Black Cone Trail

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Re: Black Cone Trail

Post by pantilat »

Date Hiked: April 12, 2019
General Condition: Passable (some brush and/or deadfalls, tread evident)

This report just covers the northern 0.5 mile of trail. It appears the same crew that worked the Pine Ridge Trail in this vicinity also cleared out the first couple hundred feet of the Black Cone Trail from the junction with the Pine Ridge Trail. This first section from the junction was overgrown and it was confusing where the actual trail was located. No issues now as it's wilderness freeway for the first couple hundred feet and after that the tread is obvious. The trail becomes brushy after the first couple hundred feet but some selective lopping of the worst push-throughs helps a lot. As we only did the first 0.5 miles of this trail I do not now how far the selective brushing continues but on my last visit (December 2017) the brushy sections continued for a couple miles south.
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Re: Black Cone Trail

Post by mmaki »

Date Hiked: May 20, 2018
General Condition: Difficult (brushy and/or many deadfalls, faint tread)

Not a lot to add as the two to three previous reports cover the conditions quite well. I hiked the trail as part of my last section hike of the Condor Trail. I believe Jack's report below is referring to me as the backpacker he met heading the other direction. We met at White Cone Spring, flowing well. Other observations were the old dumped propane tanks at one point and the burned over fiberglass handled trail tools, kind of creepy looking. Also seems like the first (southern) third of this trail is an old road bed so not much trouble following the route. The northern end is definitely the most difficult (unburned), north of White Cone Spring. I got water from the flowing North Fork Big Sur River below Black Cone.

Some video is here and some pics are here. Look for the Start of the Black Cone Trail section.
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Re: Black Cone Trail

Post by jack_glendening »

Date Hiked: May 20, 2018
General Condition: Difficult (brushy and/or many deadfalls, faint tread)

I'll defer to Jim Ringland's excellent and detailed description from a week previous, giving only summary points here.

The northern end is on-and-off brushy - but the branches are not interlocking. Trail-following is a problem just south of the Pine Ridge Trail junction - on the Pine Ridge Trail I met a backpacker who had intended to hike the Black Cone Trail but turned around after finding many false paths through the brush, leading to dead ends.

The middle is rough - around White Cone, the difficulty of dealing with the rocks covering the trail requires keeping eyes on the trail and altering steps. But the tread is very followable, with only a few route-following difficulties, despite years and years without any trailwork. (Was quite surprised to meet another backpacker there, heading the other direction.) I'd rate this section as "Passable".

The southern end is lush, carpeted by flowers which combines with occasional sharp change of trail direction to cause some searching for the trail (but currently there are flags at the corners).

Finally, I must mention the profusion of flowers along the entire trail. Having their beauty and variety to gaze upon while hiking was a nice recompense for the difficulty of the trail. And I appreciated the absence of poison oak!

Big Sur Trailmap:
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Jim Ringland
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Re: Black Cone Trail

Post by Jim Ringland »

Date Hiked: May 8, 2018
General Condition: Difficult (brushy and/or many deadfalls, faint tread)

I did this north to south. I’d rate most as Difficult, but for different reasons in different sections. I’m fundamentally in agreement with the report from Ryland (4/2018), and mostly with the those of pantilat, Rowan Hyland, and Betsy M (all from 12/2017) with the proviso that there's been more growth since December. For the most part, what I saw was way worse than what RSIBryce described back in September. Big Sur vegetation moves fast!

Northern Burned Sections: Difficult.

Some might find this impassible. Without trail work, it will be in a year or two.

There are modest route finding problems in the first 500 feet or so. It’s flat and partially open immediately south from the junction, so it’s not always clear which openings are the trail. I had help from my GPS and Dr. Jack’s maps, but even without I’d think one could poke around enough to find their way. Note the trail gently aims south and down from that flat rather than maintaining elevation. I didn’t see the markers Rowan Hyland described.

What comes next is 1-1/2 miles of brush that has rebounded very well since the 2008 Basin Fire. One is almost always scraping again shrubbery: sometimes just a bit, sometimes pushing through branches that have all but closed the trail but have yet to interlock (except perhaps very occasionally). Much is manzanita so it isn’t too scratchy. The other good news is that the shrubs define the trail well: route finding problems are over for now. The bad news is that some of this is uphill (southbound) so one gets to push against both shrubbery and gravity. The burnt post is still there at the Mosquito Springs Trail junction, but there’s not much trail going off.

(1-1/2 miles in, at a rocky point, the trail enters 1/3 mile that burned. See the next section.)

After that 1/3 mile of burnt trail, there’s another 1 mile of unburnt chaparral. Conditions here are a little worse than earlier. There are more sections with interlocked branches. As pantilat noted, this stuff is scratchier too. On the plus side, at least for the southbound hiker, though, it’s mostly downhill.

There’s actually a third section of unburnt trail a little farther on, but it’s avoidable if you wish. Right by Venturi Use Camp there is a couple hundred feet where the original trail routing is through unburnt chaparral. The fire boundary is only a few tens of feet away and there’s a faint use path in the clear, up along the boundary. If you choose to hike the original trail (I did), you’ll scrape against branches but they are not, for the most part, interlocking across the trail. Venturi Use Camp is unusable, but the old metal chair is still there.

Burnt sections north of where the ACE Crew worked before the fire: Difficult.

Betsy notes the ACE crews worked the trail to a point 3.2 miles north of Strawberry. That distance, about half way between White Cone Spring and Black Cone Spring, aligns well with a waypoint I set on my GPS to note a location where trail conditions seemed to be improving. (I remembered they had done the trail work but, in the field, had forgotten exactly how far they had gone.) The discussion here is for the trail before I reached that. It includes that 1/3 mile between the two unburnt sections and not quite 1-1/2 miles south of second.

The 2016 fire removed all the big brush, but the little stuff is coming in fast. Sometimes it's wildflowers. There are a few sections where the trailbed was dense with popcorn flower. Even more fun was one section where the trail was covered in wallflowers. It’s no trouble smashing through that stuff if you have the heart. Rather too often, though, the plant in question is the semi-woody yerba santa. There were lots of sections where I wading through moderately dense knee to thigh-high stands of that stuff filling the trail. That’s a bit more work to bash through.

A trail full of 2-year-old knee-high yerba santa would be marginally Passable were it not for the the issue RSIBryce raised: the sometimes wretched trailbed. Sometimes it’s just the sideways slope or slumped trail. Worse are fallen rocks, especially cube-like chunks fallen from the cut above. That sort of stuff is manageable if you can see it. But bury it under knee-high yerba buena stalks (or even under a cover of popcorn flower dense enough that you can't see the trail below) and you’ve got to slow way down to avoid a fall or twisted ankle. Quite a bit of trail is like that. That combination, admittedly an obstacle of an unusual sort, is enough for me to rate this section as Difficult. Those lighter on their feet than I, or with ankles of steel, may up the rating Passable.

There are places here where I found myself scraping against or ducking under old burnt brush. I ended the hike with several swaths of black carbon on my shirt.

No significant route finding problems here.

Water at White Cone Spring was flowing well … and was much appreciated.

Section worked by the ACE Crew but north of the Big Sur / Zigzag Creek Divide: Passible.

This covers the section that begins about half way between White Cone Spring and Black Cone Spring and ends at the high point (about 3600’) where the trail exits the drainage of the North Fork of the Big Sur, enters the drainage of Zigzag Creek, and begins its descent toward Strawberry Valley.

Reduce the trailbed problems described above and the trail is no longer Difficult. There are still places where there are things growing in the trail, still places with overhanging burnt out stubs, and still places where the trailbed isn’t perfect, but this is easier. Some stretches could even claim a Clear rating.

No water at Black Cone Spring but it was there recently: there are still seep monkeyflowers (Mimulus guttatus) in bloom. There's water at the Woodwardia Spring (actually a creek) just before the Black Cone Camp Trail turnoff, but it is pretty well buried under ferns and blackberries. I didn’t need water but if I did, I would have searched downstream. Water in the North Fork of the Big Sur too.

Descent into the ZigZag Creek: Difficult.

This issue here is faint to non-existent tread due to soft seasonal growth. Flagging helps, but there's not enough of it. As the seasonal growth dies down, more of the trail may be visible, so it's not impossible that by autumn this will be back to Passable. But for right now, I think there are enough route finding challenges to call this Difficult. Those already familiar with the trail alignment will find this section easily Passable. Nothing is physically difficult.

From the high point, the route follows an old firebreak/roadway. So much has grown in that, in many places, no trail shows in the roadbed. It can be a beautiful problem: one such obscured section was a sea of lupines! Nothing woody. All one needs to do here is follow what looks like a flat roadcut and avoid any beckoning animal tracks down the hill. There are a few switchback turns to maneuver and it would be possible to shoot right past on a few. Two of the worst are flagged, with the flag positioned on the downhill leg below the turn. So armed with some knowledge, either by having been here before or knowing what to look for, this isn’t that hard. But without calling on that foreknowledge, I can imagine this section could be problematic. For example, what do you do when you make it to a flag, not see another, and see no path forward (or worse, see more than one possibility)?

About 2/3 mile down from the top, the trail makes a hard right turn onto a small hillside path, under trees, that contours for a while then descends to Zigzag Creek. The turn is marked with a flag, right at the point of the turn. Unfortunately, there’s not much visible as a trail off to the right. Understanding roughly what the flag meant and having a GPS, I still made the turn wrong, aiming down the slope toward the creek. I should have turned a harder right, stepping up and around some sort of snag. When it was clear – rather quickly – that where I was wasn’t right, I retreated to the flag and tried again. On that second try, I found a faint trail, again filled largely in by recent seasonal growth, behind the snag. With just a little clambering around downed branches, it was then straightforward to make it down to the creek’s bottomlands.

From there, the general idea is to head downstream the quarter mile to Strawberry Valley Camp. You can't get lost, but the right way through is not always evident. The path is faint and there are enticing animal tracks up on the slopes just above. There are a few flags, but, as before, rarely enough that you can see your way from one to the next. I think I was sometimes on the trail and sometimes off as I made my way down to camp. Only a little PO along the way. There’s a little clambering, but not that much.

Re: Black Cone Trail

Post by Rhyland »

Date Hiked: April 21, 2018
General Condition: Passable (some brush and/or deadfalls, tread evident)

From pine ridge trail to roughly a mile north of white cone: tread easy enough to follow except for the the beginning where the pine ridge trail intersects the black Cone trail. Here it is easy to be mislead as there are other spur trails that can be misleading. After this, however, the trail remains easy enough to follow despite the overgrowth of brush that must be pushed through. The brush ends roughly a mile before reaching white cone.
The remainnder of the trail until one begins the descent down into strawberry valley is brush free with only sloping/uneven tred to contend with. There is also, (as of now), several small streams with RUNNING WATER BETWEEN WHITE CONE AND BLACK CONE.
The descent down the old road cut from black cone to strawberry valley is becoming extremely choked with new growth growth (mostly tall grasses) and a trail is not discernible for the majority of its length. Navigation wise though this section is pretty straightforward; simply follow the stream down until you reach strawberry valley. Water is plentifful, (for now), at strawberry valley camp.
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Re: Black Cone Trail

Post by Betsy M »

Date Hiked: December 31, 2017
General Condition: Passable (some brush and/or deadfalls, tread evident)

I hiked from Strawberry Camp to Black Cone Camp. Conditions are as Pantilat describes, though now slightly better after I cleared most of the trees and brush that made progress difficult in the Zig Zag Creek section. Also flagged the switchbacks. Tried to find the trail down to Black Cone Camp and it was quite overgrown. Only made it about halfway down to the unofficial use camp. But as Pantilat notes, there is NO WATER at the Woodwardia ferns at the top, so there is certainly no water at the camp. The VWA was able to hire an ACE crew for two years in a row and the brush and tread work that they did, even though it is completely burned, is holding up pretty well. This work extended to 3.2 miles above Strawberry Camp.

Just an observation on the fires. Almost all of this area burned, and it seems like regrowth, outside of the riparian corridors, is quite slow. In the past 20 years the three major fires have burned this section repeatedly. While the chaparral can come back easily, entire oak and pine forests have burned to the ground. If they do manage to come back, it will take 40 years. Almost all the wildlife seems to be gone as well. It is sobering to realize that a lot of the burning was intentional, as backfires, rather than the actual wildfires themselves.
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Re: Black Cone Trail

Post by pantilat »

Date Hiked: December 27, 2017
General Condition: Difficult (brushy and/or many deadfalls, faint tread)

Initial part out of Strawberry Valley: Difficult. Heading out of Strawberry Valley, the riparian regrowth in the first part of the Black Cone Trail is immense. When combined with a few downed trees it's a mess and this short section is difficult. Note that in current conditions the last water along the entire trail is at the Zigzag Creek headwaters.

Middle Burned Section: Passable. After the switchback and rounding the corner out of the riparian zone and onto the dry burned south slopes things improve dramatically. The ascent up the old road to the divide separating the Big Sur watershed from the Arroyo Seco watershed is in good shape. In current post-fire conditions, the ascent up the old firebreak to the summit of Black Cone is steep but fairly straightforward with minimal brush. The extra 1,000 feet of elevation gain results in sweeping views of the Ventana in all directions. While Black Cone is not a tall peak compared to points farther north along the ridge, it has excellent positioning for a dramatic view.

After the divide separating the Big Sur watershed from the Arroyo Seco Watershed, the tread transitions to a trail (instead of an old roadbed) but the trail is initially very well graded and wide. Southern aspects burned almost to the ground and are easy while northern aspects have brush skeletons, some of which have bent or fallen over the trail. The good tread eventually ends and the sloped tread side-hilling begins. While there is quite a bit of regrowth (especially yerba santa) the way is never in doubt and I can imagine how much better the condition is now versus the prior brushy conditions.

Woodwardia spring was dry. White Cone Spring is also currently dry and since the gully is completely exposed after the fire we could see a long ways down and it looked bone dry for at least a couple hundred feet downstream. The summit of White Cone is a relatively short side trip from near the White Cone Spring. The initial part is steep but once on the White Cone plateau the final climb is gradual. White Cone is another fantastic viewpoint with its centralized location in the Ventana.

Back on the trail, there is a short taste of unburned brush just north of Venturi Usecamp. After this short unburned section the trail features an awesome section along the ridge crest. Parts of this were only marginally burned so be careful of brush stumps in the trail.

Northern Unburned Section: Difficult. About a half mile after the Venturi usecamp the trail makes an abrupt turn from burned to unburned. The brush in the next mile is completely interlocking in sections with chamise, ceanothus and scrub oak prevalent. The tread is always obvious but it is time and energy consuming in this section. The trail enters one last strip of burned land before reentering the brush for the last 1.5 miles all the way to end of the trail at the junction with the Pine Ridge Trail. The brush in this last 1.5 miles is easier than the preceding section of brush with evidence of somewhat recent brush clearing in the past few years, but it has become difficult with the rapid rate of brush growth, and I was amazed at how quickly it has filled in over the span of a couple years, especially the manzanita. Before traversing beneath South Ventana Cone there is another great section atop the ridge crest with views of an expansive grove of Santa Lucia Firs in the headwaters of Tassajara Creek.
Rowan Hyland

Re: Black Cone Trail

Post by Rowan Hyland »

Date Hiked: December 19, 2017
General Condition: Passable (some brush and/or deadfalls, tread evident)

Covers the section from Pine Ridge Trail junction to roughly a mile past Mosquito Spring:

From the Pine Ridge Trail junction the Black Cone Trail would have initially been difficult to follow for the first couple hundred feet or so had it not been faded markers. After this, however, the trail conditions actually begin to improve somewhat and though brushy is fairly manageable. Rounding the next point immediately after the Mosquito Spring Trail junction the trail opens up due to the recent burn and is clear for the most with only the minor annoyance of having to kick aside burned plant remnants. Not far beyond here I turned around and attempted to follow the Mosquito Camp Trail down to the spring but lost the trail about 350 feet from the crest. Overall I was amazed at the views this trail offered and look forward to revisiting it soon with a pair of loppers!
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Re: Black Cone Trail

Post by RSIBryce »

Date Hiked: September 19, 2017
General Condition: Passable (some brush and/or deadfalls, tread evident)

I recently hiked the infamous Black Cone trail as part of a survey of trails within last year's Soberanes Burn area for the USFS. (I have hiked this trail in 2013 and also 2014, both being some of my more intense trail experiences I've had in the Ventana Wilderness.) We started from Pine Ridge camp, and were hiking toward Strawberry. The initial part of the trail was still a bit brushy around the junction and toward the Mosquito Spring turnoff, but the burn did a great job in eliminating (for now) the intense brush that prevailed through much of this trail. There are a few spots that remain a bit brushy, encroaching upon the tread, but for the most part, this trail is open. There's a lot of charred sticks to push through, but they pale in comparison to the thick scrub oak that once dominated this scenic wonder of a trail. The tread is in poor shape, as might be expected, and the "black cone ankle" is real- the tread is at such a slanted angle as to produce a peculiar pain in your left ankle as you hike. We also counted about 8 areas where the tread has eroded or slide. This is minor however compared to the relief and freedom of hiking a notoriously overgrown trail that has been naturally cleared. There was also a effort recently to work the trail from Strawberry prior to the burn, as Betsy McGowan mentions in her post below. We also found water at what I believe was 'White Cone Spring' as well as Woodwardia Spring, near Black Cone camp. Black Cone camp did not look to be in good shape, the fire burned though there hot, but the regrowth is already quite thick. Once the trail makes its descent toward Strawberry, the brush is more present once again and we found 3 downed trees. The trail along the stream at the very last stretch toward Strawberry has a tremendous growth of herbaceous plants, very thick bramble and some other plant I could not identify. The immense rain this past year allowed things to really take off.
Typical view on trail
Typical view on trail

Re: Black Cone Trail

Post by Leonie »

Date Hiked: April 24, 2016
General Condition: Impassable (completely overgrown or tread obliterated)

I attempted to hike this trail from the pine ridge trail south toward willow creek. Completely lost the trail within 100 yards of the signpost. Tried it twice with no lucky from the north this trail is not passable, completely over gown, hidden by brush, chaparral, vanishing into thin air. Please do not attempt! I turned back and am confident that was the right decision.
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