Trip Review: Pine Valley / Church Creek Lollipop Loop

Waterfalls, wildflowers and sandstone monoliths on the last day of Spring in California

Kristen frolics amongst the flowers in Pine Valley
  • Region: Big Sur / Ventana Wilderness
  • Date of Visit: May 29th, 2022
  • Total Length: ~16 miles
  • Elevation Gain: ~3,800 feet
  • Elevation Loss: ~3,700 feet
Trail map of the Pine Valley / Church Valley Lollipop — drawn using AllTrails.
Initial views into Church Creek Valley featuring striking sandstone and the dwindling hue of the owl’s clover
Sandstone monoliths skirt the valley below, the lupine in the foreground holding onto the last of spring.
Sky Lupine and an unknown yellow flower bask along the high side of the ridge.
(1) Big black beetle lumbers along the Pine Ridge Trail (2) (3) Chapparal yucca in pre-bloom and post-bloom form!
(1) Sky lupine playfully dot the Pine Ridge Trail (2) Purple owl’s clover soaks up the morning rays.
A strong stand of Ponderosa Pine tower over green meadows along the descent into Pine Valley,
A jaw dropping display of sky lupine have found their home in Pine Valley for the spring
The Jack English Cabin beneath a mighty sandstone backdrop.
Clear pools on smooth rocks as the Carmel River picks up momentum. Each deep pool had at least one decently sized trout that didn’t remain visible for long.
The perfect swimming hole at Pine Falls — link to video below.
Golden meadows wave in the wind along the descent into Church Creek Valley.
(1) Kristen denied her wish by a reluctant dandelion (2) First sightings of Church Creek, holding enough flow to satisfy local steelhead 🐟
(1) A mighty oak provides shade to a pasture at Church Creek Ranch (2) a small bridge crossing over Church Creek, leading into private property on Church Ranch
A mighty sandstone arch with an intricate network of lung-like pockets
White hand paintings dot the walls along the caves — you may need to zoom in on photo #2
(1) Sandstone knobs make for a rock-climber’s dream (2) Kristen chillin’ in the rock pocket
(1) An inside look at smooth, curved sandstone features (2) Further (assumed) cave paintings in black along a 3D carve-out
Full-print hands in a dark corner along one set of the caves
A good lookin’ peak (name unknown) that kept getting better as we climbed.
Panoramic views along Church Ranch Road
Incredible camouflage — can you spot the horned toad?
The horned toad up close — such a handsome little guy!
A chapparal yucca (vying for my favorite Ventana plant) rises up in preparation for a summer bloom.
Church Ranch Road providing ultra-clear visibility into the Church Creek and Tassajara Creek watershed — views as far south as Cone Peak.
  • Backpacking vs. Day Hiking: This loop is certainly a formidable day hike, coming out to somewhere between 16–18 miles. For perspective, it is not nearly as taxing as summiting Cone Peak in a single day. As for backpacking, you could structure this as a one night out and back, spending the night in Pine Valley, or two nights, likely spending on night at China Camp and another in Pine Valley. I did not explore the camping options in Church Valley, but my sense is that it is limited, as it quickly becomes private property. Finally, an amazing but logistically challenging way to do this trip would be to leave a car at Big Sur Station, and kick things off at China Camp, and hiking the Pine Ridge Trail all the way through.
  • Weather / Seasonal Planning: I imagine that the best months to make this trip are between November and June, depending on your weather preference. In Big Sur I prefer wet conditions over dry and if I am camping, I prefer to be able to have a fire at night, which is prohibited between June and December in the Los Padres National Forest generally. In winter, there is apparently snow in both Pine Valley and Church Valley, which I imagine is beautiful. Summer / Fall out here to me screams dry, hot, ticks, poison oak and biting black flies, but would opt for a cooler day if you are committed to a summer trip.

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David Yocom

San Francisco-Based | Venture Capital at iSelect Fund | Venture for America | Aspiring Outdoorsman | Future of Food & Nutrition | Mediocre Guitarist | Fitness |