Backpacking Ventana Wilderness & Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park


Backpacking Ventana Wilderness: A(nother) Rocky Start

Three weeks after my first attempt I gave backpacking a second try, this time in the Ventana Wilderness and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.

My original plan was a trip to Plumas County’s Bucks Lake Wilderness. Except…a big lightning storm was predicted. So, I switched to a 4-day 50 mile loop starting from the Pine Ridge trail head at Big Sur Station. Unfortunately, plan C was destined for failure too. When I arrived, I found the parking lot closed. The officer at the ranger station explained that between forest fires and mud slides, Pine Ridge was accessible only from the other side of the mountain.

Pine Ridge Trail, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Pine Ridge Trail, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. IT’S CLOSED!

(The closure wasn’t obvious from the Los Padres National Forest website. This site posts reliable trail status updates. I did see it during my research but assumed it was out-of-date based on the webdesign. Should have paid attention!)

The ranger had a few alternative suggestions but no maps for sale. I snapped a photo of the laminated ranger station map and hit the road. On the drive, I listened to the audio version of Stay Sexy and Don’t get Murdered, the My Favorite Murder memoir, but had to turn it off when I hit the “Stay Out of the Forest” chapter.

Kirk Creek, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Kirk Creek, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. And, yes, that’s my thumb in the corner.

Backpacking Ventana Wilderness Day 1: Kirk Creek Trail to Vincente Flat

I parked on the road across from Kirk Creek Campground and I got on the trail about 12:30. It was only 5 miles to the first camp at Vincente Flat, but I hadn’t anticipated just how much the uphill climb combined with the 20 lb pack would slow me down. My first backpacking experience on the Slate Creek Trail felt easy, despite occasional mild climbs. Kirk Creek did not. I stopped often to rest and drink water, enjoining the view and taking plenty of pictures to justify the pauses.

The landscape is mountain meadow studded with wildflowers even late in May.  And of course, waist high Poison Oak (watch out for that). Wherever there is a stream, which seems to average about every mile-and-half, a ribbon of redwood forest runs down the hillside. The abrupt changes give the hills an oddly punk rock look, like shaved heads with Mohawks.

The Snake (Maybe)

I passed (and was passed by) many other hikers on Day 1. This first leg is popular with day trippers, and almost no one else had a pack, making me feel especially slow and out of shape. Around 2:00, hikers headed downhill started warning me about a rattle snake alongside the trail. They referred to it almost like a geographic feature: an hour and fifteen to the rattle snake, forty minutes to the rattle snake.

Time estimates as opposed to mileage were especially unhelpful. My pace was so slow the snake could have been almost anywhere. I began to worry, watching the edges of the trail carefully, pausing at every shadow, every fallen branch. In the end the snake (or what I think was probably the snake) was nowhere near where I expected it to be, out in the sun and grass. Instead it was concealed in a pile of leaves in one of the shadier sections of trail. I heard the noise when I was practically on top of it. My heart beat hard in my head and I hurried on, never looking back. Honestly, it could have been just a big lizard or something.

Vincente Flat

Vincente Flat lies in the redwoods above Limekiln State Park at the top of Hare Canyon ravine. I arrived there about 5:00. There are no reservations, but it was easy to find a spot. I chose one near the creek and set up camp.

Vincente Flat a popular destination, and it’s clear that not everyone who camps there practices “leave no trace” in the strict sense. Lots of scraps of toilet paper laying around in random places (thankfully, not right in camp). I soaked my feet in the creek, filtered water for the first time (magic!), and ate the entire bag of freeze dried mac and cheese. By 6:30 I had a terrible pulsing headache. I broke out the first aide kit, took two aspirin, and fell asleep before dark.

Backpacking Ventana Wilderness Day 2: Stone Ridge Trail from Vincente Flat to Goat Camp

I broke camp and started out on Stone Ridge Trail at 9:00 AM. It stayed clear overnight but as I left the Flat I looked down to see the mist rising behind me. The elevation increased and the terrain had changed. The meadows were dry and riddled with gopher holes. Succulents grew from the rocks along the sides of the trail between big stands of oaks and dense Poison Oak. I saw dozens of lizards and a few birds. At one point, I passed through a huge field of sage in bloom, vibrating with bees.

I covered 5.96 miles, arriving in Goat Camp by 2:20 PM. The bugs there were beyond terrible and it was still early, so I decided to make for Spring Camp just under the summit of Cone Peak. I hoped to loop back to the Flat the following day, using a fire road for part of the trip.

View from Stone Ridge Trail, Ventana Wilderness
View from Stone Ridge Trail, Ventana Wilderness

Gamboa Trail

It was a hard push to the Ojito Camp spur and start of the Gamboa Trail, uphill, through brush, under and over fallen trees. I could feel a sunburn coming on, despite the sunscreen. Around this time I started fantasizing about a Best Western. Maybe, I thought, I’d stay in one on the drive home. With a pool. And a Cesar salad. And a giant glass of wine.

Then…I lost the trail. I was somewhere on the Gamboa, between the Ojito and Trail Spring camps. I’d scrambled down a slope, scraping up my leg, and crossed a meadow, and I just couldn’t pick up the trail again on the other side.

Cone Peak was visible so I knew about where I needed go–but it had to be another 3 or 4 miles, and I wasn’t making good time. I was tired, getting clumsy, running low on water and unsure if there would be more, despite the “spring” in the name of the camp. The best option was backtracking to Goat Camp–as little as I wanted to.

Goat Camp (again)

I reached Goat Camp again by 5:30. There, as I struggled to set up camp with about three dozen horrible flies darting at my face, my tent pole broke, splitting longways down the center. I tried to MacGyver it with rubber bands and tent stakes, but the pressure was too strong and the pole kept slipping free. I broke off the split section against a rock and tried to join the two poles, but the broken pole just split further.

Broken tent, Ventana Widlerness
Broken Tent!

I was thoroughly coated in bug spray and tick repellent, but the longer I stayed out, the more flies and mosquito circled me. Finally, desperate, I stripped off my Poison Oak-covered pants and dove inside the collapsed tent. I lay there with the netting resting directly on my head, drinking water and reading the The Marriage Plot–probably the most incongruous book I could have chosen for the trip. A few stray insects had managed to follow me inside. I used the The Marriage Plot to smash them.

After an hour my tired brain decompressed enough to come up with an actual solution. Reluctantly, I left my shelter long enough to stake the tent corners and prop the broken leg with my pack. With that extra support it did stand–albeit at an angle. I had no appetite, but I choked down some dried fruit and nuts anyway, hung my dry sack from a nearby tree, and retreated to the tent for the rest of the night.

Backpacking Ventana Wilderness Day 3: Goat Camp to Kirk Creek

I left Goat Camp at 6:50. After a quick pause to filter and fill up my water at the nearby creek, I set out for Kirk Creek Campground. I made good time, reaching the Flat at 10:35, and by 1:50 I was back at the car, having covered 10.5 miles in less than 7 hours. Amazing the difference a downward slope makes!

I couldn’t wait to do it again. Or rather, I could wait–but only a week or so.

One thought on “Backpacking Ventana Wilderness & Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

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