Big Sur – Carmel River Trail Redux -or- Mark Prefers Bluff Camp


March 14-15, 2015

An overnight along the Carmel River Trail in Big Sur with Mark.

our trail
Since I failed to make it to Carmel River Camp last month, I decided to go back to the Carmel River Trail in Big Sur for a second shot.  This time I took my buddy Mark with me for his first taste of the rugged Big Sur backcountry.

Total distance: 7.28 mi
Max elevation: 1375 ft
Min elevation: 919 ft
Total climbing: 1818 ft

the way in – Day 1
Just like last month, we took the Carmel River Trail from the Los Padres Dam parking area. From there, we cruised around the dam and down to the stream crossing where we stopped for lunch. The temperature was pushing 80 and the wildflowers were out in full force, so the hike was thoroughly enjoyable, even with the prolific poison oak encroaching on both sides of the trail nearly the whole length. After lunch, I took the lead ahead of Mark, and when I got to the Carmel River crossing, I hung out to let him catch up. While I was changing into my sandals to make the crossing, another backpacker who was taking a rest at Bluff Camp West came over to say hi.  He and his buddy were debating staying there versus moving on to Carmel River Camp and he asked if I knew of other sites in the area. I gave him a few ideas, including staying right where they were. They were worried about the chance that there wouldn’t be any open sites and his friend was concerned about getting dehydrated (mysteriously, since we were on the bank of a river). Soon after he left, I walked back to them with map in hand, in case they didn’t have one and wanted to scope out some of the other backpackers’ camps in the area. When I approached, I noticed both were sporting pistols in holster belts. I’m not sure what they expected to need to shoot. With the copious amounts of other gear they had with them, perhaps they just wanted to cover all possible bases. Or shoot things. This, along with their southern accents and super macho affect, earned them the nickname “the Gun Brothers” in my head.

Mark caught up not long after and I tossed him my sandals from across the river so he didn’t have to get his shoes and socks wet. We passed Bluff Camp East, where Tikka and I stayed last month, and started up the switchbacks that climbed the hill away from the river. Again, I put a little space between myself and Mark…something I realized only too late that I shouldn’t have done. He had a lot of backpacking experience when we was younger, but hasn’t been out on the trail in a long time. It’s only about a half mile from Bluff to Carmel River Camp, and I was soon approaching the hop over Miller Canyon creek to make my way into the camp. No one else was there (worried for nothing, Gun Brothers!). I set my pack down in one of the sites and headed back to the creek crossing to sit and wait for Mark. After what seemed like too long, there was still no sight of him.  I walked back up the trail a little way expecting to see him rounding the corner. Not seeing him, I went back and sat on the rocks in the middle of the creek and decided to wait a little longer. After several minutes, I was still alone. So, I headed back down the trail further this time, calling out his name every so often. Still nothing. At that point, I decided to head back, pick up my gear and continue looking for him.

After I’d grabbed my pack and crossed back over the creek, I ran into the Gun Brothers. They said they had seen him sitting back at Bluff Camp. I was relieved that he hadn’t fallen down the cliff somewhere (a thought I kept pushing out of my mind), but I was confused about why he’d backtracked. I quickly hiked back to Bluff and sure enough, there he was, sitting in his camp chair in the same site Tikka and I had stayed last month.

He said he was perfectly alright (phew!), but had just had enough and needed to rest. I realized my own error in not checking in with him and hiking too far ahead. When he decided to turn back, he did try to call my name, but I’d already gotten too far ahead to hear him. Lesson learned: Next time, make sure everyone in the group is good to go, especially if you’re going to take off ahead! Sorry for leaving you high and dry, Mark!

the campsite
After checking in with Mark, I quickly set to work making camp.  In the end, it was better we ended up at Bluff. The campsite is nicer. While there’s still a ton of poison oak around, there is a much larger open space free of the stuff as well as easier access to the river.

the way out 
The next morning as we were finishing up breakfast, the Gun Brothers strolled through. They stopped to say hi and check in that we were ok. Elder Gun Brother was still spouting his deep concerns about dehydration and heat stroke and he was determined to make it back to his truck before the day got too hot. We chuckled privately after they left, but they were both very nice guys…and without them I wouldn’t have found out that Mark had stayed behind! After that, we packed up our gear and headed back toward the dam, making it to the car by 11:30.

the details
No permits other than the standard California campfire permit are required for backcountry camping in Big Sur.
Dog friendly!
Ventana Wilderness Alliance is a great resource for trip planning.




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