The Pine Cone's sixth story of the week

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Not just another Big Sur mountain, Pico Blanco has quite a story to tell

By CHRIS COUNTS

Published: March 12, 2010

EVEN THOUGH it is dwarfed by several nearby mountains, Pico Blanco is one of the most recognizable geological features in the Santa Lucia range.

Despite its relatively modest height, the distinctive 3,700-foot mountain casts an immense shadow over 920 acres of Andrew Molera State Park that Assembly member Bill Monning and the nonprofit Ventana Wilderness Alliance would like to see become a State Wilderness Area.

If you’re driving south along Highway 1, take a quick glance east when you cross the Little Sur River. From this view, it’s easy to see why Carmel poet Robinson Jeffers called Pico Blanco a “steep sea-wave of marble” and Big Sur poet Eric Barker likened it to a lion. Rising sharply above the two the forks of the Little Sur, the mountain possesses an almost regal bearing.

Big Sur’s first humans were equally impressed with Pico Blanco. Ignoring its taller neighbors, the Stone Age people who migrated here more than 5,000 years ago determined life would not have been possible without the mountain. One version of their creation myth tells the story of how a coyote and a hummingbird took refuge on the peak during the great flood that often appears in creation stories. Since the rest of the world was submerged, the local Native Americans reasoned, all life was therefore descended from the marooned coyote and hummingbird.

A goddess, a gold rush and Granite Rock

The first settlers of European descent saw Pico Blanco much differently. Gold and silver were discovered in Big Sur in the late 19th century. In response, miners began searching for the precious metals along the south flank of Pico Blanco. Today, the area is littered with the rusting remnants of mining operations.

There are no historical reports detailing the riches the miners discovered, but historians talk of a curious tale that was circulated in response the miners’ arrival. According to local legend, a Native American goddess zealously protected Pico Blanco, and today, historians mention accounts by miners claiming to have encountered the goddess, who cursed them with madness for pursuing gold.

Meanwhile, a seemingly illiterate prospector named Al Clark became the Pico Blanco’s best known resident. For decades he wandered the area around the mountain and told local ranchers stories of the goddess and a vast subterranean cavern filled with fantastic pictographs that matched the descriptions of saber-toothed tigers and mastodons. In an effort to hide the cave, Clark said he used dynamite to destroy its entrance.

Clark also claimed to be a vegetarian, subsisting on oats and honey. He lived to a ripe old age, and after he died, it was reported he was a Columbia University graduate who merely faked his lack of education.

In the early 1960s, Granite Rock Company of Watsonville purchased the top portion of Pico Blanco, which contains the largest single mass of limestone in California, and which the company intended to remove.

Environmental activists objected to the mining of Pico Blanco, but in 1981 Monterey County adopted a Local Coastal Plan for Big Sur which permitted some mining on the backside of Pico Blanco. The California Coastal Commission objected to the plan and tried to force the county to ban mining on the mountain.

The same year, the U.S. Forest Service approved a plan to expand the mining operations and directed Granite Rock to obtain the necessary county and state permits, including those from the coastal commission.

In 1983, the coastal commission insisted Granite Rock apply for a coastal development permit. In response, the company sued the commission, claiming that mining on the mountain was regulated solely by a federal law, the Mining Law of 1872. The Department of the Interior — seeking to maintain its exclusive oversight of mining activities — joined Granite Rock in the lawsuit.

Meanwhile, the attorney generals of eight western states joined the coastal commission’s defense.

In a landmark 1987 decision that affirmed a state’s oversight of mining practices, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5 to 4 in favor of the coastal commission.

Granite Rock never did ask the coastal commission for a permit, and according to its president, Bruce Woolpert, the company is not actively engaged in any mining of Pico Blanco. But Woolpert believes that one day his company will again extract limestone from the mountain. And he believes it’s also possible the public’s perception about mining the mountain could change as well.

According to Woolpert, only a very limited supply of high grade limestone exists anywhere.

“The material from Pico Blanco has a very high concentration of calcium,” Woolpert explained. “We can’t create calcium. It has to come from somewhere.”

In addition to providing an ingredient essential in the production of concrete, calcium is used in medicines, cosmetics, food and the production of clear glass, he said.

“It will be 10 or 15 years before this issue raises its head,” Woolpert said. “This will be an issue for my children to deal with.”
Woolpert also believes it’s possible to extract limestone “in a way that doesn’t harm the environment.”

Seeing Pico Blanco up close

From an unmarked turnout along the Old Coast Road, the Little Sur Trail veers southeast. The trail has an easement along the south flank of Pico Blanco, offering hikers an intimate glimpse of the mountain. It takes about five miles of walking to reach Pico Blanco Camp (not to be confused with Pico Blanco Boy Scout Camp), a campsite for backpackers. Along the way, hikers are treated to striking outcroppings of white rock, which stands in sharp contrast to the earth tones of the landscape.

While Highway 1, the Little Sur Trail and Bottchers Gap (at the end of Palo Colorado Road) all offer excellent views of Pico Blanco, the East Molera Trail at Andrew Molera State Park provides a particularly impressive perspective. A steep hike of just under two miles will take you to a perfect picnic spot under a giant oak tree with a birds eye view of the mountain.

About 200 feet east of the picnic spot are 920 acres that Monning and VWA want to designate as a State Wilderness Area. When asked why the area is deserving of special protection, VWA president Tom Hopkins brings up the trail and its view of Pico Blanco.

“If you have ever hiked the East Molera Trail to the top of the coast ridge and gazed across the canyon of the South Fork to the spectacular crystalline marble summit of Pico Blanco, you know how special these wild lands are,” he said.