Cone Peak Loop: Hwy 1 to Cone Peak via Vincente Camp (25 miles / 3 days)

Greenery on the rock in Big Sur Cone Peak

This loop in the Ventana Wilderness is not for the faint of heart. Instead, it’s beautiful, provides a reasonable amount of solitude, and will push your physical limits. And, while Cone Peak Rd is closed, it’s a great way to climb one of the tallest peaks in Coastal California and enjoy some camping along the way.

This route has some great viewpoints of the Pacific Ocean and the Big Sur coastline, and the Santa Lucia Mountains that punctuate the coast. I recommend this route for backpackers with solid physical fitness and mental perseverance, as the degree of overgrowth and the number of fallen trees will challenge you. But if you like beautiful views and physical challenges, you’ll like this route.

Trip Completed: March 2022


Trip Summary

Starting Point: Trailhead across Hwy 1 from Kirk Creek Campground

Ending Point: Trailhead across Hwy 1 from Kirk Creek Campground

Length: 3 days / 2 nights

Distance: 25 miles

Elevation Gain: 7175 ft

Difficulty: Advanced

Location

Cone Peak is located in Ventana Wilderness, a part of Los Padres National Forest and near Big Sur. The trailhead is right on Hwy 1, across from Kirk Creek Campground. The closest town to the trailhead is Carmel and this is where we stopped for water, coffee and gas before starting the hike.

Maps & Permits

Map: We downloaded the AllTrails map for this route. The map was mostly accurate, however, the location on Goat Map is incorrect on the AllTrails map.

Permits: No permits or reservations are required for this trail. 

Outfitters and Shuttles

Outfitters: We rented some backpacking gear from Sports Basement in the Bay Area. There are no outfitters near Ventana Wilderness.

Shuttle: No shuttle was needed as this route starts and ends at the same trailhead.

Know Before You Go

Season: The best time to hike this trail is late autumn to early spring. During the summer, the Ventana Wilderness gets so hot that it can be really unpleasant to hike. There’s also the problem of water, which becomes harder to find (though not impossible) in the summer. I prefer hiking this area between September and March.

Cell Reception: There is very little cell reception in Ventana Wilderness. My friends got a little in a few parts of the trail (they both have Google phone plans), but I (with AT&T) got absolutely nothing. Either way, don’t assume you’ll have cell service on the trail or at the trailhead.. We brought a satellite communication device (Garmin inReach Mini).

Water: There are a lot of streams on this route, but not all of them have flowing water at all times of year. We found water at the stream at Vincente Flats Camp and a few streams in between there at Limekiln Stat Park. After that, we had water at two stream before Trail Spring Camp and no water after that until mile 20. All that to say, 1) Bring at least 3 L of water storage per person, 2) Fill up at every opportunity you get. Finally, don’t forget to treat your water before you drink it.

Wildlife: There are very few wildlife concerns on this route. Ventana Wilderness does not have bears or mountain lions. There are some rodents, apparently, but we didn’t encounter any on our route – we also kept food in a bear canister and, away from the tents and cooking area, to ensure we didn’t get any.

Stock: There is no horse or other stock activity in this area.

Human Waste: There were no outhouses / thunderboxes at our campsites. You should dig a hole and bury your poop while on this route. Technically you’re not supposed to use the bathrooms at Kirk Creek Campground, but we used them at the start and end of our trip without issue.

Trip Report

Day 1: Hwy 1 Trailhead to (Not) Goat Camp (8.3 miles)

We departed Santa Cruz a little after 5 am and drove south to Carmel. After a quick stop for gas and coffee, we continued south to Big Sur. We’d read online that parking at the trailhead can fill up quickly, so we wanted an early start to hopefully beat the other cars.

We arrived at the trailhead around 7:30 am and the parking lot was already 3/4 full. A few cars had arrived that morning, we could see people taking their backpacks out of the trunk and going through their gear. The rest of the cars belonged to people who had started the trail the night before.

Hwy 1 to Vincente Camp

The trail started with a lot of elevation gain. It was wide and level, however, every step took us higher and higher up the hill. The view of the Big Sur coastline was so beautiful we hardly noticed the steep climb. There is little shade on this part of the hike and it was quite hot (even at 8 am in February!), so bring a hat and sunscreen.

Vincente Camp to (Not) Goat Camp

The vast majority of people on the trail stop at Vincente Camp. For the two miles after Vincente, we saw exactly six people – and none of them were attempting the route to Cone Peak. In fact, a trio of men told us they’d been planning to do Cone Peak but the route was far too difficult.

Undeterred, we carried on. This section of the trail didn’t have nearly as much elevation gain, however, it was much more grown over. There were several areas where we needed to push through bushes and trees that had grown onto the trail or step over fallen trees. At the time, we thought this was difficult but doable… if only we’d known what was awaiting us.

Toward the end of the section, the trees disappeared and we were hiking on rolling hills of yellow grasses. It looked like the pastures from the Ohlone Wilderness Trail and I kept expecting to see cows. Once again, we were able to see the ocean. Nearing what we thought was Goat Camp, we took a break at a beautiful little point.

After the point, the trail splits into two sections, both of which eventually reach Cone Peak. One of the trails is called Stone Ridge Spine Path and goes up Twin Peak before reaching Cone Peak. This option is shorter, but significantly steeper and has a few sketchy sections. The second option is called Stone Ridge Trail and is 6 miles long. It also has a lot of elevation gain, but it’s much more gradual and passes through Trail Creek Camp. We considered the two options while we drank water and ate some snacks.

According to the map, Goat Camp sits right in between the two trails and it wasn’t clear how you got to the camp from either trail. This, it turns out, is because the camp is incorrectly marked on AllTrails. We didn’t realize that at the time, and chose the steeper trail because it looked like it was closer to what was marked as Goat Camp.

In hindsight, we should have just stopped here to camp. Instead, we attempted to find Goat Camp as it was labelled on the AllTrails map. Finding the camp involved hiking up an incredibly steep hill – it must have been 30-40% grade. Exhausted from the miles behind us, we repeatedly checked our position versus the location of the camp. Looking at the steep terrain, there was no way the location on the map could be correct.

Thus, we turned around and went back down the steep hill. Once we got back to the junction where we’d taken our break, we could see a clearing under some trees and what appeared to be a fire pit. It wasn’t the camp labelled on the map, but it would still make for an excellent camp.

The sun set as we approached the camp and we set up quickly. After a quick dinner, we pulled out our sleeping pads and stargazed. If we looked out toward the ocean, we could see the lights of Kirk Creek Campground and the occasional car speeding down Highway 1.

Campsite: Clearing at the junction of Stone Ridge Trail and Stone Ridge Spine Trail. This wasn’t an official campsite, but since we were in Ventana Wilderness we could technically camp anywhere. There was no water access or thunderbox (so be prepared to be self sufficient). There was a great view, flat areas for tents and a fire pit.

Day 2: Not Goat Camp to Cone Peak Rd (9.7 miles)

We started the day with a beautiful sunrise and the need for a plan. Looking at the maps, there are a few streams in between where we were camping and Trail Spring Camp. However, several of the streams we’d already passed were dry. Wanting to start the hike with as much water as possible, Eva and I backtracked a mile to a stream we knew had water and filled up all of the water bottles and hydration bladders. The whole thing took a little under an hour and we started the trail around 9:30 am.

Camp to (Actual) Goat Camp

The first 2 miles had minimal elevation gain, just 300 ft or so, and took us out of the grassy fields and into some bushy forest. It was obvious this part of the trail is seldom used, as the trail was fairly overgrown. There were many logs to step over / climb under, nor were there any places where we had leave the trail and go around. However, there was a lot of bushwhacking, a lot “head down, push your way through a bush”. Although annoying, this was difficult and we made good time.

During this section we passed three of the “streams” and all of them were dry, so we were glad to have filled up in the morning.

Around mile 10.7 began a series of switchbacks; in 0.8 miles we gained over 1000 ft! Thankfully the trail was less grown over here, so it wasn’t too bad. At the top of the switchbacks we saw a sign for Goat Camp, confirming the AllTrails location is very off.

We didn’t check out Goat Camp or the nearby Ojito Camp, but I don’t think either would have been as nice as where we camped. The area had a lot of tree cover, so I’m not sure there would have been a great view.

(Actual) Goat Camp to Trail Spring Camp

From here, there was one mile to Trail Spring Camp. The trail follows the ridge, maintaining a constant elevation. We saw one other person here who was clearly not having a good day – he spoke of how impossibly challenging the rest of the trail is between here and Cone Peak.

We didn’t let that phase us and kept pushing forward. The trail was quite different here – there was very little brush on the ground and all of the huge trees around us had forest fire damage. The ground felt very ashy. And the trail did get more difficult; there were lots of giant, fallen trees to step over / climb under / go around. And it was like everything was covered in a thin layer of charcoal.

While annoying, there were only two places where the fallen over trees proved to be particularly difficult. The first time, we had to work as a team to haul ourselves under the massive tree that had fallen; we would take off a backpack, slide under the tree and then have someone pass the backpack back to us.

The second time, the tree was so big and on the ground that we had to go around it. We left the trail and walked about 10 m down the side of the ridge, went around the branches and then climbed up the ridge.

We took a (somewhat) long break at Trail Spring Camp to eat lunch, refill water and rest up. By this point it was 2 pm and we still had 1.5 miles and 1000 ft of elevation gain to the top of Cone Peak.

Trail Spring Camp to Cone Peak

Maybe this was the most difficult section of the trail. It was a constant uphill climb for about 1.5 miles. The tricky part were a few fallen trees, charred from previous forest fires. There was one MASSIVE tree in particular that forced us to walked down the side of the ridge to go around. By this point in the day, we were tired and these inconveniences were testing our patience.

But then the points between mile 13.6 and mile 14.0 had the most incredible views – and we weren’t even at the top yet – so that well made up for the fallen-tree-struggle. We ditched or backpacks at the junction of the Stone Ridge Trail and the Stone Ridge Spine Trail. Next, we hiked the last 0.5 miles to the top of Cone Peak. We were too excited to think about the elevation gain.

At the top, we enjoyed the view for a while, taking pictures and exploring the peak. It was amazing!

Cone Peak to the Campsite

We descended Cone Peak and retrieved our backpacks. From there, we had a little over 3 miles to the campsite. The trail down to the forest road was well groomed and lined by weird looking trees. The descent is quite gradually, with no tricky sections, so we got through it quickly.

We hit the forest road, aptly named Cone Peak Rd, at mile 16.5. The last mile was on the road and was very level. A great break after all of the rocky and up-and-down terrain from the day. There’s a clearing to camp at shortly after you get to the road, but there was another group here so we pushed onto the next clearing.

Campsite: We camped at a clearing at the first junction between Cone Peak Rd and Cone Peak Trail, around mile 17.5. It’s a clearing with enough flat space for multiple tents, however, it’s hardly a campsite. There is no water access, there isn’t even a place to dig a hole to go #2 if you needed to. If you choose to camp here, be prepared to be self-sufficient. That said, it’s located in an excellent spot for this route – there really isn’t a better place to camp between Cone Peak and Vincente Flats Camp.

Day 3: Cone Peak Rd to Hwy 1 Trailhead (7 miles)

Compared to the previous day, Day 3 was easy-peasy. We woke up to a sunrise behind the Santa Lucia Mountains to the east. With what little fuel we had left, I managed to boil some lukewarm water, which we partitioned between coffee mugs and oatmeal. It was an underwhelming breakfast to say the least, but we only had 7 miles to hike and knew we’d pick up coffee on the drive home.

Campsite to Vincente Flats Camp

From our campsite, we could immediately hop back onto the trail. The first 1.5 miles were quite uneventful. We steadily lost elevation as we walked through the forest. It was obvious this part of the trail was more often hiked, as there were very few overgrown sections or fallen-over trees. By the 19.5-mile mark, we found a running stream to fill up waterfalls and continued walking through progressively dense forest. Between Mile 19.5 and Mile 20, there were a few places where we had to cross the stream to stay on the path, but for the most part, these matched the AllTrails route and were very obvious.

We hit Vincente Flat Camp at Mile 20 and were back in familiar territory. We recognized some hikers from our first day who had stayed at Vincente for both nights; unsurprisingly, everyone was shocked we’d attempted (and completed) the loop. I maintain that the route was not nearly as hard as everyone hyped it up to be, though it definitely was neither easy nor entirely enjoyable.

Vincente Flats Camp to Trailhead

After Vincente, we were backtracking a route we’d already hiked. There was a little uphill at the beginning, but soon it levelled out and then we started descending. The views were just as beautiful a second time, and we took a long break at one of the switchbacks before continuing down.

Trip Video

Coming Soon!

Reflections

Be mindful about water – As I mentioned above, water is not guaranteed at every stream on this route. Vincente Camp and Trail Spring Camp are the most reliable for water. Carry enough water storage for several hours (I had three litres on me) and fill up whenever you encounter water.

Take it slow – Overall, I think it’s best to be conservative in how much time you budget for this route. The overgrown sections really slow you down. I usually hike between 2.4 and 2.7 miles per hour, and I our group was doing 1.5 to 2 miles per hour on the overgrown sections.

Get to the trailhead early – If you’re hiking over the weekend, get to Kirk Creek either on Friday or early on Saturday. We arrived at 8 am and got one of the last spots.


Author Bio

Mikaela is the voice behind Voyageur Tripper, an outdoor adventure blog that enables people to improve their skills in the backcountry. She previously worked as a wilderness guide, leading trips in Ontario, Quebec and Nunavut. Mikaela is also manages Trip Reports.

WebsiteVoyageur Tripper

Instagram@voyageurtripper

FacebookVoyageur Tripper – A Paddling, Hiking and Camping Community

YouTubeVoyageur Tripper

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Responses