Cruickshank-Salmon-Buckeye Loop Trail, Silver Peak Wilderness, California

The Cruikshank-Salmon-Buckeye Loop is a 21 mile loop in the Silver Peak Wilderness. By using an alternative trailhead (i.e. Salmon Creek or Buckeye), the loop can be reduced to 17 miles. The Silver Peak Wilderness is adjacent to the Pacific Ocean and found at the southern edge of the Big Sur region. Its acknowledged beauty was reinforced by Randolph Hearst who, with all his millions, choose to build his San Simeon Castle just 20 minutes south of the trailhead (though he predated the trail and wilderness).

Background: Established in 1992, the Silver Peak Wilderness encompasses 31,555 acres at the southern end of the northern division of the Los Padres National Forest. The western border is scenic Highway 1 which in this area runs precariously on the bluffs climbing out of the Pacific Ocean. The Cruickshank Trailhead is so close to the ocean, you might be able to hit it with a rock if you have a good enough arm. The eastern boundary is the South Coast Ridge Road, which as its name implies, runs the crest of the Santa Lucia Range, about 6 miles inland.

The wilderness has a diverse assemblage of vegetation.  The mountains rising out of the sea begin as steep grassy hillsides.  Between about 1,000 and 2,400 feet on these exposed slopes, the grasses give way to forest.  In some of the saddles you might find the gray pine. In the major stream valleys such as Villa and Salmon Creeks, the forest is dense and predominately broadleaf (such as live oaks, bay laurels and maybe a red barked madrone) with a few redwood groves.  This is the southern most occurrence of the redwoods.  At higher elevations, the mixed forest gives way to chaparral with its sage, cypress bushes and sparse coulter pines with their huge and sharp pinecones.   And then there are the flowers.  When we were there Memorial Day weekend, we saw a dozen different flowers of all colors.

The Map:  The map shown here is based on USGS 7.5 minute quadrangles. The scale is true 1:24,000 when printed. The trails were rendered from a variety of sources.  The Cruickshank-Salmon-Buckeye Loop is based on a GPS track I took in May 2010.  The other trails are from US Forest Service tracks I found on Trails Co-op.  I compared the USFS tracks with mine and found that for the most part they match very well.  The major exception is the eastern most quarter mile of the Salmon Creek trail which must have been rerouted since the USFS track was made.  Based on this, unless they rerouted a section, I think the tracks for Spruce Creek, Soda Springs, Dutra and the northern part of the Buckeye are probably good.  However, I have not been on those trails!  The roads (black) are all visible on Goggle Earth.  They look like old forest roads that predate the wilderness designation.  From what little I saw of those trails when we reached the one to Silver Peak, it looks like they exist and since they are in the chaparral, passable on foot.  But once again, I have not been on them.

Another thing you should know about the map is that the contour interval on the base map is much smaller than it should be for an area of such high relief.  Consequently, the contour lines are very close together making it hard to read and shading the steeps slopes brown.  When I first saw this, I thought the slopes were barren.  They  aren't.  If you print the map yourself, it will still be the best map I have seen of this loop.  I can get a little better quality when I print it directly on a professional quality machine, but it still might appear a little harder to read than most USGS topos. 

To Buy Map: This map is free to download. Click on small map and let the big map load. Right click and "save picture as". The entire loop is also available on color weatherproof, Rite-in-the-Rain paper (a single 11x17 sheet). The maps are $5 each plus S&H by emailing Charlie@OuachitaMaps.com.

Trail Mileage. Click here for an Excel spreadsheet of the trail. To avoid confusion, the mileage table is based on the official mileages per the trail signs and the GPS track was used to help interpolate intermediated points.  You will note that the mileage of the track below is shorter by over a mile.  This happens all the time and you can't fix it.  There is a clockwise and counter-clockwise version so it is ready to use regardless of your route. Since it is a "live" file you can sum your mileage to get a better idea of the length of your days. Check out column "C." By copying the formula in one of the cells to the beginning and ending location of a day and deleting the formulas in between, you can get subtotals. Feed back welcome! 

GPS Track: Right click here and "save as" to download the GPS track for the loop, starting and ending at Cruickshank Trailhead. It is a gpx file that my browser wants to save as a xml. If that happens to you change the file extension manually.

NEW Google Earth Track: This link is to a Google Earth KML track file of the Loop and nearby trails. You should be able to right click the file and save it on your computer. Then open it with Google Earth to see the entire loop in interactive 3-D.

Google Earth Images: The following are images of the loop overlain on Google Earth.

01 Cruickshank Trailhead, beginning climb
02 Lower Cruickshank in Villa Ck Valley
03 Cruickshank Camp to Silver Camp
04 Silver Camp to Silver Peak Trail
05 Lion Den
06 Ridge Road
07 Upper Salmon Trail
08 Estrella to Spruce Ck Trail
09 Spruce Camp to Salmon Trailhead
10 Buckeye Trailhead, beginning climb
11 Soda Spring Trail Junction
12 Middle Buckeye Trail, south
13 Middle Buckeye Trail, north
14 Buckeye Meadow
15 Buckeye Trail, last Ridge
16 Buckeye Trail, descent to Cruickshank

The Hike:  After following the snake-like curves of Highway 1 north for 4.4 miles past the big hairpin at Salmon Station, pull over to the wide spot on the east side of the highway.  It is just past one of the few roads heading up the hills on the right.  All of this assumes you are coming from the south.  There is no parking lot, but the wide spot has plenty of room for cars to park and still get the doors open without worrying about traffic.  The trail is marked by a Forest Service sign announcing the Cruickshank Trail and mileage to the more common destinations.

Begin with a 600 foot climb over 0.7 miles, up through coastal grasses and low shrubs.  When you finally enter the Villa Creek valley you'll be at about 1,000 feet above sea leve and in the wilderness.  The trail will rise another 400 feet to Cruickshank, but with a mile and a half to go over well a maintained trail, the hiking is easy.  The hillside you travel on has an array of vegetation.  While there are a few grassy areas after the initial climb, where you can still see the ocean, much of the hike is in a mixed forest of low canopy broad leaf trees with some gray pines and occasional redwood.  Along the trail you may see what appears to be ankle high baby oak trees with rounded leaves (these look like deciduous oaks not live oaks).  Not so fast, Bucko!  Look for the characteristic leaves of three and don't touch.  This is poison oak, an urushiol bearing cousin of poison ivy.  Learn to recognize it because you will see plenty in thise part of California. 

At mile 2 is the Lower Cruickshank Camp.  It is in heavy shade right next to the trail and consists of a picnic table and small tent pad.  It will do in a pinch but it wouldn't be my choice for a destination. At mile 2.25 is the first junction with the Buckeye Trail and the Cruickshank Camp.  To take the Buckeye to Villa Camp, turn left as soon as you enter the campsite.  The campsite is much larger and more open then the lower site.  The Cruickshank Trail cuts through the campsite on the way to the second Buckeye Junction (mile 2.5) and Silver Camp.  If the campsite is full, there is a big meadow on the right just before the second junction.  The trail signs at both Buckeye Junctions are a little confusing.  They are inconsistent between themselves and inconsistent with the trail sign on the highway. 

Shortly the trail crosses another meadow. Another 0.6 miles, or so, and 510 foot of climb is Silver Camp (mile 3.0). The trail narrows a little in this section but when we came through there was no vegetation covering the path and the poison oak was scarce.  The campsite was flat and fairly open and in my opinion the best of sites, so far.   

After Silver, the trail has a history of needing maintenance.  Just after the camp, the trail gets very narrow as it wraps around a near vertical ravine.  Without the vegetation on the slopes, it might have looked a little hairy.  The was one place where the trail was slumping down the slope where a repair will be needed soon.  

While there are a few open grassy areas, beginning about a half mile past Silver and ending about half a mile or so before Lion Den, the vegetation is closing in at many places requiring stooping and use of hands to push the bushes out of the way.  Difficulty of travel is compounded by PO.  It is knee high, waste high, chest high, over your head, crossing over the trail and interlaced in seemingly innocuous plants. 

The stories of the PO really had me concerned.  We were ready, however, with long pants, long sleeves, gloves and, as suggested by one of the guys on the Ventana Wilderness Alliance forum, a stick.  We slowed our pace; dodged, twisted and cajoled our way through the thickets and exercised extreme urushiol protocol (don't touch your face or clothes with your gloves, wash your hands and arms when you break at a creek, don't touch your boots or pants, change your clothes at camp, wash your hands again, don't sleep in your hiking clothes).  No rash for these happy campers!

Once you hit reach the top of the ridge and intersect the trail to Silver Peak (mile 5.6), you are in the chaparral.  There is a trail marker at the intersection; be sure you turn left (east).  Going right will take you to Silver Peak.  There is supposed to be a campsite near the peak, but we didn't go that way.  Turn left and it is 0.4 miles to Lion Den on an old eroded forest road.  The brush has not closed up this part of the trail and most of the PO disappears (though there is a bit on the trail near Lion Den).  

Lions Den (mile 6) is the place to camp.  At 3,150, its a 2,800 foot climb over 6 miles with about 2 of it in aggressive PO.  When you first enter camp, you see a big level shady area that you'd be more than pleased with.  Leave your pack on and climb the little hill at the south end.  There is a fire ring, room for a few tents and a fantastic vista looking down Salmon Creek valley to the Pacific.

It is a half mile to the South Coast Ridge Road (mile 6.5).  The brush between Lion Den and the Ridge Rd is thick, over head-high and takes some arm work to penetrate. There are some Coulter Pines along the way so watch for their huge pine cones.  The ridge road is outside the wilderness boundary and open to vehicle traffic.  The small section we saw could have easily been navigated by a regular car, but don't depend on this report if your plans require driving on this road.  Turn right (south) on the road and go 0.15 miles to the Salmon Creek Trail junction (mile 6.65).  Though the original topo and a GPS track available from a USFS site and Trails Co-op show the trail intersecting the ridge further south, there is a sign at the junction and a path through the sage.  This is it.

The trip down the Salmon Creek Trail is just like the last 3 miles of the Cruickshank.  Start with chaparral that is encroaching on the trail and then a couple miles of mostly forest with abundant and aggressive PO.  In May there were lots of flowers including blooming yucca.  As with the Cruickshank, the trail stays on the side of the valley so there are really no other camping opportunities other than the listed campsites.  If you read other reports about this trail, you may run across a note about a slide (mile 9.1).  It is a third of a mile north of Estrella and when we crossed it was a stable slope of clay and gravel with an obvious track across it. 

Estrella Camp (mile 9.4) is a big open shaded area with room for lots of tents.  Estrella Creek provides the water and is small but clear and pretty.   The camp made a great lunch spot and, but for two things, would have been better than Spruce Camp.  Spruce Camp (mile 10.5) is on both Salmon Creek and Spruce Creek, which makes for a pretty creek setting.  Also, there are 3 separate site at Spruce so if crowded, you may still get some privacy. Between the two camps at mile 10.0 is an undeveloped spur trail to Upper Salmon Falls.  The trail pitches straight down the side of the hill and at first glance doesn't really look like the trail.  We saw it and kept hiking thinking there was a better one, but that was it (I did, however, get a waypoint).

Our first night a Lion Den was Friday night before Memorial Day and we had it to ourselves.  Saturday was a different story.  Spruce Camp filled up rapidly and we had to share our site with another tent.  But campers kept coming and the overflow had to hike up to Estrella.  It must have ended up pretty crowded, too.

The hike to the Salmon Creek Trailhead (mile 12.65) is downhill on a wide, clear, heavily used trail.  Poison oak is present but sparse and avoidable.  At mile 10.9 is the junction of the Spruce Creek Trail.  It is well marked with a sign.  About a mile from the trailhead the trail leaves the forest, enters grasslands and descends about 700 feet.  A few hundred feet before the trailhead, the trail is heading north and drops on to a major east-west trail (mile 12.6).  If you turn right (east), the trail will take you to Lower Salmon Creek Falls (my pictures aren't very good, so check out this guy's).  It is only a few hundred feet to the falls and with all the big strewn boulders and grottos, it is well worth the hike.  No matter, you need to turn left (west) to get to the highway and trailhead.  It is just a 150 feet.  One thing to note, while you can't miss the "T" when you are on a clockwise loop, the Salmon Creek Trail is not marked and it is less significant than the trail to the falls.  If you are on a counterclockwise trek, just watch for the right turn.

The Buckeye Trailhead (mile 12.9) is behind the old guard station, about a quarter mile north on Highway 1.  Just follow the highway and go up the driveway on the west side of the building.  There are signs, so you can't miss it. 

Begin with a 600 foot climb over a half mile.  It was brushy and PO was present.  Once you reach the top you are in grass.  Cross a saddle and let the vistas begin.  There are many classic views of the coast to the south.  At mile 13.8 is the junction of the Soda Springs Trail.  A right turn will take you downhill back to the highway to the Soda Springs Trailhead.  The loop, however, veers to the right and ascends.  Over the next 2 miles you will climb 1,100 feet, through grassy hillsides and forested ravines.  There was good water in the Soda Springs ravine. 

At the end of the ascent, you will cross the nose of a ridge.  The next mile is pretty level as the trail contours around the mountain side to Buckeye Camp.  The main Buckeye Camp (mile 16.4) is under a huge broad leaf tree next to a fairly large meadow.  You will see two trails leaving the camp.  One heads north west across the meadow, crosses a broken barbed wire fence, climbs over a small ridge and peters out.   The one that goes northwest across the meadow it the trail.  A tenth of a mile further is a second Buckeye campsite.  Just past it the trail goes into a ravine where we freshened up our water for the hike over the final ridge. 

The next mile 0.6 miles climbs 300 feet across the side of the ridge.  It is mostly grasses and low shrubs with a few trees.  While on the saddle of the ridge (mile 17.4) the most evident trail continues straight, up the hill to the west.  This will lead to a nice view from the top of the ridge, but it is a dead end trail.  As soon as you get to the saddle look for a trail through the grass that drops off the ridge to the north.  

The next mile to the Cruickshank Junction is down hill through forest.  While there was plenty of poison oak, it was below knee height and the trail was wide enough to be able to avoid it.  If you had long pants and observed PO discipline, you wouldn't have any problem (certainly not like the upper Salmon Creek and Cruickshank Trails).  On this subject, we ran across a party of four in this section and when they saw us they kindly yielded the trail.  Unfortunately they were in shorts and were walking through the PO, oblivious to its toxicity (cringe!).  The last guy in line asked if it was PO.  I hope they washed off.

At mile 18.2 you will intersect the Cruickshank Trail.  A left will take you 2.25 miles back the Cruickshank Trailhead at Highway 1.  I have the total loop as 21.2 miles.   You can shorten the loop to 16.6 miles by starting at either the Salmon Creek or Buckeye Trailheads.

Information:  USGS Topos: Villa Creek and Burro Mountain, California.  Forest Los Headquarters Los Padres National Forest, Goleta California (805) 968-6640.  See the Ventana Wilderness Alliance forum for trail information.

Direction: Take Highway 1 from San Simeon California for 23 miles. Look for the trail head sign on the right side of the road.

To Buy Map: This map is free to download. Click on small map and let the big map load. Right click and "save picture as". The entire loop is also available on color weatherproof, Rite-in-the-Rain paper (a single 11x17 sheet). The maps are $5 each plus S&H by emailing Charlie@OuachitaMaps.com.

 

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