At the Narrows of the Arroyo Seco River, Ventana Wilderness
At the Narrows of the Arroyo Seco River, Ventana Wilderness
Leor Pantilat at the Narrows of the Arroyo Seco River, in California’s Ventana Wilderness (Photo: Joey Cassidy)

The Big Sur Waterfall Project Is Top Secret

This retired professional ultrarunner has found (almost) every waterfall along this wild stretch of central California coast. And, no, he won’t tell you where the best ones are.

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I first learned about Leor Pantilat the way one learns about lots of things these days: while sitting on my couch and scrolling through Instagram. As an avid hiker and backpacker with decades of mileage in the wilds of California, I recognized the general features of the images he posted—the scoured granite of the Sierra Nevada and Trinity Alps, the poppy-littered ridges of the Coast Ranges, and the fern-strewn gorges of the Santa Lucia Mountains. But the vantages themselves were unfamiliar—rugged, even otherworldly.

Pantilat never revealed where his images were taken, and he rarely appeared in them. “I get flack sometimes,” he told me on the phone. “But some of these places are just way too sensitive to disclose to everyone.”

Years ago, Pantilat was a top-tier trail racer. For a while, he held the fastest known times on more than a dozen routes in California and Washington, including the John Muir Trail, the Lost Coast Trail, and the Sierra High Route, a grueling 200-mile traverse of the Sierra crest. Between 2008 and 2013, he won 36 of the 49 races he entered.

A typical training week consisted of 65 to 80 miles on the trail. “It also meant that I was constantly dealing with injuries—Achilles strains, IT-band soreness, you name it,” Pantilat said. Then, after placing third in a 50K in 2013, he gave up the racing scene. “I wasn’t having a whole lot of fun anymore. I felt like I was moving too quickly through all of these amazing places. I was going too fast to let it all sink in.”

These days, the 38-year-old, who works as a corporate attorney in San Carlos, California, goes at a relatively slower pace, mostly off-trail, seeking out and photographing destinations far from the weekend crowds. Rather than the longest distances or the biggest climbs, he’s after elegant routes to the most out-of-the-way places on the map. “It could be a canyon or a hanging valley, someplace that looks totally isolated,” Pantilat said. He meticulously pores over maps, looking for patterns in the contour lines that indicate deep gorges, towering cliffs, ragged spires, and other severe landscapes that, to his eye, are places of scenic grandeur. “You can tell a lot about how beautiful a place is going to be,” he said, “just by looking carefully at a topo map.”

Several years ago, Pantilat set out to find and document as many unnamed waterfalls in central California’s Big Sur as he could. To date he has found more than 150, from small pour-offs to towering 100-foot cascades. He calls it the Big Sur Waterfall Project. Getting to many of these places requires a host of skills, from bouldering to route finding through complex terrain. It also demands supreme endurance, strength, and, occasionally, a measure of luck. It entails hours of careful preparation, research, and conversations with people who intimately know the Big Sur backcountry. “I don’t claim to have discovered any of these waterfalls,” he told me. “Indigenous people were living, hunting, and gathering in what is today the Ventana Wilderness for millennia before us. But I don’t doubt that I’m the first person to see some of these places in a long, long time.”

Against my better judgment, I asked to join him for a day. He said it was possible on one condition: that I didn’t reveal our destination. I agreed. To ease his mind—or perhaps my own—about my ability, I mentioned that in years past I had done some strenuous canyoneering in Utah. Pantilat seemed unimpressed. “There are ticks and leg-breaking obstacles,” he said. “A lot of the hikes are not really what most people would call fun.”

Above the clouds on Cone Peak, in the Ventana Wilderness
Above the clouds on Cone Peak, in the Ventana Wilderness (Joey Cassidy)

On a cloudy January morning, I set out to meet Pantilat at a dirt pullout along Highway 1. The Santa Lucia Mountains were swathed in green after recent rains. Along the roadside, cascades poured from narrow defiles toward the Pacific. Big Sur is a marvel of topography, a titanic clash of ocean and cliff. Here, Cone Peak rises precipitously up 5,155 feet from the roiling waves below. And yet the vast majority of the area’s nearly six million annual visitors rarely stray more than a few feet from these roadside pullouts. Those who do set out on the region’s famously steep trails, and even fewer dare wander away from designated routes, leaving the bulk of Big Sur’s more than a quarter-million acres of wilderness virtually untouched.

When I arrived, Pantilat was rummaging through the back of his Subaru. He wore blue tights and a running vest with two holstered water bottles. Standing at five foot seven and weighing 135 pounds, he is slight but powerful. “It should be a good day,” Pantilat said. His angular features and stubble-less face give him a boyish, almost impish look. “Partly cloudy and warm but no rain.”

Caffeine-deprived and groggy after my previous night’s drive from the Bay Area to a motel in the fog-swept town of San Simeon, I hastily tossed some snacks and two water bottles into my pack. Pantilat, who had made the four-hour journey south from his home in San Carlos that morning, was fully awake and appeared to be in race mode. My suspicion was confirmed as he launched himself up the trail at an ibex’s pace. Almost immediately, I was out of breath and struggled to carry on a conversation as we negotiated the steep hillside.

We soon left the established trail and descended into a rugged, forested gorge that would consume us for the next few hours. Picking our way down the slope, we emerged in an amphitheater of house-size boulders through which a blue-green stream meandered. Alders and ferns clung to the vertical walls. “The creek is our trail from here,” he said. Then he plunged waist-deep into the water. “It’s cold, but just embrace it.”

Pantilat grew up in Sammamish, Washington, a small town at the foot of the Cascades. As a kid, he would go out for days at a time with his dad, learning to navigate ice and glaciers on climbs of the region’s jagged summits. In college, Pantilat ran track and cross-country at Rice University. He was a middle-distance guy, competing in events ranging from the 800 meters to the 10K. But his college-running career was unremarkable. “I was a head case,” he said. “I cared too much about what other people thought of me.”

After school, Pantilat returned home to Washington, where he set the fastest known time on Mount Olympus, in 2009. “I climbed Olympus from the Hoh Rain Forest Trailhead in under 12 hours. It takes most people four or five days,” he said. Three years later, with friend and local running star Uli Steidl, he clocked the FKT on a demanding mountaineering route called the Ptarmigan Traverse. These days FKTs are in vogue, but back then, the concept was in its infancy. When Pantilat would share details of his adventures on forums like Cascade Climbers, he was criticized by people who felt that his fast-paced excursions were at odds with the core principles of wilderness travel. “They would say things like, ‘What are runners doing on mountaineering routes?’ or ‘They’re going too fast to enjoy themselves.’ How do they know whether I’m enjoying myself or not? It all felt pretty judgmental.”

Above the clouds on Cone Peak, in the Ventana Wilderness
Atop Cone Peak (Joey Cassidy)
Along the North Ridge of Cone Peak
Along the north ridge of Cone Peak (Joey Cassidy)
Cinnamon Falls, in the Silver Peak Wilderness
Cinnamon Falls, in the Silver Peak Wilderness (Joey Cassidy)

Long-time hiking companion Joey Cassidy said he has never met someone as full of curiosity as Pantilat. Sometimes that can be tough for whoever happens to be with him. “He’ll go up a mountain just to see a grove of trees,” Cassidy said. “I’ll be with him and I’ll say, ‘I’m tired. We’ve already climbed 8,000 vertical feet. We’ve been out here for six hours already.’ And he’ll say, ‘Yeah, but there’s this grove of firs over here.’”

“He never gets tired, because he’s obviously very fit,” Cassidy added. “But it’s also his level of excitement that keeps him floating all day.”

It’s that combination of racer’s drive and passion for exploration that has allowed Pantilat to reach places across California and the Pacific Northwest that few have seen. His speed and endurance allow him to go extremely light. “I can get pretty much anywhere in the Sierra within 24 hours,” he says. Which is good, because the sights he seeks are hardly permanent features. Many of Big Sur’s waterfalls dry up just days after a rain. Climate change, which has fueled the state’s two-decade drought and spate of megafires, has increased the challenge and the urgency. Many ravines are choked with downed trees, some scorched by fire, others stressed by heat and drought. Some spring-fed waterfalls that flowed year-round as recently as a decade ago are now intermittent, says Pantilat, as the prolonged dry spell has greatly diminished surface and groundwater across the Santa Lucia Range.

“Leor has an important, eyes-on-the-ground perspective,” said Matthew Michie, a biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Since 2015, Michie has been studying fish populations in Big Sur’s coastal streams. Before then, Michie said, there was virtually no data on most of these waterways, due largely to their small size and rugged and remote locations. Mitchie has reached out to Pantilat on several occasions for information about waterfalls that might prevent spawning steelhead from moving upstream. “He’s got a better bead on what’s going on, long-term, in a lot of these places than we do.”

Another one of Pantilat’s extended projects is to document as many glacier-fed lakes in the Sierra as he can. So far he’s visited around 55. He estimates that there are some 20 more that he still hasn’t seen. What makes these lakes unique, he explained, is their color—a vivid, almost electric aquamarine, the result of glacial flour, a fine powder of dust produced by active glaciers as they grind over their rocky beds. But like the waterfalls in Big Sur, the glaciers of the Sierra are rapidly fading and therefore so are the colors of many of the lakes. “I’ve been to some that have begun to lose their aqua color as the flour settles out,” he said. “Others are hanging in there, even though the snow and ice has disappeared or appears stagnant.”

Last fall, Pantilat’s wife, Erica, who is also an avid trail runner, gave birth to their first child. Becoming a father has given Pantilat a new sense of urgency. He hopes his adventuring, photography, and activism can bring more awareness to the fragility of California’s public lands and help to preserve such landscapes long enough for his daughter to see them. “Many of the places I’m documenting will be gone by the time she’s old enough to visit,” he said.

The threats to Big Sur go well beyond climate change. On our hike, we come across tangled bouquets of black, flexible plastic pipe strewn along the creek and high up the canyon walls. They were the remains, Pantilat figured, of an illegal marijuana grow, something that has long proliferated across Big Sur and the Coast Ranges.

A few years ago, he found a grow site while doing some online scouting of a route near Cone Peak. Pantilat said he alerted land managers at the U.S. Forest Service about the problem. “It was huge,” he said. “You could see the terraces in Google Earth.” But officials from the agency failed to intervene, he said—inaction that proved costly. In 2020, a fire set by an illegal marijuana grower near the site exploded into the Dolan Fire, which burned 128,000 acres and destroyed 14 buildings. He believes the problem was exacerbated by the Forest Service’s lack of funding. Pantilat, who is a volunteer board member of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance, a nonprofit whose mission is to protect the natural resources of the Santa Lucia Range, pointed out that, at the time, the Monterey district of the Los Padres National Forest, which spans an area of 325,000 acres, had no wilderness rangers and only one law-enforcement ranger.

In a statement to Outside, the Forest Service did not directly address Pantilat’s claim that the agency failed to handle the grow sites. “Illegal marijuana grows are an ongoing challenge, and the agency takes all investigations very seriously and conducts them with the resources we have available while leveraging our partnerships,” the agency said via email. An investigation into the Dolan Fire, the agency noted, resulted in an arrest and a conviction. In the two years since the fire, the Los Padres National Forest has made several hires, bringing it up to full staff.

A rare heavy snowfall on Cone Peak, a.k.a. Snow Cone
A rare heavy snowfall on Cone Peak, a.k.a. Snow Cone (Joey Cassidy)

After an hour of boulder hopping and wading, a hoot came from Pantilat up ahead. Then I saw it—an arc of water surging through a cleft 30 or 40 feet above us. A fine mist hung in the air. Trembling ferns ringed an emerald green pool, which, in the filtered light, appeared bottomless. “Beautiful!” said Pantilat as he tapped out dozens of photographs on his iPhone. “Look at this!” he said. “I mean, come on.” The fact that this cataract was number 150-something on his list clearly had not diminished his enthusiasm.

It soon became apparent, however, that we were not the first ones to have found this place. A group of knotted and decaying climbing ropes dangled from the canyon wall. We took a hasty lunch of granola bars and water and weighed our options, which we whittled down to two: climb the ropes or find a route through the steep and impossibly overgrown walls of the gorge.

A quick bit of scouting revealed that the fraying but mostly intact ropes were tied to the trunk of a tree clinging to a ledge 25 feet overhead. It looked sketchy at best. I took hold of the ropes and gave them a tug. They seemed reasonably sturdy. I hoisted myself up, but my feet could not find purchase on the mist-slickened rocks. “Let’s bail on this,” Pantilat said, tossing the ropes aside. “I don’t like it.” He looked for alternatives, tracing with a finger a thin arête overgrown with blackberry and ferns, which jutted almost vertically from the base of the falls. He clearly perceived a way through, but I could not see it. “Looks a little brushy,” I said, hoping to dissuade him.

“It’s going to be a lot brushy,” he said.

We waded across the stream to the base of the cliff. Pantilat kicked a few footholds into the moist soil and then grabbed hold of an exposed root, pulling himself skyward. Within seconds, he had worked his way up the slope and into the belly of a small shrub. Looking down from his leafy perch, spilling dirt and twigs onto the brim of my hat, he said, “I think this is the safe choice. But it’s going to be messy.”

I inched up, grinding precarious steps in the leaf litter with the toes of my running shoes. After a few tense minutes, I made it to a small ledge on the steep and unstable face, 100 feet above the creek. Pantilat started up again and I followed. Soon I was pressed tight to the near vertical slope, awash in the resiny scent of poison oak and the lemony tang of nettles. A millipede twisted its way into the dark mire of decaying organic material. A fall would almost certainly be fatal. Lacking handholds, I reached for a branch jutting from a downed tree. Then came a crack and a grinding sound, as the entirety of the 50-foot log pulled free from its rotten roots. Reflexively, I let go as it slid toward the void. I looked around and noticed that this was one of dozens of tan oaks that had succumbed to sudden oak death, a fungal blight fueled by warming temperatures that has ravaged stands of the trees across California.

Waterfalls of Big Sur
Waterfalls of Big Sur (Leor Pantilat)
Waterfalls of Big Sur
(Leor Pantilat)
Waterfalls of Big Sur
(Leor Pantilat)
Waterfalls of Big Sur
(Leor Pantilat)
Waterfalls of Big Sur
(Leor Pantilat)

At this point, I felt a sensation I will not soon forget—that of the earth disintegrating beneath my feet. In an attempt to self-arrest, I kicked both feet forward and jammed both hands into the soil, which had the consistency of dry chocolate cake. I managed to slow myself slightly. Desperate, I pressed my chin into the ground to create a fifth point of contact. Somehow, the loam held and my momentum ceased. With a surge of adrenaline, I clawed upward through the thicket, my churning feet sending a cascade of leaves, dirt, and rock into the roaring ravine. I looked and saw the shadow of Pantilat in a woody tangle, his pale face set against the dark woods beyond. “Welcome to bushwhacking in Big Sur,” he said, adding that our slithering ascent was tame in comparison to other “workarounds” he’s finagled on previous waterfall adventures. “Glad I came on an easy one,” I said. But he was already gone, a rustle and a blur in the understory.

Eventually, the slope relented and our locomotion became less labored. We reached a clearing where we were faced with another choice: climb another 150 vertical feet to the established trail or make a descending traverse to get above the waterfall and back into the gorge. “Up to you,” I said, hoping he would choose the former. “Let’s go down,” said Pantilat. “It would be a shame to stop now. Plus, I’m pretty sure that was the crux.”

The next stretch of the gorge, mercifully, offered no major impediments. It was also beautiful. Blue-green water sluiced through deep pools and beneath dripping springs overhung with ferns. Visions of Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan,” where the River Alph runs “Through caverns measureless to man / Down to a sunless sea,” came to mind. By the time our hunt was over a few hours later, we had seen close to a dozen major cascades and waterfalls. The finale was a gorgeous 75-foot fall tucked into the cleft of a mountainside, perfectly composed and concealed.

As we climbed up and out of the gorge, my quads and calves burned, and I was covered head to toe in Big Sur’s fragrant detritus. I was beat. Pantilat, however, was moving more quickly than he had all day, and I could not keep pace. His pauses became less frequent, then nonexistent. The last glimpse I caught of him before we met later at the cars came in a clearing—a striding silhouette, tiptoeing down a steep grade against the blue canvas of the Pacific.