Tuesday, May 25, 2021

East Molera Ridge to Post Summit

Wildflowers, Pico Blanco, and the Pacific
10 miles round trip, 4000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Andrew Molera State Park entrance fee required

The open, grassy spine of East Molera Ridge provides stunning views of both California's Big Sur coast and the rugged Santa Lucia Mountains of the Ventana Wilderness. Awesome views from Post Summit and profuse spring wildflower blooms combine to make this one of the most incredible Big Sur hiking experiences. The hike starts along Highway 1, just meters above sea level, and ends atop a peak some 3455 feet above the Pacific. However, there's a price for all this beauty: the trail up to Post Summit is strenuous, extremely steep in places, overgrown at points, completely exposed to the harsh California sun, and infested with ticks. Luckily, hikers who travel any portion of East Molera Ridge- reached after 1.8 miles and 1500 feet of uphill- will get to experience much of what makes this such an awesome hike. The trail beyond this initial stretch is not officially maintained but is easy and straightforward to follow to Post Summit.

Hikers should absolutely plan to wear long pants for this hike. While there's not quite as much poison oak on this trail as in other chaparral environs of central California, much of the trail corridor is slightly overgrown with grasses and flowers: this means that ticks are a big concern. Wear pants and use bug repellent on your outerwear. Additionally, hiking poles are useful to deal with the extremely steep grades in the first and last miles of this hike. There's also no shade on this hike after the initial 10 minutes of hiking, so come prepared for significant sun exposure. This hike is best in April and May when the grassy slopes of East Molera Ridge explode with spring wildflowers. 

I hiked up East Molera Ridge to Post Summit on an early May day. There are two trailheads to consider for this hike: you can either park in the dirt parking lot at Andrew Molera State Park, where you'll need to pay the $10 (as of 2021) state park entrance fee, or you can also park directly alongside Highway 1 outside the park and shave off a quarter mile from the hike. This second option also avoids the state park entrance fee; while it's tempting, the second option is just a dirt pulloff with room for maybe three cars so most hikers should plan on parking at Andrew Molera State Park. Andrew Molera State Park was about a two hour drive from South Bay: I followed Highway 1 south past Monterey and Carmel. Shortly after passing the Point Sur, I made a right turn at the signed turnoff for Andrew Molera State Park. A short dirt road led downhill past the park entrance kiosk to a sizeable dirt parking lot with pit toilets.

After parking in the dirt lot, I followed the road that led down to the parking back past the the entrance kiosk. The entrance road intersected with two gravel roads, both marked "Authorized Access Only," to the right; I ignored the first gravel road but then turned right onto the second gravel road, following it briefly to a white barn. At the white barn, I found a small wooden post that signed for the East Molera Trail to the left. I headed onto the East Molera Trail, which passed through a tunnel under Highway 1 and then headed east, paralleling Highway 1 briefly, before it joined up with the trail coming up from the trailhead on Highway 1, about a quarter mile from the trailhead. 

After joining the trail from the other trailhead, the combined trail began to head uphill and soon joined up with a road trace; I took a left here and began following the road uphill. The road trace initially pushed uphill through some woods, passing a water tank. At a half mile, the road trace entered a broad, grassy terrace with views of the switchbacks of the East Molera Trail up East Molera Ridge directly ahead. The trail continued steadily uphill here and was a bit brushy at times with grass growing into the trail, but the road trace was very clear and easy to follow. Views of the Pacific Ocean gradually opened up to my back as I made my way up the sloping terrace. 

Andrew Molera coast
At just under a mile, I arrived at the far end of the terrace, at the foot of East Molera Ridge. Here, the trail turned sharply left and became very steep as it began ascending the side of the ridge. The grade here was quite steep and the trail had a bit of loose rock here, so this was a slightly challenging stretch. The trail made one long switchback in ascending this ridge; just before making the switchback turn, the vegetation around the trail became substantially more brushy, making it the perfect habitat for ticks. After the switchback turn, the trail abandoned the road trace and became a single-track path. The trail continued its steep, brutal ascent, but the ever-widening views- which now encompassed the redwood-filled Big Sur Valley and the waves sweeping against the beaches and headland at Point Sur- helped take my mind off the physicality of the ascent.

East Molera Trail
At 1.5 miles, the trail wrapped around a corner of the ridge, leading to great new views to the southeast. Big Sur Valley and its redwoods lay below and I caught a glimpse of the many ridges along the Big Sur Coast in the distance; closer in, I could see the transition from redwood forest to chaparral to grassy meadows on East Molera Ridge, which now rose to the east. I also caught my first glimpse of Post Summit, a high, chaparral-covered peak in the distance.

Overlooking Big Sur Valley
Continuing uphill, the trail transitioned from the chaparral on the ridge's lower slopes to the grassy meadows that dominated East Molera Ridge's upper reaches. Here, the promised wildflowers for which this hike is known began to appear in patches: lupine, owl's clover, and California poppy. At 1.8 miles, after about 1500 feet of ascent from the parking area, I arrived at the crest of East Molera Ridge, where I was received by a grove of wind-stunted redwoods. These redwoods were actually the highest elevation members of an extensive forest along the Little Sur River valley. Coast redwoods- currently the world's tallest known trees- reach the southern end of their range along the Big Sur coast.

Redwoods along the ridgeline
The officially maintained East Molera Trail ends where the trail meets the ridge, but a very clear and obvious track continues from here along the crest of the ridge to Post Summit. While some hardy hikers continue beyond Post Summit to Cabezo Prieto and Mount Manuel, that extension of this unmaintained path is extremely rough and overgrown; for most hikers, hiking a short stretch of East Molera Ridge or reaching Post Summit is reward enough.

The redwoods at the ridge crest initially blocked views of Pico Blanco, a magnificent peak of white limestone that rose across the Little Sur watershed. Although Pico Blanco, at less than 4000 feet tall, is far from the tallest peak in the Santa Lucia Range along the Big Sur Coast, it is certainly one of the most distinctive, its geometric and pale summit sticking out amidst the other rugged, chaparral-covered peaks. 

Redwoods and Pico Blanco
At 2.2 miles, I reached the top of the first of multiple knolls along East Molera Ridge. Views from here were glorious, encompassing Pico Blanco and the Little Sur River Gorge to the north and Point Sur and the Pacific Coast to the west and south. Over the next two miles, the unmaintained but generally clear trail continued through grassy meadows, with a net elevation gain of 800 feet as it headed up one grassy knoll after the next, often with short descents between the bumps on the ridge. The scenery was constantly fantastic, with views of the ocean and big peaks accompanied by glimpses of redwoods in the nooks and crannies of nearby mountains.

East Molera Ridge views
East Molera Ridge
As I hiked along East Molera Ridge, the wildflowers along the grassy ridge became increasingly profuse. The bulk of the floral display consisted of lupine and poppies, which at points bloomed in beautiful, interspersed fields along the trail. These explosions of orange and purple on the green, grassy ridge contrasted strongly with the white peak of Pico Blanco and the deep blue of the Pacific to either side of the ridge. The blooms were absolutely spectacular and at the time of my hike were most impressive on the second and third knolls (of four) along East Molera Ridge. While the views from the ridge would make this a nice hike at any time, the wildflowers truly elevated this to a sublime hiking experience.

Pico Blanco with the lupine and poppies
Lupine and poppies put on a show on East Molera Ridge
Pico Blanco from East Molera Ridge
Lupine, poppies, Point Sur
The fourth major knoll on East Molera Ridge was the last and highest; I arrived atop this knoll at 4.1 miles from the trailhead. Here, grassy East Molera Ridge reached its high point and began fading off to the east; chaparral-covered ridge leading up to Post Summit rose to the north. Views to the southeast opened up and included the Big Sur Coast stretching towards Cone Peak. The steepest and most difficult stretch of the trail lay ahead: hikers looking for a scenic experience that is a little less physically demanding can turn around here. 

View of final route up to Post Summit
The trail dropped a little bit from the fourth knoll on East Molera Ridge down to a saddle before beginning a direct and very steep ascent up towards the ridgeline of Post Summit. Trailside vegetation shifted from grass to chaparral and the trail itself became a bit more brushy; paintbrush grew near the trail, providing a bit of wildflower interest. Whenever I needed a breather, I turned around to see the Pacific stretching to the horizon, its surface tossed with whitecaps by the day's strong winds.

Indian Paintbrush, Big Sur Valley, and the Pacific
About halfway through this final thousand-foot ascent, the trail joined the main ridgeline of Post Summit and turned to the east, ascending directly along the crest towards Post Summit. Views expanded to reinclude Pico Blanco and the Ventana Wilderness to the north, but every step forward was now more difficult as the steep trail now alternated between stretches of loose rock and patches of very brushy vegetation. I battled through the chaparral and up the loose pebbles on the ridge until finally, 5 miles from the trailhead, I came to Post Summit. Just below the summit, the trail- at this point just a faint, unmaintained social path- split in two, with the left trail leading to the rocky high point of Post Summit and the right trail continuing along the ridge towards Cabezo Prieto and Mount Manuel. I had had enough for the day and took the fork to the summit, where I relaxed on the rocks to enjoy the 360-degree view.

At the summit, I could see many of the highlights I had taken in on the way up: Pico Blanco, Point Sur, and Big Sur Valley, but I also enjoyed expansive new views to the north and east. The Big Sur Coast stretched to the east, with high Cone Peak rising a mile into the sky from the ocean, the greatest coastal vertical relief in the contiguous United States. Closer in, the main ridge of Post Summit led east to the rugged, chaparral-coated summits of Cabezo Prieto and Mount Manuel. To the northeast, Ventana Double Cone- the tallest nearby peak- just peeked out from behind Kandlbinder. These peaks make up the heart of the Ventana Wilderness, one of the most rugged wilderness areas in a state well known for its many rugged wildernesses. Post Summit lies on the boundary of the wilderness: I had exited the boundaries of Andrew Molera State Park while hiking along East Molera Ridge earlier in the day.

Manuel Peak and the southern Big Sur Coast
Ventana Double Cone and the Santa Lucia Mountains
Pico Blanco
Big Sur coastline from Molera Point to Point Sur
Post Summit is named after the Post family, which has lived in the Big Sur region for over a century and a half. William Post, a European-American homesteader, arrived at the California Central Coast in 1848, married a local Costanoan, and eventually established his family in the rugged landscape by the sea. His descendants later opened the renowned Post Ranch Inn along the coast.

This is not a heavily traveled trail. While the Big Sur coast is increasingly being loved to death and the nearby Panorama Loop hike in Andrew Molera State Park sees hundreds of visitors per weekend, I saw fewer than 10 people on the way to and from Post Summit on a lovely spring weekend day.

The hike to Post Summit is one of multiple hikes in Big Sur that extend from Highway 1 up to the crest of the ridges rising above the Pacific. It is perhaps most comparable to the hike up Mount Manuel in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park just south on Highway 1. Of the two hikes, I prefer East Molera Ridge for its open grassy meadows with spectacular views; however, the view from the summit of Mount Manuel is arguably more impressive as it encompasses the rugged Big Sur Gorge and the high summit of Santa Lucia Peak. Both are worthy hikes that are overgrown and brushy by the standards of hiking trails in most other places but are veritable highways through the chaparral thickets of the Ventana Wilderness. While the hazards of this trail (snakes, ticks, poison oak, sunburn) may not be for everyone, those who do tackle East Molera Ridge will find stunning Big Sur views and those who come for the wildflowers in April or May will leave with an unforgettable hiking experience.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Mount Manuel

Santa Lucia Range and Big Sur coast from Mount Manuel
9.5 miles round trip, 3200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous, but trail is extremely brushy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park entrance fee required

Delivering sweeping views of California's dramatic Big Sur coastline and the rugged Santa Lucia Mountains of the Ventana Wilderness, Mount Manuel is a very scenic destination reached by a challenging and overgrown trail from Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. While the Big Sur Coast is well-loved by tourists and casual hikers, few get a chance to explore the high peaks of the Santa Lucia Range rising above the coast as the Santa Lucias are extremely wild. Mount Manuel is actually one of the more accessible summmits in the Santa Lucia Range, but that's not saying much: the second half of the trail to the peak is extremely brushy, making this a hike only for more dedicated hikers. Reaching the summit means pushing through tick-infested thickets dotted with poison oak; the reward is an incredible view up and down the coast. I can't recommend this hike to everyone but if you want a more than superficial understanding of Big Sur and you don't mind dealing with ticks and brush, then Mount Manuel is a good introduction to the rugged backcountry of the Ventana Wilderness. This hike visits a false summit of Mount Manuel that has the best views on the peak; the true summit of the peak is a little further and requires travel through even more intense brush, so only the hike to the slightly lower false summit is recommended.

The trailhead for Mount Manuel is easily accessible, right in the heart of Big Sur off Highway 1. I hiked Mount Manuel on a beautiful January weekend day, just a few days after a major storm swept through Southern California and washed out Highway 1 in the southern part of Big Sur. The trailhead was about a two hour drive from South Bay: I followed Highway 1 south past Monterey and Carmel to reach Big Sur and then continued on the winding coastal road until I reached the town of Big Sur. I made a left turn at the turnoff for Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, following the main park road past the entrance station and then along the Big Sur River until reaching the large parking lots at the far end of the park. The hike to Mount Manuel started from the far lot. 

I started off on a gated, paved road that led towards the Homestead cabin, the Big Sur River Gorge, and Mount Manuel. The first 0.2 miles of the hike followed a gradually ascending paved road, which cut uphill just above some of the park administrative buildings and residences at the far southeastern corner of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. After making a turn, the trail arrived at a junction at 0.2 miles: the paved road went straight ahead towards the Big Sur River Gorge, while the trail to the Homestead Cabin and Mount Manuel branched off to the left. I took this left fork, which quickly brought me to the Homestead Cabin. This cabin was home to the Pfeiffer family, one of the earlier European American families to settle Big Sur; the Pfeiffer family claimed a homestead here above the Big Sur River and built the wooden cabin here. The Pfeiffers were neighbors to a Chumash family that homesteaded nearby: Manuel Innocente also made his living here near the mouth of the Big Sur River gorge and lent his name to the peak that is the destination of this hike.

Pfeiffer homestead
Leaving the Homestead Cabin, I followed the trail signs to head north and west; the Mount Manuel Trail branched from a wider, unmarked road trace leaving the cabin. The Mount Manuel Trail stayed level for a short stretch before coming to a trail junction; the left fork at this junction was unmarked, but a sign indicated that the Mount Manuel Trail continued along the right fork. The trail began a steady ascent through oak forest until reaching a larger trail sign at just over a half mile from the trailhead. This sign- near junction with the now-abandoned Oak Grove Trail- marked the start of the long climb up to Mount Manuel, as well as marking the boundary between Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and Los Padres National Forest.

The trail began to switchback while making a steady climb up the lower slopes of Mount Manuel and soon exited the oak forest into the open chaparral that is the predominant ecological feature of Big Sur. From these open slopes, I had good views down into the Big Sur Valley, enjoying views of the forested ridge across the valley and the tall tops of the redwoods below. The extent of development in the Big Sur area- the houses perched on the ridges, Highway 1 cutting through the forest, what appeared to be some apartment buildings at the bottom of the valley- was apparent from this viewpoint as well.

View over forested Big Sur Valley
At the one mile mark of the hike, the Mount Manuel Trail ceased its switchbacks and wrapped around to the eastern side of Mount Manuel's southwest ridge. Here, a spectacular view of the wild Big Sur River gorge unfolded in front of the trail. Below, the Big Sur River cut a dramatic, rocky gorge that nestled a handful of redwoods in its rugged recesses; above rose chaparral mountainsides bisected by the next mile of the Mount Manuel Trail, which cut a linear path ever higher up the mountain's slopes.

Big Sur River Gorge
The next mile or so of trail was a steady and moderate ascent uphill. Since I could see ahead to the 2.3-mile point on the trail, there were few surprises on this stretch of trail. The trail followed the contours of the mountain, alternating between crossing through gullies and wrapping around ridges as it made its uniform ascent. Although the trail was not particularly wide, there was a clear corridor that made travel fairly straightforward. As I made my way uphill, views of the ocean and the forested Big Sur Valley continuously improved.

Mount Manuel Trail, Big Sur Valley, and the Pacific Ocean
At 2.3 miles, the trail wrapped around the south ridge of Mount Manuel. Looking back from here, I caught the last of the spectacular views of the Big Sur River Gorge and the Pacific Ocean for a little while. Rounding the corner of the ridge, a new set of views unfolded before me: a few peaks of the interior Santa Lucia Mountains came into view. 

View down the Big Sur River Gorge to the Pacific Ocean
View up the Big Sur River Gorge into the Ventana Wilderness
Here, at 2.3 miles from the trailhead, the Mount Manuel Trail crossed into the Ventana Wilderness and the well-maintained trail that marked the start of this hike ended. From here to the end of the hike atop Mount Manuel, the trail is brushy, first just slightly so and later to an excessive degree. Hikers unwilling to deal with the brush and its associated risks of ticks and poison oaks can turn around here for a hike of just under 5 miles with just under 1500 feet of elevation gain, with views of the Big Sur Valley, the Pacific Ocean, the Big Sur River Gorge, and a glimpse of the Ventana Wilderness peaks. Those willing to continue on from here will have to deal with vegetal obstacles but will be rewarded with views that are far more remarkable.

I continued on the brushy trail, which passed through a forested gully at 2.8 miles from the trailhead. This was the lushest stretch of the entire hike: in addition to passing by a stand of second-growth redwood, the trail also winded through some oak woods where ferns covered the slopes of the canyon. 

Redwoods in a gulch on Mount Manuel
Lush environs on the high slopes of Mount Manuel
The trail became much drier on the opposite slope: here, the crumbling trail passed through overgrown chaparral and forced me to dodge spines of agave that had grown into the trail corridor. The trail was quite narrow here and in addition to being brushy was generally poorly maintained.

Agave along the brushy trail
I came around a ridge to a lovely view of the high peaks of the Ventana Wilderness at 3.3 miles. At 3.5 miles from the trailhead, the trail rounded another ridge and entered a stretch of oak woodland. Here, the brushiness of the trail reached its apogee: over the next 0.8 miles, the trail frequently had to dive through tunnels of brush, with occasional poison oak joining in with the other vegetation crowding out the trail corridor. Manuel Peak was occasionally visible in the distance in front of the trail; however, the woodlands here allowed for only partial views of the Ventana Wilderness, which at times included the nearby Kandlbinder Peak and rocky Ventana Double Cone.

At 4.3 miles, the trail reached the top of the ridge and returned out into the open; however, the trail remained extremely brushy here. Arriving atop the ridge, new and expansive views opened to the west: I could see out to the Pacific Ocean, Point Sur, and the green oceanside fields near Andrew Molera State Park. The false summit of Manuel Peak rose directly in front of the trail here. At the base of the false summit, two paths diverged at an unsigned junction; the true trail was the path to the left, which made a broad switchback to ascend the final 250 feet at a steady and reasonable grade, while the path to the right was an insanely steep shortcut use path that I do not recommend. Views became ever more impressive as I worked my way up the final switchbacks to the summit.

Finally, at 4.7 miles, the trail reached the top of Mount Manuel's summit ridge. Here, an unsigned trail headed right along the ridge to the false summit. I followed this trail over the rocky terrain of its last few meters to reach the false summit and its extraordinary 360-degree view.

From Mount Manuel, I had an unsurpassed view of the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific lay to the southwest, its coast defined by the lighthouse at Point Sur and the rugged shoreline south of Big Sur. A forested ridge dotted with houses rose over the coast nearby and container ships traveling along the Pacific Coast were visible out at sea.

The Santa Lucia Mountains were generally rocky and brushy, although the canyons below the peaks were heavily forested and supported the southernmost naturally occurring redwood forests. Ventana Double Cone's massive, rocky peak- one of the tallest peaks of the Ventana Wilderness- rose just four miles away. Other impressive peaks to the south included Ventana Cone, but most notable was Junipero Serra Peak (Santa Lucia Peak), which rose above the deep cut of the Big Sur River Gorge. Junipero Serra Peak is the tallest summit in the entire Santa Lucia Range at over 5800 feet in elevation and was covered in a snow cap when I visited in January. Although rare, snow does occasionally fall at the highest elevations of Big Sur; the particular winter storm that had dropped this coat of winter snow on Juniperro Serra and Cone Peaks had also triggered a mudslide that wiped out Highway 1 south of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

View down to Andrew Molera State Park and Point Sur
Ventana Double Cone and the rugged peaks of the Ventana Wilderness
Snowy Junipero Serra Peak rising over the Santa Lucia Range
Big Sur Coast from Mount Manuel
View out into the Pacific Ocean
On a sunny January weekend day, I had the summit to myself for the whole hour that I was there and I saw just five other people on the trail all day, of whom only three continued all the way to the summit. The views were marvelous and made the constant struggle with overgrown brush worthwhile. This isn't a hike for everyone, but if you don't mind picking off ticks after your hike and beating your way through thick vegetation, the views of Big Sur from atop Mount Manuel are an excellent reward.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Andrew Molera Panorama Loop

Point Sur and the Andrew Molera State Park coast
8 miles loop, 1400 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate, river crossing required except summer
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Andrew Molera State Park entrance fee required

Andrew Molera State Park preserves one of the only roadless stretches of coast in California's Big Sur region. This loop hike follows this stretch of wild coast before ascending a chaparral-covered ridge for expansive views before returning to the trailhead via a ridge walk that packs in both views and redwoods. Hiking options are often somewhat limited in the Big Sur region for casual hikers uninterested in tackling that brushy, rough terrain of the Ventana Wilderness: for many of those hikers, the Andrew Molera Panorama Loop (also known as the Bluff, Panorama, and Ridge Loop) is the best spot to explore a stretch of the famed Big Sur coast on foot. Understandably, this hike is one of the more crowded in the Big Sur region but it is still usually not overrun like the hikes closer to the Bay Area.

This loop utilizes four separate trails at Andrew Molera State Park. The hike starts on the Creamery Meadow Trail, which crosses the Big Sur River en route to reaching the start of the loop. The loop portion consists of three trails: the Bluff Trail sticks to the coast, the Panorama Trail climbs from the coast up to a nearby ridge, and the Ridge Trail makes a steady descent down a ridge to return to the Creamery Meadow Trail. I hiked this loop counterclockwise, which was definitely easier on my knees as I went up rather than down the Panorama Trail, which is the steepest portion of the hike. However, descending the Panorama Trail would give great views of the coast and so it would be reasonable to do this loop clockwise as well.

Although this hike is reasonably easy to access, it is necessary to cross the Big Sur River to start this hike. In summer, this crossing is made easy by seasonal bridges but by each autumn the bridges are gone and a river ford is necessary. While the water is typically less than knee-deep and not particularly fast, this hike can become inaccessible after storms when water levels are high.

Andrew Molera State Park is right off Highway 1 at the heart of the Big Sur Coast. Anna and I hiked this loop on a beautiful late December day. The trailhead was about a two hour drive from South Bay: I followed Highway 1 south past Monterey and Carmel. Shortly after passing the Point Sur, I made a right turn at the signed turnoff for Andrew Molera State Park. A short dirt road led downhill past the park entrance kiosk to a sizeable dirt parking lot with pit toilets.

The hike started by following the dirt road just outside the park gate to the right. After about 200 yards, we arrived at the ford of the Big Sur River. During our visit, water level was at mid-calf, as there had been some rain in previous days. We brought sandals for crossing the river and a towel to dry off afterwards and found both very helpful. After the crossing, the Creamery Meadow Trail made its way through the flat alluvial plain of the Big Sur River along the base of a ridge. Vegetation surrounded the trail here but while looking back we caught a few nice glimpses of Pico Blanco, a rocky, distinctive peak that is difficult to miss.

At 0.9 miles, we came to a trail junction: the right fork led to the beach, while the left fork led towards the Panorama Loop. We took the left fork, which made a brief, 50-foot ascent to reach an open chaparral plateau with views of the ridge rising ahead of us, Pico Blanco to the northeast, and the Pacific Ocean to the southwest. As the trail flattened out, we came to another junction at the 1 mile mark: the Ridge Trail led to the left, while the Bluff Trail broke off to the right. We decided to do the loop counterclockwise and started on the Bluff Trail.

The Bluff Trail quickly led to the edge of the coastal bluffs, where we had a stunning view over the water. Here, the waves of the Pacific crashed into the cliffs and beaches of Big Sur. This stretch of coast is frequently under fog but we were lucky to enjoy clear skies. On this clear day, we had lovely views west to Molera Point- a local promontory- and Point Sur, an inflection point on the Big Sur coast that hosts a lighthouse and a former naval facility for detecting Soviet submarines.

Molera Point and Point Sur
As the trail began to follow the coastline to the southeast, it ascended very gradually, leaving the bluffs directly by the water and retreating back into the chaparral. While the chaparral had grown quite high in places, we still had views of the ocean most of the time while hiking the Bluff Trail. The view ahead featured a wild, unspoiled coast- a rare stretch of shoreline left untouched because Highway 1 stays inland here.

Coastal views from the Bluff Trail
At 2.3 miles, the trail passed over the top of a local prominence that featured lovely views over pristine beaches below the trail. This was the high point of the Bluff Trail; the trail soon began a steep descent, passing the junction with the Spring Trail- which leads down to the beach- at 2.6 miles. We chose to skip the beach and instead continued onwards, with the Bluff Trail now becoming the Panorama Trail.

Beaches and seastacks along the Bluff Trail

The Panorama Trail began with a descent into a ravine but quickly climbed back out the opposite side and started along a steady ascent of 1100 feet over the next 1.7 miles. The early stretches of the Panorama Trail ascent utilized switchbacks to ascend this steep seaside hill and because there was no tree cover, we were treated to continuous views of Point Sur throughout the climb. The higher that we climbed, the more detail we could see along the coast: soon we could make out the headland of Molera Point and we watched waves roll in from far offshore until they crashed on the Big Sur coast.

Big Sur coastline from the Panorama Trail
A third of the way through the ascent, the switchbacks stopped, but the uphill did not. At times the trail was quite steep as it climbed through these chaparral slopes; the dirt trail will likely be muddy after rain storms. Views of the coast soon expanded to encompass views of the Santa Lucia Range, too, with a clear view of everything from the white-topped peak of Pico Blanco down to the waves smashing against Point Sur and Molera Point.

View from Pico Blanco down to the sea
The upper reaches of the Panorama Trail provided some of the best views of Pico Blanco. Pico Blanco is one of the most distinctive summits in the Big Sur area: its bare summit, made of an exposed formation of limestone, makes it look utterly different from any of its Santa Lucia neighbors. An early mineral prospector on the mountain claimed to have found an incredible cavern weathered into the mountain (quite possible due to the limestone geology!) but there is unfortunately no modern evidence of this claim.

Pico Blanco
After an exhausting 1.4 miles of ascent along the Panorama Trail, we arrived along the spine of the ridge at 4.2 miles from the trailhead. Here, the impressive westerly views of Point Sur and Pico Blanco that we had been enjoying were paired with an expansive view of the Big Sur Coast to the southeast. On that December day, we had the great luck of seeing snow covering the top of Cone Peak to the south. Winter storms occasionally bring snow to the highest peaks of the Santa Lucia, but as the height of the range is far less than the Sierra or the Transverse Ranges, snow cover is sporadic through the winter. Mighty Cone Peak, rising to the south, is the tallest peak directly abutting an ocean in the contiguous United States, rising a mile above the Pacific in just 3 short miles from the coast.

Snow on Cone Peak

Point Sur
Leaving this magnificent viewpoint, we still had another stretch of uphill left to tackle. Here, the Panorama Trail headed nearly directly up the ridge, with fencing to the right (east) of the trail defining the border between Andrew Molera State Park and privately held lands in Big Sur. There were a few more nice views to the west of Point Sur and Molera Point.

At 4.5 miles from the trailhead, we finally reached the high point of the hike, where the Panorama Trail met up with the Ridge Trail. A use trail continued slightly uphill here; I followed it briefly to come to another lovely view east of the Big Sur Coast, with snowy Cone Peak rising over the ocean. I returned to the junction and then we turned northwest onto the Ridge Trail to begin our descent back towards the trailhead. There were excellent views from the trail junction encompassing Point Sur, the coastal fields, and Pico Blanco.

View to the southeast along the Big Sur coastline

View of Point Sur from the Ridge Trail
Around 5 miles into the hike, the trail passed a stand of old growth redwoods that included some sizeable trees. While the trees here are no match for the great redwoods of Humboldt and Del Norte Counties or even for the groves in the Santa Cruz Mountains near the Bay Area, these soaring trees with their perfectly straight trunks still added some enjoyable variety to this hike.

Redwoods along the Ridge Trail
After leaving the redwoods, the trail alternated passing through stretches of woods and open chaparral. The open chaparral frequently provided views to the northeast of forested Big Sur Valley. We spotted the East Molera Trail switchbacking to the top of the ridge across the valley, which rose ever higher as it trended towards the east until peaking at Post Summit. The dry slopes of Mount Manuel were visible just past Post Summit; these peaks blocked views deeper into the Ventana Wilderness. Pico Blanco rose behind the East Molera Trail, the whites of its sublime limestone summit constrasting sharply with the duller chaparral of the surrounding mountains.

Post Summit and Mount Manuel rise above the Big Sur Valley
At a little over 6 miles into the hike, the Ridge Trail passed through a low saddle and then climbed briefly over a bump in the ridge before beginning the final descent down to the Creamery Meadow Trail. This stretch of trail had glorious ocean views, with the green fields around Molera Point and Point Sur defining the boundary of the Pacific Ocean. The descent was a bit steep at times.

View of Point Sur and Molera Point from the Ridge Trail
At 7 miles into the hike, we reached the bottom of the Ridge Trail and rejoined with the Bluff Trail. Continuing downhill from this junction, we connected back up with the Creamery Meadow Trail and then turned right and followed the trail back across the Big Sur River to the trailhead.

This is a good choice for hikers in Big Sur that want an outing more substantial than the short walks to Doud Creek Canyon or McWay Falls but aren't really looking for the bushwhacking experiences in the Ventana Wilderness. The scenery is superb throughout the hike and the mix of coastal, mountain, and forest scenery gives this hike plenty of variety.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Mannlichen to Kleine Scheidegg Panoramaweg

5 km one way, 50 meters elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Mannlichen Cable Car to trailhead with associated fees, return on Kleine Scheidegg cog railway

The hike along an Alpine ridge from the Mannlichen Cable Car station to the Kleine Scheidegg rail station is an easy ramble that provides superb views of Jungfrau, the Monch, and the Eiger and beautiful wildflower meadows in the heart of Switzerland's Bernese Alps. This is a one-way hike on a well-built path with minimal elevation gain, making it suitable for most hikers. While this hike does not necessarily stand out in an area with many beautiful hikes, it is easily accessible to visitors staying in Wengen and Lauterbrunnen and is a relaxing way to enjoy some classic Alpine scenery.

While it's certainly feasible to do this one-way hike either from Mannlichen to Kleine Scheidegg or vice versa, starting at Mannlichen is the recommended approach. Mannlichen is at a slightly higher elevation, giving the one-way trip about a 200 meter net elevation loss when starting at Mannlichen. Additionally, the best views on the hike are of the Eiger, the Monch, and Jungfrau, which would appear directly before you rather than being behind your back if you hike towards Kleine Scheidegg. 

Both ends of the trail are only reachable by public transport. Mannlichen is reached by a cable car from Wengen; there is also a cable car ascending from Grindelwald, but that cable car was closed for repairs during my 2019 visit. Wengen itself is a car-free town that is only accessible by cog railway. Additionally, Kleine Scheidegg can only be reached by cog railway from either Wengen or Grindelwald. The easiest approach for this hike to come from Wengen: ride the cable car up to Mannlichen, hike to Kleine Scheidegg, and then take the Wengeralpbahn back down to Wengen. Riding cable cars and cog railway all the time can be expensive, so I recommend that visitors spending a few days in the Jungfrau area buy the Jungfrau Travel Pass for unlimited travel on most of the region's railways and cable cars. If you're planning a longer trip in Switzerland and intend to do much of your travel by train, you can also pick up the Swiss Half Fare Card from SBB for additional discounts to the Jungfrau Travel Pass. Check timetables before your hike to make sure that you make it to your destination before the last train or cable car of the day no matter which direction you're hiking.

I did this hike during a family trip to the Alps. We stayed in Wengen, which is at a unique location on mountain slopes high above Lauterbrunnen Valley, with views of both glacial-capped peaks above and steep cliffs with tumbling waterfalls below. Wengen was one of the most beautiful places I've stayed at: the landscape here resembles that of a fairy tale. In fact, the valley of Lauterbrunnen inspired a young JRR Tolkein to write of a fantastic valley of snowy peaks and waterfalls that was the abode of elves: Rivendell, from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. While I mentioned that the Mannlichen to Kleine Scheidegg hike may not be the most standout spot in the Bernese Oberland, Wengen itself is one of the those standout places and must not be missed in any visit to the Swiss Alps.

The Bernese Alps from Wengen
From the cog railway station in Wengen, it was a short walk north (to the left) on Dorfstrasse through the center of the village to reach the station for the Luftseilbahn Wengen-Mannlichen, the aerial cableway connecting the village with the mountain station. We boarded the large cable cars for the minute journey up the mountain to Mannlichen. Along the way up, we had incredible views to the right side of the cable car of Wengen itself, Lauterbrunnen Valley, Jungfrau, and Breithorn.

After the short ride, we disembarked at Mannlichen station. Mannlichen is a ridge separating Lauterbrunnen Valley from Grindelwald and thus had magnificent views of both valleys. Snow fences dotted the slopes below Mannlichen on the Wengen side, meant to catch avalanches that might threaten the mountain town below in winter. The view to the west included many impressive but less famous peaks of the Bernese Oberland, including Breithorn, Tschingelhorn, Gspaltenhorn, and Bluemlisalphorn. 

Wengen and the Bernese Alps
On the Grindelwald side, we had immense views of the great wall of peaks of the Berner Alps. The north face of the Eiger connected to the cliffs of Schreckhorn and Wetterhorn. The houses and hotels of Grindelwald dotted the green pastures at the bottom of the valley. On a clear day, this would be a panorama of alpine peaks; unfortunately, at the time of my visit, clouds socked in the summits even though I could see the cliffs of the lower parts of the peaks. The view from Mannlichen is impressive but does not fully include the Monch and Jungfrau, as the pyramid of Tschuggen partially blocks those peaks. We caught a glimpse of the Eiger's north face here before it was swallowed by clouds. That was a little unfortunate, as this hike is known in particular for its constant views of the Eiger. The Eiger, or the Ogre, is the lowest of the three most famous peaks in the Jungfrau area (Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau: the Ogre, the Monk, and the Maiden); however, the Eiger's massive and vertical north face, a 3000-meter cliff, is one of the more impressive sights in the Alps and was for decades one of the most vexing challenges in mountaineering.

The Eiger, shrouded in clouds, rises above Grindelwald
From the Mannlichen cable car station, there is the option to hike north to the peak of Mannlichen itself, which is about 1 km to the north with about 70 meters of elevation gain. We skipped this side trip due to time constraints.

Leaving the Mannlichen cable car station, we followed the trail along the ridge south towards Kleine Scheidegg. The trail passed by the station for the cable car up from Grindelwald (not in service during the time of my visit). The Grindelwald side of the mountain is a ski resort in winter, so the open meadows on that side of the mountain were punctuated by service roads and multiple ski lifts.

After a slight initial ascent, the trail began to traverse the slopes on the eastern side of Tschuggen, with a gentle downhill grade. There were constant views to the Grindelwald side, where the peak of Wetterhorn shifted in and out of the clouds constantly. To the north, we had views of the dramatic sedimentary rock ridges of Schynige Platte, which is another popular tourist spot in the Jungfrau region that is accessible by cog railway.

Schynige Platte across the valley from Mannlichen
The meadows on the east slopes of Tschuggen were coated with mountain wildflowers. The rhododendron blooms were especially widespread and notable; so while we weren't able to see much of the Eiger along this stretch of the trail due to clouds we did still have plenty to see and enjoy along the trail.

Summer wildflowers
Summer blooms on the trail to Kleine Scheidegg
As we followed the trail around to the south side of Tschuggen, passing by more ski lifts, we caught a lucky break and the clouds began to lift, revealing views of the massive peaks above us. The Monch and Jungfrau came into view, rising precipitously from the green meadows and forests around Kleine Scheidegg to stark and harsh heights of rock and ice. Glaciers flowed down the slopes of both towering peaks and Jungfrau's sides were graced with a satellite peak, Silberhorn, which was a distinct icy pyramid.

Monch and Jungfrau rise above Kleine Scheidegg
The hike ended with a gentle descent down to Kleine Scheidegg, where we enjoyed more views of the Monch and Jungfrau rising above lush green meadows. We boarded one of ther later trains of the day to descend from Kleine Scheidegg back to Wengen.

Jungfrau view from Kleine Scheidegg train station