The Kirk Creek Trail is a quintessential Big Sur hike with an amazing variety of scenery. The first half of the hike climbs high up on an open hillside with spectacular ocean vistas. In spring and early summer, a spectacular multicolored display of flowers lines the trail, including blue California Lilac (ceanothus), purple lupines, orange poppies, red Indian Paintbrush, white Morning Glory, and yellow French Broom. I’ve been to flower gardens that weren’t as impressive. In other seasons the colors are still striking, with the brilliant green of the coastal scrub set against the deep blue of the ocean.
The trail then turns into Hare Canyon, where it runs along a wooded hillside. Several very attractive redwood groves are tucked into folds in the hillside and are some of the southernmost groves in the world. There are some nice views of the rugged canyon far below. Finally, the trail descends to the old-growth redwoods of Vicente Flat. Other than Highway One and the Kirk Creek Campground, which are visible during the initial part of the hike, there are no signs of development along the trail.
The trail is a lot more difficult to hike than a typical state park trail, since it’s narrow, brushy, and clings precariously to a high, steep hillside. In places the trail is eroded or slumped for a few steps. You have to constantly pay close attention to the trail as you walk.
Long pants, preferably treated with permethrin, are essential. The first half of the trail is overgrown with brush that in winter and spring is heavily infested with ticks. After Espinosa Camp there are fewer ticks but a lot more poison oak; maybe not as much as some other Big Sur backcountry trails, and rarely above waist height, but even so, it’s hard to hike the entire trail without brushing up against it.
Given how difficult and remote it is, the trail is very popular; on a nice weekend you might pass about a group every 10–15 minutes, and there are often 20–40 tents set up at Vicente Camp.
The exposed hillside gets very hot, even on cool spring days.
To get to the trail, drive south along Highway One until you reach the Kirk Creek Campground, about two miles south of Limekiln State Park. The trailhead is well-marked and is directly across from the campground. There’s a pullout with space for 25 cars; it fills up on weekends.
Until about 2017 the trail was called the Vicente Flat Trail. The lower part, from Highway 1 to Vicente Flat, has been renamed the Kirk Creek Trail.
Seen from Highway One, the hills around the Kirk Creek Trail are surprisingly arid-looking. Julia Pfeiffer Burns park, just a few miles north, looks strikingly green in comparison. South of there, the trees and greenery disappear and you get the definite sense that you’re entering Southern California. On the trail, however, it’s much a different story.
The trail starts out wide and well-maintained, immediately beginning a gentle climb. After about a mile, however, the trail becomes narrower and partially overgrown with brush.
The trail climbs high above the coast, offering magnificent views north and south as it winds through the folds of the steep hills. The effect is a little like a glass elevator ride, with better and better views of the coast as you ascend. Soon the trail enters a redwood grove, providing a refreshing break from the chaparral. Besides being cool and shady and free of tick-infested brush, the trail briefly stops climbing as it passes through the grove. Although the trees are mostly very small, the grove seems to be old growth.
The trail resumes its climb. Reaching Hare Canyon, it turns right and enters a refreshingly cool, shady forest. There’s less brush here and the trail isn’t as steep, but there’s a lot more poison oak. The trail is cut into to the side of a high, steep hillside.
Espinosa Camp is unmarked but hard to miss. It has two flat campsites on a ridge just below the trail. The sites are wooded and you can kind of glimpse a bit of the ocean through the woods, but the sites aren’t anything special.
The trail winds through two more very scenic upland redwood groves. The groves have a completely different look than any redwood groves outside of Big Sur. The redwoods are heavily fire-blackened and relatively sparse, allowing dramatic views between the trees of the imposingly steep, granite-grey mountains on the other side of the canyon. The redwoods aren’t all that big but they have the tall, straight look that’s so characteristic of redwdoods, and the groves have with their own unique atmosphere, cool, quiet and shady and suffused with a blue-tinged light. The contrast with the hot, harshly-lit scrub is really striking.
The trail begins a gentle descent, exiting the woods several times and clinging to a steep hillside high above the canyon floor. From far below comes the sound of a rushing creek.
Finally, the trail levels out at a large flat populated with redwoods. After clinging to the side of a cliff, it’s nice to be on level ground again, in this sheltered refuge among the rugged mountains. The grove is strikingly quiet, although in places you’ll hear the pleasant cascading of a creek. There’s little groundcover, which means relief from the threat of poison oak and ticks.
The best part of the flat is at the beginning, where the flat is at its wides and the redwoods are the biggest. This is also the most popular area for setting up camp.
The trail becomes almost invisible as it enters the flat. Look for a fallen log across a dry creekbed. Cross the log and continue in the same general direction to arrive at a signed intersection with the Stone Creek Trail. (This trail is not part of the hike, but it climbs through a little meadow and contours through some woods before ending up, about a mile from Vicente Flat, on a hillside with some great views of Hare Canyon. From this point the trail is very lightly used and almost invisible. The entire trail is heavily overgrown with poison oak.)
Passing the intersection with the Stone Creek Trail, continue through Vicente Flat. The area appears to be old growth, with some good-sized trees and no stumps. It’s a nice grove, but it’s somewhat arid-looking and lacks the lushness of the Ewoldsen Trail or even Limekiln Park. Hare Creek is underground through much of Vicente Flat and, unlike in the surrounding canyons, there’s no redwood sorrel groundcover here. The trees tend to be twisted and misshapen, and don’t have the distinctive elegance and orderly look of an old-growth grove.
Past the campground, the trail has been washed out by the creek and disappears. You have to follow the rocky creekbed, climbing over jumbles of fallen redwoods. The canyon becomes narrower and the trail starts to climb. There are some good-sized and attractive redwoods in this area, both on the canyon floor and, somewhat surprisingly, on the north-facing hillside. I usually turn around at the point where the trail starts to get steep, but the trail continues to climb among scenic redwoods for an additional half-mile or so, and then continues up to Cone Peak Road, a total of 2.3 miles and 1600 feet of climbing from Vicente Flat. The upper section of Vicente Flat Trail is more heavily overgrown with poison oak than the lower section.
Even though it’s mostly downhill, the return hike takes about the same amount of time as the outbound leg. Because the trail is narrow, overgrown, and steep, it’s a slow walk. The entire hike takes about six hours.
© 2007, 2015, 2022 David Baselt