People visit from all over the world to drive the scenic Highway One through Big South. While traffic jams, drones, and selfie sticks are the norm along the highway, few venture far from the safety of their cars and those who do are rewarded with incredible scenery, solitude, and surprisingly challenging terrain. The landscape here changes at an amazing rate, with landslides, wildfires, and prolific plant growth routinely wiping out previously passable trails. Despite the impressive scenery and high traffic, the area only has a few proper parks, and is a pluralism of public and private land. For these reasons, visitors should do their homework, know where they’re going, and be prepared for a challenge. Most of these routes don’t have reasonable extensions or modifications, but I’ll point out the ones that do. All routes can be done as overnights, backpacking permits are not required in the Ventana Wilderness or Silver Peak Wilderness. Dispered camping is difficult in Big Sur, though, so overnighters should plan carefully. The Big Sur Trailmap has all of the information overnighters will need.

My favorite resources for this area are the Big Sur Trailmap and Leor Pantilat’s website.

China Camp to Big Sur (Point-to-point, 22 miles, +5,000’)

Ventana Wilderness

  • Warning! The westernmost section of the Pine Ridge Trail is currently closed, thus closing this trail as well.

  • Trailheads: China Camp and Big Sur Station

  • Driving time: 3 hours (China Camp) / 2 hours 30 minutes (Big Sur Station)

  • Car shuttle time: 2 hours

This relatively straightforward and short route still delivers the Ventana goods. This is the easiest crossing of the Ventana Wilderness, assuming you go west. This traverse follows the Pine Ridge Trail in its entirety from the high, dry, east portion of the Ventana down to the lower stretches of the Big Sur River. You’ll be treated to sweeping vistas and lush redwood groves, all in less than a marathon distance.

Silver Peak Wilderness Loop (Loop, 24 miles, +8,400’)

Silver Peak Wilderness

This impressive loop in the Silver Peak Wilderness at the far south end of Big Sur circles Silver Peak. A short side trip to Lion Peak is possible from the ridge road, and the route summits Mount Mars.

More information:

Arroyo Seco to Route One (Point-to-point, 25 miles, +5,900’)

Ventana Wilderness

  • Trailheads: Arroyo Seco and Boronda Trailhead

  • Driving time: 2 hours 30 minutes (Arroyo Seco) / 2 hours 30 minutes (Boronda)

  • Car shuttle time: 2 hours 15 minutes

The second easiest of the Ventana Wilderness crossings packs a bit more vertical than the China Camp to Big Sur route. After ascending the relatively forgiving Willow Creek drainage for several miles, this route crosses to the scenic Zig Zag Creek drainage, then the remote Indian Valley before gaining the Coast Ridge and heading north and down the Boronda Trail.

More information:

Cabezo-Molera Loop (Loop, 25 miles, +6,400’)

Andrew Molera State Park

This loop links the oceanside Bluff Trail of Andrew Molera State Park with the Cabezo Prieto ridge, which divides the lower reaches of the Big Sur and Little Sur rivers. 2.5 miles of walking along Highway One are required to link the two.

More information:

Cone Peak Lollipop (Lollipop, 25 miles, +7,700’)

Los Padres National Forest

  • Trailhead: Vincente Trailhead

  • Driving time: 3 hours 15 minutes

  • Extensions / modifications: Can be made shorter by doing an out-and-back, and/or using the Twitchell Elevator use trail to the summit.

Rising to 5,155’ less than 1 mile from the ocean, Cone Peak has the highest vertical relief of any coastal mountain in the continental US. This route starts at the ocean in Limekiln State Park and climbs 5,000’ to the summit of Cone Peak, before following a different descent route. You’ll pass through each of Big Sur’s coastal ecosystems, from coastline to redwood groves to the windswept ridgetops of the coastal range.

More information: AllTrails, Leor Pantilat, my Strava activity

Lost and Found Loop (Loop, 28 miles, +6,900’)

Ventana Wilderness

As far as I can tell, Leor Pantilat designed this route, and it looks really interesting. It starts and ends at the quiet Santa Lucia Memorial Park and combines a series of ridges and valleys in the upper reaches of the Arroyo Seco.

More information: Leor’s Strava Activity

Black Cone Loop (Loop, 28 miles, +8,800’)

Ventana Wilderness

  • Warning! I do not recommend attempting this loop in its current (as of early 2019) state! Most of the Black Cone Trail is overgrown with thick brush, making for a long, scratchy thrash. I’m keeping this hike on the list though, both to document this and in the hopes that the brush is cleaned up some time. Check the Ventana Wilderness Alliance forums for updates on trailwork on the Black Cone Trail.

  • Trailheads: China Camp

  • Driving time: 3 hours

This loop, which starts and finishes at China Camp visits one of the finest sections of remote trail in the Ventana Wilderness: the Black Cone Trail. This trail traverses a high ridge above the headwaters of the Big Sur River with phenomenal views of The Ventana Double Cone, La Ventana, and the surrounding peaks. This trail is linked using Tassajara Road, Tony Trail, Marble Peak Trail, and Pine Ridge Trail. There is some nice scenery along the Pine Ridge section and the upper reaches of the Marble Peak Trail, but the rest of it is somewhat less inspiring. That said, the 6 or 7 miles on the fire road will make this route feel shorter than it is.

More information: Leor Pantilat, my Strava activity

Boronda-Marble Peak Lollipop (Lollipop, 29 miles, +7,900’)

Ventana Wilderness

The stem of this lollipop is about 5 miles, meaning the loop is about 19. After a sustained climb up the Boronda Trail to Timber Top, this loop switches back down into the remote upper reaches of the Big Sur River. After climbing to the headwaters, it turns west, crossing a divide to Indian Valley, and then climbing to Marble Peak before returning via Coast Ridge Road and the Boronda Trail.

More information: (see “Route 1 Loop”)

Boronda Loop (Lollipop, 29 miles, +9,500’)

Ventana Wilderness

Warning! The westernmost section of the Pine Ridge Trail is currently (as of May, 2019) closed, thus closing this trail as well.

Another Big Sur classic, start at the ocean, climb to the Boronda Trail then drop into the rivers, valleys, and forest of the Ventana Wilderness for a marathon or so. This loop explores the most remote areas of the Ventana Wilderness and the Big Sur.

More information: DoingMiles

Carmel River to Big Sur (Point-to-point, 31 miles, 7,300’)

Ventana Wilderness

  • Warning! The westernmost section of the Pine Ridge Trail is currently closed, thus closing this trail as well.

  • Trailheads: Carmel River Trailhead and Big Sur Station

  • Driving time: 2 hours 30 minutes (Carmel River) / 2 hours 30 minutes (Big Sur Station)

  • Car shuttle time: 1 hour 30 minutes

This route connects the Carmel and Big Sur River drainages to traverse the Ventana Wilderness. This is a very impressive link up that traverses some of the most remote areas of the Ventana Wilderness.

More information: AllTrails

Coast Ridge Road (Point-to-point, 36 miles, +5,700’)

Los Padres National Forest

This route follows the (closed to traffic) Coast Ridge Road from one end at Nacimiento Ferguson Road to the other in the town of Big Sur. This is an impressive traverse high above the sea. For bonus points, include Cone Peak, or start at the ocean at Kirk Creek. There are a number of modifications and bail-outs possible to this route to make it shorter. There’s probably no direct access to water along this entire route, so plan accordingly.

More information: AllTrails

Lost Valley Loop via Arroyo Seco (Loop, 38 miles, +7,900’)

Ventana Wilderness

This big loop out of Arroyo Seco explores the upper headwaters of the Arroyo Seco river, including the remote Lost Valley. The first 14 miles are along a closed-to-traffic fire road, which should make it feel a bit shorter, but expect to clock north of 40 miles for this one.

More information: (see “Lost Valley Loop”)

Arroyo Seco Grand Loop (Loop. 44 miles, +8,900’)

Ventana Wilderness

With the ever changing conditions in the Ventana, it’s difficult to create large loop hikes. The Arroyo Seco Grand Loop is one of the largest on-trail loops in the Ventana Wilderness. This route is similar to the Lost Valley Loop, but climbs to Coast Ridge Road instead of following the Lost Valley Trail.

More information: (se “Arroyo Seco Recreation Area Grand Loop”)