July 27-29, 2018
Cone Peak, the highest coastal mountain in California (and arguably the 48 states) was not on my radar at all for mountains to climb. However, my friend Scott, who lives in nearby Monterey, California, said it was on his bucket list. Having been on a few trips with Scott, I trusted his judgement and decided to climb it with him.
Cone Peak is right in the middle of Big Sur, a rugged section of the California coast between San Luis Obispo and Monterey. From Los Angeles, it is about a 6-hour drive. From Monterey, it is only about 90 minutes away.
Unlike most of my trips where I plan everything, Scott planned this one on his own. We consulted a bit, but in the end, he made all the decisions.
Cone Peak can be accessed by a 2.5-mile trail- reachable from a dirt spur off the Nacimiento-Ferguson Road. However, Scott wanted to climb the “Sea to Summit” route. This 11-mile one-way trail starts at sea level and gains a vertical mile (5,200 ft). Past mile 5, there is no water.
Scott also wanted to camp on the summit in order to see the sunset and sunrise. In order to accomplish all these goals and be off the mountain early on Sunday, we had to compromise. Scott decided to stash a car at the start of the 2.5 mile trail before the hike began. That way we could drive most of the way down and save our knees. Additionally, Scott could stash his tent and camping supplies in the car and could pick them up when we reached mile 8, saving a lot of effort.
The Trip to the Trailhead:
I drove up on Friday, July 27th after work. Due to traffic and a severe lack of campsites in San Luis Obispo County (every single public campsite in the county was booked), I ended up sleeping in my car at a park & ride in Santa Margarita- just past San Luis Obispo. The police showed up at 3am, but told me I was legally parked and instead harassed what looked like a long-term vagabond parked two spaces over. For the record: sleeping in your car is legal in California for up to 24 hours. However, some municipalities have banned it.
I woke up the next morning surprisingly well-rested at 6am. I received a text from Scott and 3 friends: Erick, Bill, and Jessica that they had left Monterey at 4am and were taking two cars. That way they could stash the car and be ready to go when I arrived. There is no cell coverage anywhere in Big Sur, so we had to rely on trust in order to meet up.
The drive up to the trailhead at Kirk Creek took about 2 hours and was stunningly beautiful!
I arrived at the trailhead at 8am and at 8:15, Scott and crew came barreling down the road to meet up. We were able to connect without technology in 2018!
Up, Up, and Up
We started hiking at 8:30. The coastal fog was quite thick and it was approximately 55 degrees. This fog is typical for this time of year.
The trail started with a steep uphill. After just a half-mile, we climbed above the fog. It felt like we were in an airplane looking down at the clouds. Suddenly the temperature rose. It was now almost 90 degrees.
We continued to climb until we reached 1,800 ft above sea level. There, the trail flattened out and we climbed above a river valley. From here we could finally see Cone Peak. It looked really far away.
Then we climbed downhill to meet the river in a redwood forest. There we reached the 5-mile mark- Vicente Flat. Had we kept hiking at this rate, we would have reached the summit by 1pm. Instead, we took our time and enjoyed the beautiful redwood forest for an entire hour. We also spent time refilling our water- as this was the last water on the trail.
Just above Vicente Flat, the trail split. We took the fork towards our stashed car. The other trail- known as the Stone Ridge Trail- also led to Cone Peak, but was slightly longer. One could take a nice 3-day loop by going up the Stone Ridge Trail and coming down the “standard” Vicente Flat Trail.
The 3-mile stretch past Vicente Flat was the most challenging part of the entire hike. The trail was very steep and did not switchback. As we climbed out of the redwoods and into the chaparral, we were more exposed to the sun. The weather was very hot and we took a lot of water breaks. I used up half of my water in this difficult stretch.
At the 8 mile mark, we crested a ridge and finally got some relief in the form of a shaded downhill section. 100 yards later, we reached the road and the car.
It was now about 2pm and the group was exhausted. So, we took a nap for an hour and regained the strength to keep on.
From the car, we walked a mile on the dirt road until we reached the start of the 2.5 mile trail. The trail gained the final 1,600 feet to the summit. The last mile included many switchbacks. Here, our group really struggled. The combination of a ton of walking, major elevation gain, heat, and lack of water toiled heavily on us. But we persevered and summited Cone Peak around 6pm.
The view from the summit was as good as advertised. I felt very proud to have climbed each and every one of the 5,155 ft in elevation.
At the top, we ran into about 20 people who also planned on camping (there was room for everyone). This included a rowdy group of 7 friends who work at Driscoll berries. In addition to learning all about berries, we took shots with them and spent about 3 hours hanging out at the shelter built on the summit by the Forest Service.
For the sunset, we climbed on the roof of the shelter and soaked in the 360 degree views. Due to fires in the area, it ended up being one of the nicest sunsets I have ever seen.
That evening, most of our group ran out of water. While not an emergency situation, we decided to leave at dawn the next day.
A Quick Trip Down:
At 6am, we saw an eerie sunrise. Due to the fires nearby, the sun was blood red.
We then headed down the peak. We hiked fast and covered the 3.5 miles in about 90 minutes.
We then quickly got into Scott’s car and bolted down the mountain while blasting pirate metal.
At 8am- 24 hours after arriving at the trailhead, we returned triumphant. We purchased water and celebrated by visiting the nearby Sand Dollar Beach. On the beach, the fog miraculously cleared and we could see Cone Peak towering above us. All of us were amazed that we made it.
At 10am, it was time to head out and we parted ways.
While most people think of Big Sur as a place to see the rugged coastline, the interior wilderness is pristine and untouched. While not as woodsy as one might expect, it is nonetheless beautiful.
The particular hike we did is not for the average hiker, but the 2.5 mile trail is very accessible for the average hiker.
I thought that camping at the top of the mountain was an incredible experience and I would highly recommend it to anyone thinking of visiting Big Sur. Just make sure to bring enough water.