Trip Review: Marble Peak Trail
Traversing the rugged terrain of the Ventana Wilderness, Spring 2021
Trip Overview & Specs
- Region: Big Sur / Ventana Wilderness
- Date of Visit: Friday, April 30 — Sunday, May 2nd
- Total Length: 30–35 miles
- Total Elevation Gain: 4500–5000 feet
- AllTrails Link: https://bit.ly/3exiODy
Over the weekend, Kevin, Pascal and I embarked on the Marble Peak Trail, a remarkable trail connecting the Arroyo Seco River Valley outside of Greenfield to the Big Sur coastline along Coast Ridge Road. AllTrails has the trail listed as 12.1 miles but, as you must park at the Gorge Parking Lot at the Arroyo Seco Day Use Area, you end up covering about an additional 3 miles on Arroyo Seco Road. The AllTrails map is very effective however and I would recommend downloading it, especially given all the tree-falls and overgrowth. All in all this allegedly 24 mile straight shot really turns into a 30–34 mile butt kicker with a decent amount of elevation gain and sun exposure.
I have for a long time dreamed of hiking in Big Sur from the east side to the west coast. While there are a remarkable number of mind-blowing hikes on the Big Sur coast, something about the enduring the ruggedness of the interior of the Ventana Wilderness as a means to accessing the coastline seemed both daunting and rewarding. Given Big Sur / Ventana’s fire prone nature, landslides and COVID-19, it was only recently that I was in a position to be in California when the conditions seemed appropriate to give this one a go. Needless to say, the ruggedness and awe did not disappoint. There is a certain mystery to the Ventana Wilderness that makes it appealing for exploration. The best descriptions of trails, conditions and secrets are not well documented for the most part, or can go years without a formal review on any reputable sites. The best sources of detailed information I have found are Leor Pantilat’s Adventures, the Ventana Wilderness Alliance and Big Sur Trailmap, but overall it’s just not like going to a National Park where the trails can be expected to be well maintained, defined and well traveled.
Day 1 — Arroyo Seco Gorge ➞ Willow Creek Camp
After turning off onto Arroyo Seco Road in Greenfield, you begin to head up into the Arroyo Seco River Valley. I can say personally I had no idea how beautiful this valley was. It is dotted with wineries, ranches, estates, farms and dauntingly steep river walls. It is certainly worth an afternoon of winetasting, especially if you are looking for something off the beaten path.
The trek formally starts off at the Arroyo Seco day use area, where you’ll want to continue on to the Gorge parking area, which charges $10 per day to leave your car there. A very kind volunteer helped guide us away from the initial day use area. We got in decently late due to Friday traffic with about 7 miles ahead of us, getting started on the trail around 6pm. The gorge area, carved steeply and deeply by the Arroyo Seco river, is quite the treat.
Hiking at golden hour for the first 4 miles was fantastic. The temperature hovered in the low 70s and the Arroyo Seco River showed off nicely up to the actual Marble Peak Trailhead, where it parts ways with the trail at Horse Bridge. Spring was in full swing with both water and sunlight in abundance.
Quickly the sun began to set behind the western reaches of the Santa Lucia Mountains and we were forced to dawn headlamps and flashlights over 17 (we counted them) creek crossings on Tassajara Creek. The crossings were totally manageable, but I could imagine that after a heavy rain these could be trickier, especially in the dark. This part of the trail begins to allude to the poison oak potential of the entire trail, as it was certainly one of the dominant plant species and was frequently unavoidable — a theme that would continue in the coming days. We arrived at our target campsite, Willow Creek Camp, at a little after 9pm, for a total travel time of ~3 hours from car to campground. We set up camp in the dark, and proceeded to enjoy an abundance of freeze-dried meals which were welcomed in the cold night. The biodiversity of Big Sur is impressive, and relevant here as a diverse array of insect & arachnid neighbors paid us visits that night by lantern-side and in the morning by the creek.
Day 2 — Willow Creek Camp ➞ Strawberry Camp ➞ Marble Peak ➞ Strawberry Camp
The morning exposed the beauty and size of the Willow Creek Campground. It is certainly the largest and most accommodating campsite that we encountered during the entirety of the trip, and I imagine it could comfortably fit 5–10 groups depending on the size. It has an excellent and beautiful water source immediately available, and an earthen toilet to boot! The campsite is full of crunchy oak leaves that cover the ground and provide for quite a large clearing, while the oak over-story keeps the area quite cool. The sunlight broke warmingly through the trees after about 7 or 8am. We made breakfast and packed up for the longest stretch of the trip.
The climb out of Willow Creek Camp is doable. There is some overgrowth on the trail and the poison oak exposure continues to get worse. For the first mile we were pretty much entirely under tree-cover, but at about the 1 mile mark from Willow Creek we emerged from the trees and wetter portions of the trail to gaze back into the entirety of the Tassajara Creek / Arroyo Seco watersheds. It was a spectacular and encouraging first big vista, and one that we later agreed was the third best of the entire trip. From there, the vegetation turns to mostly pure chaparral, with great flower exposure but the unfortunate persistence of the poison oak. For someone looking for an easier weekend trip, this is still a very rewarding summit.
We marched on toward Strawberry Camp, where on the way Pascal had the, though I hate to say it, brilliant idea to drop our packs off at Strawberry Camp before continuing onward to Marble Peak. From the vista shown above, it was about 3–3.5 miles to Strawberry Camp. The following trail section gives an excellent taste of the vastness of the Ventana Wilderness that the Marble Peak Trail covers. It also gives the first taste of what overgrown chaparral feels like to hike through, which makes 3.5 miles feel like a lot longer. There were numerous fallen trees, but also a high diversity of plant life and many happy, sunning lizards. Kevin spotted, much to his chagrin, a very large and healthy rattlesnake that slithered behind me and in front of him as we climbed over a fallen tree on the trail, making sure its signature rattle was heard by all three of us.
The descent into Strawberry Valley and eventually Strawberry Camp is gnarly, at least by my standards. I have read that it certainly can be much worse in other parts of Ventana. The poison oak continues to be unavoidable, and there is a lot of sage overgrowth, but at least that smells nice to plow through. While pretty and warm, this is mostly a heads down and push it part of the segment. We got our first exposure to ticks, and Pascal managed to pick up a very eager one that embedded its face into the back of his knee.
It becomes quickly apparent that the portion of the trail after Willow Creek hasn’t, or just doesn’t, get a lot of foot traffic. Some camps on the map appear not to really exist, and those that do are quite small. Strawberry Camp, where we stayed, and Tan Oak camp, which we later passed, are very small and really wouldn’t accommodate more than one group, maybe two, at once. The trail to Strawberry Camp is extremely tick-laden and we had to do multiple checks to flick ticks from our hiking pants. The campsite for Strawberry Camp is nice, resting underneath an inviting oak tree and has a well-established fire pit with iron grill. There is a large clearing around the campsite which allows for ample stargazing. We unpacked here and stuffed our faces with salami, cheese, PB&Js for about 90 minutes, taking the time to pull the now well established tick from Pascal’s left knee.
From Strawberry Camp we hiked back to the Marble Peak Trail and continued onward. The total stretch between the two points is about 5 miles each way, accounting for the additional 0.5 miles you need to get from Strawberry to the trail again. The terrain continues to become more desert like, but not in a bad way. The poison oak subsides at least a bit, while yucca and other desert plants increase in their abundance. On the way out there are some steep portions, but it’s not unmanageable. The biggest consideration is that there isn’t much water between Strawberry Camp and Marble Peak, and the final stretch is very exposed and hot.
At around 2–2.5 miles from Strawberry Camp we arrived to the second best vista of the trip. The pictures below, though nice, don’t do it justice. The view gives an extremely comprehensive view of the massive and rugged reach of the Ventana Wilderness to the north, where Kandlbinder, “the Window” and Ventana Double Cone in the northeast region are particularly striking.
The trail dips back down again to the valley floor at the base of Marble Peak, which is really a marble-y portion at the top of Coast Ridge Road. You in fact cannot see any of Marble Peak until you are actually there, which led to numerous incorrect speculations of what we thought Marble Peak might actually be. There is a great looking campsite down in the valley on Higgins Creek, which was mostly dry when we were there. When wetter, this would be a great place to camp.
Here, it is easy to lose the trail up to Marble Peak due to a massive fallen pine tree. This is where the AllTrails map came in handy, because we missed the trail entirely and ended up in a random clearing. Once we figured out that the trail was blocked, we simply climbed over the tree and were happy to see the most defined piece of trail we had seen in probably 5–10 miles. There were even stairs, Kevin was happy to note. Here we spotted one of the best herps of the trip in a horned toad, who was kind enough to pose for pictures. Fun Fact: you would think the horned toad, given its horns, would use its spikes as defense. It is notable however that the horned toad can also shoot blood from its eyes up to 5 feet. I can’t decide if I am happy or sad that I didn’t try to pick it up.
The push up to Marble Peak is steep, but generally well-defined and few ticks that we noted during this portion. The last portion of the trail carries a lot suspense because for the entirety of the journey thus far, we hadn’t seen the ocean once, knowing that the ridge upon which Marble Peak sits is ~4000 feet above the ocean. There are a couple of false summits, but once you reach the top, the views really don’t disappoint.
We took some time to take in the views at Marble Peak and sat on the rock pictured at the beginning of this post. The sun was very intense and the ocean breeze from below was welcomed. A lot of this area has clearly seen fire and I would imagine will continue to see it, but the beauty and remoteness of the location is remarkable.
After about 30 minutes at the top, we realized we needed to head back if we were to avoid setting up camp in the dark again. The golden hour blessed us with cooler temperatures and beautiful vistas, but water supplies ran low and I became at least dehydrated enough that it was affecting my speed. This is not the place you want to end up without water, though we knew where it would be on the way back and ended up doing fine.
The night at Strawberry Camp was beautiful and full of accomplishment. The temperature dropped significantly and was much colder than the first night, but we were able to put together an excellent fire if I do say so myself and the fuel was abundant. Many freeze-dried meals were consumed, whiskey downed, and Pascal came through with his signature hot cocoa to seal off an incredibly challenging and rewarding day.
Day 3 — Strawberry Camp ➞ Gorge Parking Lot
The last day was long and brutal, and I can’t say that any of us were looking forward to it. We took off around 8am straight into the brushiest 3–4 miles of the trail. For some reason, this day was “tickier” than the last, and Pascal and I probably removed 15–20 of the pesky vermin between the two us. It is notable that Kevin did not attract a single tick the entire trip, which was wholly suspicious.
The portion worth re-describing are the creek crossings that we did in the dark on the first night, that we now got to do during the day. This area of the trail, between Willow Creek Camp and Tassajara Creek Camp is lovely under tree-cover, which was welcomed as Sunday was the hottest day we had encountered thus far.
I would dissect the final day into 3 key sections:
- Strawberry Camp ➞ Willow Creek Camp
- Willow Creek Camp ➞ Marble Peak Trailhead
- Marble Peak Trailhead ➞ Gorge Parking Lot
Section 3 from the above was the most deceivingly challenging. Obviously we were the most tired at this point, but this section has some sneaky uphills and is entirely exposed and very hot. The views of the Arroyo Seco are very inviting and had we had more time and energy, there are some wonderful looking swimming holes along that river on the Arroyo Seco Road stretch.
Eventually we slogged it back to the car, made high-fives, took off our hiking boots and drove our tired asses down to the day use area for a much deserved dip in the river. All in all, the Marble Peak Trail was a doable, albeit challenging and somewhat unforgiving, trip into the Ventana Wilderness that provides an impressive mosaic of what Big Sur has to offer.
Tips for Prospective Adventurers
- Gear Necessities: Tecnu poison oak wash / scrub, insect repellant, water treatment method, tweezers (for ticks, seriously)
- Trip Length: I think 3 days is doable, though I would have started earlier on Friday for our trip if I could have. If you can afford to do it, 4 days might be the optimal length, depending on the fitness of your party. Other nice campgrounds worth exploring include Tassajara Creek Camp, which has the most water access, and the camp at the base of Marble Peak. There are supposed to be some pretty enticing side trips in the wet season, including Higgins Falls, which is an extension to the North along the Lost Valley Trail.