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Big Sur: Big Mountains & Big Smiles

Written by Sylvan Ludewigt

Photos by Yannic Sholtyssek


Over Veteran’s Day weekend, a group of 31 excursion members and staff set out on a two night, 30 mile, backpacking trip in the Ventana Wilderness just south of Big Sur. The mission was to hike Cone Peak (5,318 feet above sea level) otherwise known as the tallest coastal mountain in the lower 48 states.

The trail began at Kirk Creek Campground directly off the rugged and majestic Highway 1. This signaled the beginning of two days of continuous climbing. Every west facing turn in the trail was greeted by the warm glow of the setting sun over the ever rolling marine layer creeping in to obscure the horizon. As we made our way higher into the steep faces of the Big Sur coastline the sunset seemed to last forever as it turned the dried, grassy slopes into fields of red and orange.

Our amazing group making the ascent up to base camp at Vicente Flat.


The sunset from the trail as we neared base camp.


We camped in Vicente Flat, a large redwood grove tucked away in the shaded valley of Cone Peak and its surrounding sister mountains. This homely grove would be our home for the two nights. When we weren’t hiking we could be found channeling our inner Chris Sharma while climbing redwood trees or circled up around the “kitchen” trading stories.


Yannic Sholtyssek picking out the best line up one of the redwood trees near our base camp.


The following morning we set out for Cone Peak. The trail continued out of the redwood grove for 5 miles as it followed the bank of a babbling brook. Our group traveled along dirt roads that were used by the initial settlers of the Big Sur coastline to connect with stores and markets in the Salinas Valley. When we arrived at the top of the peak we found an abandoned fire tower, had a photo op, and relaxed to eat lunch.


Aiyanna Becker making the final push up to the top of Cone Peak.


Group photo at the peak of the tallest coastal mountain in the lower 48 states!


Big Sur and the Ventana Wilderness are both known for their highly diverse ecological zones. The south and west facing slopes experience year round sunshine and are a mix of chaparral shrub forest and grasslands. The north facing slopes enjoy cooler temperatures and shade that allow redwood forests and other conifers to flourish.


We moved through all of these ecological zones on our descent. Winding our way down the mountain we were treated to northwestern views of the backside of Cone Peak and the Pacific Ocean. Our adventure picked up as the sun set and we began our hike under the full moon. The last two and a half miles we hiked back to camp under the light of the moon though steep grassland hillsides while a cappella covers of pop songs ranging from Queen to Rhianna rang out from the choir in the middle of our pack.


The “choir” hiking back to base camp under the stars and basking in the moonlit grassy hillsides.


On the final day we slept in only to be awoken by the sweet smell of pancakes wafting through camp. As the sun broke through the redwood canopy and we packed our bags we paused for a moment to reflect on the experience and all the new friendships that were made between everyone on the trip.


One of the most beautiful parts of the Excursion club is the ability to meet amazing adventurers from across the world. We hope that all of our EAP student members will be able to take memories such as the Cone Peak trip back to their homes and spread the message of getting stoked outdoors to all their friends and family. The hike back to the cars went by in an instant. Before we knew it we had dipped back into the iconic west coast fog. The scent of the ocean and the sound of the waves were welcomed wholeheartedly by our group as we unpacked and prepared to go back to our beach side town of Isla Vista.

Our trip leader David Twohig descending into the beautiful California marine layer.


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