Big Sur- Vicente Flats via Kirk Creek Trail
Preparation for hiking in Big Sur is drastically different than prepping for a Sierras trip. You aren't required to get a backcountry permit. In fact, the only interaction you need to have with the forest service is acquiring a fire permit to use a camp stove.
Planning to backpack in Big Sur? I recommend checking out the National Geographic Ventana Wilderness Map for trip planning. HikeLosPadres.com also provides trip reports, and maps. The Ventana Wilderness Alliance is another resource for trip reports and trail status updates (including closures due to mudslides or forest fires) + a great place to go if you're interested in getting involved in trail maintenance.
The trailhead for this trail is right across Hwy-1 from the Kirk Creek Campground in Big Sur, a few miles south of Limekiln State Park.
We parked in a pull out a few hundred yards north of the trailhead on Hwy 1, as the trailhead parking was already full.
We brought our dog, Oatie along for this trip. The Ventana Wilderness (and most Forest Service wilderness areas) is dog friendly. Please practice Leave no Trace principles when hiking with your dog, and bury your dog's poop just as you would bury your own!
From the trailhead you consistently gain elevation on an exposed slope for the first 3.5 miles until you reach the Espinosa Camp. This first section of the hike is the most strenuous. It is exposed in the sun, and I recommend getting as early a start as possible to try to get this section done before the afternoon heat comes, although these slopes were warm even when we descended the next morning.
If exposed hiking through chaparral, poison oak, or ticks are dealbreakers for you... you will not enjoy this hike.
However, difficult the climb, it is beautiful. The entire stretch until the trail veers inland gave sweeping views of the Pacific for which Big Sur is known.
Without tree cover, you also will have plenty of opportunities to see how far you've come. We could also frequently see groups ahead of us, high above us. It was a little discouraging to be able to see so well how much further we had to climb.
All that climbing in the sun got me frustrated. So we found some rocks in a rare patch of shade and enjoyed an ice cold beer Eric packed up wrapped in his jacket to keep cool. Somehow, that rvitalized me and the rest of the hike was a lot easier
Espinosa Camp comes shortly after the trail veers inland. After Espinosa Camp the trail becomes significantly less strenuous, although is is still regularly exposed and steep. The nature of the wildflowers also changed as we veered inland into more shaded and wooded areas. We saw less Indian Paintbrush, and more Lupine and Iris. This was an EXCELLENT time of year for this hike, because.... wildflowers.
Shortly after Espinosa Camp there was a small creek crossing we could have used as a water source, but we had plenty of water since we weren't sure there would be water until Vicente Flats. It's only 1.6 miles to Vicente Flats from Espinosa Camp, and those miles flew by.
Vicente Flats was crowded. There were at least 10, maybe 15 other groups camped in this area. There is plenty of space for everyone, but this isn't a trip to do in the spring if you're looking for solitude.
There was plenty of water in the creek, and it was cold and tasted fresh. We still really like the Katadyn Be Free filters. I left mine in the car on accident, but just using Eric's we filtered 6 liters of water in about 5 mins.
We left camp between 7 and 7:30 the next morning, eager to beat the heat we experienced the day before, and also to get home and do some light housekeeping before we ran out of weekend.
This was, hands down, one of my favorite days of hiking I've ever experienced in my life. Downhill was nice, though it's hard on my feet and joints. The real highlight was watching the sun rise over crests and ridges, watching shadows appear, and wondering at the stunning views all the way down.
The hike back kind of saved the hike for me. The way up was miserably steep and hot. Vicente Flats was a nice campground with a cold stream, but didn't really seem "worth" the effort to me, beyond just being able to get out and go backpacking. But the hike down, in the dawn hours... That is a hike I will remember for a long, long time.
We were able to reach the car by 9:26, beating my predicated arrival time by just 4 mins.
Of note: We pulled 2 ticks off Oatie (who is regularly treated with flea and tick medication) and Eric brushed no less than ten ticks off his legs over the course of our hike down. I only brushed off two, but I was wearing insect shield treated leggings. BEWARE of ticks on this trail, and others in the Ventana Wilderness.
We also gave Oatie and ourselves a Tecnu rub down in camp, and once we got back to the car. While this trail isn't the worst I've seen in terms of poison oak, it was unavoidable to come into contact with it. Poison Oak is especially effective in spring, when the plant starts bulk producing the oil that causes a reaction after dormacy in winter. Poison Oak can ALWAYS cause a rash, and in most people, even the dead branches aren't safe to touch since they still carry the oil, but Poison Oak in the spring is actively oiling up & can be vicious. Tecnu is a kind of soap that washes away the oils from Poison Oak and Poison Ivy. It is HIGHLY recommended to carry Tecnu when hiking in the coastal mountains of California.