The Vicente Flat Trail is a quintessential Big Sur hike with an amazing variety of scenery. The first half of the hike climbs an open hillside with spectacular ocean vistas that are made extra dramatic by the elevation. In spring and early summer, a spectacular multicolored display of flowers lines the trail, including blue California Lilac (ceanothus), purple lupines, orange poppies, red Indian Paintbrush, and yellow French Broom. I’ve been to flower gardens that weren’t as impressive. In other seasons the colors are still striking, with the brilliant green of the coastal scrub set against the deep blue of the ocean.
The trail then turns into Hare Canyon, where it runs along a wooded hillside. Several very attractive redwood groves are tucked into folds in the hillside, and there are some nice views of the rugged canyon far below. Finally, the trail descends to the old-growth redwoods of Vicente Flat. Other than Highway One and the Kirk Creek Campground, which are visible during the initial part of the hike, there are no signs of development along the trail.
The trail is narrow and cut into a very steep hillside. It’s not quite as well-maintained as the trails in the nearby state parks, but for a backcountry trail it’s in pretty good condition: it’s clearly visible throughout, isnt excessively overgrown, and has a well-maintained tread. It’s a very popular trail; most hikers come to camp in Espinoza or Vicente Flat camps, but there are also are a lot of families from Kirk Creek Camp who are out for a day hike, even though the trail isn’t really suitable for young children.
Long pants, preferably treated with permethrin, are essential on this trail. The first half of the trail is overgrown with brush that in winter and spring is heavily infested with ticks. After Espinosa Camp there are fewer ticks but a lot more poison oak. The poison oak is actually not too bad compared with many other Big Sur backcountry trails and is rarely above waist height, but you’ll still have to brush up against it.
The exposed hillside gets very hot, even on cool spring days.
To get to the trail, drive south along Highway One until you reach the Kirk Creek Campground, about two miles south of Limekiln State Park. The trailhead is well-marked and is directly across from the campground. There’s plenty of parking along Highway One.
Seen from Highway One, the hills around the Vicente Flat Trail are surprisingly arid-looking. Julia Pfeiffer Burns park, just a few miles north, looks strikingly green in comparison. South of there, the trees and greenery disappear and you get the definite sense that you’re entering Southern California. On the trail, however, it’s much a different story.
The trail starts out wide and well-maintained, immediately beginning a gentle climb. After about a mile, however, the trail becomes narrower and partially overgrown with brush.
The trail climbs high above the coast, offering magnificent views north and south as it winds through the folds of the steep hills. The effect is a little like a glass elevator ride, with better and better views of the coast as you ascend. Soon the trail enters a redwood grove, providing a refreshing break from the chaparral. Besides being cool and shady and free of tick-infested brush, the trail briefly stops climbing as it passes through the grove. Although the trees are mostly very small, the grove seems to be old growth.
The trail resumes its climb. Reaching Hare Canyon, it turns right and enters a refreshingly cool, shady forest. There’s less brush here and the trail isn’t as steep, but there’s a lot more poison oak. The trail clings precariously to the side of a high, steep hillside.
The trail winds through some very scenic upland redwood groves. The redwoods aren’t all that big but they have the tall, straight look that’s so characteristic of redwdoods, and the groves have with their own unique atmosphere, cool, quiet and shady and suffused with a blue-tinged light. The contrast with the hot, harshly-lit scrub is really striking. There are dramatic vistas, a little remniscent of the Sierra Nevada, of redwoods against a backdrop of sheer granite mountains. At the beginning of the canyon the redwoods are blackened from a forest fire.
The trail begins a gentle descent, exiting the woods several times and clinging to a steep hillside high above the canyon floor. From far below comes the sound of a rushing creek.
Finally, the trail levels out at a large flat area populated with redwoods. After clinging to the side of a cliff, it’s nice to be on level ground again, in this sheltered refuge among the rugged mountains. The grove is strikingly quiet, although in places you’ll hear the pleasant cascading of a creek. There’s little ground cover, which means relief from the threat of poison oak and ticks.
The trail becomes almost invisible as it enters the flat. Look for a fallen log across a dry creekbed. Cross the log and continue in the same general direction to arrive at a signed intersection with the Stone Creek Trail. (This trail is not part of the hike, but it climbs through a little meadow and contours through some woods before ending up, about a mile from Vicente Flat, on a hillside with some great views of Hare Canyon. From this point the trail is very lightly used and almost invisible. The entire trail is heavily overgrown with poison oak.)
Passing the intersection with the Stone Creek Trail, continue through Vincente Flat. The area appears to be old growth, with some good-sized trees and no stumps. It’s a nice grove, but it’s somewhat arid-looking and lacks the lushness of the Ewoldsen Trail or even Limekiln Park. Hare Creek is underground through much of Vicente Flat and, unlike in the surrounding canyons, there’s no redwood sorrel groundcover here. The trees tend to be twisted and misshapen, and don’t have the distinctive elegance and orderly look of an old-growth grove.
After passing through the campground, the canyon becomes narrower and the trail starts to climb alongside a small creek. There are some good-sized and attractive redwoods in this area, both on the canyon floor and, somewhat surprisingly, on the north-facing hillside. I usually turn around at the point where the trail starts to get steep, but the trail continues to climb among scenic redwoods for an additional half-mile or so, and then continues up to Cone Peak Road, a total of 2.3 miles and 1600 feet of climbing from Vicente Flat. The upper section of Vicente Flat Trail is more heavily overgrown with poison oak than the lower section.
Even though it’s mostly downhill, the return hike takes about the same amount of time as the outbound leg. Because the trail is narrow, overgrown, and steep, it’s a slow walk. The entire hike takes about six hours.
© 2007, 2015 David Baselt