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.

No comments:

Post a Comment