The Vicente Flat Trail
From Highway One to Vicente Flat
Length 10.8 mi · Climbing 2360 ft
The Vicente Flat Trail is a quintessential Big Sur hike with an amazing variety of scenery. The first half of the hike climbs an open hillside with spectacular ocean vistas. In spring and early summer, a spectacular multicolored display of flowers lines the trail: blue California Lilac (ceanothus), purple lupines, orange poppies, red Indian Paintbrush, 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 inland and enters an oak woodland with several very attractive redwood groves tucked into folds in the hillside, plus views of a 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.
This is not a trail for casual hiking. The trail, not maintained by any park authority, is narrow and overgrown with poison oak and heavily tick-infested brush, and should not be attempted without permethrin-treated long pants and long-sleeved shirt. The poison oak is actually not too bad compared with other Big Sur trails and is rarely above waist height, but you will still have to brush up against it. Most of the narrow trail is cut into a very steep hillside, and near the end there's an alarmingly sheer dropoff that will test the holding power of your boot tread. Again, though, compared with many other Big Sur trails the Vicente Flat Trail is fairly popular, usually in decent condition, and is clearly visible throughout.
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 plenty of parking along Highway One.
Seen from Highway One, the hills around the Vicente Flat Trail are surprisingly arid-looking. Julia Pfeiffer Burns park, just a few miles north, looks strikingly green in comparison. As you drive south from 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 passing a "Ventana Wilderness" sign about a mile in, 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. The small grove seems to be old-growth and has a few good-sized trees.
The trail resumes its climb. Reaching Hare Canyon, it turns right and enters a forest. The woods don't have brush and the trail is not quite as steep, but there's more poison oak here. There are few nice upland redwood groves, although the trees are all blackened from a forest fire. The dramatic vistas of redwoods against a backdrop of sheer granite mountains is remniscent of the giant sequoias in the Sierra Nevada.
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. The final descent has a few scary spots where the narrow trail is perched on the edge of a menacing drop-off.
Finally, the trail levels out at a large flat area 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 ground cover, which means relief from the threat of poison oak and ticks.
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 Vincente 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 is 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.
After passing through the campground, the canyon becomes very narrow and the trail starts to climb alongside a small creek. 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 and overgrown, it's a slow walk. The entire hike takes about six hours.
© 2007 David Baselt