Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Timber Top

Cone Peak and the Big Sur coast from Boronda Ridge
6 miles round trip, 2550 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

The steep trail along Boronda Ridge to the summit of Timber Top offers some of the finest views of California’s Big Sur Coast. This hike up an exposed, grassy ridge that rises precipitously from the Pacific offers sweeping views out onto the ocean and both north and south along the coast, with a summit view that extends from Point Sur to Cone Peak. As a bonus, this extremely scenic hike pulls few visitors despite being in an extremely popular stretch of the California Coast, helped in part by an unmarked trailhead. The precipitousness and openness of this terrain has its drawbacks though: the Boronda Trail is very steep throughout and the exposed ridge can become an oven under direct sun. Winter and spring are the best seasons, when the vegetation is greener and temperatures are moderate; summer conditions are generally too punishing for visiting this ridge’s coastal panoramas. While lovely, this hike also has far less variety than hikes such as Vicente Flat or the Cruickshank Trail, as the Boronda Trail eschews the redwood forests that are common along many Big Sur hikes.

The Boronda Trail to Timber Top is less brushy than the average Big Sur trail, although there are still stretches around the start and at the summit where vegetation can close in around the trail. Thus, poison oak is somewhat less of a concern here than elsewhere in Big Sur, although ticks remain a concern along the grassy trail. Hiking poles can help ameliorate the extremely steep descent on the return leg of the hike.

I hiked the Timber Top with a group of three friends on a sunny and warm February Sunday. To reach the trailhead, which is between the village of Big Sur and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, we followed Highway 1 south from the Monterey Peninsula past the village of Big Sur. A half mile after passing COAST Big Sur café, we pulled over and parked along the ocean side of the road, across Highway 1 from an unmarked trailhead with a gate. There was no signage whatsoever for the trailhead, so it was necessary to come with knowledge of where to find it. There was parking for over 20 cars on either side of the road, although I had no trouble finding parking when I came. There are no bathrooms at the trailhead.

Crossing to the east side of Highway 1, we passed through the gate to start up the Boronda Trail. The road trace of the Boronda Trail started out in a greener patch of trees but almost immediately climbed out and emerged onto open grassy slopes. A steady if not yet aggressive ascent quickly lifted the trail above Highway 1 and by the time we reached the trail’s second switchback turn at a quarter mile into the hike, there were great views over the beaches along the Big Sur Coast below and the ridges that dropped to the coast to both the northwest and southeast.

Overlook of a Big Sur beach
The trail used a few switchbacks over the next few hundred meters to climb up the ocean-facing slopes of the Santa Lucia Range, with lovely views along the coast that extended all the way to Pfeiffer Point in the northwest. As the trail turned inland for a stretch, we caught our first glimpse of the Coast Ridge ahead of us, with Timber Top one minor summit along that crest. The high slopes of the ridge were generally dry and grassy but we could also see forests of coast redwoods filling the gullies eroded into the mountain slopes.

View over Highway 1
At 0.8 miles from the trailhead, the Boronda Trail returned to the spine of Boronda Ridge, ascending steeply uphill along this exposed, grassy ridge. An aggressive stretch of uphill brought us to a grove of oaks on the right side of the trail that provided some welcome relief from the intense sun on the exposed slopes. The views here began to extend much farther south along the coast, encompassing miles of Santa Lucia ridges dropping down to the blue Pacific.

Magnificent coastal views along the Boronda Trail

Highway 1 winds along the Big Sur coast
This stretch of trail featured the most direct views of the coast, as the trail was following a ridge that paralleled the coast. The higher that we hiked, the more spectacular and precipitious the drop down the steep slopes of Boronda Ridge to the Pacific. At points, it almost seemed as if we could look straight down to see Highway 1 and the Ocean. The astounding views made the steep and direct ascent feel easier than it actually was.

Big Sur Coast from Boronda Ridge

Overhead view of Highway 1 and the Big Sur coast
At 1.4 miles, the trail made a sharp right turn and began following the ridge inland. The coast became more distant, although from our high vantage point now over 1800 feet above sea level we could gaze far out onto the Pacific. The trail continued its steep uphill climb along the ridge, although the high crest of the Coast Ridge now dominated the view before us. Golden eagles circled overhead, scanning the ridges and canyons for prey.

Golden eagle flies over Boronda Ridge
At around 2 miles into the hike, the trail passed through a set of switchbacks that dipped the trail into a wooded ravine, which provided a welcome respite from the constant sun on the open slopes. The top of the switchbacks brought the trail back to the backbone of Boronda Ridge, which continued its grueling and endless descent towards Timber Top.

Boronda Trail
The trail's steep ascent along a ridge put us above one of Big Sur's signature lush coastal canyons. The canyon to our north, like many along the Big Sur coast, nestled a handful of coast redwoods. The coast redwood is the tallest tree species on the planet but the specimens around Big Sur are generally much smaller, as Big Sur is the far southern end of the species' range.

Redwoods and the Pacific
The contrast of the lush canyons and the arid ridgelines was nowhere more stark than a stretch of trail where I found a handful of agave blooming under the hot sun. Only in Big Sur do climate zones intersect in such a way that coast redwoods- which demand moisture to grow- can coexist within a few hundred yards of desert succulents.

At 2.5 miles, the trail flattened out a bit and wrapped around a wooded gully before it returned to the spine of the ridge for a final ascent. The constant uphill in exposed conditions made the ascent up to this point quite challenging and would likely make the conditions intolerable on hot summer days.

Approaching the summit of Timber Top
A final push up a last steep, grassy rise brought me to the flatter region atop the ridge, where the trail turned to the right and passed through a wooden fence. Just before crossing the fence, I had the very best views of the hike: from this point, I could gaze over 70 miles out onto the Pacific Ocean and could see down the rugged coast all the way to Cone Peak, the highest point directly along the Pacific coast in the contiguous United States. Cone Peak rises a vertical mile from the Pacific in less than 3 miles from the coast.

Big Sur Coast from Boronda Trail

View over the Pacific
The trail petered out at Timber Top Camp, just under 3 miles from the trailhead. Here, there was a grill and picnic table and a grassy area for tents. A faint path continued beyond Timber Top Camp- it was worth taking this path to get closer to the high point on Timber Top to unlock slightly wider views. The path was quite brushy and led uphill for another hundred meters, passing a water tank and then reaching a small rocky outcrop along a madrone-topped ridgeline. We ended our hike here: the rocks provided a pleasant, tick-free resting spot with nice views.

From this rocky outcrop, we had partial views of the ocean and Cone Peak that we had enjoyed on the way up; the vista in the direction of the ocean was not impressive as the many views that we had on the Boronda Trail. However, the view was wider here and encompassed other portions of the Big Sur Coast. Notably, we could see much of the coast to the Northwest: Pfeiffer Point’s remarkable headland, the faraway almost-island of Point Sur, and the tall peaks of Mount Manuel and Cabezo Prieto rising on the other side of Big Sur River’s canyon. Towards the interior of the Ventana Wilderness, we enjoyed views of the rocky forms of Kandlbinder Peak and Ventana Double Cone; the rest of the Santa Lucia Range was more rounded and chaparral-covered and was somewhat less impressive.

Pfeiffer Point, Point Sur, and Mount Manuel

Point Sur and the Coast Ridge Road

Cone Peak and the Coast Ridge Road from the summit of Timber Top

Ventana Double Cone from the summit of Timber Top
We enjoyed these remarkable views of Big Sur and Ventana Wilderness before leisurely backtracking downhill to the trailhead and returning to the Bay Area for a well-deserved all-you-can-eat hot pot. All in all, I enjoyed this hike immensely. While lacking the diversity of scenery of many other Big Sur hikes, Timber Top's stellar views still make this one of the best hikes along this stretch of the California coast.

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