The Santa Lucia Mountains are a sparsely-populated coastal range in central California stretching from just south of Monterey to just north of San Luis Obispo. Inland from the famed Big Sur coastline, much of the range is protected by the Los Padres National Forest, within which is contained the Ventana and Silver Peak Wildernesses. The tallest peak is Junipero Serra at 5862', and there are more than 15 peaks above 4000'. While not especially high by California standards, this range is distinctive because it rises so abruptly from the Pacific Ocean, and contains some of the most rugged and unrelentingly steep terrain found anywhere in the lower 48.
15 highest Santa Lucia peaks
Many (most) of these mountains are trailless and difficult to access, due to the impenetrable nature of the chaparral that covers much of the region. Even the existing trails are often overgrown and hard to follow. Despite the area's rough and unforgiving nature (or perhaps because of it), it is a place of unparalleled beauty and diversity. Within the course of a day you might traverse coastal bluffs, terraced grasslands, redwood canyons, open oak woodlands, yucca-studded hillsides, thick chaparral, and rocky summits. Despite its beauty the area is often overlooked in lieu of the higher peaks of the Sierra and is consequently lightly used, which lends it great potential for solitude.
Uncle Sam, Ventana Double Cone and Kandlbinder from Devil's Peak
The Santa Lucia are an unusually young mountain range, having only formed within the last 5 million years. Indeed, uplift is still going on, caused by the ongoing relative movement of the Pacific and North American plates. Currently these plates are moving antiparallel to one another, creating a number of strike-slip faults in the Santa Lucia range around which earthquakes frequently occur. This area has never been glaciated and is only eroded by the slow and steady cut of rivers, creating deep V-shaped valleys and steep canyons. The rock type of the Santa Lucias is highly variable but generally considered poor for climbing.
The Santa Lucia's ecology is quite diverse and highly dependent on slope orientation, elevation, and proximity to the ocean. In valleys and wet hillsides forests dominate: redwoods, oaks, pines, and madrones. Much of the interior and drier regions are covered in thick chaparral that greatly hinders cross-country travel in this area. Animals to look for include rattlesnakes, lizards, deer, bobcat, and mountain lions. Additionally, the Santa Lucias are one of the habitats of the rare California condor, the largest bird in North America.
Pico Blanco from the coastal grasslands
The Santa Lucias display a Mediterranean-type climate characterized by typically hot, dry summers and cool, rainy winters. Precipitation depends heavily on topography and location, with the higher summits and west-facing slopes receiving up to 80 inches a year while the dry eastern section only 20 inches. Snow on the higher peaks is not uncommon with winter storms. Summer is invariably hot and oppressive away from the ocean, with temps regularly rising above 100 degrees, while the coast and low ocean-facing valleys are often blanketed in fog.
Winters are generally cool and periodically wet, with higher elevations frequently receiving snowfall up to a foot or more. However, between storms is often quite pleasant, and snowpack rarely lasts all season. If you time the weather properly, this is an excellent time to hike, as the temps are moderate, ticks and flies are absent, and water plentiful. However, beware of changing weather conditions, because getting caught in the backcountry during a winter storm with high winds and heavy rains and/or snow can be downright unpleasant.
Spring is perhaps the best time to visit the Santa Lucias. After March it is generally mild, dry, and covered in wildflowers. Creeks and springs are flowing in all except in the driest years. However, ticks, flies, and rattlesnakes are out and start becoming a nuisance.
Summer is invariable hot and dry, and can be an unpleasant time to be hiking around this region, depending on your heat tolerance.
Fall can be a great time to hike, although water levels are low, and in dry years there may be only a few places to get water in the entire range. Seasonal foliage can be spectacular in the deciduous valleys (October-November). Rains usually begin in November or December.
The Santa Lucias are accessed by numerous trailheads either from the west off Hwy 1, or on the east from the Salinas or Carmel Valleys.
BOTTCHERS GAP: Take CA Highway 1 to Palo Colorado Road. Heading south, this junction is right off the Big Sur coast 11 miles south of the large traffic light intersection between Highway 1 and Rio Road. Heading north, the Palo Colorado Road turnoff is 3.5 miles north of the Andrew Molera State Park turnoff. From the junction, follow this narrow, winding, but paved road through a remote residential community for about 8 miles to its end at Bottchers Gap.
BIG SUR STATION: Big Sur Station is right off CA Highway 1 just south of the town of Big Sur, 26 miles south of Carmel and 28 miles north of the Nacimiento-Fergusson Road.
LOS PADRES DAM: From the north, turn left off Highway 1 at Carmel Valley Road (G16), 5 miles south of Carmel. Drive up the valley for about 20 miles, turning right (south) on a Cachagua Road, a small side road with a sign indication Los Padres Dam. After 6 miles turn right again on Nason Road. A half mile on a crummy (but passable in all vehicles) road leads to a gravel lot before a locked gate. The Los Padres Reservoir is a little less than a mile from the trailhead.
CHINA CAMP: From the north, turn left off Highway 1 at Carmel Valley Road (G16), 5 miles south of Carmel. Continue for 23 miles before taking a right on Tassajara Road. Follow the Tassajara Road for about 10 miles. The pavement ends after about a mile, but the dirt portion is decently maintained and graded, passable by passenger vehicles in good weather. In rainy weather this road becomes impassable, and signs will warn you of this - don't take it lightly! Enroute to China Camp, you will pass the White Oaks campground, and the Mira Observatory that sits atop Chews ridge. The road winds down the hill to pass between Miller Canyon and Church Creek, with the China Camp campground located on the west side of the road at the upper end of Miller Canyon. The trailhead and a parking lot are located just past the campground. The parking lot is on the left (east), and the trailhead is on the right (west) side of the road.
Access to the Los Padres National Forest is free, although some trailheads require a parking fee. Also, a campfire permit is required if you plan to have any open flame (including a camp stove). Campfire permits are available at Big Sur Station on Hwy 1.
Camping is allowed almost anywhere in the Los Padres National Forest, although due to a scarcity of water (particularly in the dry season), camping at established campsites near reliable water is advisable.
External linksVentana Wilderness Alliance