Summer Solstice 1998 || Volume I, Number 1


by Boon Hughey

Six or eight years ago the Forest Service, with some big help from the Big Sur Land Trust, acquired a large and beautiful piece of mountainside land along the coast just south of Big Sur: the old Boronda Ranch. Traversing this property, from bottom to top and vice-versa, is a trail that was once an old roadcut and is now open to the hiking public but not widely publicized.

The trail has its lower terminus about one-half mile south of the Coast Gallery on Highway One, at the old gathering pens and loading chute of El Rancho Riscal y Piedras del Mar, and climbs an impressive 2,500' in about 2.5 miles to arrive at Timber Top on the Coast Ridge.

The view southward from near the top of the Boronda Trail
(photo by Mark Miculian)

I've always known and referred to this route as the Timber Top Trail, if only for the delightful alliteration. The Forest Service, however, has recently and officially named it the Boronda Trail after the historic owners of the land, even though it boasts a much longer-standing name than either of these recently applied monikers: Separation Road. If one takes a moment to do the math with the rise/run figures given above, the extreme steepness of the route becomes obvious: a 19% grade on average. This, combined with some nasty hairpin turns and a seasonally sketchy surface, long ago earned the road a reputation for "separating the men from the boys" when driven in the downhill direction; hence the name. In fact, tales are told of cocksure local "boys" rising to the challenge, only to lose their mettle halfway down and actually bail out of the vehicle while attempting to navigate one of the hairier sections! Separation Road is thankfully no longer open to vehicular traffic, but some think that the name would befit the trail as well, only in the other, uphill, direction.  As the "boys" of the hiking party stride ahead strongly onward and upward, the "men", especially on the steeper sections, inevitably fall back wheezing and gasping and bluefacedly clutching their guts, the separation having been made.

The trail begins, unsigned, alongside Highway One as a chained wooden gate next to an old cattle-loading chute at an approximate altitude of 580'. It climbs at a reasonable pitch, switching back a few times, before turning northeastward into Torre Canyon. Robinson Jeffers aficionados might recognize a place or two along this first stretch as the likely situs for the vantage point of the disgruntled cowboy in his 1937 poem "The Coast-Road":

A horseman high alone as an eagle on the spur of the mountain
over Mirmas Canyon draws rein, looks down
At the bridge-builders, men, trucks, the power-shovels, the teeming end
of the new coast-road at the mountain's base.
He sees the loops of the road go northward, headland beyond headland,
into gray mist over Fraser's Point.
He shakes his fist and makes a gesture of wringing a chicken's neck,
scowls and rides higher.

At about 6/10ths of a mile and elevation 1020' the roadcut comes on a well-posted gate, at which point the trail takes off to the west and begins to climb in earnest. Over the next 3/4 of a mile one climbs steeply up grassy hillsides and through venerable live-oak forest, eventually arriving at a small flat (mile 1.3, 1833') just above Lafler Canyon. The views from this spot, as with nearly the entire trail, are magnificent. The mountainside is so steep here that it gives the giddy impression of being perched almost directly over the blue pacific.

Onward the route follows the ridge separating Torre from Lafler Canyons, eventually forking beneath the spreading boughs of a majestic old oak tree at the edge of a large grassy flat.  The trail to the left leads a short distance down to perennial water at unofficial, indistinguishable, and technically illegal Pumphouse Camp in Lafler Canyon. The camp takes it name from the remnants of a small structure which once sheltered a motor used to pump water up the mountain to the pig farm on Timber Top, and is situated in a verdant redwood glade.

From the fork at the mighty oak, the main trail bears to the right and crosses the meadow before resuming the relentless climb up the ridge. The views over the next and final mile are dramatic to say the least, with Timber Top and the coast ridge finally being reached at altitude 3068' in a total of 2.5 miles of hiking. As you'll notice, the pigs and their keepers have long since departed, leaving a delightful place for a picnic.

The author at Timber Top, wondering where all the pigs have gone.
(photo by Mark Miculian)

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