3 days of bushwhacking across lost trails during an Atmospheric River

tl;dr: The wettest I’ve ever been. I didn’t avoid the poison oak (scratching as I write this), and I need to seriously re-evaluate some strategies.


I’ve been planning a thru-hike of the Condor Trail for a while now. For anyone not familiar with Big Sur, the trail conditions change quite rapidly every year, especially when half of the roads used to access trailheads in the area try to wash away into the Pacific Ocean. The ephemeral nature of access is only compounded by California’s new-normal wildfire season that obliterates the trails every so often. Given these conditions, and that the last person to hike the Condor was Masochist from a few years back, I thought it would be an exceptionally good idea to get out there to see how conditions have been holding up, and how my gear and poison oak management strategies are likely to work during a thru.

In anticipation of poison oak, I’ve developed a strategy involving technu wipes, and a FineTrack elemental mesh layer to change into at night. I wanted to test out how well this all worked, in addition to my usual gear choices for rain and hiking.

With that in mind, I decided to head out to Boetcher’s Gap to setup a cache and explore some of the trail. What better chance to explore Big Sur conditions than during a 3-day weekend! I grabbed a willing friend who has always been interested in doing 30-ish mile days with me in questionable conditions, and we headed out to Big Sur with an atmospheric river fast approaching.

Original Trip Plan

  • I’ve been using the Big Sur Trail map for more than a decade now to assess trail conditions in Big Sur. Recently, however, I decided it’s high-time I get the map integrated into Gaia to simplify my life. I developed a script that scrapes the trails and drops them into a GPX so you can just delete and re-import the trails before heading out for up-to-date trail conditions on mobile devices for mapping.
  • I originally planned a 50-ish mile route (Gaia distance estimates) to get some good hiking in the Ventana Wilderness out of Boetcher’s Gap. This seemed reasonable given my extensive prior experience with the trail network, and that we had 3 days and an evening of hiking to get it all in.
  • I’ve since checked the original loop using CalTopo which suggests my original plan may have actually been over 60 miles (good to know that Gaia’s mapping estimates appear pretty iffy for this region)

Route GPX Information (completed and planned)

The Trip Report

Day 0:

We left Friday afternoon and headed to Boetcher’s Gap. We hit the fence sometime in the evening and did the 4-mile road walk into the campground where we bivvied for the night.

Day 1:

Morning: In the morning I buried a cache for me to pickup at the end of my condor thru-hike, and we set out up a track that was labeled as “difficult impassable” and “difficult passable” on the Big Sur trail map.

7:30 AM – It took us over two hours to go 2 miles. My friend brought a machete with him, and at the start he tried hacking through some of the over-growth across the trail. Given the high proportion of manzanita and chamise, the machete was too-frequently rebuffed by woody biomass to be very useful. During this time, the rains settled in, and we busted out the rain gear.

10:00 AM – We hit an “impassable” section of trail, and spent a while figuring out some ways around and through it.

11:00 AM – We finally made it to a “passable, clear” section of trail, and cruised for about 10 miles over the next few hours

2:00 PM – We were once again in a “difficult passable” section of trail. It became quite obvious that we were going to need to modify the original trip at this point, as covering distance across the “orange-colored” trail segments was likely to be a larger challenge than anticipated with all the new growth. I scoped out the map, and saw we could deviate over to Danish Creek Camp, and then take an entirely-orange (“difficult passable”) 4-ish-mile trail connector up to little pines camp, at which point we would only have a 12-ish mile hike back to the car.

It was also around this time, that my friend pointed out my rain jacket was looking pretty miserable. I took out some duct tape and dyneema tape, and went about repairing the OutDry membrane on the shoulders as best as I could to provide some additional water-worthiness while the rains continued to beat down.

4:00 PM – We made it to the turn-off to head toward Danish Creek Camp on a “wilderness freeway”

5:00 PM – We got into camp, and the rain abated for a nice little while for me to setup my tarp, use the facili-trees, and munch on some calories before curling up for the night.

6:00 PM – the 40 mph gusts came in, along with some aggressive rain, and I had to go out and about to find some pretty hefty rocks to throw on top of my stakes to further secure them. I then set in for an evening where I periodically awoke to gusts of wind threatening to tear my tarp asunder.

Day 2:

7:00 AM – The morning was beautiful. Blue sky and the chance of sun! I pulled out all my layers and put them on to get them as dry as possible before the rain set in.

8:00 AM – We started making really pretty good time following the Rattlesnake Creek trail.

9:30 AM – We hit the section of the Rattlesnake creek trail marked as “difficult, impassable” on my map. We managed to get through the 0.5 mile segment in a little over an hour.

11:00 AM – We cruised down the other side of the trail, and made it to Rattlesnake Camp. We snacked for a bit, filled up on some water, and then started to find the trail that was color-coded Orange on my Gaia map (difficult, passable)

12:00 PM – We had circled back quite a few times up and down the river looking for the trail. And decided to just bushwhack across to the other side of the river (per the GPX line), and start contouring a topo line on a cliff.

2:00 PM – We had made it 0.5 miles along the cliff from Rattle Snake camp. It was clear that there was not a findable trail between the thigh-high blackberry brambles and poison oak that covered the entire lower bank, or the dense, fallen madrone that had to be snaked through, covering the entire middle-part of the cliff. At this point, the option was to go back the way we came, or bushwhack straight up to the top of the ridge, in hope that the vegetation would be sparser on top of ridge line to allow passage. We decided we were going to bushwhack the 2000 feet straight up.

3:00 PM – The ridge climb was going surprisingly well. We managed to find enough sparse areas where we could make quite good progress just weaving back and forth to either side of the ridge while consistently making upward progress through some less-dense manzanita and ceanothus. Largely it consisted of: go up when you can, and contour left or right when you can’t.

We ended up finally hitting a wall of vegetation we couldn’t easily get around about 1000 feet from the top of pine ridge. The rains had started coming in again around 2:30, and our bushwhacking became cold, wet, and miserable.

4:00 PM – We managed to push through some dead madrone and fell onto a clearing that was consistent with a trail location on my topo map. The “clear, passable” trail even had a large tree across it that had been cut at some point in the past. Finally, we were on a cruisy trail

4:02 PM – We hit a large wall of trees, and the trail vanished. We spent 20 minutes looking around for where the trail resumed

4:30 PM – We started pushing the 8-ish miles we had to go aiming to hit the car this evening

5:30 PM – We were feeling pretty beat up by the time we hit the junction for the Apple Tree Rustic camp site. While walking along the ridge, we were #Blessed by 60+ mph gusts of wind with some fierce, horizontal rain. At one point, I suggested we bivvy on the trail on the north side of a ridge where the dense chapparal on either side made a surprisingly great wind block. My friend (who was hammocking) wanted to push ahead for some tree cover.

6:00 PM – We made it to the Apple Tree Rustic Campsite, a little under 4 miles from the car. Given how quickly we were losing temperature and light, and the uncertainty about the trail conditions ahead, we decided to stop here for the night. I found a reasonably sheltered spot by the creek while my friend setup his hammock.

6:00 to Midnight — We started experiencing the most intense rain and wind I have ever camped in (and I’ve camped on some passes in Patagonia). It seemed to be around 2 inches of rain per hour for the entire 6 hours. Winds would peel across the canopy, making sounds akin to jet engines. My tarp held, although my state of dampness persisted as rain would turn horizontal to snake through the A in my pitched A-frame.

Day 3:

7:00 AM – having weathered the storm and succeeded in drying out my FineTrack elemental base layers, I went to see how my friend survived. Aside from his perpetual fear of the tress coming down upon him, he was cozy and dry-enough.

8:00 AM – we cruised up the trail and eventually hit a developed dirt road. The only concern was the PG&E powerlines that seemed well-positioned to start a wildfire come the summer. We were back at the car before 9:30.


Based on my experience with the Big Sur trail condition rating system, I was completely shocked by how impassable the Rattlesnake Creek Trail ended up being. I would consider that segment to be entirely lost. I went on to the Ventana website to go make a remark about it.

Rating System for those not in the know:

  • Wilderness Freeway
  • Clear, Passable
  • Difficult, Passable
  • Difficult, Impassable
  • Lost (there definitely is not a trail)

It was at this point that I discovered that my script which pulled trail data from BigSurTrailmap.net had a bug and would default to color coding “lost” trail segments to whatever color the previously scraped trail had been. So while the Rattlesnake Creek Trail was in fact marked as “lost” on the trail map, my script marked it as “Difficult, passable.” I’ve since updated my script and should be able to avoid this problem in the future.

I also discovered that there is quite some backstory about the Rattlesnake Creek Camp and trail system. With this update to my web-scraping system, I’ve also now realized that my original trail plan would have been impossible, as it too made use of a ridge trail that has since been lost to the history of time.

My rain gear all completely failed. The OutDry membrane shredded across most of the jacket. A small hole in the crotch of my Helium II rain pants quickly ripped down the entire leg, effectively rendering my pants into chaps. Due to some haphazard evaluation of my web scraping trail network tool before utilizing it, we ended up with some very poor decision making given what we thought was real data about the trail network.

I now need to seriously re-evaluate my Condor trail plan. Given that California is in an El Nino year, the conditions through much of this spring are going to be wet. This makes trail access across the remote region harder than usual (it’s already hard), making bailout points, if needed, exceptionally difficult and dangerous. My rain gear choices appear to be inadequate for the level of bushwhacking that will be needed to push through the vegetation growth from the past 2 seasons of heavy rain, and fallen trees from the fire seasons before that. I may need to swing back through Big Sur to retrieve my cache at some other time if I decide not to go through with the Condor at this point.

Overall, however, I think I’d rate this trip 7/10 stars and mostly Type 2 fun, only a little Type 3. Might consider doing this again.

Scroll to Top