I just enjoyed a cold and rainy spring backpack in Pine Valley in the Ventana Wilderness of Los Padres National Forest. We accessed Pine Valley via the Pine Ridge Trail, starting at the China Camp trail head.
On Friday evening we drove out to the small campground at the trail head and enjoyed a warm campfire and dinner. The road from pavement is long, steep, rutted, and twisty, but we had no problem getting in (and neither did the several sedans at the trail head, clearly, though I wouldn’t bring a low clearance car on that road). We were surprised to be joined by several other people that night – the place feels so remote that I imagined we would have it to ourselves.
Friday night was clear and cold but we awoke to a foggy and damp Saturday morning. Luckily I had packed car camping gear separate from my backpacking kit so everything was dry for the hike. By 10 am we hit the Pine Ridge trail, climbing steadily from the trail head parking to the ridge 400 feet above. This first stretch passes through an obvious burn zone from the Big Basin Complex fire last year.
The trail wiggles along the ridge for a couple of miles with views down the steep mountainside into rocky valleys. We didn’t get the distant views since we were fogged in, but it was still beautiful. The black skeletons of burned trees were a little creepy as they would emerge from the fog, but the colorful lupine and baby blue eyes perked up the trail and it was a beautiful hike even with the weather.
After about 2.5 miles the trail switchbacks steeply down to Church Creek where there is the first obvious campsite and trail junction. We continued the gradual descent into Pine Valley where we found ourselves closer to the interesting rock formations and hiking through towering pines. There are some campsites scattered through the Valley, and after finding one, setting up camp, and having lunch we set out to explore.
Our first stop was a mere 500 ft down the trail at Jack English’s cabin. Jack owns a small 5 acre parcel of private land down there in Pine Valley, but unlike a lot of landowners he welcomes visitors with open arms and a lifetime of stories to tell. I was looking forward to meeting him, but upon arriving at his cabin we were greeted by a group of visitors. The visitors turned out to be Jack’s son and family friends who were there helping to repair the cabin after a pine tree fell on it a few months ago (the fallen tree was donating itself to the repair cause, currently making its living as a pile of milled lumber). Jack was off in the real world getting a root canal.
After a brief chat we continued down the creek on a progressively worse and worse trail. It’s narrow and steep and overgrown, but 1/2 mile of this scrambling has a great reward – a beautiful set of waterfalls in a rocky gorge. I was really wishing for a hot day when we got there, since the creek had several inviting swimming holes. I’ve made a promise to myself to return when I can enjoy them, and not when it is 40 degrees and rainy.
Back at camp we warmed up with a campfire and dinner, and stayed up enjoying the still rain-free weather. After a solid few hours of sleep I awoke to a light dripping that eventually turned into a steady rain. At 7 am I finally crawled out of my tent to grab my kitchen gear, then crawled back in for some coffee and breakfast in bed. I packed up everything except my tent, got bundled up in my hiking and rain gear, then emerged from my dry and comfy home, stashing the wet tent on the outside of my pack.
We hit the trail and started the climb out of Pine Valley in a steady but light rain. After the Church Creek trail junction the steeper part of the climb started, and so did the wind. The winds were howling and blowing along Pine Ridge and the higher we got the harder it blew. Several times I was nearly knocked off my feet, and I was watching my fellow hikers struggle against it and the driving rain as well.
Once we got up on top of the ridge the rain mixed with snow and sleet, and it would painfully blow in my face. Still, knowing that we were only a few miles from the warm and dry cars kept us hooting and whistling and generally enjoying ourselves. After all, it’s good to have practice in bad conditions from time to time so you can remind yourself how to deal with it.
Back at the cars we quickly put on dry clothes, cranked the heaters, and got the heck out of there as the rain/sleet mix turned to bigger snowflakes. I didn’t want to be on that road after snow accumulation. A great lunch at Phil’s Fish Market in Moss Landing finished off the fun and exciting weekend.
- No permits are required but you must have a campfire permit to operate a stove.
- There is no water available at the trail head or campground.
- The road into the trail head was clearly passable by passenger car since there were a few in there, but I’ll just say there’s no way I’d risk it. High clearance strongly recommended, but 4WD not necessary (though it did provide peace of mind and some help on the steep and muddy stretches). Conditions can and likely do change constantly so call the Forest Service for updated information.
- Poison oak is always a big concern in this kind of terrain, but we didn’t see ANY from the trail head to our campsite. We did start to see those Little Stalks of Evil on the scramble down the creek.
In and Out backpack on trail. Optional short off-trail hike to Pine Falls from Pine Valley.
12.6 miles round trip including side trip to falls.
+/- 3150 ft
Trailhead and Permit Notes:
There are no permits required for backpacking, but if you plan on using a stove or having a fire, you need a California National Forest campfire permit. Please observe fire regulations – this is a highly flammable area that has seen its share of preventable wildfires.
The road to the trailhead (Tassajara Road) is unpaved and long. Although the two times I have driven in here have been passable for passenger cars, I understand that the conditions can deteriorate particularly after a stormy winter and may take a while to repair. It would be in your best interest to research road conditions ahead of time.
If you want to get an early start, you can car camp the night before your hike at the China Camp campground near the trailhead. First-come, first-served sites are available for a small fee. Pine Valley is long and narrow, and there are a few camp areas scattered along the valley floor. This is a busy area, so I recommend going in the off season, on a week day, or arrive early to have your choice of spots. There are no campsites near the waterfall.