Salmon Creek is the southernmost wilderness trailhead in the Big Sur region, and being so, it has a slightly different character than the canyons and river worlds farther north. There are no redwoods; instead, a lush blend of bay, maple, alder, and sugar pines are kneaded in the folds of yucca-dotted chaparral. The creek tumbles for miles from its Santa Lucia highlands heights before plummeting down the 100-plus-foot Salmon Creek Falls, which, at a quarter of a mile from the Highway 1, are a favorite stopover for day-hikers visiting from across the world. Those willing to venture beyond the falls will be rewarded with stunning views and some of the most joyous boulder-hopping creek exploration this side of the Ventana Wilderness.
The trailhead begins immediately off Highway 1, not long after the Ragged Point Inn. Take a moment to visit Salmon Creek Falls, a powerful set of two-tiered towers of white water. The open ground of bay-shaded boulders would make a nice resting spot or last minute-preparation area, and the long pool at the falls’ base is as inviting a swimming pool as any. Linger here for as long as you like, but rest assured that more waterfalls await ahead.
Return to the sign, marked S.C. Trail, and follow it up the zigzagging path. From the Salmon Creek Falls starting point at 230 feet, the trail rises sharply to 760 feet in less than a mile — i.e., very steeply, very quickly. Strenuous though it may be, the views of the road and coast below are soothing to the soul and have a way of lightening loads. In the summer, as in a recent late-spring hike, the coast may be heavily fogged in. Given the elevation gain, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing but in fact a mercifully cooling one. It’s also nature’s surrealistic way of marking the end of the road, and the beginning of wilderness. You will pass poppies, monkey flowers, and foothill yucca as you weave between grassy stretches and oak-enclosed patches. Trail poles would not be a bad idea, especially for the return trip.
Like all the glorious trails tracing river canyons up north, the Salmon Creek Trail allows visitors to transition from the lush lands close to the sea to the drier, grassier higher reaches and appreciate the entire ecosystem contained between. Salmon Creek differs noticeably in its flora, and being one ridge too south to contain a true strand of redwoods, it’s a unique little in-between zone of its own, the most southerly region of the northern Los Padres. This becomes most apparent as you gain elevation, seeing pines below from your oaky rock perch.
After a tough initial climb, the trail levels out, and the remaining trail to the intersection with Dutra Flat at two miles is easy sailing. If you enjoy the sound of a large and peaceful meadow in a pine and chaparral foothill expanse, then Dutra Flat would be a worthy side trip or destination on its own, as many make it to be. If you prefer the creek, instead, head left a short ways until the trail descends to Spruce Creek Camp. This boulder-sheltered expanse has three sites with fire rings, including one with a bench.
The trail continues another mile to Estrella Camp, a meadow-situated site with side trails down to the creek. While the last mile offers some great views of Salmon Creek’s more hidden waterfalls, an alternative for the truly adventurous would be instead to base camp at Spruce Creek and forgo the trail in favor of hiking up the creek itself. While this is only recommended for the hardy and the environmentally sensitive, creek-hopping and river exploration are some of the greatest joys offered in the Silver Peak and Ventana Wilderness areas, with their abundantly bouldered waterways. A seldom-seen, many mile–stretch of tranquil grottos, peaceful private ponds, tiers of small waterfalls, mossy overhangs raining streams of water, and fern-gartered boulders all await those who are willing to hike up the creek and able to do so with due stewardship to the landscape — it is especially important to leave no trace in this watershed, where trout and many insects live.
Regardless of how far up you go, the Salmon Creek Trail is an excellent option for those looking for a moderately challenging and massively rewarding visit to the Big Sur region not too far from home. Though it lacks the classic redwooded look of other trailheads, it has all the same magic that makes Big Sur so special and a unique character all its own.