08.06.2012 - 11.06.2012
Wanting to get more backpacking experience before our planned 5-day backpacking trip in Daisetsuzan National Park in Japan, we decided to hike out to the Pico Blanco backcountry campsite in the Ventana Wilderness this past weekend. We were originally going to hike to a campsite from the Bottcher's Gap parking lot but decided we'd rather avoid the parking fees there.
On Friday evening, we drove down from the Bay Area to Big Sur after work and spent the night in our parked car (an Acura MDX so pretty roomy with the back seats put down). We didn't want to drive on the windy dirt road to the parking area off the Coast Rd., so we just parked at a pull-off on Highway 1. Originally we thought we could take a shortcut to the trailhead and bypass most of the Coast Road, but unfortunately that road is a private one, so we couldn't take it after all.
On Saturday morning, we drove from the south end of the Coast Road northward, wanting to avoid the switchbacks on the north side of the road. The parking area is not marked, and we might have missed it if it weren't for a small gate latched by a rope with several walking sticks propped on the barbwire fence next to it. When we parked our car next to the gate, ours was the only vehicle there. It was also the only vehicle when we came out on Monday morning, and we saw no other people the entire weekend except for a group of three guys who were fishing down the creek.
We probably didn't do as much research as we could have about the hike. Armed with a GPS track of the trail and our map of the Big Sur and Ventana Wilderness, we anticipated a roughly 4-mile hike out to Pico Blanco. We figured we'd stay there on Saturday and Sunday and then hike back out Monday morning and head north and to work (it does seem like we like to push ourselves to exhaustion). We completely underestimated the length of the hike out to Pico Blanco, which turned out to be over 7 miles rather than 4 (others have reported that it's a 5-mile hike, but our GPS told us 7 miles--not sure what's causing the difference). Also, over half of the trail was a nightmare to hike. It was literally the most miserable stretch of trail I've ever been on. The first two miles, however, were extremely pleasant, following the creek through the redwood forest. After climbing out of the forest, we encountered our first rattlesnake. Thank God rattlesnakes have rattles to warn you off. The misery started a little ways after the intersection with the fire road. The trail was so un-maintained that I hesitate to call it a trail. The worst part was fighting the overgrown brush for room on the narrow path so as not to fall off the mountainside, all while flicking off armies of ticks and sweating in the relentless sun (there is virtually no shade on this part of the trail). In some parts, the trail is so overgrown that we would easily have lost our way if we didn't have our GPS. Once we got back down closer to the creek again, we also had to contend with out-of-control poison oak.
Pico Blanco Camp itself was lovely, though. It was completely empty, so we got our pick of the campsites. A few of them have picnic tables. We stayed at the one closest to the trail going down to the waterfall--an idyllic place that would have been perfect for a swim if we had arrived when the day was still warm enough. We set up our tent in a small ring of redwood trees.
Knowing we couldn't do the entire hike out on Monday morning, we decided to head back on Sunday instead and spend the night at an unofficial campsite we encountered right before the creek crossing. Noting a fire road on our GPS, we took that out instead. (This was the fire road that we intersected on the first day.) The fire road was so much more pleasant: though the beginning part was still a little overgrown, at least we weren't fighting for room on a cliff edge, and most of the road length was extremely well-maintained and even provided views of the ocean. I can't overstate my recommendation for taking the fire road over the trail. In fact, the whole motivation for writing this post was to warn others off the miserable trail we took. We wished we had heeded some of the warning of others (here, here, and at two other now defunct sites) before we embarked. Camping by the creek was relaxing. Once again we were under redwoods. The ground was soft, and we fell asleep to the sound of the roaring water.
The hike out on Monday morning was easy and pleasant. This time we went north on the Coast Road (4WD recommended), meeting up with Hwy 1 and heading back to the Bay Area and working life.