A long awaited adventure to the jewel of the northern Ventana Wilderness
Trip Overview & Specs
- Region: Big Sur / Ventana Wilderness
- Date of Visit: March 11–13, 2022
- Total Length: ~35 miles (including side trips)
- Elevation Gain (Highest Elevation-Lowest Elevation): 3,493 feet
- AllTrails Link: N/A
I first read and eventually obsessed about Ventana Double Cone through Leor Pantilat’s blog on the Ventana Wilderness and later by meticulously stalking Big Sur Trail Map and the Ventana Wilderness Alliance forum pages. Its remote location, rugged features, and panoramic views of the entire Ventana Wilderness captivated my attention. However, since the Soberanes Fire in 2016, the trail conditions have often been described as difficult or impassable. Having faced similar conditions in other trails in the Ventana Wilderness, I do not take these trail ratings lightly. Extensive bushwhacking is exhausting and best avoided when possible in my opinion. However, this year it appeared that enough work had been done on the trail to clear out significant overgrowth and re-route trails where needed. So, when a perfect-weather weekend emerged in mid-March of this year, I took the chance to explore this region, knowing that it would be soon too hot, ticky and buggy to explore comfortably, not to mention the now omnipresent risk of fire in California.
Before I jump in, I’d like to offer a special thank you and shout out to Mike Toffey & Leor Pantilat, both of whom have provided exceptional trip reviews, photos and videos over the past few years of this region. As the world is so small, I actually ran into Mike on the trail on Saturday, who managed to halt his blistering pace for pleasantries prior to, quite literally, rocketing his way up to the summit 🚀 🚀🚀.
Transit: San Francisco ➞ Long Ridge Road / The Hoist
In order to access trails leading to Ventana Double Cone, one must ascend Palo Colorado Road, just south of the beautiful town of Carmel, up until its closure at the Hoist. Palo Colorado Road offers a unique aura as soon as you turn left off of Highway 1 and into its grandiose redwood cover. It is both eerie and charming in equal capacity. It feels like a secret place — almost like you aren’t supposed to be there. The road, constantly winding, is narrow in places, but generally well paved. It takes you past a diverse assortment of creek side homes, anything from newer builds to rustic, even minimalist, log cabins. It feels like a place that calls out to all of those in search of privacy and self-sustenance.
As I drove, the road steepened significantly before reaching the closure of Palo Colorado Road at the Hoist (aptly named), which has remained closed since a significant portion of the road washed out during rains following the Soberanes Fire in 2016. Once at the Hoist, I parked my car. There wasn’t clear signage pointing toward Long Ridge Road, but it turned out to be the road immediately left to the closure on Palo Colorado Road. I was fortunate to meet a friendly local, who pointed me in the right direction, and even offered me a ride that I declined over some sense of pride.
Day 1: Long Ridge Road / The Hoist ➞ Pat Springs Camp
Long Ridge Road provides access to some of the most remote private property in Big Sur. Similar to the ascent up Palo Colorado Road, I passed an immense variety of residences: from vaulted, multi-level homes to scattered RV-populated plots with projects both active and seemingly forgotten. The road is very steep in sections, particularly in the first mile. I found it generally easy to follow, but would recommend bringing a GPS unit as to ensure you don’t end up on private property. There is signage placed by locals that intends to keep hikers on the right track, but I could see it being confusing without a digital reference. From Long Ridge Road, I gained the first vantage point of my target: Ventana Double Cone, along with its equally formidable counterparts in the “Window” and Kandlbinder.
After two (2) miles of pure incline, I reached the end of Long Ridge Road and was pleasantly greeted by the start of the Turner Creek Trail, for which there was clear signage. A small bobcat sprinted off into the brush within my first few steps on the trail — too quick for my camera skills! The Turner Creek Trail was in good condition and featured only a small amount of poison oak at this point in the season. Though the trail is clear and easy to follow, as you’ll note in the images below, I missed a recent re-route of the trail, marked by a bunch of logs / sticks that ran across the trail. I continued down the original path until I reached an impenetrable stretch of deadfall that I unsuccessfully attempted to climb through with a full pack. Dumb. Uncertain of where the trail would continue, I dawned my trusty Chacos and clomped up the creek until I reached a point where the trail intersected with the creek again, approximately a quarter mile up. Though I found this to be a refreshing adventure, and soothing to already hot and cramped toes, I would recommend keeping your eyes out for the formal trail re-route, which is just easier to follow and comes without the risk of slipping on wet rocks and unstable logs.
The ascent up Turner Creek, once back on the main trail, is fairly arduous, but pleasant. It is clear that this area could become wildly overgrown with even just a few months of inactivity / neglect, and I’d bet the poison oak can get pretty unwieldy down there. I noted at least three (3) historic campsites along the way, marked by iron cooking grills, all of which appear to still be habitable and that feature direct water access. Once I emerged from the Turner Creek Trail, I caught my first glimpse into Little Sur River watershed, amongst other more minor drainages. It provided much needed inspiration for the rewards of the remainder of the journey, and the sheer expanse of the craggy region north of VDC’s formidable wall.
The section of the Skinner Ridge Trail, up until I reached Devil’s Peak, was hot and slow. Views and breeze from the Pacific helped in this effort, but with a full pack I slogged along, pausing frequently at flat sections to catch my breath. This area clearly burned during the Soberanes Fire, with the scorched skeletons of Pacific Madrone lining the trail, supported by new chaparral teeming in their shadows. The real fruits of the Skinner Ridge trail follow this ascent, as I hoisted myself to the top of Devil’s Peak and gain full visibility into the valley below.
The remainder of the Skinner Ridge Trail, until I began the descent and then re-ascent toward Pat Springs, was true delight. It featured open meadows, wise oaks, blooming wildflowers and clear views of the mountains and and ocean beyond them.
After passing the historic Comings Creek trail turnoff, the Skinner Ridge Trail dropped down into a considerable burned area, where young madrone made clear their post-fire reemergence. This section pointed out a feature of the VDC journey that I did not yet fully appreciate — for as much elevation gain as there is to summit VDC, there is considerable undulation throughout. Unlike the climb to Cone Peak in the mid-southern region of Big Sur, the amount of elevation change as opposed to gain alone when hiking VDC is one of its most exhausting features. Once through this section, I arrived to Pat Springs, a man-made basin accessing ground water — a welcomed sight after a long day.
At Pat Springs, the signage was not clear as to where the campsites actually lie. Signs pointed toward the water source, the continuation of the trail toward VDC, and trail back from whence I had came. I made the brief mistake of continuing up the VDC Trail, but upon looking back in confusion I was able to see tread leading up from the trail signage onto a scenic bluff. Assuming this was where the campsites were located, I corrected course and ascended up the bluff on the fairly clear path. Passing the first site, which features a picnic bench, I was rewarded with the finest views of the day, and at the time of this writing, the most beautiful campsite I have ever had the fortune of calling home for two (2) nights.
After setting up camp, I did some brief exploring as the trail through the Pat Springs campsites continues. There is a third campsite, which would be suitable for a larger group. I noted that the trail continues up to another formidably steep bluff, and made plans to watch the sunset from there on Saturday evening. In the meantime, I fortified the remnants of the firepit at my site and gathered ample fuel from the surrounding area to generate warmth, as the temperature had dropped precipitously.
The warmth of the rocks from my fire attracted a vibrantly colored cold-blooded friend in the form of a western fence lizard. He playfully hopped around the rocks and even my Chacos, for reasons unknown to me. I cruised through a few chapters of Into Thin Air on the recommendation of a friend before collapsing in my tent, happy to be flat for a few hours.
Day 2: Pat Springs Camp ➞ Ventana Double Cone ➞ Pat Springs Camp
I was greeted by a clear morning on Saturday, the warm sun on my skin while I sipped instant coffee and munched on a nut butter & honey sandwich, stretching sore muscles and finding an outstretched pine tree branch to dead hang from before hitting the trail once again at ~8:15 AM. I intended to bring enough water so that I wouldn’t need to fill up until my return, but knew that there was water at Lone Pine Camp near the summit of VDC, should I find myself in a tight spot or in doubt of my planned supplies.
As I marched on, the VDC Trail showed off many of the wonderful features that the Skinner Ridge Trail had to offer — rolling meadows, strong oaks and playful birds. The trail wound over both west facing slopes to hotter south and east facing slopes, where the need for frequent hydration is apparent.
The last 1/3rd of the VDC Trail held onto patches of dwindling snow from a recent storm and also featured the majority of the true crawling sections I would endure. The trail was generally easy to follow, but I did find myself pausing at a handful of junctions just to confirm the trail, seeking out signs of tread or other humanly markers.
Once at the summit, the views from Ventana Double Cone are simply unparalleled. On a clear day like the one I was fortunate enough to experience, I was able to see as far south as Cone Peak and as far north as Monterey Bay. The vista clearly illustrated the intensity and remoteness of the region. The “Window” itself was much larger, steeper and deeper than I had anticipated — and to think that there are those who have marched the ridgeline between VDC and Kandlbinder baffles me, given the steep terrain and the cost of a potential blunder. I soaked in the views and the warmth from the summit for about 45 minutes, plucking a tick off of my left leg that had unfortunately managed to successfully dive between my “pants-tucked-into-socks” defense in for a quick bite.
The hike back to Pat Springs simply followed the path from whence I came. I hiked this portion from ~1:00–4:45pm, and in doing so caught the most intense sun exposure of the day during this portion. As always, the intensity of the sun in the backcountry of the Ventana Wilderness, even on a mild day, is easy to underestimate. Though I did not fill up at Lone Pine Camp, I did at one point fill my water filter bags with snow from the trail as insurance. As I had learned on the Marble Peak Trail last April, once one becomes dehydrated, the process of becoming rehydrated can take a disproportionate amount of time. Better to air on the side of overhydrated. Fortunately the clouds were kind that afternoon, diluting the scorch of the sun and reducing my overall water deficit.
Once I returned to Pat Springs, I was determined to find a spot to watch the sunset beyond the horizon. As mentioned previously, on the first night, I had noticed that there appeared to be a mountain / ridgeline past the immediate campsites that would likely provide a direct view of the sunset. So, after pausing to fill up on water supplies once more, I pushed onward past site #2, following the light yet clear use trail up the ridgeline toward Pat Mountain (I believe it is named). As I pushed onward, I found an abundant area to explore and evidence of past campsites and fire rings. I sat for about an hour and a half, picking at a trail mix bag now devoid of M&Ms, as the sun began to set, ushering in a thick marine layer, like marshmallows over yams at Thanksgiving.
Day 3: Pat Springs Camp ➞ Long Ridge Road / The Hoist
On Sunday morning, I was met by two surprises:
- Daylight savings time had hit that morning, and as such, my 6AM wakeup was much darker than I was expecting.
- The winds that rolled me to sleep that evening rolled with them an immense fog cover, which reduced immediate visibility for anything beyond ~20 feet.
I was extremely thankful that I had put my rain cover up and pulled my belongings underneath it — had I not, anything exposed would have been completely soaked. Needless to say, I didn’t take the time to set up for a nice breakfast as I had the previous morning — I packed up quickly and got the hell out of Dodge.
The return hike was wet and cold, ideal for a return on an out-and-back such as this — I popped in my headphones and chugged through some of the more mundane sections of the trail. However, I stopped frequently as the cloud cover began to dissipate, both from exhaustion induced by a couple of hilariously steep sections of the Skinner Ridge Trail, but also to soak up the last of the clear views of VDC and its adjacent partners before descending back down toward the Turner Creek Trail and eventually, Long Ridge Road to the Hoist.
Lessons Learned & Tips for Success:
- Fitness: This is a very challenging two day trip with significant elevation gain / change and sun exposure throughout. You and your party should be confident in your ability to ascend and descent extremely steep terrain.
- Water: I consumed approximately 4 liters of water from the Hoist to Pat Springs, 4 liters from VDC to Pat Springs and back, and 1.5 liters from Pat Springs back to the Hoist on a very chilly morning. This does not account for water I consumed prior to departure each day, which was on the order of 1-1.5 liters. Note that the first two days were 10-20 degrees warmer than the third and had much more elevation gain, and as such my water consumption more than doubled on the first to days. For reference I am 6ft. 4, 205 lbs. and am extremely active. In my opinion, always opt on the side of caution when estimating how much water you will need, especially in the Ventana Wilderness where water sources are scarce and potentially unreliable.
- Check Trail Conditions: I researched this trail extensively before departing, stalking both Big Sur Trail Map and speaking to pros like Leor Pantilat and Mike Toffey before going. Be sure of where you will get water.
- GPS / Satellite Device: I would highly recommend bringing a satellite tracking device on this trip if you have one or can get a hold of one. The trail to VDC is extremely remote and it is hard to know if you will run into others on the trail (it would be unwise to expect to run into more than 4–6 people IMO) and would imagine it’s even lighter on a weekday.
- Camping at Pat Springs: The signage at Pat Springs makes it unclear where the actual campsites are. They are NOT further up on the VDC trail. With closer review, you’ll see that there is a use trail that continues up the bluff. Initially, you will see a campsite with a bench. If you have the legs for it, continue up and you’ll two additional sites. The 2nd is perfect for 1–2 people and the 3rd great for a larger group. Beyond those sites, the use trail continues to Pat Mountain / Peak, where you can see the sun set beyond the horizon. I highly recommend exploring this part of Pat Springs if you have or can make the time.