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.
QUICK TAKE: Ventana Wilderness, California
DRIVE TIME: Ventana Wilderness is on the California coast roughly 130 miles (2 hours) south of San Francisco.
THE WAY: The various coastal trailheads into Ventana Wilderness are all on or near CA 1 between Carmel and the Nacimiento-Ferguson Road.
TRAILS: Trails total 260 miles. Week-long trips are possible. Weekend-size trips include: 23-mile Pine Ridge Trail from China Camp to Big Sur, an exceptional bisect of the wilderness that requires a long shuttle; 25-mile Kirk Creek-Vicente Flats-Cone Peak-Goat Camp loop, a great three-day jaunt.
ELEVATION: Almost sea level to 5,862-foot Junipero Serra Peak.
CAN'T MISS: The view from Cone Peak sweeps in a vast chunk of the Central California coast, including the better part of Big Sur and on very clear days the southern Sierra.
CROWD CONTROL: Avoid the Sykes Camp area on weekends. The hot springs there is the worst kept secret in the state.
MAPS AND GUIDES: The Forest Service's 1:63,360 Ventana Wilderness topo map is the best choice and is available at the address below ($4.25, make checks payable to "BSNHA"). Jeffrey Schaffer's Hiking the Big Sur Country: The Ventana Wilderness ($15.95, Wilderness Press, 800-443-7227) is an excellent resource.
PIT STOP: Stop and have lunch at Nepenthe's south of Big Sur. The view of the coastline from the outdoor deck is classic to the point of clichß.
WALK SOFTLY: Campfire permits are required from May until the first big winter rainstorm-usually in November. Be very careful with fire here.
MORE INFORMATION: Monterey Ranger District, Los Padres National Forest, 406 S. Maldred, King City, CA 93930; (408) 385-5434. Wilderness permits are not required, but parking in the forest costs $5 per day.