I expect they were not disappointed (oddly enough, Matthew reported later that he hadn't seen any of these others on his way down). I continued down the trail for 1500 vertical feet towards Andrew Molera SP until it entered the shadier oak forest below. I made another turn and followed the directions as I had remembered them, passing a water tank, a right turn, and finally out through a cattle gate alongside Highway 1. There was the white Navigator, just as promised. As I got in and started the car up, I realized just how trusting those other two were. Not only did they give us the keys to a fully loaded Navigator, but a wallet bursting with credit cards and some cash was cradled in the armrest, along with a cell phone and some expensive-looking GPS equipment. I drove the car back up the road and left it in the parking lot at the diner just inside Big Sur State Park. There was a two hour limit on parking there, but I had to trust that it wasn't strictly enforced, as this is where we had agreed I'd leave it. I put the key back where I'd found it and walked the quarter mile or so to my car, crossing the Big Sur River once again.
By the time I got back to the trailhead, Matthew had arrived a few minutes earlier. He wasn't sure he had gotten to the right trailhead and went back a short ways to re-verify his directions, and found me upon his return. It had been a grand day with about 7.5hrs of hiking. That was enough for two days, and though it was but early afternoon, we were happy to make our return to San Jose for some much needed rest...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Manuel Peak
This page last updated: Mon Feb 4 10:11:58 2013
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