Palo Corona
Doud Peak
Portuguese Ridge
Puerta del Diablo

Mon, Apr 4, 2011
Palo Corona
Puerta del Diablo
Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile

The fine spring weather was continuing across the central part of the state and less than a week since my last visit to the Big Sur coast I was back for more. I had been intrigued in passing to see a trail heading steeply up the grassy slopes on the east side of the highway in Garrapata State Park. Doing some online investigation, I found that the park contained no named summits on that side of the road, but there were several only a short distance outside the park that looked to be reachable by a combination of trail, ranch road, and bits of cross-country. It seemed possible to make a loop of a visit to Palo Corona, descending a ridge just south of the park, up and over a second summit, Puerta del Diablo. I could see vestiges of trail on this latter ridgeline from the satellite views, but figured if it proved too brushy or overgrown with poison oak I could retreat back the way I'd come.

It was not quite 6:30a when I reached the starting point along Hwy 1. It was still some 40 minutes until sunrise, but it was easily light enough to see without headlamp. I started up the Rocky Ridge Trail, immediately becoming a steep ascent, climbing hundreds of feet in a very short time. One has fine views of the Pacific for much of the way. Daybreak neared as I reached an overlook bench around 7a. It was one of the finest view spots with a bench I've seen in all the state. Beyond this, the slope levels out some as it continues east into the interior of the park. Sunrise came as I dived into my pack for a hat. The sun popped up brightly behind the grassy knoll almost directly in my eyes. It wasn't until this moment that it was apparent to me just how green the hills were, no small surprise to me. I've been used to expecting Big Sur hills to be covered in chaparral and perhaps some pines or oaks, the canyons steeped in redwood trees. The abundance of grass for many square miles around the area was an unexpected treat. It was too early yet for the height of spring flowers, but already there were some popping up through the grass and others getting ready to bloom in the next few weeks.

A sign was found at a junction indicating the backside of the Rocky Ridge Trail was closed due to landslides. This presented no problem to me as I intended to continue east along a thinner trail labeled Peak Trail, although to what peak this name referred to was somewhat obscure. The trail continued for almost another half hour to the park boundary at a fence on the east side. Curiously, there were some redwoods growing high on the flanks of the hillside north of the trail, possibly spring-fed, but looking wholely out of place. At the fence boundary a sign indicated the area beyond was off-limits, as expected, but it also suggested that it was public property - possibly a newer acquisition that had not been integrated into the park. Another fifteen minutes past the sign gave another suggestion - cattle were still ranging the area. For tax break purposes, ranch land is sometimes ceded or sold to the state with stipulations that grazing would be allowed to continue for some time, usually the life of the rancher or a descedent. In any case, I found several dozen in a herd near a spring where bathtubs were filled with water for the benefit of the grazing animals. Leaving them undisturbed, I continued up, following the ridgeline until I reached a ranch road in the vicinity of Palo Corona. A picnic bench was located near the road atop a grassy knoll. The views to Monterey Bay and the surrounding hills were idyllic.

I followed this road south for about a mile to where it passes just east of the summit, passing through a rickety gate enroute. Some effort was taken to find a way past thick brush that surrounds the highest hilltop. I eventually found a way through on the SE side, rewarding me with a closeup view of a large oak that occupied the highpoint. Hunched over, there wasn't much else to see, surrounded by bushes reaching well over head level. There was no cache or other notables to be found there. I returned to the road and followed it down a bit to get a view down Portuguese Ridge.

An old version of the topo map showed a trail along here, but I had no luck in spotting a likely starting point to make my way down. I found grass slopes on the south side of the ridge that bypassed the chaparral-chocked ridgeline at the top. From what I could see of Portuguese Ridge, the lower half looked grassy and easily manageable. A dense section in the middle looked to be the most difficult, perhaps half a mile in length, probably less. I decided to give it a go, figuring I had plenty of time to climb back up and return the way I came if things got too difficult. The grass slopes on the upper section worked nicely to bypass the messy top. A fenceline I came to not far below the highpoint indicated a property boundary between two ranches. Animal trails led along the uphill side of the fence and got me over to the ridgeline. I spotted poison oak as soon as I reached the ridge, necessitating some tiptoeing and high-stepping to avoid. In places it would slow me down considerably, but it was never so dense as to present an impregnable wall that would turn me back. I didn't mind stepping on the stuff with my boots, but I avoided brushing against it even with the long pants I wore.

As luck would have it, an animal trail - or rather a series of these - ran down most of the spine of Portuguese Ridge, mostly favoring the shady understory on the northwest side. After crossing a small creeklet, the grassy slopes and forest understory had carried me as far down the ridge as I could before having to confront the chaparral section. This section was decorated with both flowers and poison oak, dense brush on the sunny southeast side, tunnelling understory to the northwest. It took about 30 minutes to pass this section, perhaps a quarter mile in total, and once through it was as smooth sailing as I could have hoped. Another half hour was taken in descending the ridge and then hiking the short distance to the summit of Puerta del Diablo. A large cairn marked the highest point with a second one a bit lower on the south side where a better view in that direction could be had. There was no register at either location that I could find and I left none myself. The topo map indicates a benchmark near the second cairn, but I did not find it - perhaps it was under the cairn I had no inclination to disassemble. With the clear weather there were fine views in all directions, Palo Colorado behind me, steep ridges both north and south, the blue Pacific invitingly to the west.

There seemed to be several possible ridges for descent from Puerta del Diablo. I choose the ridgeline to the north, closest to Granite Creek. There were faint vestiges of animal trails decending the ridgeline and I utilized these where I could for the enjoyable descent down flower-studded, grass slopes. The route provided an unusual vantage for viewing the Granite Creek Bridge from the east with the ocean behind it. On the lower slopes an old ranch road cut into the ridge on the south side and I used this to descend the last portion. The road circled around the west and then north side as it dropped to Granite Creek behind the bridge, then continued north along the edge of the highway. Walls of poison oak blocked my return to the highway only a short distance to the west and it was necessary to walk several hundred yards to an open pastureland where a gate provided a way back to the highway.

I had to walk Hwy 1 north between Granite and Soberanes Creeks to get back to the car, a few extra miles worth. Along the way I passed by the Marine Pollution Studies Lab at Granite Canyon, fences keeping out the public. Just north of this was a long inlet in which I spotted a number of sea otters frolicking. Poison oak starting at the highway effectively keeps out the curious even had there been no fence. At Soberanes Creek I left the highway briefly to investigate the sound of a waterfall near the beach. Not as picturesque as McWay Fall, but it was a neat 20-foot drop followed by a short cascade to the beach. I was just able to scramble down the south side of the watercourse to view it from the water's edge, then an easier scramble back up the north side.

It was just before 11:30a when I finished my loop, making for a 5-hour total for the morning. Two hours later I was back in San Jose, before the kids were let out of school. A day well spent, indeed.

Anonymous comments on 04/04/11:
Goddamn you hike a lot-lucky bastard! :)
Chris Randall comments on 12/03/11:
Just went out and climbed to Palo Corona yesterday following the same path. It was a glorious hike with gorgeous weather. As you said, the summit was nothing to behold, but the path up, and even more so, the hike down, was well worth the effort. The slow hike down felt like a scene from The Sound of Music.
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