Situated along the South Fork Big Sur River, deep in the Ventana Wilderness, is the tranquil Rainbow Camp. This lush camp, located at the junction of the Big Sur and South Fork Trails, is a great base of operations to explore the seldom-visited South Fork.

Flowing gently, through some of the most rugged coastal terrain in the contiguous United States, the South Fork is an absolute gem tucked away in this semi-arid landscape. From Santa Lucia Firs and coast redwoods to scrub jays and tree squirrels, this canyon is rich in diversity and offers plenty of solitude.

For this trip, I started at the Boronda Trailhead and spent two nights at Rainbow Camp. This gave me a layover day to explore the South Fork and one of its beautiful tributaries, Pick Creek.

Narrows section of Pick Creek

From the trailhead, Rainbow Camp is roughly 10.5 miles with over 3500 feet of elevation gain. The trailhead is marked by a green gate along Highway 1, about half a mile south of COAST Big Sur Café. Parking is limited to 72 hours, so plan your trip accordingly.

The trailhead and parking area

Boronda Trailhead to Coast Ridge Road:

This section covers about 2500 feet in just three miles. An early start is recommended as much of the Boronda Trail is fairly steep and exposed. The trail begins climbing immediately and views of the shimmering Pacific Ocean open up quickly.

Early view as the trail switchbacks up

This section was one of my favorite parts of the trip. The turquoise-tinted waters crashing into the rugged coast, thundering up the walls. A scene that leaves you in awe. The only downfall with this stretch are the power lines that run overhead to the homes across the canyon. Nonetheless, the Boronda Trail makes for a great day hike or overnighter atop the ridge.

Steep, exposed trail

A little over halfway, a grove of beautiful redwoods appears to your left. There is a perennial spring flowing from a pipe down in there (I got water on the way out.) After the redwoods, large yucca appear alongside the trail. Growing alongside the redwoods, it was special witnessing this “Northern California meets Southern California” spectacle.

Yucca and coast redwoods

The views near the top of Boronda Ridge are nothing short of amazing. It looks as if you can leap directly into the swelling waters of the Pacific. In the summer months, the marine layer often blankets the surface of the ocean — an amazing site as well.

View near the top of Boronda Ridge

Nearing the top of the ridge, as the “trail” makes a 180, I cut up a very steep incline to meet up with Coast Ridge Road. If you continue along the fire road, you will reach Timber Top Camp. Timber Top is a dry camp, so bring plenty of water.

First view of Kandlbinder (left) and Ventana Double Cone (right) from Coast Ridge Road

Boronda Ridge to Cold Springs Camp:

As you reach Coast Ridge Road, head south (to the right) and stay on for about two miles. Views of Ventana Double Cone and the Big Sur River Gorge are absolutely amazing along this stretch. Alternating views of the Pacific and the Big Sur Backcountry make this road walk very enjoyable.

Jeff Norman memorial bench. Norman was a local author and historian who had a deep passion for Big Sur.
Make a left at this sign to get down to Cold Springs Camp

At this point, you are about halfway to Rainbow Camp. There is generally reliable water at Cold Springs — the faucet with the red handle next to the tank had good flow. As for camping, Cold Springs is not ideal. I recommend setting up atop Boronda Ridge or somewhere else along the coast ridge, if you’re splitting this trip up.

Cold Springs Camp and resident yerba santa

Cold Springs Camp to Rainbow Camp:

Beyond Cold Springs Camp, the Big Sur Trail begins and you enter the wilderness. This is evident by the overgrown single track. As you travel along Logwood Ridge, the South Fork is visible below and views of the Ventana Cones open up.

Sandstone outcrop along Logwood Ridge

At this point, you reach the top of “Devil’s Staircase.” A stretch of the Big Sur Trail that descends 1400 feet in just under 1.5 miles. Full-body protection is recommended as the scrub oak was quite horrendous. I didn’t have too hard of a time — up or down — but could see this stretch being pretty harsh in the summer months. A large portion traveled through a chaparral tunnel — which was very nice. At the bottom of Devil’s Staircase, the trail passes through a towering grove of redwoods that line Cisco Creek. This is a perennial stream, and is a very relaxing spot to rest the knees.

Nearing the redwood grove at the bottom of Devil’s Staircase

After Cisco Creek, the trail briefly switchbacks up a ridge and La Ventana, or “The Window,” comes into view. The deep notch, between Kandlbinder and Ventana Double Cone, is the namesake for the wilderness. It was special to catch a glimpse as it’s only visible from a few parts of the wilderness.

The Window seen from the Big Sur Trail

The trail then descends into Mocho Camp. A small camp along Mocho Creek — a perennial stream. Rainbow Camp is far better, in my opinion, and only about half a mile farther.

Main site at Mocho Camp

The final half mile consists of a few switchbacks and a quick decent in to Rainbow Camp. This is an awesome camp amid tall oaks, madrone and California bay. Despite its dilapidated state, the picnic table is actually quite legit. I absolutely loved this camp, and chances are you’ll have it to yourself due to its remoteness.

Main site at Rainbow Camp

From Rainbow, you can head up the South Fork Trail. Upon leaving camp, towering, healthy Santa Lucia Firs are visible throughout the canyon. These spire-like trees are one of the rarest species of conifer in the world and are endemic to the northern Santa Lucia Mountains.

Santa Lucia Firs and a view up the South Fork Canyon

Located at the confluence of Pick Creek, three miles upstream, is South Fork Camp. Another peaceful camp that sits in a grove of large oaks. There are a few creek crossings between Rainbow and South Fork Camps, so be prepared. Also, I lost the trail about halfway through and opted to walk in the river before finding the trail about 10 minutes later.

Main site at South Fork Camp

Pick Creek has some really nice pools but there is no trail. After about 30 minutes of creek walking, I came across a sketchy narrows section that I bypassed via a steep hillside on the north side of the creek. My goal was to make it to Pick Creek Falls, an 80-foot waterfall with a deep pool, but decided to turn around when I hit another deep pool. I probably could have passed it through some thick stuff on the south side but decided not to push it.

If you are sensitive to poison oak — like me! — be sure to come strapped with tecnu or alcohol wipes! Poison oak is abundant just about anywhere in the Ventana.

Thank you to the Ventana Wilderness Alliance for all of the work they do on these trails! Trail reports can be found on their website. Also, a big thanks to for their amazing trip-planning tool!