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.

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