Big Sur EcoGuide

Big Sur Camping




Interactive Map

Story of Big Sur

Old Coast Road
& Hwy One

People & Places

Bixby Bridge

Partington Cove & Canyon

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

Nacimiento Road

Ventana Wilderness

Big Sur Lodge

Carmel Lodging

Santa Lucia Reserve

Mission San Antonio


Ventana Wilderness – Santa Lucia Mountains Big Sur – California Central Coast

Between the lonely, celestial Big Sur coast and the Salad Bowl rises an exuberant new mountain range.
Within the Los Padres National Forest, in the Santa Lucia Mountains, presides the Ventana Wilderness. In the midst of great population masses, it is 161,000 wild acres with nearly no humans. This place of profound beauty and wondrous geology is a great treasure.

Santa Lucia Mountains in the west rise sensually, sharply out of the Pacific. On the eastern side, out of the great Salinas Valley they climb mystically to form a dramatic, brooding backdrop.

In-between these two stirring displays, the Santa Lucias are a wooded, magical highlands. Oak valleys, Redwood fog forests, spring fed wetlands, marble peaks, steep canyons, bubbling streams, naturally sculpted rock shows.

Redwoods grow on the foggy canyon slopes facing north. Forests of Tanbark Oaks and venerable Madrones and Manzanitas give way to towering pines. Ponderosas and cedars in the higher elevations. Santa Lucia Firs, found only here, grow in remote and rocky places in a range only 12 miles wide and 55 miles long.

Major fires in recent years and cutbacks in funding for trail maintenance have conspired to reduce access to this Big Sur back country.

Hikers can enjoy 400 miles of the planet’s most scenic trails. Most of the Wilderness was burned in a series of wild fires in September and October, 1999, and most trails suffered degradation.

A Monarch from a coastal forest lays her eggs on the underside of milkweeds in Santa Lucia valleys. How the Monarchs get here

Our Lord’s Candle – Yucca whipplei

As home to a vast variety of evergreen and hardwood trees, the Santa Lucia Range in the Ventana Wilderness is a botanical wonder.

Scottish botanist David Douglas, in 1831 (the Douglas fir is named after him) was the first to botanize the Santa Lucia fir. It is rare and endemic. To avoid fire it grows on the steep rocky slopes of the Lucia mountains. He was the first, also, to list the Sugar Pine found here. It is a huge tree, growing to 150 feet, and is distinct from its cousin in the Sierras. The mighty Ponderosa and Coulter pines prosper here.

Nearly half of all the flora in California grows in the Santa Lucias. Some grow only here, and many of the northern and southern California flora mix only here. Only in a Big Sur ravine will redwoods and yuccas thrive together.

This range is the southernmost home for at least 225 plants from the north, and the northernmost home for at least 90 species from the south. There are at least 57 plants that live in the Santa Lucias, and no where else (endemics).

Big Sur Pages

Big Sur Story

Big Sur Hikes

Interactive Map


Eco Guide


Big Sur Lodge

Molera State Park

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

Nacimiento Road

Hwy One

Old Coast Road

A virtual panoramic view from Cone Peak

The Sea to Jolon Classic tale from California Coast Trails by J. Smearton Chase is published in the Ventana Wilderness Alliance website.

Santa Lucia Fir, magnificent species of the rare conifers that traveled here in the tropical tertiary, only grows naturally in these parts. For an excellent article about the Santa Lucia Firs by David Rogers, see this edition of Ventana Wilderness Alliance Double Cone Quarterly.

(Click the photograph)

Because Ventana Wilderness is in Los Padres National Forest, which is managed by the U.S. Forest Service, fire is a problem for the fate of these rare species. Not understanding nature in general, and forests in particular, the USFS has mismanaged the wilderness. Natural, seasonal fire that is necessary for the propagation of most of the wilderness’ plant species was not allowed to occur. Consequently, conditions for big incendiary outbursts became so compelling that many horrific fires occurred in rapid succession in recent years, and caused horrible damage.

The 1999 wild fires consumed nearly 100,000 acres, and burned for more than three months.

Ventana Double Cone from the west

This precocious mountain range is but a mere two and a half million years old. So young, one can hear it whimpering and gurgling, and feel it breathing.

Steep canyons, rolling meadows, ragged peaks and galleries of picturesque rock crops seem to move about as if in a theatrical production.

Tasty little ponds of spring water, lined around by raucous bouquets of wildflowers peeking out of seas of soft native grasses make happy hunting grounds for singing birds.

The rocks are granite from a huge subterranean layer that erupted in a clash of earth plates. Molten material flowed out and gradually solidified over eons and moved up with the clash of tectonic plates.

a poem of Esselens by Art Goodtimes
The rocks look like granite, sometimes more like marble, and are sugary to the touch.

They seem to stand up and move around as if they are actors on a stage. Indeed, they seem to be telling a story.

“Why,” says one marble face, “we were just in Cabo San Lucas.”

Of course, that was 30 or so million years ago. “And, when we got here we were flat and dull. But, look at us now!”

Santa Lucia as a mountain range has existed only for two and a half million years. Very young, as its palpable exuberance attests.

Not so long ago the Santa Lucia range was an island. With the movement of the Pacific plate and the San Andreas Fault, a unique topography has emerged. As a result of this clash, and the ongoing friction of faults directly beneath Big Sur, the geography has been in a protracted state of change.

The mountain peaks, now reaching 6,000 feet, are still rising, and may double their elevation eventually.

A recent theory has the Colorado River emptying into the Pacific from California’s Central Valley. The mouth of the Salinas River was south of where Bakersfield is today, and the Colorado ran through it. It created the huge canyons off Carmel and Monterey.

Then came an ice age, then a warming period, and the canyons filled with water. Water surrounded the Santa Lucia range, until slowly the Salinas Valley and the Salinan Block, a vast land mass that extends south to Santa Barbara, filled with sediment and became rich growing land.

There will be more theories. These rocks have just begun to tell their stories.

A trail sign in the Ventana back country defiantly proclaims the destination is named Pimkolam, not Junipero Serra as the U.S. Government officially refers to Big Sur’s highest peak.

Pimkolam, name on the sign at left, is a Salinan Indian word. The sign was placed there by Steve Chambers, founder of Ventana Wilderness Alliance. Recently, Salinans has referred to the mountain as Sta’yokcale – there are harvest sites at the top of the mountain.

The eastern part of Ventana were populated by Salinans (see Mission San Antonio de Padua), and Esselens populated the mid coast area of Big Sur.

Esselen is the namesake for the famous self-awareness and hot springs center on the coast, Eselen Institute.

Salinans in this area lived peacefully and prosperously in this valley for maybe 1,500 years before the Spaniards arrived. They were then enslaved for the mission industries, and virtually wiped out. Academicians have considered the Salinans ethnologically extinct, but his is not so. PelicanNetwork is working with the Salinan Tribal Council to present new finding about this special cultural group. In the late Spring of 2000, we will sponsor tours in the San Antonio Valley with Salinans to learn about their culture.



Follow the exploits of the Ventana Wildlife Society Condor Release project in the wild: condors
Find out about volunteer opportunities, Contact Ventana Wildlife Sanctuary Research and Education Center:

Wilderness campaigns in America are at a crossroads. Much has been gained in the last decade, and President Clinton proposed a huge increase in the designation of Wilderness for American public lands. But, presently there is a massive effort to turn our public wild lands over to corporate recreation interests. As a precursor to this corportization of our wilderness, the U.S. Forest Service is carrying out a “demo fee” program that charges people $5 a day, or $30 a year to go onto land in our National Forests.

The future of our wilderness is in peril. To learn more about this issue, please look at:




Reserve a Big Sur Lodge cottage at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park online with Pelican Network.

Go to Big Sur Lodge

Guests receive the Guide to Big Sur