Salmon Cone

Sun, May 27, 2012
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Salmon Cone is a small rocky protuberance with a fantastic view overlooking the scenic Big Sur coastline in the Santa Lucia Range. It's not more than five minutes hike from Hwy 1 and doesn't quite reach 500ft in elevation. Rather weak as a peak goes, especially considering my more ambitious plans that went for naught. I had been eyeing nearby Silver Peak for some years but never managed to make a plan to reach it. Lying at the southern end of the Ventana area, it's a long way from San Jose, some three hours of driving, making for a tough day trip from home. In Cambria on vacation with the family, I arranged to have them drop me off at the Salmon Creek Trailhead on a Sunday morning with my bike. Locking the bike to the guardrail, I planned to hike up the Salmon Creek Trail and tag three summits, including Silver, Three Peaks, and Lion Peak. The whole outing would be more than 20mi with over 5,000ft of gain. And then I'd have to ride my bike 30 miles back to Cambria. It was impossible without risking a mutiny to get the family to get me to the TH until nearly 10a, a rather late start for so ambitious a project. It didn't help that I thought the distance from Hwy 1 to South Coast Rd along the Salmon Creek Trail was under four miles (it's a solid six miles) and thus thinking my outing would be easier than it turned out. But none of that mattered since it wasn't the distance or elevation gain that got me in the end.

The day started off beautifully enough, not a cloud in the sky and fine weather, though maybe a tad warm as I moved away from the coast. On a holiday weekend it was not surprising to find a dozen cars at the trailhead. I asked the family if they'd like to hike up along a portion of the trail before they headed back, but got a resounding "No." Not even a "No, thank you." It was undoubtedly a good thing that they declined, because the trail starts off with a steep gradient for the first mile with hardly a break. Plus there happens to be plenty of poison oak at various points along the trail to keep one on their toes, and the combination was decidedly not to my family's liking - better that they headed back for a tour of Hearst Castle.

The trail itself is fairly typical of Ventana coastal trails, with heavily wooded north slopes (where the trail runs for most of the time) and chaparral-covered south slopes. The creek had plenty of water that could be heard at almost any point along the trail, though it often rises hundreds of feet from the canyon bottom. There are two campsites found along the Salmon Creek Trail. The first is found just past the trail junction with the Spruce Creek Trail, about two miles up from the highway. Spruce Creek Camp has sites on both sides of Spruce Creek, three to five sites that I could see as I passed along the trail. Several were occupied. The second site is Estrella Camp found another mile further up. A large party of young adults occupied the west side sites, with several smaller groups occupying the east side. I had trouble finding the trail heading east out of camp but was redirected by some friendly campers. They also warned me that the upper trail to South Coast Rd is thick with poison oak. I thanked them for the warning, but continued up, figuring I've seen some pretty bad poison oak in my days. This stuff was pretty bad, too, it turns out.

I continued up the trail for almost another hour, covering just under an additional two miles. The poison oak was frequent enough to require constant vigilance, high stepping in places, more creative acrobatics in others, all of it a bit nerve-wracking. If I had a fresh change of clothes back at the TH I might have been more cavalier, but knowing I had a long bike ride made me think about how any poison oak I collected would probably get on my bike and eventually to other places about my body. About a mile from South Coast Road I finally stopped where the overgrowth along the trail went well over head level and showed a gauntlet of poison oak vines hanging down across the trail. I could see no way through this without definitely contacting my clothes with the stuff. I decided this set of peaks didn't warrant the inevitable suffering that would ensue over the next several days. Back down I went.

I paused several times to check out some of the pools and minor cascades along the trail and photographing some of the many flowers that were found in bloom. Near the highway is an unmarked side trail that looks to be very popular, going a short distance in to a scenic 30-foot waterfall that drops over a step in the canyon. There were a dozen others milling about the place and even some decent sized fish in the pools near the base of the fall. Not salmon though, from the look of them.

Examining my GPS, I was happy to see a minor bump called Salmon Cone could be found only a half mile from the Salmon Creek TH, allowing me to claim some sort of peak for the day. I rode my bike a half mile north on the highway, locked it once again to the guardrail and took all of five minutes to climb to the summit via a handy use trail that rises from the saddle. There was some poison oak to avoid here as well, but only in a few places and managed with some careful attention. The summit is fairly rocky with an easy class 2-3 summit block with a small perch, not really big enough to sit on. The views on a clear day are quite nice looking up and down the coast, as well as a dizzying view down to the rocky shoreline more than 400ft below to the west. There is a great deal of kelp around the point in which a sharp eye might pick out otters and harbor seals. To the east is the Salmon Creek drainage with Mt. Mars rising high on the south side. On the north side of the canyon Salmon Head blocks views to Silver Peak.

Returning to the highway, I began the 30 mile ride back to Cambria. Now after 2p, the regular afternoon winds had picked up considerably, making the ride a breeze. The prevailing winds blow southeast along the coast almost always at a rider's back when traveling south along Hwy 1. A few cyclists I saw traveling in the other direction had a far less pleasant time of it. I stopped at the Piedras Blancas Light Station to see if I could ride in there for a visit. It is no longer in service, but maintained by the BLM for occasional tours. It was not one of the appointed days and the gate was locked. I could easily have breached the gate and ridden in, but I suspect there is a caretaker on the premises to keep out such scofflaws as myself. The nearby Piedras Motel and Cappuccino Cove are no longer open for business, having been acquired by the state as part of the coastal park found here. Signs indicate intentions to rennovate the place someday, but it has been several years at least that the place has been boarded up, awaiting some TLC.

Three miles north of San Simeon is the large elephant seal viewing area. Since they first started appearing on the beaches in the early 1990s, the colony has grown tremendously. Mating season is over and the seals at this time of year are mostly just taking in the sun as they do for much of their waking and non-waking hours. Some juvenile males were mock-fighting in preparation for more serious battles when they grow older, but mostly it's a lot of lying about. A short distance south at another beach near Adobe and Oak Knoll Creeks is a haven for wind and kite surfers. Most of the enthusiasts had quit the water with the increasing winds, but a few of the hardier souls were still zipping back and forth across the water at high speeds requiring fairly advanced craft-handling skills. About four miles inland could be seen Hearst Castle high atop a hill. I've never quite understood why it attracts such large crowds, probably in excess of 95% of the visitors to the area. Gawking about at the embodiment of excessive wealth has never been one of my favorite leisure activities. But then, sweating one's way up a poison oak-infested trail is not among most others' list of Fun Things to Do on Holiday. To each their own.

It was 4p by the time I got back to Cambria, about two hours earlier than I had told the family to expect me. I didn't make any of the peaks I had planned, but it was still a good adventure, certainly better than spending the day in the Hearst Castle Gift Shop.

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