Mt. Carmel Trail puts a lot of Big Sur at your feet. Three points en route--Skinner Ridge, Devil's Peak and Mt. Carmel--offer inspiring panoramas of what some California naturalists call "the Middle Kingdom."
From 4,417-foot-high Mt. Carmel in the Ventana Wilderness, you can see Carmel, Salinas, Monterey Bay and the Santa Cruz Mountains. The view is worth the strenuous day hike.
For weekend backpackers, the route over Skinner's Ridge and down Big Pines Trail into the Little Sur River watershed is ideal. From the trail head at Bottchers Gap, it's 10 miles round trip to Comings Camp. One of my favorite overnight destinations, madrono-shaded Pat Springs Camp, is a 14 1/4-mile sojourn round trip.
In summer, hikers should check with rangers about the availability of water at the area's backcountry campsites. Bring plenty of drinking water, no matter.
At Bottchers Gap is a campground and a parking area for day hikers. The trail head, at 2,080 feet, gives hikers a nice head start for the climb to come.
Directions to trail head: From Carmel, drive 12 miles south on California 1 to the junction with Palo Colorado Road (this junction is one-quarter mile south of the turnoff to Rocky Point Restaurant). Turn inland, climbing 7 3/4 miles to the road's end at Bottchers Gap Campground. Skinner Ridge Trail begins at the northeast (upper left) end of the camp's parking area.
The hike: The path ascends north, quickly leaving behind the oak-shaded campground and heading into the chaparral. After brief exertion, hikers get the first of many views. To the northwest is the ocean; behind you, to the south, is the beautiful Pico Blanco peak.
The hike's second mile is viewless; the path zigzags, drops into gullies and can seem disorienting at times. After crossing a field of bracken ferns, the trail makes a final short, but steep, climb to Skinner's Ridge. Some of Big Sur's ecological complexity is apparent from the ridge: golden grasslands dotted with oaks, the light greens and grays of the chaparral on south-facing slopes and the dark greens of the hardwood forests on north-facing slopes.
A northward walk along the oak- and madrono-shaded ridge (these are some of the largest madrono growing on the central coast) brings you to a saddle and a junction with Turner Creek Trail. This side trail leads to Apple Creek Trail Camp ( 1/2 mile) and to Turner Creek Trail Camp (1 mile). Both are pleasant overnight stops or picnic spots.
Continue on the main route--now known and sometimes signed as Big Pines Trail--for a steep, shadeless and strenuous mile through manzanita to Devil's Peak viewpoint. The view includes the Pacific to the west, Pico Blanco to the south and lonely Ventana Double Cone to the southeast.
Continue another 1/10 mile east to a junction with the left-bearing Mt. Carmel Trail.
March along a scrub oak-covered ridgeline three quarters of a mile to Mt. Carmel's brushy, flat-topped summit. You wouldn't get much of a view from the top if it were not for the fortunate presence of a granite outcropping. Scramble up the chunk of granite, or the section of telephone pole some considerate soul installed atop the peak, and marvel at the vista. Due north is Monterey and to the northwest is Pebble Beach and Carmel. On fogless days you can see Santa Cruz, about 40 miles away, at the north end of Monterey Bay. About 20 miles to the northeast is Salinas, to the west is the deep blue Pacific, and to the south are miles and miles of Big Sur backcountry.
Skinner Ridge, Big Pines, Mt. Carmel Trails
Where: Ventana Wilderness, Big Sur
Distance: Bottchers Gap to Skinner Ridge vista is 4 miles round trip with 1,200-foot elevation gain; to Mt. Carmel is 9 mile round trip with 2,300-foot elevation gain.
Terrain: Mosaic of chapparal, oak-madrono woodland.
Highlights: 360-degree vistas on Monterey Bay and Big Sur; good weekend backpacking trip.
Degree of difficulty: Moderate to strenuous.
Precautions: Carry plenty of water; no reliable creeks or springs during summer months; ticks present in some brushy areas near trail.
For more information: Monterey Ranger District, Los Padres National Forest, 406 S. Mildred, King City, Calif., 93930; tel. (408) 385-5434.