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Ventana ... wilderness south of Salinas.

Ventana . . . wilderness south of Salinas

The 164,000-acre Ventana Wilderness straddles the Santa Lucia Mountains in Monterey County. Most hikers and campers enter it from the north and the west and keep to the Carmel, Big Sur, and Little Sur river watersheds. The wilderness's eastern side, in the Arroyo Seco watershed, is less well known. But in its own rugged way, it is equally beautiful-- especially in spring.

This side of the wilderness sits above the Salinas Valley. To reach it, you branch off from U.S. 101. If you're coming from the north, turn off in Soledad on Arroyo Seco Road and head southwest. Nearly everything you see on this drive appeals: vineyards and ranches, the rising wall of the Santa Lucias, the turnings of the Arroyo Seco in its deepening canyon.

In about 16 miles, you come to a junction with Carmel Valley Road. Stay on Arroyo Seco and drive on to the Arroyo Seco Ranger Station, picnic area, and campground. The picnic area is open for day use only. The campground has 51 sites; fee is $5 per site. Both are pretty spots, heavily used on weekends.

A 2-mile hike up Rocky Creek-- and a spectacular drive

One easy hike begins across the road from the ranger station. Rocky Creek Trail runs 2 miles up a side creek to Rocky Creek Campground. Begin by edging along a chain-link fence, then climb on a bluff behind Arroyo Seco picnic area. Continue west, keeping parallel to the river and low on the slope (don't be tempted by the false paths that run uphill) until you reach Rocky Creek. Follow--and crisscross--the sycamore-shaded creek north until you reach the small campground. Return the way you came.

Back at the main campground, Arroyo Seco Road becomes Indians Road and leads deeper into the mountains, dividing the Ventana Wilderness in two as it twists 18 miles south to Memorial Park Campground.

This is, we think, one of the most spectacular drives in California--a journey through a corrugated terrain so devoid of man's works that you begin to award yourself explorers' laurels just for keeping your hands on the steering wheel. Ridge follows ridge to the horizon; in places, sandstone outcrops rise like leviathans. And April here usually marks the third act of one of California's great natural shows, as chaparraled slopes burst into flower: blue and white ceanothus, red Indian paintbrush, purplish lupine. Some places, the blooms glow with special brilliance against charred brush left standing after the 1977 Marble Cone fire.

The road is dirt and rock, but well graded. Still, low-slung passenger cars aren't recommended, nor are the road's turns and drops for the fainthearted.

Important: Indians Road is closed during the winter rainy season. It normally reopens in April, but late rains can cause delays. Before you set out, be sure to write or call the Los Padres National Forest, Monterey District Office, 406 S. Mildred Ave., King City 93930; (408) 385-5434. If the road is closed, hikers can still enter the wilderness on foot from the north at Arroyo Seco Campground or from the south at Memorial Campground.

More trail options: Marble Peak, Lost Valley, Arroyo Seco

Another good hike takes off from Indians Road 2 1/2 miles from Arroyo Seco Campground. Park at the side of the road, then head down Marble Peak Trail to the river. A horse bridge spans boulder-dotted pools, much used by swimmers, sunbathers, and picnickers. From here, head west on a wide road that more or less parallels Willow Creek. In 2 1/3 miles, you'll reach Tassajara Camp. The trail then hops and rehops Willow Creek to Willow Springs Campground, 4 1/2 miles from the start, and a pleasant place to spend the night.

The really gung-ho can head farther west through steep terrain and connect with the South Fork and Lost Valley trails for multiday trips into other portions of the wilderness.

(If Indians Road is closed, you can park at the Forest Service back-country parking lot, next to the fire station, then hike 2 1/2 miles along the road to Marble Peak Trail; it's an easy and scenic, if frustrating, walk.)

Continuing 14 miles south on Indians Road, you reach nine-site Escondido Campground. From here you can hike 4 miles on Lost Valley Trail to Fish Camp; the more pleasant Lost Valley Camp is 1.8 miles farther.

South 2 1/2 miles from Escondido Camp, Indians Road reaches Memorial Park. Here are 8 campsites and, across the road, the start of Arroyo Seco Trail. To take that trail, head west past the Southern Monterey County Sportsman's Lodge into the canyon.

The path isn't in mint condition--we had to clamber over fallen trees and gingerly skirt landslides--but persevere onward. In 1.7 miles, you reach small Forks Camp. Soon after that, the trail veers to the south (watch for an unobtrusive marker that reads "Cone Pk"), then continues 1.3 miles to Madrone Camp. Again, it's possible to extend your hike farther toward the south or west.

From Memorial Park, you can also head east up 5,862-foot Junipero Serra Peak-- a stiff, demanding, brushy climb of 6.2 miles up a mountain whose relative isolation gives it superb views.

To leave the wilderness area, drive south from Memorial Park. Indians Road becomes Milpitas Road as it enters Fort Hunter Liggett; bear right on Del Venturi Road, which runs into Mission Road; continue south on Mission 5 miles to the fort entrance station at Jolon. From here, if you're heading north on U.S. 101, take Jolon Road northeast about 16 miles to enter 101 at King City. If you're heading south, take it southeast 21 miles to hit 101 just north of Bradley. (If you want to enter the wilderness from the south, you can reverse the latter process; if you're stopped at the fort entrance station, just tell them where you're headed and you'll be waved through.)

Advice: from rangers, from readings

A wilderness permit isn't required to enter the Ventana Wilderness. But it's wise to check with the Monterey District ranger office (see page 50), open 8 to 5 weekdays, for trail and road conditions and also for fire regulations. Most Aprils, both stoves and campfires are permitted, but dry weather can bring restrictions.

When hiking in this area, look out for poison oak. And rattlesnakes are more likely to be seen in spring than at other times of year.

We know of two good guidebooks: Brand-new is Jeffrey P. Schaffer's Hiking the Big Sur Country: Ventana Wilderness (Wilderness Press, Berkeley, 1988; $12.95). Like other Wilderness Press guides, this is engaging, detailed, and helpful. It's available at outdoor stores and bookstores or by mail from Wilderness Press, 2440 Bancroft Way, Berkeley 94704.

The Sierra Club's Ventana Chapter publishes Trail Guide to Los Padres National Forest Monterey Division. It's $8.95 at bookstores and outdoor stores or by mail from the chapter, Box 5667, Carmel 93921 (add $1 handling charge). (California residents mail-ordering either book should add 6 percent sales tax.)

And two easy side trips back into early California

As it happens, either approach to the wilderness places you near a rural California mission. If you have a spare hour, either makes a fine stop.

Nuestra Senora de la Soledad, open 10 to 4 daily except Tuesdays, is a mile west of Soledad; from Arroyo Seco Road, turn north on Fort Romie Road and go 3 miles.

Near the southern approach, Mission San Antonio de Padua lies at the end of Mission Road, just north of Del Venturi Road junction. It's open daily 9:30 to 4:30.

Photo: Sprays of Indian paintbrush grace Ventana slopes in spring

Photo: Stream-crossed and shaded in the canyons, the Arroyo Seco trail rises to lead hikers to small Forks Camp, 1.7 miles west from trail's start at Indians Road

Photo: Ventana Wilderness is shown in red. You can car camp at the three sites marked in boldface

Photo: Eroded sandstone makes a wildly hummocked horizon near south end of Indians Road
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Title Annotation:Ventana Wilderness, Monterey County, California
Date:Apr 1, 1988
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