Trip Review: Pine Valley / Church Creek Lollipop Loop
Waterfalls, wildflowers and sandstone monoliths on the last day of Spring in California
Trip Overview & Specs
- 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
It feels a bit like I am beating a dead horse here, but I first came across descriptions of Pine Valley, Pine Falls, and Church Creek Valley through the writings of Leor Pantilat. Like many of the diverse microcosms of Big Sur and the Ventana Wilderness, the watersheds that drain the west side of Tassajara Road (which lies along the east-edge of the region), seemed to offer a tantalizingly unique mix of features including stands of ponderosa pines, sandstone monoliths, historic cabins, ancient ranches, gorgeous wildflower displays, pristine waterfalls and secret caves. That such places remain so seemingly unknown is a wonder in and of itself.
As an aside, I continue to find that, although there are many fantastic Big Sur hikes that begin along the east side of the Santa Lucia range, they are significantly less frequented than those that gain access via Highway 1. Pascal, Kevin & I definitely appreciated this solitude whilst traversing the Marble Peak Trail last Spring, a few weeks prior to the Willow Fire.
I expect this disparity to continue in large part due to 1) trail access and quality issues, 2) Highway 1’s popularity and 3) seasonality. The Miller Canyon Trail is a prime example of point number 1. Once an elegant loop trail connecting the Pine Ridge Trail and Carmel Valley Trail from China Camp, the Miller Canyon Trail is functionally a lost trail, except to extremely experienced individuals. Recent reports of lost hikers that had to be rescued from the Miller Canyon Trail speak to the dangers of attempting to navigate unkempt wilderness trails, which are more frequently dilapidated in the eastern and central regions of Big Sur. At one point, I had planned to see Pine Falls and Pine Valley via this loop, featuring the Miller Canyon Trail, but was quickly dissuaded after further research. Always check for recent trail updates for wilderness regions, particularly in Big Sur.
But I digress. All in all, this was a fantastic day hike, connecting China Camp at Tassajara Road, to Pine Valley & Pine Falls, and looping back along the Church Creek Trail and Church Ranch Road. We hit the trail at approximately 8:30am and were back to the car around 6:15pm, spending plenty of time along the way to take in the sights. And to feast at the Salinas In-N-Out afterward — duh. This loop is both a worthy day trip as well as a potential 1–2 night outing. I discuss more details at the bottom 👇 on how to think through the logistics.
Transit: San Francisco ➞ China Camp Campground via Tassajara Road
Kristin and I departed San Francisco at 5:15AM on the Sunday morning of Labor Day Weekend, 2022, enjoying clear roads and skies all the way to China Camp, from where the east end of the Pine Ridge Trail begins. Navigating to China Camp isn’t too tricky, as you can just plug it into Google Maps, but I would generally recommend a 4-wheel or all-wheel drive vehicle to cover the portions of the road that are unpaved. The road was in overall good condition, but I have read reports that further down, closer to Tassajara Hot Springs, that the things get dicier. I imagine that conditions after heavy rains would be worse. Otherwise, plan to enjoy a pleasant drive through the always stunning Carmel Valley.
Section 1: China Camp to Pine Valley & Pine Falls via Pine Ridge Trail & Carmel Valley Trail
Tassajara Road eventually climbs high along the ridge allowing for clear views to the east and west. Once at China Camp, there are dedicated spots at the trailhead in addition to spots along the road. I believe you can also drive down into the campsite itself, which is off to the right.
This “lollipop” loop begins at the east end of the Pine Ridge Trail, a recently restored trail that connects to China Camp in the east and to Big Sur Station in the west. Had we continued on the Pine Ridge Trail, we would have crossed into the ever-so-popular Sykes Hot Springs, which was re-opened in April 2021 after 5-years of post-Soberanes fire-induced trail closure.
Temperatures were initially quite cool, with winds blowing in from the Pacific. These winds would prove to be welcomed later! The first quarter mile of trail was covered by high chapparal on both sides, but quickly opened up to views of the Church Creek Valley. Clear skies provided views as far south as Cone Peak, whose pointy summit was clearly visible on the southern horizon.
In the Ventana Wilderness, timing is everything, in terms of planning for water, temperature, bugs and flowers. I wasn’t sure what kind of wildflower displays might still be persisting, given that we were butting up against summer following another climate-change-impacted dry year in California. But, much to my surprise and our luck, the Santa Lucia’s had held on to spring for a few more days, expressed in the form of expanses of sky lupine and purple owl’s clover. The poppies seem to be more inclined for fancy coastal view 🙄. I’ll take what I can get.
This section of the Pine Ridge Trail waslively with critters, including alligator lizards, western fence lizards, whiptails, and snakes, supercharged by the early-summer sun. I unfortunately didn’t have the same success catching any of my reptilian friends as I did at Cone Peak earlier this year, and was limited to admiring from afar. This section of the trail undulates vertically, but isn’t terribly steep in either direction. At various points, before turning off onto the Carmel River Trail at Church Creek Divide, we were able to view the backside of Ventana Double Cone looming formidably to the Northwest.
Eventually the trail begins to descend to a nice resting point at Church Creek Divide that serves as a junction for three possible routes (signage is clear here). To the right (north), you can (1) turn right (north) down into Pine Valley via the Carmel River Trail, (2) continue straight (west) along the Pine Ridge Trail or (3) descend left (south) into Church Creek Valley. It should be noted that if you do continue down into Pine Valley along the Carmel River Trail, there is a trail that reconnects to the Pine Ridge Trail by Jack English’s cabin, should you need it.
We descended into Pine Valley, entering healthy groves of Ponderosa Pine, flanked on either side by a rock climber’s dream of sandstone formations. I remarked on our drive up Tassajara Road that I had never seen so many pine trees in the Big Sur / Ventana Wilderness before, and in Pine Valley this certainly was the case, although I also understand that the pine tree population here has suffered from both pine beetle infestations and fire damage.
Nearing the valley floor, two passing hikers mentioned a wildflower bloom that awaited us, but truthfully Kristin and I hardly expected the expanse of flowers that would have me grinning from ear to ear for the next 20 minutes.
As can be seen in the photos above, the entirety of Pine Valley’s floor was covered in the largest & densest swath of blooming sky lupine I have ever seen personally. The densest portions truly erupted in blue and purple, combined with the continuous buzz of airborne pollinators. There were 4–5 sizable campsites pleasantly positioned between the headwaters of the Carmel River and the wildflower frenzy that would have made for a magical evening. Surprisingly, for Memorial Day Weekend, the campsites were uncrowded, with at least half the sites unclaimed. It seemed like most people just stay one night down there.
Almost like a right-of-passage for true fans of the Big Sur / Ventana Wilderness area, eventually we came across Jack English’s cabin. There are a number of excellent written pieces that outline the history of Jack and his cabin, so in lieu of repeating them, I have included a few links below. But, to summarize, Jack English and his family purchased a small parcel of land in Pine Valley in 1976 after having been enamored with the area his whole life, hunting there as a boy. The cabin became a well-known staple of the Ventana Wilderness, as did Jack’s reputation as a kind, skillful and resourceful human being. Sadly, Jack died at the age of 96 in 2016, but the cabin remains, as does his family, who we were fortunate enough to meet.
- Farewell to Jack English, A True Craftsman Who Built a Good Life in the Wilderness
- Jack English, Ventana Wilderness Pioneer Dies at 96
- Returning Home to Pine Valley
I was surprised to find tents and people by the cabin, so I made a point to go over, say hello and figure out who the cabin caretakers might be. It turned out to be Jack’s son, Dennis, and his family, taking care of some “spring cleaning.” As you might imagine, maintaining a cabin deep in the backcountry of Big Sur is no small feat. Dennis was kind enough to give me some airtime and told us of his father’s great skills in woodworking and carpentry, and how he would make violin bows in his wood shop adjacent to the cabin. I was surprised to hear that the area gets significant snow in the winter as well — what a sight that would be!
Prior to reaching the cabin, we came to another trail junction. To the right, the Carmel River Trail continued north, past Jack’s Cabin, to the Los Padres Dam, and other trails such as the Puerto Suelo Trail (conditions unknown), which connects to Ventana Double Cone. To the left, the trail reconnects with the Pine Ridge Trail, heading out toward Sykes Hot Springs. The direct / straight continuation of the trail leads to Pine Falls. Kristin and I had to do a bit of trail finding, initially moseying around the Pine Ridge Trail before correcting course down toward the falls.
The hike down to Pine Falls is easy enough to follow, though it is semi-technical. Unlike more popular trails in Big Sur that follow along creekside (like the Vicente Flat Trail up to Cone Peak), there aren’t many cairns along the Pine Falls use trail. Regardless, it is gorgeous here. Trout dived and dodged in small pools along the headwaters of the Carmel River as did garter snakes on the banks of the trail. This route climbs and falls, frequently requiring attentive grappling and a handful of creek crossings.
Prior to reaching the Pine Falls, there is technical grappling section that must be taken in order to reconnect with the trail to get down to the water. It is, of course, worth working around, but deserves caution and an evaluation of the skills of your party.
Pine Falls speaks for itself, and even late in spring where the flow was certainly lighter than it would have been earlier in the year, expressed an immense serenity. Eden-like is the first word that came to mind when we finally sat down to take it in. Clear, cool, scenic, private and magical are others.
The water was definitely cold but well-worth the swim. It was definitely not deep enough to dive, but certainly to submerge fully or to do a playful jump off the ridge underneath the falls. We spent about 30–40 minutes by the water, soaking our feet and nibbling on snacks before climbing out to Pine Valley.
Section 2: Pine Falls to Church Creek Valley via Carmel River Trail & Church Creek Trail
In order to complete the second half of the lollipop, we navigated back to Church Creek Divide via the Carmel River Trail, basking for one last moment in the Pine Valley lupine super bloom. Once at Church Creek Divide, we began our descent into Church Creek Valley via the the Church Creek Trail.
The initial descent into Church Creek is reminiscent of many of the Ventana trails I have frequented over the past two years. The tread is faint and clearly receives a small fraction of the attention paid to more popular trails such as the Pine Ridge Trail. Initially we pushed through fairly standard chaparral trail encroachment, where there is at least one notable deadfall trail encroachment that causes a re-route across a dry creek bed that could cause one to lose the trail for a moment. However, once a bit further down into the valley, the trail opens up a bit, revealing idyllic golden meadows that I imagine are quite verdant for a short while in winter and spring.
The temperature continued to climb into the high 70s / low 80s though the draft of westerly winds kept conditions mild overall. As we descended, we traded the sounds of rustling leaves for rushing water in Church Creek, which eventually emerged to the right of the trail. By the looks of it, I would imagine that a significant portion of the creek dries up by the end of summer. Church Creek is lovely and had healthy enough flow to hold a few decently sized trout in some of its pools, which were quick to dodge my glance, as they are wont to do. The trail follows the creek until it essentially ends and connects with a wider trail that gets some vehicle traffic from the ranch, likely as a way for the English family to gain closer access to Pine Valley. That road / trail follows the creek until you reach Church Ranch — you can read up on some of its history here.
We continued down along the Church Creek Trail for some time until we decided it was time to chase the sun up Church Ranch Road. And, somewhere, down in the Church Creek Valley, amongst the sandstone outcroppings, there are a remarkable set of caves with white handprints originally inscribed by the Esselen people of Big Sur, likely thousands of years ago. Amongst these caves include unique sandstone arches and structures carved out by thousands of years of flowing water. If you are lucky and openminded, you might stumble upon them. For the sake of the sacredness of this place, I choose not to describe its location in any detail.
Section 3: Church Creek Valley to China Camp via Church Ranch Road & Tassajara Road
Once we completed our exploration of Church Valley, we noted the time and decided it was appropriate to begin hauling ass back up to Tassajara Road. We exited the Church Creek Trail, which continues all the way to the south end of Tassajara Road near Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, and opted for the ascent up Church Ranch Road. An adventure for another time.
Hiking along the road was much more interesting than I had anticipated it would be. Fire roads tend not to inspire the wonder or intimacy offered by single track trails and are often much more exposed to the elements. While I can confirm that the sun exposure on the road leaves much to be desired, panoramic views of both the Church Creek and Tassajara Creek watersheds made the hike back up to Tassajara road more than worth it. We were fortunate to spot, thanks to Kristen’s 20/20 vision, my favorite herp of the Santa Lucias, the coast horned lizard (Phrynosoma coronatum), often called a horned toad, whose camouflage was so profound I took about a full minute before being able to distinguish it.
Once back on the main road, the walk back to China Camp was surprisingly short and pleasantly downhill. There were great views out to the east and we were back to the car in about 15 minutes, just in time to descend Tassajara Road during golden hour. Overall, this loop and region as a whole has so much to offer, and I can say with certainty that this was my favorite day trip in the Ventana thus far.
Lessons Learned & Tips for Success:
- 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.