Carmel River


I joined Gary Gellin and Jim Moyles for a point-to-point adventure run along the wild Carmel River in the Ventana Wilderness (3 hours south of the Bay Area). The route starts at China Camp along Tassajara Road (rough dirt road) and finishes below Los Padres Reservoir. The first 3.5 miles is along the Pine Ridge Trail with great views into the Tassajara Creek drainage and the rugged Santa Lucia Mountains, including Junipero Serra Peak (the highest point in the range at 5,862 ft) and Ventana Double Cone. Evidence of the huge fires two seasons ago was evident, but the vegetation is coming back and I even spotted small pine saplings.

At Church Divide, we turned onto the Carmel River trail and soon after descending from the pass we found the headwaters of the Carmel River. A trickle quickly grew into a stream and by the time we reached lovely Pine Valley, the stream was flowing nicely. The fall colors in this section were gorgeous with maples and sycamores displaying bright orange and yellow leaves. This area is also heavily populated with madrones, which are adorned with so much red fruit that the trees appear red from a distance. At Pine Valley, we stopped for tea at Jack English’s cabin. Jack English is 90 years old and has lived in relative isolation in Pine Valley for over 35 years. Supplies and food are brought to him via horseback. It was great to meet Jack and hear about his experiences and history of the region.

Jack English’s Cabin in Pine Valley
After Pine Valley, we temporarily left the Carmel River and climbed up to another pass to enter Hiding Canyon. Hiding Canyon was very brushy with numerous blowdowns and other impediments obscuring the trail for a couple miles. A small climb out of hiding canyon signaled the end of the brush and we were treated to great views of the upper Carmel River canyon. Next, we descended down the Carmel River and began over two dozen river crossings. These crossings are necessary because travel on either side becomes blocked by rock walls that descend all the way into the river. The trail connecting the river crossings is nothing more than a use  path and was often nonexistent due to brush and dirt slides, but the objective is simple, follow the river downstream.

The Carmel River canyon was spared fire damage and is lush with ferns, numerous species of hardwood, and even some fir. The setting of crystal clear water, smooth river rocks, and lush forest was amazing to experience from outside and within the Carmel River! The total distance of this section is around six miles. For the last three miles, the trail climbs up and above the river and then Los Padres Dam. At the dam, 0.8 miles remains to the parking area.

One might expect that this route is largely downhill since it starts at over 4,000 ft and ends at under 1,000 ft. The reality is that there are numerous small climbs on this route with total elevation gain likely well over 2,000 ft. Combine this with the brush and off-trail travel and it becomes a real adventure. However, the reward for this physically challenging route more than compensates. This was my first exploration into the Ventana Wilderness and I look forward to more adventures in this vast area in the future.

Gorgeous Carmel River
Fall foliage and Carmel River

6 Responses to “Carmel River”

  1. Buzz Says:

    From the High Sierra to the Coastal Range, you continue to tic off a shopping list of routes!

    “This was my first exploration into the Ventana Wilderness and I look forward to more adventures in this vast area in the future.”


  2. pantilat Says:

    Jim Moyles is a Ventana guru and gave me plenty of ideas. The 11 mile long Arroyo Seco Gorge sounds particularly cool with swimming and scrambling. That one is for the summer, but Sykes trail run hopefully soon!

  3. Andy Benkert Says:

    Wow, I met Jack a couple years ago while hiking in Pine Valley. He was getting water from a spring, and we ended up chatting a bit before he invited me to his cabin for tea as well. What a nice guy, and quite the lifestyle he lives. I believe he made violin or cello bows there for a long time. I’m glad to hear he is still there and doing well.

    I have also thought about some runs in that area, and the route you took sounds like a fabulous one. The Arroyo Seco area is gorgeous. I hiked in there many years ago, and ended up swimming and hiking back down stream for most of the distance back to the parking area – a welcome relief from the heat of summer. There are some cool waterfalls on the opposite side of the river from the trail.

    Thanks for the trip report, Leor. Makes me think a lot more about getting back down there soon and doing some runs.

    Happy Thanksgiving. 🙂

  4. Andy Benkert Says:

    You have to read this blog post about Jack that I just came across. Absolutely amazing:

  5. pantilat Says:

    Thanks Andy! Jack was back in his shed working on a bow when we arrived. He is a living legend!

    Since the Ventana was closed last year due to the fires, it has been nice to finally explore the region.

  6. Interval training Says:

    great adventure!

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