Cone Peak Hiking Guide: From Sea to Sky Near Big Sur

Important: Highway 1 is currently closed in this area due to a landslide. Check for updates before planning this hike.

Cone Peak is so impressive that even after three visits to its summit, the views still leave me gawking. At 5154 feet, it’s the second-highest peak in the Santa Lucia range and just over three miles (as the crow flies) from the Pacific Ocean. Think about that for a second – where have you ever seen such a tall mountain that close to a beach?

Probably never, unless you’ve hiked in Alaska, as Cone Peak is the highest coastal mountain in the contiguous US. The hike to its summit is the most dramatic by far in the Big Sur area. Hiking up the final switchbacks, the expansive views over the Ventana Wilderness and the dramatic Pacific coastline are literally dizzying.

There are several ways to hike Cone Peak, and the descriptions can be a little confusing. In this Cone Peak hike guide I’ll explain all the options and give you some critical tips for backpacking this beast of a mountain.

Getting To Cone Peak Trailhead

There are three trailheads most commonly used to hike Cone Peak.

  • The two backpacking routes in this post start at Kirk Creek Campground on Highway 1, about 60 miles south of Monterey, California.
  • The off-trail Stone Ridge day hike route starts on Highway 1 about 56 miles south of Monterey, and half a mile north of Limekiln Beach.
  • The short day hike starts from Cone Peak Road / Coast Ridge Road, a steep and rolling dirt road accessible from Nacimiento-Fergusson Road during June – September. Access Nacimiento-Fergusson Road either from Highway 1, or Jolon Road / Fort Hunter Liggett from Highway 101. After turning off Nacimiento-Fergusson Road, drive 5.4 miles to the trailhead.

Note that there are two ways to reach the highway 1 trailheads. You can either drive down scenic Highway 1 along the coast, or you can cross the hills from inland highway 101 by taking Jolon Road through Fort Hunter Liggett. From there you’ll connect to the paved but curvy Nacimiento-Fergusson Road and follow it down to where it meets Highway 1, less than a mile from Kirk Creek Campground.

Whichever trailhead you choose, you’ll be on Highway 1, smack in the middle of one of the most scenic drives in the United States! If you have the time, I highly recommend combining your Cone Peak hike with a few other iconic Big Sur road trip stops in the area.

Camping Near Cone Peak Trailhead

There are two campgrounds on Highway 1 that would make stunning places to spend a night before or after this hike.

Kirk Creek Campground is just across the street from the Vicente Flat / Kirk Creek trailhead. Most sites must be reserved online and cost $35 per night.

Limekiln Campground is two miles north of Kirk Creek, and half a mile south of the start of the Stone Ridge off-trail hike route.

Both of these campgrounds are beautiful and popular, meaning reservations can be hard to get, especially on weekends. You’ll need to plan ahead if you want to snag a spot.

Cone Peak Loop (Vicente Flat, Cone Peak, Stone Ridge, and Gamboa Trails)

Full track available at Gaia GPS

Distance: 25 miles

Typical Days: 2-3

This is the most popular Cone Peak backpacking route because of its varied terrain and ecosystems. The lollipop loop starts at Kirk Creek Campground on Highway 1 (roadside parking available) and heads up Vicente Flat / Kirk Creek Trail. Past Vincente Flat, the route continues for a couple miles on the dirt Cone Peak Road, followed by a left onto scenic Cone Peak Trail up to the summit.

We’re headed up THERE?

At the summit, spend some time enjoying the expansive views and exploring the old fire lookout tower. Those looking for a taste of off-trail scrambling, more akin to the direct Stone Ridge route described below, can follow the ridgeline west from Cone Peak summit to Twin Peak and back for some extra adventure.

Enjoying the view from the fire lookout tower

From there, descend around the back of Cone Peak to Trail Spring, turn left onto Gamboa Trail, then left onto Stone Ridge Trail. Where Stone Ridge Trail joins Vicente Flat Trail, turn right and retrace your steps down to the highway.

As with many Ventana Wilderness trails, Stone Ridge and Gamboa can both become challenging when blocked by overgrown brush and downed tree trunks. Always check the latest trail conditions before planning your trip, and allow some extra time for negotiating obstacles.

The loop portion of this route can be hiked either direction, depending on preference and desired daily distances. The west side has some steeper sections but is less direct, and the east side is the shortest route to the summit. If going counterclockwise, be sure to take plenty of time on the way up to stop and soak up the views behind and below you.

Coming down (or up) the west side of the loop, you may be tempted by the apparent shortcut “trail” shown on the map as Stone Ridge Spine Path. This is actually an unmaintained, incredibly steep off-trail route that wouldn’t be very fun with a backpack. See below for more detail on this epic scramble, usually done as a day hike.

Camping Options:

  • Espinosa: 3 miles from trailhead, 2 spots, creek nearby but unreliable in the summer
  • Vicente Flat: about 5 miles from trailhead, 10 spots, reliable stream nearby
  • Cone Peak Road pullouts: between roughly miles 7-9 there are some flat pullouts along the dirt road with nice views. No water. Note that this road is open to vehicle traffic June – September and these spots are popular.
  • Trail Spring: 2 miles past the summit coming up Cone Peak Trail. Despite the name, this site has “intermittent to scarce water” according to bigsurtrailmap.net.
  • Goat Camp: 11 miles from trailhead, reliable stream nearby

For those who want to hike this route in 3 days, one nice option is to leave your overnight gear at Vicente Flat, spend both nights there, and do your Cone Peak summit as a day hike.

More Resources

Cone Peak Out and Back (Vicente Flat and Cone Peak Trails)

Full track available at Gaia GPS

Distance: 22 miles

Typical Days: 2-3

If you’re looking for something a bit more straightforward or a tad shorter, you can do the Vicente Flat / Kirk Creek Trail and Cone Peak Trail route (half of the lollipop loop above) as an out-and back. You’ll get to enjoy the spectacular views of Cone Peak Trail twice!

At the summit, spend some time enjoying the expansive views and exploring the old fire lookout tower before either heading to Trail Spring to camp, or retracing your steps back down.

The old fire tower at the summit makes a great place to rest and enjoy the views.

Those looking for a taste of off-trail scrambling, more akin to the direct Stone Ridge route described below, can follow the ridgeline west from Cone Peak summit to Twin Peak and back for some extra adventure.

This route is typically done over 2-3 days, thought it would make a killer epic day hike for someone in tip-top shape.

Camping Options:

  • Espinosa: about 3 miles from trailhead, 2 spots, creek nearby but unreliable in the summer
  • Vicente Flat: about 5 miles from trailhead, 10 spots, reliable stream nearby
  • Cone Peak Road pullouts: between roughly miles 7-9 there are some flat pullouts along the dirt road with nice views. No water. Note that this road is open to vehicle traffic June – September and these spots are popular.
  • Trail Spring: 2 miles past the summit, not on the route. Despite the name, this site has “intermittent to scarce water” according to bigsurtrailmap.net.

For those who want to hike this route in 3 days, once nice option is to leave your overnight gear at Vicente Flat, spend both nights there, and do your Cone Peak summit as a day hike.

More Resources

Stone Ridge Direct Route (off trail)

Full track available at Gaia GPS

Distance: 10.5 miles

Elevation Gain: 5,862 feet

Typical Days: 1

Looking toward Twin Peak from Cone Peak. The scramble between them is part of the Stone Ridge route.

Don’t be fooled by the apparent straightforwardness of this route. It is STEEP, with a sustained slope of over 20% and sections of 30% and even 40%. It’s an unmaintained, off-trail route straight up a slippery, grassy ridge with unsteady footing.

View from Twin Peak

This Cone Peak hiking route is often done as a day hike, because no one wants to carry a backpack up this monster climb. Also, if you’re fit enough to claw your way up this route, you’re fit enough to do the whole thing in a day.

That said, those who fancy packing light may consider scrambling up this way, camping at Trail Spring, then descending via the Cone Peak Trail / Cone Peak Road / Vicente Flat Trail route described above.

If descending this route, trekking poles may be a good idea, as some sections can be very slippery.

More Resources

Cone Peak Short Day Hike

Full track available at Gaia GPS

Distance: 4.5 miles

This is the shortest possible way to hike to the summit of Cone Peak, though it still packs a punch with over 1000 feet of elevation gain in about 2 miles. It takes in the most stunning and scenic part of the hike, the final two miles along Cone Peak Trail to the summit.

To reach this trailhead you’ll need to drive the dirt Cone Peak / Coast Ridge Road, which is usually only open from June – October. Note that sometimes this road closes at other times due to storm damage, so check current conditions before going.

About 1.5 miles of the backpacking route are on this part of Cone Peak Road, or you can drive this section to access the closest trailhead.

Though this is a short route and usually done as a day hike, there’s no reason you couldn’t haul gear up there and camp at Trail Springs, adding an extra 4 miles for a 9-10 mile backpacking trip.

Another nice option might be to complete this day hike, then camp with your vehicle at one of the scenic pullouts along Cone Peak Road.

Tips and Warnings

Permits and Reservations

No permits or reservations are currently required for hiking or camping along this route (not including the coastal campgrounds at the highway).

Trail Conditions

The Ventana Wilderness is quite rugged compared to many other hiking areas. While the trails described here are usually passable, many other trails in the park can be overgrown (with poison oak!), blocked by downed trees, or otherwise nearly impassable. Always check trail conditions while planning your trip.

Drinking Water

Water in Ventana Wilderness is not always easy to find, especially in the summer, so take care to bring plenty with you. It’s always smart to filter your water in the backcountry, including here.

Reliable year-round water is found only at Vicente Flat and Goat Camps. Espinosa Camp has a stream that is not necessarily reliable in the summer. Trail Spring Camp, despite the misleading name, has unreliable water and shouldn’t be counted on.

This water information is from bigsurtrailmap.net, so check there for the latest.

Best Time to Hike Cone Peak

The best time to hike Cone Peak is spring or early summer. Late summer and fall can be extremely hot and dry, while the rainy season (November to May) can be, well, rainy. Please avoid hiking directly after rain as it leads to erosion of the delicate trails.

Camping

Camping is only allowed at designated backcountry campsites, which I’ve listed above for each route. I’ve heard that people often camp on the summit of Cone Peak, which I’m sure would be an epic place to spend a night. However, as this isn’t a designated campsite, it seems to be technically illegal and violates Leave No Trace ethics.

Hazardous Critters and Plants

Hazards to watch out for include:

  • Ticks: throw one of these in your med kit and check yourself regularly
  • Poison oak: bring some of these wipes, you’ll thank me later
  • Rattlesnakes: keep an eye on the ground and watch where you put your feet and hands, especially when scrambling off trail.

I usually prefer to hike in shorts, but the Ventana Wilderness is one place I always wear pants no matter how warm the weather. Trails can be overgrown, so protection from ticks and poison oak is extra important. Finding comfortable hiking pants can be tricky, so see this overview of the best women’s hiking pants for ideas if you don’t yet have a favorite pair.

Next-Level Cone Peak Hikes

If you’ve tried the routes in this post and are looking for yet more ways to summit Cone Peak, consider either the inland hike via Carrizo Trail or this longer backpacking route along North Coast Ridge.

More Backpacking Resources

If you’re into hiking and backpacking, you might also find these helpful:

About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa. I’ve had the pleasure of hiking the Colorado Trail, John Muir Trail, Tahoe Rim Trail, and countless shorter amazing trails throughout the western US. I love solitude, big views, and a good lightweight gear setup. Learn more or say hi.

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Picture of mountains and ocean with text: Cone Peak Hiking Guide, Big Sur California
Picture of mountains and ocean with text: Cone Peak Hiking Guide, Big Sur California

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