Backpacking Cone Peak, Big Sur

By Rebecca Hext
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Backpacking Cone Peak, Big Sur

Rebecca Hext
 
 
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If you have been itching to get back into Big Sur, it is your lucky day. Although the majority of the area is still closed due to road closures, one of the most pristine backcountry routes is officially open; Cone Peak’s sea to summit trail. Check out our backpacking guide below to get the most out of your trip to Cone Peak.

Getting There

Usually, traveling to Big Sur also includes the iconic Highway 1 route. However, due to mud slides, rock slides, and a collapsed bridge, Highway 1 in Big Sur is closed for repairs. Thankfully, and an alternate route has been opened up for access to a couple campsites and the sea to summit Cone Peak Trail.

By taking the 101 from the north of south, visitors can reach Nacimiento-Ferguson Road. You will exit the freeway and head towards the town of Lockwood. The turnoff to get to Nacimiento-Ferguson is clearly marked with street signs and easy to find on mapping apps.

 

The road is a winding 22-mile trek up the back of the Santa Lucia mountains and then back down the front. Although the road is short mileage wise, it takes about an hour to reach the junction with Highway 1. There is also no access to gas, water, or food after you leave the 101, so be sure to plan accordingly.

 

With such an open trail, there are various spots to relax and eat a snack on your way to the top
With such an open trail, there are various spots to relax and eat a snack on your way to the top

The Trail

The trailhead for this backpacking trip starts directly across from the Kirk Creek Campground. Hikers can park their cars in the dirt turnout on the east side of Highway 1. You will not get ticketed here for overnight parking, but it is important to note that camping here is not an option. If you are arriving late at night, plan on staying a night at Kirk Creek instead of in your car.

Although this trip can be done all in one day, I would recommend taking the time to make a weekend of it! The entire loop version of the trail is 26 miles and has an elevation gain of over 5,000 feet. This trail is not for the weak!
If you head to caltopo.com (if you don’t already use this for trip planning you really should) you can check out the logistics of the trail and decide how you want to do it.

 

The trail is easy to follow with the help of nice (and new!) signs
The trail is easy to follow with the help of nice (and new!) signs

Personally, I recommend doing a lollipop route. Hike into Vicente Flat Campground from the trailhead to start the loop. From here, hike up the front of Cone Peak past Goat Camp to the Gamboa Trail. Then follow Gamboa Trail to the summit, head back down the backside of Cone Peak, hop on the service road for a half a mile until the Vicente Flat Trail reappears on your right. This trail will take you right back to Vicente Flat where you can hike back out to the trailhead.

The Campsites

This is where your trip can have some variation. There are quite a few backcountry campsites on this trail to choose from. Depending on how many days you have, your fitness level, and your campsite preferences you can choose which work best for you.

 

Vicente Flat is the biggest campground, located about 6 miles in from the trailhead. There is a seasonal river that runs right through the 10 or so plots, and this is a great option for larger groups. You can also choose to set up camp here and leave your belongings to summit Cone Peak on a day hike. This is great if you have more than one night because you don’t have to lug all your gear to the top.

 

One of many great plots available at Vicente Flat Campground
One of many great plots available at Vicente Flat Campground

 

About a mile and a half before Vicente Flat, you will find Espinosa Camp. If you are looking for a quieter, more secluded option this site is for you. There are only two plots available, but because it is so close to the trailhead it is frequently open.

If you only have one night, Goat Camp and Trail Springs Camp are both great options. Goat Camp is located about 11 miles in from the trailhead. It is a very tough trail to get here in one day with all of your gear, so be prepared. You will climb around 2,500 feet before arriving here.

Trail Springs Camp is located at the junction of Gamboa Trail and Cone Peak Trail. It’s only 2 miles from the summit which makes it a great option if you want to spend the day relaxing at the peak. However, it is a difficult camp to get to in one day because it is about 13 miles from the trailhead, and has an elevation gain of 3,800 feet from the trailhead.

Summiting Cone Peak

If you are feeling risky, you can climb on top of the lookout tower for a better view
If you are feeling risky, you can climb on top of the lookout tower for a better view

 

Cone Peak is famous for its harsh gradient and stunning views. It is the second tallest peak in the Santa Lucia Range, giving hikers a full look at the Pacific Ocean to the west and Los Padres National Forest to the east. The average gradient is around 33% which is steeper than that of Mount Whitney.

At the top, there is an old fire lookout where hikers can take a break and enjoy the view. There is no water after leaving Trail Springs Camp until arriving back at Vicente Flat (if you plan to do the loop trail), so be sure to bring a lot of water.

Hazards

Although California’s rainy winter was great for wildflowers (this trail has a rainbow of flowers) it also brought the poison oak! Big Sur is known for its surplus of poison oak year around, but especially in the spring. If you are planning to do any part of this trail, you absolutely need to wear pants.

Not all sections of the trail have been groomed by trail maintenance crews yet, so be careful! If you are doing a multi-night trip, invest in a small bottle of Tecnu. Your skin will be very thankful, and you won’t have to wash all your gear after the trip.

 

The canyons are full of new vegetation because of California’s wet winter
The canyons are full of new vegetation because of California’s wet winter

 

Ticks are also in full bloom this spring. They hide in the tall grass and shrubs, ready to attack! To avoid any issues with these little buggers, wear long pants and long sleeves if weather permits. Also, be sure to do body checks at the end of the day in case you have been bitten.

Luckily, access to water is not an issue in Big Sur right now. There are around seven creek crossings on the Cone Peak trail right now. However, always make sure to check the Los Padres National Forest website for current river conditions. Many of the water options on this trail are seasonal, and you don’t want to get stuck without water.

 

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