The Ventana Wilderness takes in the higher northern portion of the Santa Lucia Mountains in what is commonly known as the Big Sur Coast region. Most of the wilderness is part of the Salinian Block and consists of granitic as well as metamorphic rocks, such as marble, schists, and slates. Hot springs occur in a few locations, including the popular Styes Hot Springs, only accessible by foot. In some places of the Ventana, the wilderness boundary comes to within a quarter mile of the ocean. This area's western boundary is almost always within sight of Coast Highway 1, the scenic road that was built by convict labor during the depression years.
Set aside as the Ventana Primitive Area in 1931 by the chief of the Forest Service, it originally contained 45,520 acres, but this was enlarged to 55,884 acres in 1937. In 1969, it became part of the National Wilderness system and was renamed Ventana Wilderness. It was subsequently enlarged in 1978 and 1984. In 1992, another 38,000 acres were added in the Horse Creek and Rocky Creek areas on the eastern edge of the wilderness, bringing its total up to the present 216,500 acres.
The Ventana is steep. Knife-edge ridges drop precipitously into narrow, V-shaped canyons. There are some 260-plus miles of trails, with longer loop trips and backpacking possible. Some 90 percent of Ventana's use occurs on just two trails Pine Ridge/Carmel River Trail and the hike up the Big Sur River to Styles Hot Springs. If you want to find solitude, avoid these trails. However, don't stray from the trails: Unlike the Sierra Nevada and other areas, traveling off-trail can be extremely difficult, due to steep terrain and dense vegetation. One Thanksgiving break, I was backpacking here and tried to travel cross-country from Ventana Cones to Bottchers Gap. I soon discovered that crawling through a trailless country of chaparral with a backpack on and shimmying over huge, wet, downed redwood boles taller than two people required a bit more effort than I had bargained for. It took me two exhausting days in nearly continuous rain to cover eight miles! Oh, but what isolation.
The highest summit in the Santa Lucias is 5,862-foot Junipero Serra Peak. This may not seem high compared to the Sierra Nevada or other high ranges of the state, but keep in mind that nearly all this relief is from sea level. These mountains rise more than a mile out of the Pacific, and for those hiking the trails, it can sometimes seem as though you are climbing sheer cliffs, so vertical is the terrain. The lowest portion of the wilderness is 600 feet, lying along the Big Sur River. Annual precipitation occurs mostly between November and April, with as much as 75 inches falling along the coast and as little as 25 inches just a few miles inland. In summer, fog bathes the coastal side of the mountains, but it seldom reaches more than a few miles inland.
The Ventana has one of the more diverse vegetative communities found anywhere. You may camp among redwoods and bigleaf maples or traverse up through an oak savanna to break out in open grassy meadowsall in the course of one mile. Ponderosa pine, Coulter pine, sugar pine, and knobcone pine dominate the areas with frequent fires. Douglas fir, along with Santa Lucia fir, dominate the moister, higher elevations. The aptly named Pine Valley with its large stately stands of ponderosa pines seems more like the Sierra Nevada than a coastal mountain valley. However, chaparral covers more than 60 percent of the area.
The Santa Lucia fir, found nowhere else on earth but in these mountains, is sometimes called bristlecone fir because of the bracts that stick out of its cones. The fir tends to grow at higher elevations on north-facing slopes where fires are infrequent. This tree was first discovered by botanists Thomas Coulter, for whom Coulter pine is named, and David Douglas, of Douglas fir fame. Most of this vegetative diversity is maintained by wildfire, and fortunately for the Ventana, the 1977 Marble Cone fire blazed across 175,000 acresnearly 90 percent of the wildernesscreating new wildlife habitat and rejuvenating vegetative communities. Black bear, mountain lion, mule deer, and bobcat are common forest mammals. Non-native wild boar escaped from the Hearst Estate to the south and are now common. Steelheadsea-run rainbow troutstill ascend the Big Sur and Little Sur Rivers and Big Creek in small numbers.
Most of Ventana's use occurs in the spring, when flowers are blooming and temperatures are optimal, but hiking in the wilderness is possible year round. Even in summer, westside valleys are often cool due to morning fog and shady canyon environments, while in late fall and winter, the east side offers some respite from the heavy rain common at that time of year.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication