Trip Review: Salmon Creek Loop
Exploring an iconic Big Sur backpacking loop, Winter 2021
Trip Overview & Specs
- Region: Big Sur / Silver Peak Wilderness
- Date of Visit: February 26–28, 2021
- Total Length: 15–18 miles (depending on campsites & side trips)
- Total Elevation Gain: ~5000 feet (depending on campsites and side trips)
- AllTrails Link: https://bit.ly/3EwYsEZ
The Salmon Creek Loop in Big Sur was my first real backpacking trip in Big Sur, though I had done a bit of hiking and some car camping in the area. It was helpful that I had previously hiked up some of the Salmon Creek trail, but admittedly at the time was not in good enough shape to be eager to get past the first mile. It’s seriously steep!
This is a wonderful loop, best for winter and spring adventuring, when hills are green, fresh water plentiful and temperatures mild. The loop features two gorgeous waterfalls, immense ocean and mountain views, enormous pinecones, gushing creeks and significant ecological diversity.
Transit: San Francisco ➞ Salmon Creek Trailhead
My buddy Collin and I kicked our drive down from the Bay Area in the late morning on Friday, February 26th 2021, following a fairly significant rainfall event along the Central Coast and in Northern California two weeks prior. Traffic was pretty slow and due to a landslide on Highway 1, we were forced to take 101 down to Paso Robles / Templeton before traversing Highway 46, taking us back up the 1 from the south. That being said, it was so green in February this year that I daresay the extra driving was worth it. The rolling hills and wine country between Templeton and San Simeon were in pristine form, providing some of the finest views I’ve ever seen along the Central Coast. Once back on Highway 1, the drive was gorgeous, green, and winding— typical Highway 1 driving fare.
Day 1: Salmon Creek Trailhead ➞ Spruce Creek Camp
The Salmon Creek parking lot could be missed by a first-timer, but is pretty obvious if you’ve ever driven Highway 1 along Big Sur — just be sure to check your GPS if you’ve never been. You can park your car in one of two dedicated roadside parking lots and, unless you’re leaving your car at peak hours during a weekend, there’s typically a few open spots in my experience. Collin and I got to the trailhead around 4:30pm, estimating we would have at least 3 hours of sunlight and ideally wouldn’t need to hike for too long in the pitch dark.
The ascent from the Salmon Creek trailhead (counter-clockwise / east direction) is steep and certain to dissuade the casual hiker. I had called the Forest Service prior to our trip, where they talked about how much of a zoo this trail can be on weekends. However, once you are 1–2 miles into the trail, that really couldn’t be further from the truth. This is a steep and challenging hike that will deter the faint of heart, especially with Lower Salmon Creek Falls being so easily accessible from the parking lot.
I initially recognized an area that I had been to once before on a day hike, thinking it might be the first campsite. This area, right at the top of the ~first mile is absolutely camp-able and definitely gets semi-frequent use. However, after looking at the map, we realized that though we had been hiking for about an hour, the vertical gain had decreased any distance we thought we had accomplished and thus, we marched onward toward Spruce Creek Camp.
The views of the Salmon Creek drainage into the ocean get better with every turn, especially as the sun begins to set. It was an incredibly beautiful golden hour, though tough for direct photos! It is notable that there wasn’t any significant water between the trailhead and Spruce Creek Camp, though Collin and I did fill up our water supply via a fairly insignificant trickle that flowed across the trail at one point.
Spruce Creek Camp follows after a steady decline that transitions into a steep descent as you get closer to the creek. Collin and I were delighted to find a vacant and ideally located campsite right beside the water — whoever was there the night before had even left us some firewood and kindling by the pit. Being as dark as it was when Collin and I got there, we decided to set up shop at the first spot we saw, though we would find in the morning that the campsites and open space beyond Spruce Creek Camp were numerous.
There were numerous night hikers that followed us after Collin and I had set up camp and I passed a few on my way back to the Salmon Creek trailhead to retrieve our friend Pascal who had arrived closer to 8pm. Certainly a much easier trek without a pack! While this trail is doable at night, I would not recommend it to first-timers or after heavy rains, since trail stability & creek flow can be unpredictable.
Day 2: Spruce Creek Camp ➞ Villa Creek Camp
The morning at Spruce Creek was extremely peaceful. We took our time, embarking between 10–11am, though I would recommend leaving earlier if possible. We munched on trail mix and sipped instant coffee, before refilling water supplies and packing up our campsite for day two.
As you cross Spruce Creek to continue on the Salmon Creek Trail, numerous other campsites make themselves apparent alongside the upper fork of Salmon Creek. This is also where the second leg of a steep ascent begins, as we climbed our way up to the magnificent Upper Salmon Creek Falls (see map at the top for approximate location).
You can see the falls from the trail, but it’s a fairly steep climb down an informal scramble. If you are capable, the descent is absolutely essential in my opinion and totally worth it. Upper Salmon Creek Falls has an unspoiled beauty and remoteness to it and, after the rainy season, is a pretty impressive body of water. We decided to take a dip, of course.
After drying off, we scrambled back up to the trail and plugged along. We passed Estrella Camp which featured some of the most impressive oaks that we saw the whole trip. It’s a great spot to break for lunch before facing the most challenging climb of the loop. The ascent to Lion Den is an absolute ass-kicker, especially with a pack on. A good amount of the trail becomes uncovered and the sun was fairly sweltering, even in February. The trail also becomes significantly precarious in some locations and I would not advise attempting this trail immediately after heavy rains, especially if you have knee or ankle stability issues.
Eventually the trail flattens out as you get to the top of the ridge, which provides splendid to views of both the Pacific Ocean (best seen from Lion Den) and the Salinas Valley (best seen from South Coast Ridge Road). We were greeted by what appeared to be some sort of commune at Lion Den, a group of people that was literally entangled in a human blanket weave of some kind — a surreal sight during COVID winter of 2021. There was a grill at the top where we happily made salami sandwiches and gathered water from a small stream that is likely seasonal. Take in the views from Lion Den — if I could have camped here, I would have!
We spoke with a couple of very experienced locals at Lion Den, who mentioned that there is an unofficial trail that takes you to the eponymous Silver Peak. They said that with sufficient time, this side trip is a great add on to the loop, and simply requires following the ridgeline out to the peak. If you choose to attempt this, I would recommend checking out Big Sur Trail Map for the latest conditions.
The descent from Lion Den marks the transition between the Salmon Creek Trail and the Cruikshank Trail. Cruikshank is in good shape in most spots, though extremely steep and slippery in some areas — some spots similar to the ridiculous gradient shown a few pictures above.
As you begin your descent, you will need to make a few decisions about your desired camping destination for night two, which should be determined based on:
- Personal preference for scenery and;
- Fitness of your party
The good news is that you really can’t go wrong here. The Upper and Lower Cruikshank camps had the most space from what we could tell, and Silver Camp had a nice grilling area and ample water. Upper Cruikshank also has an open grassy area which would make for a relatively comfortable sleeping area. However, if you are feeling ambitious, and really want to soak in the ecological diversity of Big Sur, set your sights on Villa Creek Camp, which is situated directly alongside Villa Creek in an impressive redwood grove, nestled between craggy slopes. However, Villa Creek does come with a price — a steep descent that in the morning must be faced by an equal ascent to get back onto the trail. The other catch is that Villa Creek has limited camping space and when we got there, the main campground was completely full. However, we did end up finding a beautiful island on the creek where we were lucky to spend the night. Water is no issue at Villa Creek and you can fill up from pretty much anywhere.
Day 3: Villa Creek Camp ➞ Salmon Creek Trailhead
Though we anticipated a peaceful slumber alongside running water, lo-and-behold there was not one but two earthquakes that shook things up in the early hours of the morning while we slept. The larger tremor woke Collin, but neither Pascal nor I could seem to be bothered. Fortunately we were out of reach from the “widow-makers” we encountered at Lion Den.
In the morning, while in search of a good place to dig a hole, I came across an aggregation of ladybugs, something I personally had never seen before. Apparently this is an event that happens across the country between November and February for warmth, mating and maybe networking opportunities — who knows! The lives of insects are forever mysterious. I ended up sitting and watching this marvelous display of thousands, if not tens of thousands, of ladybugs for 30–45 minutes, completely forgetting my body’s call of the wild.
After taking in the awe of the ladybug aggregation, we filled up on freeze-dried eggs and fresh water from Villa Creek and summoned strength from tired legs and hiked back up to the Cruikshank / Buckeye Trail juncture. This is an important place to double-check your map, as we made a nearly costly mistake continuing down the Cruikshank trail, when we in fact wanted to be on the Buckeye Trail. Thankfully, we course-corrected quickly and were met by an aggressive climb to the next significant ridgeline. Once there, it’s worthwhile to explore a bit, as some of the best pictures we took the entire trip were from this vantage point.
Once over the ridgeline, the Buckeye Trail guides you home along the coastline for the remainder of the day. As far as purely coastal views go, the Buckeye Trail is almost entirely turquoise waters and coastal chaparral. We saw scores of wildflowers, lizards and butterflies along the way, all keen to soak up the sunshine. Because of these views, we encountered more people than we did just about anywhere else during our trip, mostly day hikers and families. Before we knew it, the Buckeye Trail dumped us out into the second parking lot at the Salmon Creek Trailhead, a short stroll from where we had parked our car two days prior. We took some time to return to the lower part of Salmon Creek, taking the liberty to soak our feet in chilly waters before beginning the drive bay up to the Bay.
Lessons Learned & Tips for Success:
All in all, the Salmon Creek Loop, which encompasses the Salmon Creek Trail, Cruikshank Trail and Buckeye Trail, is a fantastic backpacking trip for first timers in the Big Sur backcountry, though if your fitness is in question, I might suggest a trip with a less steep gradient. Overall, the trails are well-marked, with adequate water sources and fantastic scenery. However, if I could do this trip differently, I would consider the following:
- Visit Mid-Week: Frankly, we got lucky with how good our camp-spots were for both nights. Given that this is a fairly popular loop for backpackers and that space is limited, a Thursday-Saturday or Sunday-Tuesday loop would be most ideal if you can swing it.
- Hike to Silver Peak: Though an unofficial trail, hiking to Silver Peak feels like a bespoke rite of package in the Silver Peak wilderness.
- Watch the Sunset from Lion Den or Upper Cruikshank: There are some incredible vistas to watch the sunset on this loop. Our timing worked out such that we didn’t get to see the sunset on either night, but would strongly recommend Lion Den or Upper Cruikshank campsites as potentially stunning options.
- Ticks & Poison Oak: Though we didn’t encounter too much during this trip, the AllTrails guide for this trip mentions issues with ticks & poison oak frequently. Come prepared with long-sleeves, Tecnu and your choice of insect repellant.