Cone Peak P2K CC

Nov 7, 2003
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profile
later climbed Oct 5, 2010

The weekend weather forcast for the entire state of California was either rain, snow, or some significant probability thereof. I needed to drive down to San Diego Saturday night to meet up with my family and drive my son home to San Jose the following day. That left me two days, Friday and Saturday, to get some hiking in. I had decided that I wanted to finish the SoCal county highpoints with a climb of Big Pine Mtn near Santa Barbara one day, but what to do with the other? I finally settled on Cone Peak in the Ventana Wilderness. It isn't the highest, most difficult, or of any major significance, except perhaps one of the few places in California one can climb from sea level to over 5,000ft in a little over 12 miles. Rain, cold, and zero views were expected, so what was my motivation? I wasn't sure, but it was clear that I wasn't going for the nice weather and great views.

I left San Jose around 8p Thursday night and drove down US101 and SR1 past Lucia. I drove past the Gamboa trailhead twice, but bracketing it into a progressively narrow range of possibilities, I was able to locate the indistinct, unmarked trailhead alongside the highway at night. The area immediately surrounding the trailhead has extremely steep cliffs above and below the highway, and huge nets draped over the hillsides indicate an ongoing battle with the moving landmass. From all indications, the cliffs were winning the battle - it's simply a matter of time. On the ocean side of the road was a huge pullout area where I pulled over to spend the night. It seemed unlikely I'd have to worry about rocks tumbling down and bowling me over in this location. But to be safe I placed the car between me and the cliffs on the other side of the road. I had had some light rain driving from Monterey southward, but nothing heavy. It was very dark out with overcast skies, and few signs of civilization, other than the occasional cars that I had passed. This far south of Big Sur sees very little nighttime traffic, and I doubt there were more than three or four cars that came by during the night. I slept on the ground inside my bivy sack, comfortable for the remainder of the night. Some rain came pattering on my bivy at various times, but nothing very heavy and it never lasted for long.

In the morning there was some partial clearing (heavy emphasis on partial) and the temperature was warmer than I had expected, probably around 55F. I folded my bivy, pad, and bag in two and tossed them in the back of the car. No need to put it away now, and leaving it mostly open would give the bivy a chance to dry during the day. I ate my breakfast of cereal, shouldered my daypack, and was on the trail at 6:45a. The "trail" for the first mile and a half or so is a 4x4 road that is gated and has been closed to traffic for some time. It climbs steeply in a few switchbacks up 500ft before leveling off as it enters West Limekiln Canyon. The canyon (and many more like it along the Big Sur Coast) hides a wonderful treasure of redwood forest all but invisible from the drive along the highway. The road crosses the creek and goes through an old homestead before climbing to a grassy area on the other side of the forest. Here the road ends and the Wilderness begins.

The connecting trail between the road and the junction with the Stone Ridge Trail above is unmaintained, though one can find a few pink ribbons marking the route if looking carefully (I wasn't, and didn't see them until the way down). Several use trails head up the hillsides, and I followed one that seemed convenient. I lost the trail and found others several times until I had climbed up another 1,000ft and found the maintained trail. Ah, it would be easy now I naively thought. The Gamboa Trail is not at all what one will find on the USGS maps. They show the trail as it was many years ago, starting on the next ridge north shared with a hermitage. Fortunately the USFS maps do show the correct trail locations, which is what I was using for navigation today. The trail leveled out for the most part on the way to Goat Camp, with only gradual ups and downs along the way. The trouble with this section is that it is built on an unstable hillside and the trail is badly slumping in most places. The rains had loosened the earth once again for the season, and I had trouble maintaining a steady footing. Several times I took dives as earth gave way under my foot, and I had little mini-panics as I feared my whole body might go down the steep slopes as well. The worst I got from it was a bit of a mud bath. Besides the slumping trail, poison oak was a serious threat to my pleasant outing. I have mishandled the stuff so many times I've lost count, and it's always a very painful experience. In autumn most of the leaves are red and falling off, so one has to watch for the empty branches as well as the leaves to avoid exposure. So between dancing around poisonous bushes and watching for the slumping trail, there wasn't much time left to take in the non-existent views.

I took in my last views of the ocean and surrounding cliffs before I was immersed in the cloud layer. Visibility dropped to about 40 yards, and thankfully not much worse. There would be moments throughout the day that a side canyon or distant hilltop would be visible through a break in the clouds (fog, at this point), but they were rare. I took a small break a Goat Camp to eat a granola bar and have a sip of water. I carried a quart of water with me, but with the cold and drizzle I was never very thirsty, and never did finish the water I had with me. Shortly past Goat Camp the trail climbs more steeply as I came to the end of the canyon. The trail moved out from under the oak forest onto the grassy hillside, and by 9:30a I was finally atop the ridge (~3600ft). The map showed a trail junction with a short side trail heading down the other side of the ridge to Ojito Camp, but I found no sign. I wandered over the ridge and down the trail about a hundred yards before deciding I was going the wrong way and heading to Ojito. I walked back up to the ridge, and then looked around until I found an old sign nailed to tree. Part of it was missing, but I found the top 2" piece lying about on the ground and I put it back atop the sign to make it readable again, at least temporarily. Most likely the sign used to be on a standalone post which was lost to the elements. Where I found it on the tree wasn't obvious from the trail junction, and it was pointing 90 degrees off from where it should have been, but at least it was helpful enough to get me on my way towards the next camp at Trail Spring.

It hadn't rained but a few sprinkles so far in the day, but all the bushes and trees were quite wet. I had had to don my rain pants and jacket just to keep from getting soaked as I brushed aside the countless bushes along the trail. The cool temperatures kept me from getting overheated, and I was fairly comfortable even if a bit damp under everything. My shoes had been soaked through for several hours, making my feet the wettest part of my body. Happily, they weren't complaining.

Now I was making pretty good time and started to figure I'd be on the summit in a bit over four hours, not bad for a 12.5mi hike. This next section of the trail followed the contours of the hillside making it almost flat, and I was just humming along smoothly. So smoothly in fact that I wandered right past Trail Springs without even noticing it, and continued on towards Cook Camp. This was bad news indeed, because the junction with the Cone Peak Trail is at Trail Springs. Off I wandered obliviously for over half a mile. Then I noticed the nicely groomed trail I had been on earlier had given way to overgrowth that I had to push through. I began to think I might be lost. I stopped to consult my compass. It was packed in a plastic bag with some spare batteries for my headlamp, and I had to take it out of the bag to keep the batteries from interferring with its proper functioning. I had expected to find I was travelling SE, but the compass was pointing just west of north. That was nearly 180 degrees off! Crap, I had missed my junction.

I started back, keeping the compass out for reference. How could I miss something so obvious? I began to think I had taken the wrong trail out from the Ojito junction several miles earlier. All manner of possibilities spun about in my head as the fog swirled about and I made tracks in reverse. I stopped several times to consult the map. Shouldn't there have been a stream at the junction I missed? Was it dry this time of year? As all the questions rushed through my brain I began to wonder if my compass was correct. Did the batteries somehow demagnetize it? Wait, did the red end of the needle point north or the white end? Now I was getting really confused. So much so that I convinced myself that the white end was north (it wasn't), and it was either that I had forgotten that fact or the batteries had somehow reoriented the magnetization of the needle. My degree in electrical engineering completely failed to assist me in rejecting this notion. So not fifty yards from Trail Springs, I turned back around yet again and headed off in the wrong direction. The only thing that seemed certain was that I was no longer going to summit in four hours.

Convinced I had been right in the first place, I regained my furthest position and headed on. The trail climbed higher now, and soon joined up with a well-maintained trail at a junction marked with a large cairn but no signs. Was this Trail Springs? I took the right branch thinking that should be the Cone Peak Trail. I took this for several hundred yards until I became convinced it was heading downhill, not up as shown on the map. Nope, this wasn't it. As I turned around and headed back to the cairn, I surmised that it could have been one of the old trails still shown on the USGS maps. In fact it was the Coast Ridge Trail and if I had followed it for another mile I would have been at the parking lot at the end of Cone Peak Road, and little more than a stone's throw from the summit of Cone Peak. Still unconvinced I had gone too far, I continued to follow my compass with the white end pointing north, still thinking I was heading south. The clouds were simply too thick to allow me to guess anything about direction from the position of the sun. At the cairn I took the left branch and continued north, soon coming to another junction, again unsigned. I was getting frustrated with the lack of signage, and to make things less pleasant it began to drizzle more. I wasn't even going to make the summit in five hours it seemed now.

At this new junction I again took the right branch to start. But after a third of a mile the trail began to thin and I lost it entirely shortly thereafter in the thickets. The trail had followed an old phone line of some sort, a few poles with a stranded wire hanging limply between some of them all that remained. I could see the poles continuing off in the distance, but no real trail. Once again I turned back. At the trail junction I then took the left branch, and this led further along the ridge crest I seemed to be following (the fog and mist made it hard to tell for sure), and continued higher. As long as the way led higher I figured I might be going in the right direction. My compass pointed north in the direction I travelled, but by now I was convinced it was pointing south, and the pieces were fitting into place like a puzzle though I had to jam them in with force. But it was going to be six hours to the summit now.

The trail skirted a highpoint on the right, just as the map indicated the Cone Peak Trail did. I followed the trail a quarter mile further until I could confirm that it started heading downhill again. In addition the trail turned into an old jeep road, so I figured I wasn't far from the Cone Peak Road. I backtracked to the highpoint on the trail looking for a side use trail to the summit above. This surprised me since I expected Cone Peak to be well-visited. Isn't there a lookout tower above? No matter - I struck off through the bush. I came across an old pull-top from a beverage can and a discarded glass jar. Wherever I was, I wasn't the first person to tread here. I clawed my way up to the top of the point, then wandered along the ridge looking for the highpoint a bit further off. Nothing at this point made me think I was on (or even near) the summit, and I finally admitted to myself that I was totally lost. Despite my detailed map and compass, I had absolutely no idea where I was other than somewhere in the southern part of the Ventana Wilderness. The only thing I could do was backtrack the way I came, and hope I didn't get lost in the process. Six hours or hundred, it didn't seem I would be finding my way to the summit today.

As I made my way back (fortunately finding all the right turnoffs), I mulled over where I might have gone wrong. I returned to the compass and decided I had been a bonehead, that the red side did indeed point north. So I concluded I must have somehow missed the junction with the Cone Peak Trail. As I retraced the route where I had first backtracked, I found the trail returning to a narrow canyon where I guessed the junction must be. Sure enough, there was not one but two signs indication the junction. The more obvious one was quite large, said "Gamboa Trail" across the top, and even had a pink ribbon dangling from it. It was less than five feet from the trail and I had completely missed it. A less obvious sign on the other side of the trail said "Cone Peak" and pointed to the trail going up the hillside. When I had turned around the first time several hours earlier, I was but 50 yards from returning to this junction. Instead, I had turned back around and continued to mire myself deeper into confusion. And so it goes. It was now past 1p and the sign indicated I had 11mi to return to the trailhead. The important thing was to get back to the old jeep trail before dark - the last mile could be done well enough with a headlamp. If I jogged a good deal it seemed I should be able to do it, even if I continued to the summit. And so I did.

The trail climbed a steep hillside via a number of switchbacks before topping out on the ridge. It was a pleasant walk along and around the ridgeline, despite the windy conditions adding to the constant fog and mist. At least it wasn't really raining and I was staying fairly warm. A sign at a last trail junction indicated a quarter mile to the summit off the main Cone Peak Trail. Some last uphill climbing and I was atop Cone Peak shortly before 2p. The lookout station was boarded, bolted, and otherwise abandoned, though it appeared in decent shape and allowed access to the walkway around its perimeter. I did the obligatory tour all the way around, but of course could see no farther than about 50 feet. It was starting to precipitate again and with the windy conditions it could accurately be described as a driving drizzle. I took a quick photo from the top and headed down.

Now, according to the signs I was 12.5mi from the trailhead, which ought to take about four hours hiking at a steady clip. It was 2:05p when I left the summit, and I expected it to get dark shortly after 5p. So jogging the trail was in order. It took only 15 minutes to return to Trail Springs, and another 30 minutes or so to reach the Ojito Camp junction. I made good time jogging down to Goat Camp, but then had to slow down as I traversed the slumping portion of the trail, working to tread lightly and also avoiding the poison oak. When I got down to the unmaintained portion of the trail I found a series of widely spaced pink ribbons marking the best of the use trails found in the area, and quite helpful. I was able to return well before dark, in fact taking only 2.5hrs to descend from Cone Peak. That was pretty good time I figured, but I doubt it was really 12.5mi as indicated by the signs. That would mean I had averaged 5mi/hr, but I suspect it was closer to 4mi/hr. The difference might be explained by the trail realignment that happened some years ago, and the signs may predate the realignment. So whether I did 25mi or 30mi I wasn't sure, but I felt surprisingly good. I hadn't dropped into the I-wish-this-thing-were-over mode that I often do at the end of a long day. It had been frustrating to be sure, but still fun. I imagine on a fine weather day it would make for a really beautiful hike.

I stripped off my wet clothes (everything was pretty much soaked by this time) and changed into some fresh dry ones, having the effect of making me feel 100% better already. The sun was starting to fall on the horizon and I had a few glimpses of reddish clouds in the distance to mark its departure, but not a really satisfying sunset. I had been thinking since noon that I would probably cancel my plans for Big Pine Mtn the following day, but as I drove down Highway 1, rehydrating and eating candy from a plastic pumpkin I had pilfered from my four-year old, I felt better. The further south I drove the better the weather seemed to get, though clouds were still the predominant covering over the night sky.

I had eaten a couple granola bars since breakfast, and though the candy was fun to eat it was hardly satisfying. I was pretty famished and needed dinner. I found a suitable place (Mondo Burrito, or something like that) in Arroyo Grande, a suburban coastal town between Pismo Beach and Santa Maria. Afterwards it was another long drive east on SR166. Heading away from the coast the sky grew more promising and I could see stars making their appearance in a number of holes developing in the cloud layer. Maybe the rain would hold off the next day, I optimistically opined. The trailhead to Big Pine Mtn is obscure, and without Suttle's directions from his book I would have had much more trouble than I did. It's not too far from the SR166/SR33 junction, but that itself is in a pretty remote part of California. It was after 10:30p when I parked the car, and by the time I had the bivy set up outside and done my bedtime ritual, it was 11p. I set the alarm to 5a in hopes of getting an early start.


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