A 2009 Ventana Wilderness Trip by Daigaku and Fred: Bottcher's Gap to Tassajara, 2009
This trip was part of a semi-regular, normally three day/two night pilgrimage to Tassajara Zen Temple, that in this case took three and a quarter days and three nights. Normally, we would have entered from Pfeiffer and taken the Pine Ridge Trail to Big Sur River-> Redwood Creek Campground-> Church Creek Divide->Tassajara. Unfortunately, last year's conflagration resulted in a year-long closure of the entire wilderness, which was just re-opened to the public in May of 2009. With the Pine Ridge Trail still closed and a $5000 fine/ six months jail threat leveled at trespassers, we decided to chose a different route, from among several kindly recommended. We left from Bottcher's Gap trail head around 5pm on Friday, June 19th. There were a few cars in the parking lot, but we saw no one. We headed to Devil's Peak, met two or three people along the way, and they were the last ones we saw.
June 19th: Bottcher's Gap->Comings Camp.
Up to Devil's Peak is easy. Good tread, good trail.
After Devil's Peak, the trail to Pat Springs goes through lots of grass, and without many hikers it can be hard to find, as there is little tread, but we had little trouble.
We spent the night at Comings Camp. It is down off the trail, and surrounded by burned out forest. Without the natural wind breaks of the forest, in the night it seems that some of the charred trees often fall down. Rather forsaken place, but not bad to camp. Wind was howling and it was cold.
June 20th: Cold Springs Camp->A Waterfall near Carmel River.
We intended to take the Puerto Suelo trail down to the Carmel River, but never found a sign for it. We followed maps/gps/topos, etc., and went down a creek bed for a mile or so where we thought the trail was, or should be, at least according to the GPS topo indication. The creek bed was rough, and at one point we had to do some simple roping/rappelling to get over a drop. Eventually, the creek became quite full, and we found ourselves hopping along boulders, and then we finally hit a waterfall with a steep drop in a steep canyon that we could not navigate around. We are not exactly sure where this waterfall is, but perhaps it is near where Puerto Suelo joins with Carmel Creek. In coming down the creek bed, we had occasionally noticed some ghost trails, but most seemed to peter-out. Some may have been old, abandoned trails, or deer trails. So we felt quite lost and stranded. We spent the night by the creek, just above the waterfall. It was a lovely spot, in a deep canyon, and very cool.
June 21st: Waterfall-> Church Creek Divide
At Hiding Camp we were so elated to have found any sign that we made the incredibly stupid mistake of going downstream instead of up, and did not check maps/gps carefully until we arrived at Buckskin Flat, which is signed. This is a beautiful stretch, with some dangerously narrow and steep sections of the trail, and it was with great disappointment that we realized that we had gone way out of our way, the wrong way. Water shoes and a staff are definitely a plus on this part. We lost several hours here.
From Buckskin we hiked back to Hiding Camp, and then tried to find the Carmel River Trail upstream from Hiding Camp. This was not easy to do as nothing is signed. With the GPS and topo maps we finally found the trail head that leads off the river. The trail itself is fair, but without any signs we missed a junction and wound up at a mosquito-infested dead-end in the brush, after crossing the river and going past what we later learned was Round Rock camp ground. We went back, re-found the main trail and proceeded up the steep slope of the $B!H(BCarmel River Trail$B!I(B through what is a very parched area. After reaching the creek bed, there is no visible trail in much of this area, so we merely climbed up the creek bed, thrashing through thickets and brambles in the water. River shoes were invaluable here. Eventually there is a faint trail that leaves the creek bed, and climbs up to the pass into Pine Valley. From the pass, one descends into the stunningly beautiful Pine Valley, and in the fading light of the day, it seemed like paradise. The trail is good here, even through burned out areas. Once we reached Church Creek Divide, we were in familiar territory, and camped the night there.
June 22 Church Creek Divide--> Tassajara Zen Temple
This was very familiar territory for us, and it is a beautiful easy hike from the divide down to the Caves, or Bruce Ranch. Many stands of trees are burned, but the grass and shrubs are growing back. In many places the trail has vanished, but if you know where you are headed the going is easy.
Finding the Church Creek Trail that leads off the Church Ranch road (on what is called the Mesa) to Tassajara is always difficult. In this case, we never would have found it had not the caretaker at the Bruce Ranch told us to look for a charred post by the side of the road. It is very easy to miss this turnoff all together, and both Daigaku and Fred have done so in the past. The USGS topo map on the GPS, which showed a trail, was completely off.
With the burn-off of trees, however, one unexpected benefit was visibility. From the Mesa it is now possible to see the Meadow, and further off in the distance the rocky pass over which the trail is supposed to go (an up-ended double-sandwich sort of formation, shown in photo at top). Both of these two points are critical, because from our experience (as others have said) this section of the trail is like the Bermuda triangle; the slope of the land almost immediately throws off your sense of direction once you get down into the low areas and gullies. The trick is to head nearly due east, using your compass rather than your innate sense of direction.
From the Mesa there was no visible trail, and the steep down slope is over treacherous corroding shale and scrub. Having attempted this three times previously and only succeeded into getting through to Tassajara on this trail once, we at least knew how to get to the Meadow, and we were greatly relieved to reach it before it became too hot. It is easy to run out of water in this area, and several years ago we got stuck near here when it was 114F.
This time our problem was finding the trail out of the Meadow--the one that heads to the pass through dramatic sandstone rock formation and then descends to Wildcat. Fred had made the trip successfully about four years ago, but to his surprise this time he couldn't find the trail out of the Meadow. In theory, he thought it should have been at the south east corner of the Meadow (the bottom of the sloping meadow), but most trees and manzanita had been burned off so that there were no visual clues (colored ribbons are all long gone). The USGS map trail on the GPS, and on the paper maps, was shown to the north of the Meadow, way up on a tremendously steep slope, and must have been abandoned decades ago.
We exited the Meadow at the bottom, and trashed about through burned Manzanita, descending to a creeklet. From there we thought we could find where the trail would cross, and explored the creeklet up and down, but had no luck. We never saw anything remotely like a trail. After a couple of hours, we felt completely stranded, and Fred began to ponder the unthinkable fall-back plan that he has used twice before--to hike all the way back to the Church Ranch road, and take a vast detour north over the mountain to meet the Tassajara Road long before it descends to the Zen Center. Daigaku was determined to find a way, however, so we agreed to hike to the top of a ridge in front of us, and get the lay of the land. We scrambled up a fiercely steep hill, through burned out Manzanita, and reached the top of a ridge, from which we could see the pass, two more ridges removed. The top of the ridge we were on was extremely narrow, however, and a wrong step would send a hiker plunging hundreds of feet over a cliff. Feeling a bit of vertigo, despite having taken some Bach's Rescue Remedy to calm his nerves, Fred decided that he could not risk going further with his pack on, so Daigaku again left his pack and went on ahead to try to scout a safe way to the pass. In the process, he eventually found a red mark on some rocks, and then what looked like a trail. He came back to get his pack, encouraged Fred, and we both then trashed our way through the burned out and curled manzanita to find a semblance of a trail, and eventually reached the pass. From there, and from the Wind Caves, the descent into Wildcat campground and eventually the Tassajara road is easy, although large sections of the mountainside are still charred wastelands. We reached Tassasjara temple at 6:30pm.
Some Thoughts on the Trip
This is not a trip for the faint of heart. We are experienced backpackers, and have been through the Ventana several times before, and are therefore fully aware of the usual problems of poor signage and poor trail conditions. Because the interior of the Ventana has been closed for a year, however, and because the trails were poorly maintained before that, the result is that the interior today is now a true unmarked wilderness and very inhospitable in many places. As a wilderness, perhaps that is the way it should be. But it might be useful to abandon the fiction of a trailed wilderness, to assume that in many areas there are no trails left at all, and that many trails indicated on maps are at this point just a memory. More human foot traffic, even a few horses and mules, might help re-establish the trails.
We had good maps and books of the Ventana, and detailed USGS topos of many areas. We had a compass, and a gps with USGS software topos, and still managed to get horribly disoriented and stranded at times.
We were extremely lucky in that the weather was cool, and probably never got above the low nineties. River shoes were extremely helpful. Don't try the trip without good boots, gloves, long shirts and pants, broad brimmed hats, and wrap-around sun glasses for protection from brambles. Don't expect to make many miles a day. And don't even try this route unless you're ready for a real challenge. If you have any allergy to poison oak, inordinate fear of rattlesnakes, or any fear of narrow crumbling trails at great heights, forget it. Always take extra water.
We feel lucky to have made it the whole way. In retrospect, it was a great adventure.Revised --July 4, 2009