Pico Blanco. It’s a mountain. It’s a backcountry camp in Big Sur. And it’s a Boy Scout retreat in the Ventana Wilderness. We visited all three in two days and twenty miles.
Basics: The hike from Bottchers Gap to Pico Blanco Public Camp is 7 miles. The camp is located next to the South Fork Little Sur River and has an amazing swimming hole. On this trip we also summited the nearby Pico Blanco (3709′). All totaled, we hiked 20 miles with around 6000-ft of elevation gain in two days.
Directions to Trailhead: The turnoff for the road to Bottchers Gap is on Highway 1, approximately 12 miles south of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Drive south on Highway 1, then turn left on Palo Colorado Road. Follow the road to its end (7.5 miles). Google Map link to trailhead.
A Little History… Pico Blanco (the mountain) has a fascinating story. For the Esselen people, it was a sacred place. All of life originated from this peak during a great flood.
In more modern times (early 1900’s), a prospector named Al Clark claimed to have discovered immense underground caverns full of ancient pictographs somewhere within the mountain. Before his death, he destroyed the entrance to the caves with dynamite. It has been reported that he was actually a Columbia University graduate, not the illiterate prospector he portrayed himself to be.
In the 1960’s, Granite Rock Company purchased Pico Blanco. They planned to mine the massive limestone deposits at the top of the mountain. Fortunately, after extensive legal battles that went all the way to the US Supreme Court, these plans were put on hold. Today, Granite still owns the top of the peak, but aside from a dirt road, the area remains more or less untouched by human activity.
Red Tape: Reservations are not accepted at Bottchers Gap Campground or at Pico Blanco Camp. Parking at Bottchers Gap will cost you $5. Campfire Permits are required and can be picked up from the camp manager at the trailhead. Campfires are not allowed in the summer, but the permit is still required if you plan to use a stove.
It is possible to make reservations for parking at the Pico Blanco Boy Scout Camp. I would recommend this; the long dusty road between Bottchers Gap and the Boy Scout Camp is worth bypassing. Email Camp Pico Blanco for permission and give them a few days to process your request.
The peak itself is technically private property, but there are no signs or fences indicating that trespassing is forbidden.
Trail Description: I wanted to get outside for the holiday weekend, but everyone goes to Tahoe for Fourth of July. I wasn’t too keen on dealing with all the traffic. On top of that, the forecast for the Sierra showed massive thunderstorms. Not ideal. Instead, we decided to head in the other direction: towards Big Sur.
We left early Friday morning and drove to the Bottchers Gap Campground and trailhead in the Ventana Wilderness. We paid the parking fee and got our “Campfire” Permit from the camp manager.
The hike begins with a 1200-ft descent along a wide dirt road. Several cars passed along the way, leaving behind big clouds of fine dust for us to inhale.
After 3 or 4 miles, we reached the Pico Blanco Boy Scout Camp at the Little Sur River. There were no scouts present, but we could hear the distant hum of generators. The climbing tower that burned in the 2008 Basin Complex fire was being rebuilt this weekend.
The trail narrows as it leaves the scout camp. According to signs, it’s another 3.5 miles to Pico Blanco Public Camp. The trail steeply climbs 1200-ft in 1.5 miles. It definitely feels much further than 1.5 miles. (I suspect the mileages on the old USFS signs are totally wrong.)
It was hot, humid, and buggy – gnats and mosquitoes were buzzing around our faces. The trail was overgrown with sharp/sticky vines and poison oak. I was kind of miserable so I sped up. Rob was not having fun either so he slowed down. I was starting to wonder if I even like hiking when FINALLY we reached the top of the ridge. A sign marked the junction with the Launtz Creek Camp trail. We took the right fork towards Pico Blanco Camp.
Our trail skirted the eastern flank of Pico Blanco. The summit didn’t look that far away, but we weren’t up for it today.
When we reached Pico Blanco Camp, we collapsed in first site we saw. I pitched the tent. Rob just sat there. He was that tired.
Once camp was set up, we headed towards the nearby sound of rushing water. Pico Blanco has one of the best swimming holes in all of the Ventana Wilderness. We both jumped in. It was cold and refreshing and pretty much the best thing ever.
We spent the rest of the day lounging around camp. Went to bed early after a delicious dinner of beef pho.
The following day, we were ready to hike to the top of Pico Blanco. After examining the map, we chose to follow a trail on the southern side of the mountain. This trail should have led us to a dirt access road which then should have taken us to the top. In reality, this trail doesn’t actually hit the road. Nor does the road reach the top of the mountain. (The maps for this area are a bit limited.)
We followed the overgrown trail for 45 minutes. Eventually, we saw the road above us and bushwhacked up the slope to reach it. It felt like I had a thousand micro-cuts on my legs from all the star thistle. I hate star thistle. It’s not even a native plant. Rob was worse off – he drew blood when he slammed his shin into a yucca.
Fortunately, once we reached the road, the walking became easy and the views were stunning.
We followed the dirt road to its end – about 400 hundred feet below the summit. We scrambled to the top and were greeted with amazing views over to the Pacific with the fog just hugging the coast.
Without much of a breeze, it was too warm to eat lunch at the summit. We headed down to a shadier spot to rest and eat. After lunch, it was a long descent back to Pico Blanco Boy Scout Camp. We followed a series of dirt roads that returned us to the trail we had come in on the day before.
It was hot and our downhill hike was surprisingly difficult. Rob ran out of water and I was close to empty as well. We convinced ourselves that we would be able to hitchhike from the Boy Scout camp up to Bottchers Gap. As soon as we reached the camp, we met a friendly camp employee named Michael. He greeted us with two pitchers of ice water as we walked past the Hayward Lodge! After telling him about our hike, he also gave us some watermelon slices and cookies!!! We topped off our bottles with extra water, then hit the trail with newfound energy.
We would have failed at hitchhiking to Bottcher’s Gap had we attempted it. No cars passed us on the way out. We reached the trailhead by about 4:30 pm. Parked next to us was a couple getting ready for the long hike to Pico Blanco. They gave us a container of strawberries that they didn’t want to take with them. Their packs looked incredibly heavy and they asked us if we thought they’d make it before dark. I hope they did. We certainly enjoyed the strawberries before embarking on the drive home.