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Cone Peak via Stone Ridge (Sea to Sky Route) | TRVRS Outdoors
by Ricardo Soria
Often described as one of the most iconic meetings of land and sea in the United States, Big Sur presents an endless amount of coastal vistas, lush forested canyons, and ultimately a complete shift in its visitors state of mind. Its exquisite network of hiking trails can be accessed via highway 1 along the central coast of California between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Lucia mountains.
This nearly ninety mile segment of the Los Padres National Forest features countless cascading waterfalls sheltered within the canopy of ancient redwoods while sweeping meadows blanket its mountainous slopes. Most of Big Sur's visitors come for photos of the infamous Bixby Bridge or an all too familiar shot of McWay Falls.
We had other plans...
I got a text from Jeremy just a few weeks before the planned outing to climb what locals of the area call "Sea-to-Sky", a backpacking route that starts at the coast of the Pacific Ocean near the mouth of Limekiln Creek and ascends to Cone Peak, the second tallest peak in the Santa Lucia mountain range. Cone peak rises 5,155 feet above the coast in less than three miles point to point, forming one of the steepest gradients from ocean to summit in the contiguous United States. The official Sea to Sky route ascends 5,800 feet in under 7 miles following the somewhat overgrown west fork of Limekiln Creek before climbing the Stone Ridge Spine Path north toward Twin Peak. The path continues east before finally reaching the summit of Cone Peak.
Getting to the Big Sur
Since this was a last minute trip, we didn't have a campground reservations. Our plan was to hit Big Sur Friday in the morning to increase our chances of finding a site closer to the trail head and then day hike the entire route in the morning. We drove in via Nacimiento-Fergusson road where we quickly eye balled Nacimiento campground. The grounds were completely empty but we decided to try for Kirk Creek or Limekiln Campgrounds instead due to their proximity to the route.
Fog and rain dominated the scenery as we skirted the Ventana Wilderness boundary. Eventually we descending below the cloud level where a bend in the road brought on views of the Pacific ocean. We were excited to get out of the car but still needed to find a place to sleep and right as we pulled up to Kirk Creek, a sign in the front read "CAMPGROUND FULL". We continued north on higway 1 toward Limekiln State Park with low expectations and found the campsite to be nearly empty. We pulled in, cracked open some beers and set ourselves up for dominoes and dinner.
Sea to Sky
March 14th, 2020 - 5:19 AM. To no surprise, I awoke to the sound heavy rain. It was its shift after a night of thirty minute rotations between it, howling wind, and complete silence. We were ready to hit the trail by 6:15 AM but decided to wait under our canopy to see if the storm would let up. Fifteen minutes later, our eagerness got the best of us and we chose to at least walk toward the beach and bathrooms. After all it was a route called Sea to sky and we needed to touch salt water to commence the ritual.
7:03 AM - After a quick stop at the estuary, we turned around and followed Limekiln Creek back to the trail head. Our first goal was to leave the west fork of Limekiln creek canyon along the Alvin Trail which was described as an overgrown use trail in most of the old trip reports that we read. We spent an hour exploring the previous day to gauge its feasibility and found that it looked completely maintained at its start. Venturing further was a different story. Although navigation was never an issue, poison oak flanked both sides of the trail. It was unavoidable and we collectively gave in to the fact that we were going home with itchy legs.
We reached a ridge saddle and our next junction after roughly 1.5 miles and 700 feet of climbing since the beach. Just south of the Twitchell Road, the coastal highway was now visible while to the north (where our goal should have been), the fog prevailed. Twitchell Road was no road at all but in fact another single track path once again shrouded by all heights of vegetation. The "road" descends into the canyon where the two foot wide path was beautifully highlighted by a garden of vivid green clover like plants called Redwood Sorrel. We crossed the creek to begin our long ascent.
Disappointingly named, the Twitchell Elevator didn't feature any form of mechanical transportation. Instead it seemingly achieved its moniker from a nearly 1,600 foot ascent in 1.25 miles. In all of its difficulties, the steep slope brought on excellent views of the southern coast and we couldn't help but take our time admiring the flora and fauna along the grassy hillside.
Stone Ridge Spine Path
We reached the top of the Elevator (3.2 miles, 2500 feet) and were now enveloped in fog. This placed us at an important four way intersection as the loop portion of our trek would start and end here. Moving north following the ridge would take us up the Stone Ridge Spine Path while the return trip would be along the Stone Ridge Trail. We took a long break to fill our bellies and maybe have a little bit of whiskey before continuing.
Although the Spine path was less steep than the previous segment, it wasn't by much. Fortunately the route was pretty defined and even though cross country travel along a ridge is pretty ideal in any case, staying on track during the white out didn't involve a concerted effort.
The closer we inched toward the 4,834 foot summit of Twin Peak, the more frequent the short bouts of harsh wind and rain became. It was now very clear that we would not be granted the epic coastal views we came for. Nevertheless, another long break to refuel and celebrate a small victory was in order. We were in the end game.
Reaching Cone Peak
The final half mile on the Stone Ridge Spine path would prove to be the apex of the Sea to Sky route. Howling winds crept into my shell sending shivers into my core as we scrambled across wet granite. Our only reprieve was a few pine trees along the route. Sweeping views of...well, there weren't any of those, but it was still pretty cool.
At 12:30 PM, we had finished the cross country segment of our day and hiked along the Cone Peak trail for a quarter of a mile and 400 vertical feet before finally reaching the summit. The cement fire lookout provided ample room for us to hunker down for a much needed summit beer. I tried to describe the north ridge of Cone Peak to the guys as I recalled crossing it for a photo during a hike several years prior. They mostly ignored me. Probably jealous.
We would return via the less steep path which followed the Cone Peak trail west towards the south fork of Devil's Canyon, eventually meeting with the Gamboa trail and the Stone Ridge trail proper. I opted to run this portion of the route as it was much more tame than the previous terrain. It felt great moving quickly across the Gamboa trail but most of the path was over grown and my clothes collected every bit of moisture the trees had to offer. I decided to wait for the group at the next junction, which happened to sit on an exposed saddle and I was getting cold fast.
I waited for about fifteen minutes before using my Satellite beacon to send a message out to Jeremy. I figured they stopped to take a break at the last junction since a primitive campsite was nearby but right as I decided to go back, the arrived. We descended into the west fork of Limekiln Creek together, but I found myself leaving them behind to stay warm. It wouldn't be until we reached the bottom of Twitchell Elevator that my clothing would dry up enough for me to stay near the group.
Twitchell's Last Laugh
We reached the top of the Alvin Trail and discussed returning via Twitchell Road, which would lengthen the trek but offered a potentially less poison oak riddled route. Just a few hundred feet later, we realized that the alternative was much of the same. In hindsight, it was still the better decision since the entire trek consisted of minimal coastal views and walking through the Rock Shed Tunnel at Rain Rocks was an added bonus. We returned to camp victorious, hungry, and ready play more dominoes. A perfect trip to end the camping season since we would return to a world of unknowns.
Total Distance: 19 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 6729 feet Time: 11 hours
Trail Difficulty: Moderate
Class 1 trail up to Alvin trail junction.
Class 2 overgrown path with poison oak through most of the Twitchell Road. Class 1-2 steep use trail climb to Twin Peak.
Class 2 rock scrambling (avoidable if you leave the ridge) to Cone Peak trail.