A grueling 23-mile trek to Pico Blanco’s elusive summit
Trip Overview & Specs
- Region: Big Sur / Ventana Wilderness / El Sur Ranch
- Date of Visit: May 11th, 2023
- Total Length: ~23 Miles
- Elevation Gain: 5,230 feet
- AllTrails Link: https://www.alltrails.com/explore/recording/evening-hike-4837ba5--143?u=i&sh=clch5d
Pico Blanco became a point of interest later for me than other Big Sur locales, largely due to how hard it is to get good, updated information on the trail and the best way to reach the summit. While this isn’t uncommon for backcountry trails in Big Sur, for Pico this seems to be especially true. My understanding is that public access to this sacred mountain and its surrounding area has suffered massively since the Soberanes Fire in 2016, especially since the closure of Bottcher’s Gap and Camp Pico Blanco. Since then, the only access is via the Little Sur Trail which appears to be about the most begrudgingly legal trail I have ever walked. It passes through El Sur Ranch’s mighty land claim and, as you’ll find reading here, with no encouragement whatsoever. Hiking the Little Sur Trail feels about as close to trespassing without trespassing as you can get.
Pico Blanco boasts an interesting and important history despite it being one of the lesser traveled peaks in Big Sur. It’s importance to the Essellen Tribe, it’s relevance as a landmark decision for the California Coastal Commission and it’s geological importance are described briefly below.
Pico Blanco Notables
- Importance to the Essellen Tribe: The Essellen Tribe of Monterey County describes Pico Blanco as “the Center of the Esselen World” and is the location of the creation story of their people. You can read more about that here.
- Mining: Pico Blanco boasts the largest deposit of pharmaceutical grade limestone west of the Rocky Mountains.
- California Coastal Commission & Supreme Court Case: Pico Blanco was the subject of a Supreme Court Decision in California Coastal Commission v. Granite Rock Company. Granite Rock, who purchased and still owns parcels on the mountain and Coast Road, had originally obtained a permit from the US Forest Service to mine a portion of Pico Blanco for its limestone deposits. The CCC would go on to request a coastal development permit, which Granite Rock presumably knew it could never get. After the Supreme Court ruling, my understanding is that Granite Rock has sat on their ownership but not been able to do anything with it.
Earlier in the season I hiked East Molera Ridge for the first time with a group of friends (see above), which boasts amazing views Pico Blanco, maybe only rivaled by the more remote Skinner Ridge Trail. Seeing Pico from this vantage point only further increased my fascination with successfully summiting its peak. However, for as long as I have been interested in Big Sur adventures, the trail reports describing the Little Sur Trail, the main access route to Pico Blanco, depict a hazardous & dangerous route. Examples can be found here (AllTrails 1), here (AllTrails 2), here (PeakBagger) and here (VWA). That being said, few, if any, include photos or clear examples of poor trail conditions. So, I departed San Francisco on a blue bird day, deciding I would take the day off from work and see if I could pull off Pico Blanco in a day, understanding that if conditions were dangerous, I would humbly turn back.
Hiking Pico Blanco, the way I did it, has four distinct sections (see map below):
- Coast Road (Green): depending on the year, a significant portion of the road is closed to public traffic. 2023 was one of those years, so I walked an additional 6.5 miles round trip on Coast Road.
- Little Sur Trail — River Walk (Blue): this is an incredibly lovely section of trail. Most of it is single track along the incredible Little Sur river. There are two notable trail washouts, the first being the most significant. It is passable with careful navigation or by walking up the river.
- Little Sur Trail — Half Mile from Hell (Red): this part sucks. A few very sketchy segments of trail, a nearly impassable deadfall and some of the “tickiest” sections of chaparral I’ve ever encountered in Big Sur make this half-mile well worthy of the Little Sur Trail’s poor reputation. Had it been any longer, I would have turned back.
- Private Road / Little Sur Trail Junction (Yellow): here, you have the choice of taking the road, which is clear from brush / ticks with clear path to Pico Blanco, or continue straight on the Little Sur trail which theoretically leads to Pico Public Camp. I opted for the former and am happy I did for many reasons. I have read trail reports of people bushwhacking up to Pico Blanco from Pico Public Camp, but can’t say I would recommend that path to anyone with any sanity left.
Section 1: Coast Road ➞ Little Sur Trail
During a deemed “dry year, it possible to drive all the way to the Little Sur Trail via Coast Road, an iconic Big Sur backcountry road connects Bixby Bridge in the north to Andrew Molera State Park in the south. However, during a “rainy” year, for which 2023 would certainly qualify (and then some), the road is closed to the general public beyond a road closure located half mileup each side from Highway 1.
I entered the trail from the south end, which presented the shortest walking distance should I be stopped by a barrier. Though I was hopeful the road might be open or might have a soft closure that I could drive around, about a half mile up the very torn up southern end of Coast Road, I reached a full gated closure. In the grand scheme of things, I was happier to take my chances on foot than put my car through the road conditions that would eventually follow.
The gated closure (below) is located precisely where the borders of Andrew Molera State Park and El Sur Ranch coincide. I parked my car here and began the plod toward the Little Sur trail. Though walking the road presented a significant increase to the day’s mileage, it turned into a blessing in disguise.
Coast Road, past the closure, turned out to be some of the best wildflower viewing I’ve seen in California anywhere this year. Poppies, sky lupine, purple owl’s clover and a variety of other species were on full display. That being said, 2023’s massive winter rains resulted in near waist height grasses which obscured the views of abundant wildflowers, presenting a challenge for wildflower photography.
The vistas from Coast Road are delightful, initially highlighting the green slopes of El Sur Ranch, Point Sur Lighthouse and the mouth of the Big Sur River. Later, views of Pico Blanco and the mountainous interior became visible as well. I noted no other hikers, just construction workers from Monterey County who were completing work on some troublesome sections of Coast Road.
Section 2: The Little Sur Trail ➞ “Half Mile from Hell”
After just over 3 miles, Coast Road connects with the west end of the Little Sur Trail, marked by the wooden fence (see below). It is the first of a slough of signs denoting that the Little Sur Trail is dangerous for a variety of reasons and generally reminding you that everything that isn’t trail is private property. I proceeded with wary expectations for high quality trail experience.
The portion of Little Sur Trail along the south fork of the Little Sur River exceeded my expectations in every capacity. Besides a few trail avoidable trail washouts (see below), this was a splendid single track trail alongside a wild stretch of undisturbed river. The level of seclusion & wildness in this area rivals anything I’ve experienced in Big Sur, and I found this section of trail to be truly special and memorable.
There are of course a few trail washouts (pictures below), one that is more significant than the others. When I went, walking the river would have been a safe option to circumvent those sections.
Eventually, this awesome portion of trail comes to an end with the only required river crossing of the day. Right before the crossing, there is a perfect spot for camping. Though forbidden, with continued reminders, people obviously do or have camped here in the past.
Section 3: Half Mile From Hell ➞ Private Road / Little Sur Trail Junction:
The Little Sur Trail, unfortunately, earns its unsavory reputation for the half-mile section of trail following the river crossing, which I have hereby named the “Half Mile From Hell”. This section is extremely overgrown, presenting two main risks / annoyances: ticks and hidden portions of unstable or washed-out trail.
While I had not encountered ticks anywhere else on the trail thus far, my luck turned on its head. For about every 10–20 yards that I scrambled through, I found anywhere from 10–20 ticks on my lower half that I had to flick off one by one. I would repeat this process each time I ran through a brushy area. In all, I think I removed ~100 ticks along this short stretch of trail. Amazingly, I suffered no bites.
The overgrowth covers up dangerous trail washouts that are not visible without care and examination while walking. These washouts were more severe than those on the lower section of the Little Sur Trail. Most of them did not appear life threatening (i.e. fall to your death), but could definitely cause a serious lower leg injury. Hiking this stretch required discipline as I had to focus both on “tick-flicking” and making sure I didn’t roll my weak right ankle. Thus, I took few photos here.
One deadfall toward the end was especially cumbersome and initially did not appear to have a reasonable workaround. I climbed through it arduously and wouldn’t implement that strategy again. On the way back I found a workaround above the tree that was not visible from the west end that would have provided much safer passage. Regardless, I told myself that if there was more of this, I would tip my cap to the Little Sur Trail and head home.
Section 4: Private Road / Little Sur Trail Junction ➞ Pico Blanco Summit
After the troublesome deadfall, I was fortunately greeted by an open road, clear of brush and hazards. In the photos below, you can see a junction with an option to head down (right) on the private road, up (left) on the private road or straight to continue on the Little Sur Trail to Pico Public Camp. I had read in past trail reports that the property owner was not fond of people taking the private road, so initially I continued on the Little Sur Trail toward Pico Camp. About 100 yards in, I decided I’d rather get caught trespassing than continue down the Little Sur Trail any further. Not only was it further riddled with ticks that caused me to stop every 10 yards, but it was overgrown and had bad juju all around. I took my chances with the road and went left toward the summit.
Elated to no longer be slowed down by tick thwacking and bushwhacking, the private road provided lovely views of the Pacific Ocean and the Little Sur River (south fork) watershed. The road is exposed, but early in the day was pleasantly warm with a nice breeze. I was greeted by an abundance of western fence lizards, silver lupine, California poppies and sky lupine all of which appeared to be thriving.
The climb up to Pico Blanco on the private road is pretty straight forward. During this time of year (late spring), there was some water flowing near the private house, which would prove incredibly useful later. I wouldn’t bet on its reliability in the summer, especially during a dry year.
As I approached the final push toward the summit, I came across a fork in the road. I peered down it a couple hundred yards, but ended up continuing toward Pico (left). However, with the higher vantage point I would acquire later on, it looked as though that road to the right leads to Pico Public Camp, and certainly a more desirable route than that along the Little Sur Trail. Not 100% sure, but noting this for next time.
Everything about this stretch of trail / road, besides how exposed it is, is gorgeous. The flowers were in full bloom, hills were full of green, and the sky cloudless.
If you use AllTrails to map your journey, eventually you will reach the end of the private road and will need to scramble to make it to the summit. To do this, you follow the road until you get to the spine / spur of Pico’s slope, and go up from there. There is a weather station there that can prove useful as a landmark. The climb is pretty straightforward and the terrain has good grip so there’s not too much concern for slipping. On a very hot day this would be an extremely exposed and challenging climb.
Pico Blanco’s provides quite spectacular panoramic views of a variety of meaningful vantage points in Big Sur. Of the Big Sur treks I have made, I think only Skinner Ridge and Ventana Double Cone have comparable views. At the summit, there is a secure register with notes from visitors of the past, which I was happy to sign and read entries from past hikers.
I spent 20–30 minutes resting and basking in the glorious sun and coastal breeze blowing in from the Pacific. For me at least, this hike would be intolerable in hot weather. Though I try to plan for these conditions as best I can, the difference between the coastal and inland temperatures in Big Sur is always baffling to me.
I must have basked for a few minutes too long because, as I began my descent, I could feel my left leg and soon, my right leg start to cramp up. Dehydration has a funny way of waiting to say anything until it’s a bit too late. This quickly took any fun out of the initial descent, and I would be lying if I wasn’t freaking out a little bit. The sun is relentless back there.
I was beyond grateful to cross paths with the spring flowing near the house lower on the road, though it’s quite a ways down. I spent about 30 minutes rehydrating and resting in the shade before asking my spent legs for one last final push.
Once I had loosened the grip on my SOS device a bit, I was able to appreciate the remainder of the journey, which featured some of my favorite moments from the day. The late afternoon and early evening was prime time for banana slugs and golden hour photos.
The golden hour and sunset walk along Coast Road was truly spectacular and worth the price of admission in and of itself. I eventually returned to my car, exhaled a breath of both satisfaction and relief, and worked my way back to San Francisco.
Lessons Learned & Tips for Success:
- At Your Own Risk: It kind of goes without saying, but take this trail at your own risk. I went alone because I didn’t want to ruin anyone’s day with unknown conditions and the prospect of turning back, but if I were to return I would absolutely bring someone with me. Unless you are experienced in outdoor adventure and have a satellite device capable of sending an SOS signal, I would not advise going alone.
- Best of Big Sur: All risks aside, everything about this route is super special and speaks to the best of what Big Sur’s varied climates and terrain have to offer. The rolling coastal pastures, vibrant wildflowers, dense & secretive redwoods, crystal clear rivers, crisp chaparral and immense views make this area incredibly special. Though I publish this a few months after the fact, wrapping up this hike at sunset was one of the most memorable highs I’ve ever had on a trail.
Pico Blanco and its surrounding areas represent an immense opportunity for outdoor recreation and exploration. However, it seems that over the years, public access to this region have degraded significantly. I am hopeful that until resources are available to improve the trail, that people continue to visit, complete trail work and report on conditions. With luck, perhaps with the recent purchase of Camp Pico Blanco by the White Stage Leadership Council, the Esselen Tribe of Monterey County & Camping Unlimited could lead to a revival of the area and perhaps a re-opening of Bottchers Gap, a place I have yet to be able to visit!