Double Cone Quarterly
Summer Solstice 2002 -- Volume V, Number 2

Discovering the South Coast Road, Part I
text and photographs by Paul Danielson, © 2002

Eastward view over Fort Hunter Liggett from the South Coast Ridge Road near Three Peaks.

It all began for me with an unexpected weekday off and a pleasant drive down scenic Highway One from Carmel to the Willow Creek Road access. This roadhead, occasionally also known as Los Burros Road, is located 61.8 miles south of the junction of Highway one and Carmel Valley Road, 2.4 miles south of the Pacific Valley Guard Station, and just north of the small coastal hamlet of Gorda. The fact that it was a sunny, clear, and cool mid-May day and that the road had been freshly bladed following the winter rains were added bonus points.

The mileages on this sign at the bottom of Willow Creek Road are remarkably inaccurate. Perhaps they're set forth in the metric?

There are splendid views of the lower Willow Creek watershed as you wind your way up and east. Except for the first quarter-mile or so, the roadbed is remarkably smooth and driveable, albeit dusty. A two-wheel drive with decent clearance is perfectly adequate for the task this time of the year, but one would be well advised to avoid this route during the rainy season without 4-wheel drive.

About 2.4 miles from the highway, one can park and hike down a secondary jeep road (known locally as the Canyon Road) to Sycamore Flat and beyond to the trailhead which leads to Willow Creek Camp. While this narrow, rutted and overgrown route can be driven with 4-wheel drive, hiking it is recommended for most of us.

Looking up the Willow Creek watershed

At the 6.0 mile point, shortly past a small residential colony, a four way junction offers the options of Alder Creek Camp or San Martin Top, each a two mile side journey along passable roads. I chose the latter and was rewarded with superb views of the ocean, coastline, and of the magnificent Willow Creek drainage. There are some tree-shaded car camp spots at San Martin Top, but campers will need to bring their own water.

Lion Den Camp

Back on Willow Creek Road, you have but a short drive (under three miles) to reach the South Coast Ridge Road itself. At the junction I elected to turn right (south) and in 4 or 5 miles came to the abandoned and blockaded spur road that leads west to Lion Den Camp in the Silver Peak Wilderness. The road has essentially reverted to a foot trail, and it is about one half a mile of easy downhill walking along the old roadbed to the camp. There are two choice sites there: one elevated with a table, a firepit, and a killer view. The other is lower, shadier and nearer the small streamlet and perennial spring. The Cruikshank Trail continues westward from Lions Den to Silver Camp (2.9 miles), Cruikshank Camp (3.8 miles) and eventually Highway One (6 miles).

Back in the car and heading south you pass Lion Peak on the right and the easily spotted Three Peaks on the left. Shortly beyond peak threes a seasonally closed gate is reached, beyond which a road leads a short distance to Three Peaks Camp, located near the headwaters of the Spruce fork of Salmon Creek. I chose to take the open and available road to the left, diving down a dicey, narrow, loose-graveled and rutted route that arrives in three miles at Lottie Potrero Camp, well below and to the east of Three Peaks. I barely got my vehicle turned around and had to manually clear the gravel out of a steep fifty-yard return uphill stretch to escape being stranded. Needless to say, I do not recommend this route unless you have a 4-wheel drive vehicle - even in fair weather.

Three Peaks

heading back north and retracing my route on the South Coast Ridge Road, I passed Alder Peak (and several seep-springs along the narrow but graded road-bed) and the Willow Creek Road junction. North of this junction one makes a winding and twisting descent along the ridge rim overlooking the broad expanse of Willow Creek watershed before coming to a near low-point saddle - a level wide spot and viewpoint. If you look to the north from this spot you will see sections of a road cut into the hillslope which is the easy descent to relatively little known Miguel Camp. To reach the junction with the camp road proceed north on the South Coast Ridge Road down and past a small reservoir in a hollow on your left, then climb again for 0.6 miles - the road will be on your left. It is driveable, but perhaps prudent to walk the one third of a mile down to the camp. It has at least three level sites, one that is shaded by a large oak. No water, at least that is readily evident during May.

Miguel Camp

Back in your car, it is 2.0 miles north along the South Coast Ridge Road to the turn-off where one can begin a picturesque hike down into Willow Creek and the Kinder Mine environs. A locked gate emblazoned with a big stenciled "M" marks the beginning of a rough road that follows a ridge down into the Willow Creek watershed. You can walk past the gate to a rock outcrop for some good views.

Less than half a mile north on the South Coast Ridge Road is the junction with Plasket Ridge Road, which can be driven about a mile westward to some pine shaded car camp pullouts and a locked gate that marks the beginning of private property.

Continuing north, in 1.1 miles a rough road heads down to the right and into Fort Hunter Liggett, ending in a few miles at an unattended military gate near the upper end of the abandoned Slickrock Trail. I did not take this road so I cannot comment on its condition or legality.

Continuing, you see pullouts (impromptu camp spots) on the left in 0.2 and 0.3 miles, respectively. In another 0.4 miles you see the very obvious side road going up and to the left which takes you to Prewitt Ridge Camp less than a mile away. There are several open spots with wide views and some good shaded ones with fire- rings. No obvious water, until you make your way down an abandoned road east of the camp cul de sac and discover a murky stock pond. If you feel brave enough, you can filter your water supply from it. If you take the road near the Prewitt campsites and to the right, it goes down toward the Alms Ridge area, which overlooks Mill Creek and its gorgeous watershed. Don't be spooked by the "Dangerous Road" sign that marks its beginning. While the road is steep and windy in places, it is well bladed and wide enough. The road ends in 2.2 miles at a flat meadow area with a trickling spring, nice tent sites under a wide spreading oak, and a large plot of vinca that betrays the presence of an old homestead site.

View north toward Cone Peak from near Prewitt Ridge Camp

Just past the spring one can pick up a clear trail tread that contours east. Old maps suggest it eventually turns north and takes you to Mill Creek. On your way back up the road you will notice two right hand exit roads (one at 0.5 miles and the other at 0.6 miles -- both leading to private property and are signed as such). There is also one going down to the left (1.8 miles) that ends up at the home site you can see from the Nacimiento-Fergusson Road as you look south and up across the Mill Creek drainage. A little past these turnoffs, look on your right for a ridge spur road. It leads in a few yards to a killer campsite with a 360 view (Cone Peak, Junipero Serra Peak, Chalk Peak, the Ocean, Mill Creek Drainage), a sunken oil drum firepit, plenty of flat spots, and an oak-shaded site for the ages. No water I hasten to add.

From the Prewitt Ridge junction it is fairly non-stop driving on to the Nacimiento Summit Road (5 miles). However, look for a spot on your right located by a small elongated pond. It is at a point 2.3 miles north of the Prewitt Ridge junction, and is Chalk Peak/Apple Camp, with a picnic table and a fire ring.

There you have it! As much of it as I could muster in one trip. I plan to go back and explore/document what I didn't have time for in this article. That will be part II, and can be found in an upcoming issue of the DCQ.

Please send along your comments, corrections, additions and insights - I would be glad to hear from you.

Paul Danielson