Thursday, December 2, 2010

Mount Manuel

Lower section of Mt Manuel Trail
The Big Sur Coast is one of my favorite places for a short get-away. This section of the coast highway has always been a popular attraction among residents and visitors alike, but somehow it still seems like a remote location when you’re there. The Santa Lucia Mountains form the beautiful and scenic backdrop that isolates this rugged and picturesque coastline from large population centers. There is no freeway or major crossroads to bring throngs of people, or traffic passing through, ensuring that its character remains rather quiet, and largely unspoiled by unchecked development. Big Sur is virtually surrounded by mountainous designated wilderness, and the Los Padres National Forest. The best way to visit is to stay for a few days. All manor of accommodation is available from wilderness trail camps for backpacking, to campsites in state parks, to some very exclusive lodges. A short trip down there makes a great retreat from the maelstrom of the modern age, and the anthill mentality of city life.

One of my favorite trails in Big Sur is the Mount Manuel Trail. One end of the trail originates in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, which incidentally is a nice convenient place to camp. A little bit of history and commemoration is worth recounting here. The namesake of Manuel Peak is one of this area’s earliest settlers. Manuel Innocenti was Chumash, who moved here with his wife Francisca, who was Yokut, and their children sometime in the late 1860s. With abundant fish and game, their lifestyle here was predominantly hunter-gatherer with some crop cultivation as well. Manuel also worked at the nearby Rancho El Sur. Presumably their lives were happy ones, but there was also tragedy in the deaths of all of their children. The family gravesite is somewhere right around the trailhead, but is unmarked. Also along the lower trail is the tiny homestead cabin built by John Pfeiffer in 1893. It was John Pfeiffer in 1933 who sold his 706 acres to the state for parklands passing up offers from developers. He was one of four children of Michael and Barbara Pfeiffer who were among the first European settlers in Big Sur. John lived here as a beekeeper until 1902 when he finally married and moved to where the Big Sur Lodge is now. The partially restored homestead cabin is in remarkably good condition.

Santa Lucia Mountains
 I left my campsite on foot as several great trailheads are nearby. I was still having a hard time deciding whether to head up Pine Ridge Trail, or use the footbridge to cross Big Sur River and head up to Mt Manuel. The skies looked fairly clear, so I decided Manuel Peak was the better choice. The rocky viewpoint near the summit is known to provide breathtaking views if you happen to be lucky enough to get clear weather. The lower trail begins with some switchbacks as you ascend the coastal foothills. Soon the trail begins following the contours of the terrain while steadily climbing. The route follows along the northernmost side of the Big Sur River Gorge. There is very little shade for most of the way, but the open landscape provides for great views. If you look up you can see portions of the trail winding above you in the distance making it seem more daunting, but the grading is really not bad. This trail has not been maintained very well over the last few years and has gotten worse. Some sections of the trail have washouts, and rough spots from erosion damage, and will require careful footing. The trail is narrow and the drop-offs are sometimes quite steep. It would be dangerous to get careless and go off the edge. The trail also passes through some forested areas which have downed trees which can make progress a little bit trickier as well.

View to Point Sur from Manuel Peak
After a couple of miles you begin to gain a sightline over the little ridge to the west for the first glimpse of the ocean, and you have a commanding view down into the Big Sur River Gorge. You really can’t see much of the river through the rough, but you can hear it echoing from the depth. Winding around the contours of the terrain, and into little forested tributary ravines, and up higher and higher, you climb back out into the open, and take a bend to the north. Rather suddenly, the heart of the Santa Lucia Range jumps into your easterly view. Commanding attention is Ventana Double Cone, the highest peak in the range. As you climb higher, the views are mostly to the east out over Ventana Wilderness. After just over 5 miles you make the final switchbacks up to a rocky outcrop at 3379 feet. This not the actual summit, but this is where the best views are. Conditions permitting, you will get breathtaking open panoramic views of the ocean, Point Sur, and the entire Santa Lucia Range. Fire damage is hardly noticeable. The trail continues on from here connecting up with various other backcountry and wilderness trails, trail camps, and another trailhead called Botchers Gap. The Ventana backcountry is notorious for rough, overgrown, unmaintained trails, and there are miles and miles of trails back there. If you are doing the out-and-back, this is the best place to turn around and head back to Pfeiffer, provided you have had sufficient time to admire the vistas, and savor the breezy sea air. The views on this particular day were not as clear as some of my previous visits, so my photoset is from a trip that Sue and I made here in October of 2007. This was also before the last big fire in the region.

Click here to see my 2007 photos

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