Ah, the rigors of winter camping in California’s Big Sur backcountry. Stepping away from the campfire an hour past sunset, you realize that the blaze is still more for atmosphere than warmth. While the Sierra Nevada lies buried beneath a thick mantle of white that won’t disappear until June, the Ventana Wilderness, with its 250-plus miles of trail, enjoys some of the finest winter weather around-when it isn’t raining.
The Ventana Wilderness’ Santa Lucia Range can’t rival the Sierra in overall height, but it rises directly from the Pacific Ocean and is cleaved by numerous deep gorges, giving it the demeanor of “real” mountains. In fact, the land here is reputedly some of the most rugged in the state, and Cone Peak at 5,155 feet is the Lower 48′s highest coastal mountain.
Even so, the big draw at this 216,000-acre wilderness is the trees. Redwoods crowd ocean-facing canyons, attaining their usual magnificence at elevations up to 3,500 feet. Massive and exotic-looking red-barked madrone impart an almost tropical ambiance wherever they grow, and the spire-like crowns of the endemic and rare Santa Lucia fir soar above the surrounding live oak forests on certain high ridges.
The hike from CA 1 to Vicente Flats is typical of life in the slow lane at Big Sur. Expansive views of the world-famous coast open up as you climb from the highway trailhead. The 5-mile route winds through aromatic patches of chaparral and around limestone outcrops studded with yucca, which are near their northern limit here. Rounding a ridge you enter lush evergreen forests of live oak, madrone, tan oak, and fragrant bay laurel. Your destination is a beautiful potreros, or grassy valley, next to a creek lined by virgin redwoods. Only 3 miles as the crow flies separate you from CA 1 and its steady stream of traffic, but all is quiet here except for the murmur of perennial Hare Creek.