The Ventana Wilderness seen from the Little Sur trail.
Richie DeMaria

Sometimes you need a spontaneous dose of solitude, but in our presently bone-dry San Rafael Wilderness, finding quality outdoor alone time may take a little more drought-conscious planning. Consider venturing to Little Sur in the Ventana Wilderness — a spot in the Los Padres’ more reliably watery northern half.

While by no means an untrodden territory — Boy Scouts use the Little Sur River drainage in the summer, where they manage a camp — the Little Sur can offer complete solitude on busy days when other parts of the coast are packed. On a recent Saturday, I hiked in at sunset and found myself completely and blissfully alone for my entire stay.

The hike begins at Bottchers Gap Campground, at the end of an obscure windy road branching off Highway 1. The drive to the camp took a good half-hour as it curved past charming mossy wooden houses in a dark redwood canyon. Once there, pay the parking fee ($5/day), sight the sign for the Little Sur River Trail atop a gated dirt road.

The hike is very straightforward: Basically, keep going down. Roughly 2.6 miles in each direction, or 5.2 total, give or take a tenth of a mile, the hike is great for kids and novice hikers. The first 1.8 miles descend along a mostly exposed dirt road beginning at 2,080-foot elevation; keep an eye and ear out for vehicle travel up and down the road by chaperoning parents and scout leaders. At a quarter mile, stop at the first switchback to savor the view of Pico Blanco, a 3,709-foot limestone pyramid sacred to the region’s Esselen tribe as the lifespring of the universe, and the distant Ventana Double Cone, crowning the eastern end of the pine-lined river valley.

Big Sur's Ventana Wilderness
Richie DeMaria

Later, the road makes another turn as it moves into redwood forest. At mile 1.8, 1,230 feet, a sign designates the one-mile turnoff to Little Sur Camp to the right; to the left, the road leads down to the Pico Blanco Boy Scout camp, built along a stretch of river set aside by William Randolph Hearst in 1948. Go right.

Here, road becomes narrow, leafy trail, and you find yourself in a thick forest fragrant with the smell of bay leaves and redwood bark. In early November, the trail was clear with no encroaching brush, but check with rangers or the Ventana Wilderness Alliance website for up-to-date info; poison oak and deadfalls can be a problem in this wilderness.

Follow the mile-or-so trail almost 600 feet downward to the banks of the Little Sur River, where the trail lands upon two campsites. The first is larger and encircled by redwoods, and the second is slightly smaller but a little more tucked away. A previous camper has adorned a tree between the two camps with a floral scarf and a dreamcatcher knit with bright moss-green yarn. The river flows serenely nearby, pooling along deeper short stretches suitable for bathing and wading.

To exit, simply return back up the way you came. Summer hikers ought to leave early, for though the climb up the road is gradual enough to not be strenuous, it is mostly exposed and offers little shade. Campers choosing to stay more than a night at Little Sur Camp can day hike or backpack to further destinations at Jackson Camp (5.2 miles from the trailhead) or Pico Blanco (7.4).

Though the Little Sur trail camp lacks the mileage or spectacle of grander adventures into the Ventana, it can offer total solitude when the car campgrounds are cramped and other trails, like the one to Sykes, are packed. If a short-notice wilderness escape is what you seek, the Little Sur — where even on a Saturday night your only company may be the towering trees and the gently incanting river — may be the perfect place to go.

More mileage and historical info can be found in Analise Elliot Heid’s excellent Hiking and Backpacking Big Sur.

Little Sur River
Richie DeMaria


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