Hiking the Cruickshank Trail is a great way to see the varied ecotypes of the Santa Lucia Mountains at the southern end of the Big Sur area, but it takes some effort to do it properly. This hike reminds me of why I fell in love with big day hikes when I lived in Tucson in the mid-2000s. There's nothing quite like starting a hike in the desert, hiking upward through some chaparral and oak woodland before ending up in a mixed-conifer forest, and then suffering the tortuous descent back down. The closest local approximation to those glorious days are a few hikes that I've recently done in the Big Sur area. The Cruickshank Trail in the Silver Peak Wilderness goes 7 miles from Highway 1 up to the South Coast Ridge Road, but I only went a little bit beyond Lion Den Camp for a 12-mile round trip hike and back for a thoroughly enjoyable adventure.
The coastal scrub near Highway 1 gives way to a mixed forest of redwood, oak and pine before finally reaching a serpentine wonderland as the trail steadily climbs the south side of Villa Creek Canyon to the sunny crest of these beautiful mountains that rise right out of the Pacific Ocean.
The Cruickshank Trail immediately ascends 600' up a 0.70 mile of switchbacks through fragrant coastal scrub with sage and coyote bush as quail, sparrows, towhees and hummingbirds enhance the hiking experience before heading east upcanyon. The terrain transitions to grassland mixed with live oak, madrone, tanoak redwood and bay as the trail continues its steady ascent up the south side of the canyon. Views of the north side of Villa Creek canyon open up about a mile in.
You'll reach Lower then Upper Cruickshank Camps about 2 miles in. There are also junctions with the Buckeye Trail to both the north and south, but they diverge from the Cruickshank Trail separately. The trees are noticeably taller and denser above the campsites as the trail continues its inexorable climb up the narrowing canyon with ponderosa, Coulter and knobcone pines providing shade. There are even a few Douglas firs. The vegetation is pretty thick, and it doesn't look like this part of the Big Sur backcountry has been hit by fires as hard as the rest.
This lack of fire is exemplified by the few specimens of Santa Lucia fir near the bottom of Villa Creek canyon as it climbs and narrows toward its head at the edge of the wilderness area just below the South Coast Ridge Road. The Santa Lucia fir is the rarest fir in North America, and I've been looking forward to seeing one for a long time. It's only hanging on in a few spots, and this trail is the easiest way to see one. The trail enters a doghair thicket of Sargent cypress around 5 miles from the trail head as you enter the final stretch before Lion Den Camp.
Lion Den Camp is in a relatively open area dominated by gray-green and rusty-red-brown serpentine soil. The vegetation gets weird here with chamise, squatty Sargent cypress, gray pine and manzanita taking over to give views of a large area. The coast and hundreds of square miles of ocean are visible from this lofty vantage point, or perhaps hidden under the marine layer of fog depending on when one visits. The Salmon Creek drainage begins to the south on the other side of Silver Peak which separates it from the Villa Creek drainage. Salmon Creek is the site of the southernmost redwoods, and is commonly included in a 2-day backpacking loop with Cruickshank.
Return the way you came.
This is a moderately difficult hike.
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.