Pine Ridge Trail: China Camp to Pine Falls (2 days / 14 miles)

Purity of nature in Big Sur Pine Ridge Trail

The Pine Ridge Trail is a great backpacking trail in the Ventana Wilderness. On this trip, we started at the eastern trailhead at China Camp Campground, along Tassajara Road. From there, the trail heads west and through the Santa Lucia Mountains to Pine Valley. The best part, located at the end of Pine Valley, is Pine Falls. The water is frigid, but there’s something wonderful about getting to swim in the middle of any backpacking trip.

Trip Completed: March 2022


Trip Summary

Starting Point: Pine Ridge Trailhead at China Camp Campground

Ending Point: Pine Ridge Trailhead at China Camp Campground

Total Distance: 13.7 miles

Elevation Gain: 3241 ft

Duration: 2 days / 1 night

Difficulty: Beginner (intermediate if hiking to the falls)

Location

This route is in Ventana Wilderness, part of the Los Padres National Forest. Los Padres is about 2.5 hours south of San Francisco.

Traditional Territory: This backpacking trail takes place on the traditional territory of the Esselen (source).

Maps & Resources

Guidebook: N/A

Map: I used the AllTrails Map. I recommend getting the Pro version of AllTrails so you can download the map to your phone. I found the route on the map to be quite accurate, though it’s hard to follow as you approach the falls.

Camping Permits: You do not need any permits or reservations for this route. If you’re camping at White Oaks Campground (or any of the drive-in campgrounds in the Ventana Wilderness), there is a self-registration box where you can pay a $10 camping fee.

Outfitters & Shuttles

Outfitter: I had all my own backpacking gear so I didn’t need an outfitter. I don’t believe there are any outfitters in the area, however, you could rent gear from REI in San Jose prior to your trip.

Shuttles: No shuttle was needed as this route is an Out & Back.

Trip Report

Day 0: Night at White Oaks Camp

The trailhead at China Camp is down a long forest road, which is super bumpy and slow to drive. We were driving a compact car with two-wheel drive and managed fine, however, I would have been more comfortable in a four-wheel drive car. There are some big potholes and uneven sections, and there was a huge puddle to drive through/around.

Wanting to get an early start on Saturday, we drove to Ventana Wilderness the night before and drove down part of the forest road to White Oaks Campground.

This is a drive-in campground in the Ventana Wilderness. Since it’s part of the national forest, you don’t need a permit or a reservation in advance. There is a place to pay a $10 campsite fee (though I don’t know how much this is enforced).

There are several other campgrounds along the forest road (including China Camp). Any of these camps would make for a good pre-trip campground.

Campsite: White Oaks Campground. There are several campsites accessible by car. Each campsite has a picnic table. There’s an outhouse. There is a water reservoir and tap, however, it is completely dry and has been for a very long time. As such, there is no water available at the campground. Bring lots of water with you.

Day 1: China Camp Campground to Pine Valley Camp via Pine Falls (9 miles)

We drove the remaining two or so miles to the trailhead near China Camp.

The trail kicks off with an incline. For the first section, we gained almost 400 ft of elevation. The trail is covered on either side with trees. For most of the way, the trail is only wide enough for one hiker but is level ground and easy to follow. At the 0.7 mile mark, we were at 4732 ft of elevation, this is the highest point on the route.

After a brief 0.4 miles of descending, we were back to the incline, though amazingly, this was our last incline of the day. Here we climbed another 400 ft of elevation over 1 mile. Once we were standing on the top of this second little peak, it was all downhill. Before starting our descent, we took in the views from the peak. There is a lovely view of the Santa Lucia Mountains!

Between miles 2.1 and 4, the trail descends at an almost constant slope – we lost about 600 ft of elevation per mile. I’d expected this section to be tough on my knees, but the trail was relatively level and the gradient was never too steep in a given section, so it was easy. The terrain is primarily dominated by open fields of grass and pebbles, scattered with low brush.

Toward the first part of this section, we encountered a snake on the trail. The end of its tail was clearly visible on the trail and we could see the rattle. Giving it space, we tapped the ground with our hiking poles and made noise, expecting it to slither into the bush and clear the trail (or at least rattle!). It didn’t even budge a millimetre (I thought it must be dead). Not wanting to chance it, we left the trail and make a wide detour to give the snake space. By the time we’d gotten around it we looked back and could see only a fraction of the tail – it had definitely moved (not dead!).

The next section was even more gradual, though the trail continued to descend into Pine Valley. The trail was less open, with more brush on either side of the trail. We started to encounter huge boulders on either side of the trail.

There were tons of tall pine trees to provide shade and the occasional creek to step over. It should be noted that we didn’t encounter any water on the trail for the first 3.5 miles. Pack lots of water!

By the time we got around mile 5, the valley had opened up into large grassy fields, dotted with pine trees and lined by huge sandstone-looking ridges. The ground was very flat, with short grasses covering it. On the left-hand side, we saw the small Carmel River flowing through the valley. There were several campsites along the river’s edge (most have some bushes in between the side and the river).

We continued past the campsites, though in hindsight we should have dropped our backpacks down here before continuing into the waterfall. Instead, we kept hiking and began the section of the trail connecting Pine Valley Camp with Pine Falls.

Up until this point, I’d consider the trail to be Beginner Level. The section to the falls, however, is much trickier. The trail is less defined, so there were several sections we had to consult the map or evaluate a few route options. We crossed the Carmel river twice, though there are large rocks throughout the river that make it easy to cross without getting your boots wet (the river is very shallow and slow-moving, so crossing is safe).

There we also a few places where we needed to do a little pseudo rock climbing. Using our hands to scramble up a little section is fine without a big backpack, but we found it tricky – the backpacks made our center of gravity high.

Nonetheless, this 0.7-mile section to the falls took about 35 minutes to complete and we were greeted by Pine Falls. The falls are quite beautiful, even more so considering Big Sur is facing a drought and water levels are quite low, so any waterfall is a great waterfall!

We got down to the falls and I went for a swim. I’d been expecting the water to be cool – not warm, obviously, but definitely not cold. The temperature outside had been so hot! But the water was so frigid. I’ve jumped in glacial lakes and swam in Vancouver’s ocean in the winter… and this was still cold. But, I sucked it up, dunked my head in and was proud of myself for the rest of the afternoon.

We sat beside the pool and ate sandwiches. I got out my book and my hiking partner took a little snooze. The ground was crawling with so many red ants (they bite) which made sitting on the ground unbearable. But we had brought a foldable yoga mat and the ants did not like it, so they left us alone.

After about 2 hours we put our backpacks on and started the hike back to Pine Valley Camp. The route back was much faster this time.

By the time we got back to camp, there were more tents set up – maybe 8 or so in total. The valley is really big so there was plenty of room in between tents. Lots of privacy.

After hanging out for a couple of hours, we set up the tent and cooked some lasagna for dinner. We cleaned up and got ready for bed as the last bit of light was leaving the sky. It was surprisingly very cold once the sun was gone.

Campsite: Pine Valley Camp. The campsites are beautiful! There are tons of flat spaces through the campground so you can basically set up anywhere. However, there are some more obvious spots that aren’t covered in the 6 inch high grasses – choose one of these clearings.

You can get water from the Carmel River which flows through the valley (still treat it with your filter or water tablets). There are no garbage cans or outhouses / thunder boxes from what I could see. There aren’t any bear boxes (no bears in the area) but I kept the food in a food canister away from the tent area.

Day 2: Pine Valley Camp to China Camp Campground (5 miles)

We awoke to a chilly, windy valley; a storm was brewing (or, what can be considered a storm for this drought-stricken area). We took our time packing up camping and making breakfast.

The route back to the trailhead passed by very quickly; we left camp at 9 am and reached the car at noon, taking a 30 minute or so break at a nice viewpoint.

The first part, through the valley, was flat and easy. I’d haven’t been looking forward to the incline, but honestly, it wasn’t that bad. It was tiring by the end, but because the trail is level ground and the gradient never gets too high, it was fine.

We took another long break at the first little peak to take in the views before returning to civilization. Once at the car, we changed clothes and got ready for a long drive down the forest road. Although it isn’t many miles, it took us a little over an hour.

Reflections

Pack enough water – There is no water at the campgrounds and no water for the first 3.5 miles of the trail. Once you’re in Pine Valley, there is plenty of river water (treat it before you drink it!).

There is no cell service – We didn’t have cell service for the entire trip, including the drive up the forest road. Download your maps ahead of time.

Pack sunscreen – The trail is very exposed, specifically the middle section, and even in March the sun was very hot. Bring sunscreen (and maybe a hat and SPF lip balm).

There are plenty of places to set up – There are a few obvious campsites, but most of the valley is relatively flat so you don’t need to worry about getting to Pine Valley early to get a campsite. Not only were there very few pwople, but there was plenty of space for tons of tents if needed.

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