Warning: this is not for the faint of heart.
This is a one-way hike that requires leaving one car at Pfeiffer Park and driving with the other car to Bottchers Gap. The main attraction is Mt Manuel, that is reputed to have the best view of Big Sur (but not in summer because of the fog). A cross-country detour to Pico Blanco is also possible (although not legal, apparently).
Trailhead: the end of Palo Colorado Rd. Take Hwy 1 south from Carmel, and (after about 20 kms) turn left into Palo Colorado Rd (just after Rocky Point Rd). The road is paved but very narrow and winding. The campground is at the very end. There is a fee ($12 in 2008) to camp. The trailhead is the very visible fire road (usually gated).
Trailend: Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. The Mt Manuel trail is called Gorge Trail at the very beginning (pass the ranger station to the left and go to the end of the road).
From Bottchers Gap the road descends steeply for about 1h45' to the Little
Sur River. (This road might be opened to 4WD vehicles when the lodge is completed).
In the spring you have to wade the creek (the creekbed is paved, so
no big deal). On the other side a lodge is being built (2010). Walk up to
the lodge and coast it to the left. You should find the sign for the Mt Manuel/ Pfeiffer Park trail.
The trail now climbs steeply towards Pico Blanco, leaving Pico Blanco to the
right. There is one section where the trail disappears under dead leaves:
just go straight 50 meters until you pick it up again. Now you are heading
east. Look carefully for a sign (my GPS: N36.31984 W121.79889).
That's the fork: to the right you go to
Pico Blanco Camp and (if you take the dirt road) to the Old Coast Rd.
The sign points to the
left for Mt Manuel and Pfeiffer. All the maps seem to indicate that the latter
trail would go 180 degrees in the opposite direction of the Pico Blanco Camp
trail, but that does not seem to be the case. The trail continues roughly
straight along the Launtz ridge (more or less southeast). As you follow
the ridge, you are facing a little peak. The trail drops down to the south
(to your right) just before that little peak. The trail basically coasts
the peak to the right.
From there the trail first heads west and then turns mostly southeast staying to the left (east) of Post Summit (the highest peak you can see) and then Cabezo Prieto (two prominent peaks that you see all the time past Pico Blanco). From the Launtz ridge to the Cabezo Prieto ridge you have been mostly bushwhacking and climbing very steep walls. The good news is that there is a point where you can get on the fire road that runs along the Cabezo Prieto ridge. There is a surreal "Trail" sign in the middle of nowhere (my GPS: N36.28178 W121.77326) that used to mark the trail when it was still visible. That's where you pick up the very visible fire road (overgrown with wildflowers and tall grass in 2010, but still very visible). Getting to that "Trail" sign is not trivial. At some point you have to cross the (probably dry) creek that digs the north-south canyon. Basically, you want to make a sharp right turn towards the ocean (west). Ideally, you want to wait to do this until the very last western tributary because each tributary implies a subcanyon that you need to contour. If you are lost, just climb Post Summit (the highest thing you can see) and you'll hit the fire road (it starts at Post Summit, then it rolls down south to a helicopter landing then it reaches the "Trail" sign). Follow that fire road along the ridge and you'll reach Mt Manuel. When the trail disappears (in the saddle between Cabezo Prieto and Manuel), stay on the ridge heading south and you'll get to the fire outlook of Mt Manuel (an easy reference point is the "billboard": my GPS said N36.26964 W121.76896). If you lost it, the trail is a short distance from that billboard, slightly on the western side of the mountain. It then switches over to the eastern side and starts descending steeply that side. Now you're safe: the trail goes down to Pfeiffer, although you have to survive an endless number of canyons (the trail contours each and every one). In 2010 this trail was full of deadfalls and some of them quite scary (if you make a mistake, you may roll down the gorge).
I described the route from Bottchers Gap to Pfeiffer because it makes more sense (lower elevation gain) but in 2010 i actually hiked in the reverse direction (better photos):
Water: count on water at the Launtz creek and at the lodge.
Insects: count on just about every insect that can make your life miserable when you are bushwhacking and climbing, notably the flesh-eating horseflies and the ubiquitous ticks.
Pico BlancoOne can take a detour to climb Pico Blanco, leaving the trail (if coming from Bottcher's Gap) just before the trail turns left to go to the Pico Blanco Camp fork. It is relatively easy to find routes to the summit that don't involve any bushwhacking. From the top you can descend straight down towards the river heading for a very visible clearning: Pico Blanco Camp is located beyond that clearing by the river. In 2011 (trail conditions vary wildly from year to year): one hour to the wading of the Little Sur, one hour to the top of Launtz ridge, 1.5 hours to the summit of Pico Blanco, 1 hour to Pico Blanco camp. A longer way (but staying on trails) is to take the Pico Blanco Camp trail and then turn right into the fire road that ascends Pico Blanco. However, this seems to be private property, so you are technically trespassing. You might want to check first if you can get a permit (no idea how).
Tin House CampAnother detour can be made to Tin House Camp, but the trail is mostly completely obliterated by vegetation. The "trail" (if you can still find it) does *not* follow the bed of the South Fork as some maps show: following the creek is dangerous and time consuming). If you are coming from Pfeiffer, the Tin House "route" splits from the trail to Launtz shortly downhill from the "Trail" sign and heads sharply east, parallel to the South Fork. The canyon is very steep and infested with the worst possible vegetation. Hiking down to the creek is not a good idea. Every now and then the trail reappears (although it could be just an animal track). It mostly keeps the same elevation. Simply hiking upstream from Vado is a difficult proposition. The South Fork has waterfalls, rapids, lots of deadfalls and the gorge gets so narrow that you can't help walking in the water. You recognize the location of the camp because there is a steep (steep) tributary coming down from the north into the South Fork. The camp is on the other (southern) side of the South Fork, and it's pretty much the only flat area around. Topoquest gave N36.28885 W121.75773. The tin house does not exist anymore, so don't count on any visible structure. If you are really lucky, you will find a sign that announces the Tin House Camp. It is half burned but you can still read the words. In 2010 Wikipedia gave these coordinates for the "Tin Shack": latitude 36.28889, longitude -121.75667. The fact that it calls it "shack" makes you wonder though (there is absolutely no shack). According to my GPS, Wikipedia is sending you to a place further upstream, roughly where two creeks meet, by the eastern one, and i couldn't find any sign of humans having camped there.
Other recommended hikes in the Ventana Wilderness: