Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Cruickshank Trail

View over the Big Sur coast from the Buckeye Trail viewpoint

8 miles round trip, 2300 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

The Cruickshank Trail is an oft-overlooked gem on California’s Big Sur Coast. Climbing up from Highway 1 into a wooded canyon, the trail delivers knockout views of the Pacific Ocean and visits a small but lovely redwood grove along Villa Creek. The views over the Pacific Ocean are vast and far reaching from the high lookout on the Buckeye Trail at the top of this hike. The redwoods of Villa Creek Camp may not measure up to groves further north, but Villa Creek redwoods have the distinction of being one of the southernmost naturally occurring groves of the tree. The hike’s southerly position along Big Sur likely explains its relative quiet compared to destinations north, but hikers who make the drive this far south will be amply rewarded.

Some existing descriptions of this hike describe it as a 5-mile round trip journey to Upper Cruickshank Camp. Frankly, this is terrible advice: Upper Cruickshank Camp is not a worthwhile destination. Thus, this hike extends past Upper Cruickshank Camp, visiting two lovely destinations on either side of Upper Cruickshank Trail by taking the Buckeye Trail.

As I’ve noted in previous Big Sur hike posts, hiking in Big Sur has its share of potential hazards, so it’s important to come prepared. Wilderness trails in Big Sur are known for being brushy and overgrown; the Cruickshank Trail is actually not terrible in this regard, but I still found myself constantly brushing up against vegetation, including poison oak. Wear pants to avoid getting scraped by brush, getting rashes from poison oak, and picking up ticks. Additionally, the California sun is intense and can heat things up in the summer, so make sure you bring sufficient water and sunscreen.

I hiked the Cruickshank Trail on a sunny and warm January Sunday. To reach the trailhead, which is just south of the village of Gorda, I followed Highway 1 south from the Monterey Peninsula past the village of Big Sur. The trailhead was 7.2 miles past the Plaskett Creek Campground, about 40 miles south of the village of Big Sur. There was no road-facing signage marking the trailhead, although there was a large and visible sign on the east side of the road that indicated the start of the Cruickshank Trail that was facing the ocean. Parking was along the side of Highway 1; shoulders were wide enough here to accommodate cars on both sides, with enough room for at least 20 or more cars. Only a fraction of those spots filled on the day of my hike. There was no day use fee to park, but also no restrooms.

I parked and crossed Highway 1 to reach the start of the trail. The hike started off strong, delivering ocean views from the first steps: in fact, the initial four-fifths of a mile of the Cruickshank Trail probably ranks as one of the more spectacular opening stretches of any hike I’ve done. A short uphill brought the trail onto a brushy bench with views of the soaring chaparral-covered ridges above. Crossing the bench, the trail began a spectacular switchback ascent up the sides of a brushy hillside, with views of the ocean and of waves pounding the rocky coast improving with every additional switchback. The trail skirted the edge of a plot of private land, with one of the switchbacks following a barbed wire fence on the edge of that property. Looking up, I could see to an exposed ridge high above that would be my destination for the day. In the brush around me, spring’s first wildflowers were beginning to bloom: I spotted a few patches of lupine, paintbrush, and morning glory.

Cruickshank Trail and the Pacific Ocean
At 0.6 miles, the switchbacking trail neared the crest of the hill that it had ascended, running just a few meters downhill and to the right of the spine of the ridge. An unmarked spur path branched to the left and led ten feet up to the top of this ridge, following it out to an airy viewpoint over the Pacific Ocean and unlocking views along the coast to the north of towering San Martin Top. Below, waves swept in off the Pacific, tossing around the kelp forests in the azure waters just offshore before crashing against the craggy coast. Avoid using the eroded and steep use path at the switchback for reaching this viewpoint- look for an easy-to-use social path a little farther uphill.

Ridge along the Cruickshank Trail
I returned to the main Cruickshank Trail, which ascended a little more before a final switchback swung the trail towards the north, crossing along the hillslope above the ridge crest which I had visited moments earlier. The trail continued ascending, with constantly marvelous views over the ocean and Highway 1, until it made a sharp turn to the right as it wrapped around the ridge into Villa Creek’s canyon at 0.8 miles.

Looking down to Highway 1 from the Cruickshank Trail
The sharp right turn at 0.8 miles marked the end of the constant coastal views of the first section of the hike and also marked the Cruickshank Trail’s entrance into the Silver Peak Wilderness, one of two federally designated wilderness areas in the Santa Lucia Mountains along the Big Sur Coast. The Ventana Wilderness- the larger and better known of Big Sur’s wild lands- was established first, covering lands within Los Padres National Forest, which did not include the Silver Peak area at the time. The lands around Silver Peak- including the Cruickshank Trail- were instead part of Fort Hunter Liggett, an Army base covering nearly two hundred thousand acres on the inland side of the Santa Lucia Range. Preservationists lobbied for its protection until the land was reassigned to the jurisdiction of Los Padres National Forest and set aside as the Silver Peak Wilderness in 1992.

Entering Silver Peak Wilderness
The vegetation also changed dramatically as the trail turned onto the north-facing slopes of the canyon, with dry chaparral transitioning to much lusher environs. The trail corridor was quite overgrown in spots here, with the copious green vegetation on this steep slope spilling over onto the trail itself; poison oak was quite common here, so I was glad that I had worn long pants. In the initial half mile after the turn, I continued enjoying nice coastal views to the northwest of San Martin Top and the ridge across Villa Creek Canyon. Ahead, I could see deep into Villa Creek Canyon: while the upper slopes of the peaks around the canyon looked dry and brushy, the bottom of the canyon was packed with spindly redwoods.

Redwoods in Villa Creek Canyon
At 1.3 miles, the trail entered the first forested stretch of the hike, passing briefly through some oak woodlands before reaching its first redwood grove. These mountainside redwoods were not terribly scenic- while still tall, they grew in forests with a dense understory and the main trunks of the redwoods were surrounded by thickets formed by sprouts of those same trees that had popped up after fires and other insults to these trees. Because of this dense understory, this forest was nothing like the open, cathedral-like redwood groves to the north; luckily, there were more scenic patches of redwoods awaiting me ahead on the hike.

Oak woodlands along the Cruickshank Trail
After crossing a small, barely-flowing stream, the Cruickshank Trail made a hard left turn and exited the redwoods, entering an exposed, brushy slope with views over the canyon and out to the cerulean Pacific Ocean. Shortly afterwards, the trail turned right and passed through a second oak forest, after which it came to another clearing with Pacific views at 2 miles; after this point, I would not see the Pacific Ocean again until reaching the very top of the hike at 4.4 miles.

Looking out Villa Creek Canyon to the Pacific
At 2.1 miles, the trail entered a second redwood grove, which had largely the same features as the first grove and was not particularly scenic. After crossing a stream in the grove, the trail came to Lower Cruickshank Camp, the first of three wilderness campsites that this hike visits. Backpackers visiting Silver Peak Wilderness do not need overnight permits to camp- a rarity in California, where outdoor access is increasingly regulated (a generally understandable phenomenon, considering the impacts of increased visitor use). Lower Cruickshank Camp was not as scenic as the later Villa Creek Camp and only has a seasonal water source.

Past Lower Cruickshank Camp, the trail remained in oak woodlands as it ascended steadily until reaching another densely vegetated redwood grove at 2.4 miles. At the far end of this grove, I came to Upper Cruickshank Camp and the junction with the Buckeye Trail. Upper Cruickshank Camp was more open and spacious than the lower camp and had a pleasant if unspectacular setting amidst oak woodlands near the edge of the redwood grove.

Upper Cruickshank Camp
The Buckeye Trail branched out in two directions from the junction: the left fork led to Villa Creek and Alder Creek Camps, while the right fork led towards Buckeye Camp. I would end up traveling a distance along both forks, as the two destinations for this hike were to either side of Upper Cruickshank Camp. I would first hike the 0.8-mile round trip detour to Villa Creek Camp to the left to see lovely redwood grove along the creek and then return to Upper Cruickshank Camp and hike a 2.4-mile round trip ascent the other direction to a viewpoint on a high ridge along the Buckeye Trail.

Deciding to visit Villa Creek Camp first, I took the left fork of the Buckeye Trail from Upper Cruickshank Camp. The Buckeye Trail began a steady and at times steep descent from Upper Cruickshank Trail down to the banks of Villa Creek, passing through some more open and pleasant redwood forest as it dropped 200 feet in 0.2 miles. Upon reaching Villa Creek, I entered a lush and cool environment that seemed worlds away from the dry, sunbaked hillsides I had encountered at the start of the hike. Villa Creek was flowing healthily through its rocky creek bed and was surrounded by ferns and soaring redwoods. I rock-hopped across Villa Creek and then continued to follow the Buckeye Trail downhill for another 0.2 miles, which now followed Villa Creek downstream at a slight remove. At 2.8 miles into the hike, I came to the spur trail for Villa Creek Camp, which was marked with a trail sign nailed onto a larger redwood. I took the left spur for Villa Creek Camp and descended briefly but steeply down to a small clearing nestled amidst great old-growth redwoods on the banks of the creek.

Villa Creek flows through the redwoods
Villa Creek Camp was one of the scenic highlights of this hike: the redwoods here were far more impressive and beautiful than those seen earlier on the Cruickshank Trail and the understory was much more open. The shade and the nearby water kept temperatures here cool and comfortable. I was lucky that no campers had set up in Villa Creek Camp when I arrived, so I was able to enjoy this wonderous place to myself. While by no means exhibiting the lushness of the Humboldt County redwood forests to the north and lacking the great-girthed trees that are found even in other parts of redwood, the grove here was still delightful and tranquil, especially along Villa Creek itself. This spot reminded me most of Vicente Flat, a slightly more impressive though more crowded grove a few miles to the north.

Villa Creek Camp
Villa Creek’s redwoods have the distinction of being one of the southernmost redwood groves in the world: in fact, only two naturally occurring patches of redwoods exist south of here, at Redwood Gulch and the Southern Redwood Botanical Area, which both lie within two miles of Villa Creek Camp as the crow flies. As the Southern Redwood Botanical Area- the true southern extent of the species- is off limits to the public, Villa Creek is the second southernmost of the publicly accessible groves. The trees here received far less water than their cousins to the north and thus cannot match the height or size of the champion trees in Humboldt and Del Norte County, but they still easily soar to 150 feet tall.

Soaring redwoods of Villa Creek Camp
As I gazed at these most remote members of this great arboreal species, I contemplated their fate in the time of climate change and a sadness overtook me. Years of drought are taking their toll on these trees, making them vulnerable to insults that they might have withstood in the past; the hotter and drier climate has also turned the California Coast Ranges into a tinderbox every summer, with the 2020 Dolan Fire being the last major fire to sweep through Big Sur. Silver Peak Wilderness is a rare spot in the Coast Ranges that has not seen fire for over 20 years, but it is foolish to think that it will be able to avoid fire forever. After seeing the 2020 CZU Lightning Complex Fire absolutely devastate the redwood forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains, I am fearful that Villa Creek Camp’s redwoods will eventually suffer a similar fate. I am grateful that I got to experience this grove’s beauty for a brief January afternoon.

Leaving Villa Creek Camp, I backtracked along the Buckeye Trail and ascended back to Upper Cruickshank Camp, with a steep uphill on the final climb back to the junction. I returned to Upper Cruickshank Camp at 3.2 miles into the hike and this time followed the Buckeye Trail in the other direction, heading uphill. A hundred meters past the junction, I came to another junction: here, the Cruickshank Trail branched off to the left and continued up Villa Creek Canyon to Lions Den Camp, while the Buckeye Trail headed to the right towards Buckeye Camp. I took the right fork and stayed on the Buckeye Trail.

The Buckeye Trail made a constant but moderate ascent over the next mile, ascending about 850 feet as it traveled through switchbacks on a hillside covered with oak woods and some scattered pines. At one clearing along the trail, I found a brilliant carpet of blooming shooting stars, an early season bloomer in the California Coast Ranges.

Shooting stars on the Buckeye Trail
After passing through a few more overgrown stretches of trail and dodging overhanging poison oak, I arrived at the top of a ridge at 4.3 miles into the hike. The forest ended here, opening to a grassy saddle with splendid views down a forested gulch to the Pacific Ocean. The Buckeye Trail continued towards Buckeye Camp from this saddle, heading off to the left along the ridge; I took the unmarked spur to the right, which followed the ridge out for about 150 meters to a rocky outcrop with an airy, jaw-dropping view over the Big Sur coast.

Here, I stood 2300 feet above the Pacific Ocean, which was only a mile away as the crow flies. San Martin Top rose imperiously over the coast to the north, with Highway 1 winding along the shore at its base. The switchbacks at the start of the Cruickshank Trail were visible directly below. Redwood Gulch was visible to the south: the coast redwoods in this canyon are the second southernmost natural occurrence of redwoods. Gazing westward, I could see about 60 miles out onto the Pacific, which stretched to the horizon. Although my views along the coast were limited to a few miles north and south of where I stood, the scenery was still immensely beautiful.

Pacific Ocean views from the Buckeye Trail viewpoint

Redwood Gulch

Highway 1 at the base of San Martin Top
After I finished soaking in this incredible view, I followed the Buckeye Trail back to Upper Cruickshank Camp and took the Cruickshank Trail back downhill to the car, a 3.6-mile downhill journey. Evening views of the Pacific Ocean on the closing stretch of the descent were particularly delightful.

I only saw a handful of other hikers all day, most of whom I encountered in the opening mile of the trail. I had the redwoods of Villa Creek Camp to myself for nearly an hour at midday and only encountered one group of backpackers when I was enjoying the view from the ridgetop on the Buckeye Trail. It was a phenomenal Big Sur experience, but with a fraction of the people that I had encountered when hiking at Vicente Flat or the state parks further north. There are certainly more sweeping ocean views along Big Sur than the ones from the Cruickshank and Buckeye Trails and larger redwoods than those found at Villa Creek Camp; but this hike delivers a charming package of the two with peace and quiet.

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