I spent last weekend in the Santa Lucia Range, a wonderful assemblage of mountains on California’s central coast. I had never been there before, but I was eager to see it, since it promised all the ingredients that reward exploration: vast roadless areas with varied climate, topography, and ecosystems.
My friend Ananda will be leaving the Bay Area to spend the rest of his winter snowboarding in Colorado, and he wanted to spend this weekend, his last in California, with his friends at one of his favorites spots, Sykes Hot Springs.
Our group spent the night camping at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and started hiking the Pine Ridge Trail at 11 the next morning. The beginning of the hike took us through a shady redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) canyon where milkmaids (Cardamine californica), redwood violets (Viola sempervirens), and redwood sorrels (Oxalis oregana) were already in bloom.
We soon gained elevation and traversed a hillside covered in a mix of forest and chaparral.
The plant species in both habitats were almost entirely evergreen – in the forest were madrone (Arbutus menziesii), live oak (Q. chrysolepis and Quercus agrifolia), tanoak (Lithocarpus densiflorus), and bay (Umbellularia californica), and in the chaparral were coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis), chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum), blueblossom ceanothus (Ceanothus thyrsiflorus), manzanita (Manzanita spp.), sage (Salvia mellifera), and sagebrush (Artemisia californica). Add these to the redwood forests on the hike, and practically all the landscapes we saw were evergreen.
Mountain after mountain revealed itself as we walked deeper into the range. They reminded of me Mount Tamalpais, a mountain familiar to any Bay Area hiker, and the Santa Lucias look as if a thousand Mount Tamalpaises, some over a mile high, had been smashed together.
In fact, Mount Tamalpais makes a good reference for understanding the ecology of the western Santa Lucia Range. Like Mount Tamalpais, the Santa Lucias are coastal mountains, with chaparral on sunny hillsides, broadleaf evergreen forests in shady valleys, and redwood forests in deep canyons. But the Santa Lucias are farther south, which in California means that they get less rain; there are more shrubs and fewer trees.
The entire area we hiked through had burned during the 2008 Basin Complex Fire, but the shrublands and forests had regrown quickly. Blueblossom ceanothus was verdant and blooming. The bark on the redwoods was charred black, but they are a fire-adapted species and remained healthy. A redwood whose branches had been burned off completely had responded by sprouting leaves directly from its bark, looking from a distance less like a redwood and more like a Mediterranean cypress. Tanoaks had suffered the most, and the trail corridor was filled with their fallen trunks and branches. But even they were resprouting.
By mid-afternoon we were getting closer to the hot springs and descending into the canyon of the Big Sur River. An old redwood whose trunk had been severely burned by the fire had fallen onto the hillside, covering the trail. First we had to deal with the trunk, crawling underneath parts of it and climbing over others. Then came the branches, a tangled mess covering hundreds of feet of trail. Bushwhacking through a fallen redwood gives you an appreciation of its immense size that you just can’t get from looking at a standing one.
Once we got down to the Big Sur River, we left the Pine Ridge Trail and walked left along the river until we found a good campsite. The canyon air was cold and damp and the sky was getting dark. It was 4:30 in the afternoon.
We set up our tents, put away our backpacks, and got out our swimsuits. We kept walking along the river to the hot springs. We got there as the sun was setting and it didn’t take us long to find an empty pool.
We stepped into the water and sat down, submerging ourselves up to our shoulders. The pool was muddy and slippery and smelled of sulfur, but the hot water felt great after the long hike. The sky turned deep blue and the canyon grew dark under the redwoods. The only sounds were the rushing river, the trickling springs, and the croaking tree frogs (Pseudacris regilla). The experience was magical.
After an hour of soaking, we returned to our campsite and lit a fire. We made our dinners and talked into the night by the fire’s glow, staying up until 10.
When we woke up, it was only 35 degrees. The damp air felt very cold and we all put on our coats and hats. We rekindled the fire from the night before and ate breakfast.
We packed our bags and started hiking at 10. The weather was clear again, and the views were excellent. We stopped at Terrace Camp for lunch and got back to the trailhead at 3:30.