pablo estrada

Cone Peak, Ventana Wilderness

Part of the Los Padres National Forest, the Ventana Wilderness feels remote, shows off incredible views of the Pacific coastline and the Santa Lucia mountains, and contains a quite varied environment. It’s close enough to the San Francisco Bay Area to be accessible for one– or two–night outings.

At 5,164 feet, Cone Peak overlooks the ocean from just 3.2 miles off the coastline. Cone Peak is ringed by a few campsites and is a highlight of the Ventana Wilderness — and recent repairs to surrounding trails have improved accessibility. The ascent to the peak is steep enough to present a bit of a challenge, but not so steep to trigger regret when carrying a backpack and a day’s supply of water.

We spent two nights in the Ventana Wilderness, making it up to and then around Cone Peak. We left the San Francisco Bay Area on an October Friday morning and arrived at the trailhead by 1pm. We followed this route:

Day 1:

  • Drive to the west end of Nacimiento-Fergusson Road at Highway 1 near Kirk Creek Campground or the east end of the road at Fort Hunter Liggett.
  • Take Nacimiento-Fergusson Road to unpaved Cone Peak Road (watch for signs for Cone Peak and the road, also called Coast Ridge Road), and drive ~5.5 miles north. Note Cone Peak Road is closed due to weather during the rainy season. Park near the Cone Peak trailhead or alternatively closer to the Vicente Flat trialhead, on Cone Peak Road about one mile before the Cone Peak Trailhead.
  • Take Cone Peak trail to Cone Peak, then down to Trail Spring Campsite and onto Gamboa trail.
  • Follow Gamboa trail to Goat camp for the night. We chose this site because there’s usually water flowing from a stream about a quarter of a mile away. In the 2015 California drought, water access was especially important for a multi–day trip. If you’re planning to go during the dry season, check for water condition reports on the Ventana Wilderness Alliance forums.
  • Time: 05:51:11 hours, though we backtracked at one point and hiked about a mile more than necessary
  • Distance: 8.98 miles, including the backtracking
  • Ascent: 1,859.32 ft
  • Min/max altitude: 2,467.18 ft / 4,801.25 ft

Day 2:

  • Hike from Goat camp to Vicente Flat trail
  • Take Vicente Flat trail to Vicente Flat campground and camp there. Note there is usually water about a half mile from the camp site.
  • Time: 07:32:24 hours
  • Distance: 8.23 miles
  • Ascent: 1,365.82 ft
  • Min/max altitude: 1,527.11 ft / 2,553.76 ft

Day 3 (half day):

  • Hike on Vicente Flat trail from Vicente Flat campground to Cone Peak Road and back to the car
  • Time: 02:09:32 hours
  • Distance: 3.32 miles
  • Ascent: 1,845.56 ft
  • Min/max altitude: 1,602.94 ft / 3,332.28 ft

I used the Gaia GPS app on my iPhone to track our progress, and then exported the GPS data points into a custom Google map:

You can download a zip of my GPS files exported by the Gaia app.

We met few people along the trail, and we were the only ones staying at Goat camp on the night of Day 1. All along, we enjoyed solitude and only the sounds the forest and ocean wind brought us.

It took some time to piece together the information needed to plan this route. There is a lot of information online, but much of it is more than five years old. The sites below were some of the most useful for planning, especially for finding water sources and picking campsites:

An important tip we learned from the Ventana Wilderness forum was to bring mosquito head nets. Many large and pesky flies were thwarted by our nets as we continued along our way in peace.

At Vicente Flat campground we met volunteers who maintain the trails, clearing fallen trees, making sure signs and paths are easy to see, and putting in hard physical labor so that everyone can enjoy the forest. As we planned our route, we learned the trail conditions have varied quite a bit over the years, and in recent years roadblocks have been removed and the trail has been easier to follow in areas where previously one might have lost it.

I’m really grateful that the Ventana Wilderness is available to anyone, and for volunteers who keep it so accessible. I donated to the Ventana Wilderness Alliance and if you’ve enjoyed the forest, you might consider doing the same.

A Home–Built Analog Synthesizer

Music from Outer Space

Music from Outer Space, self–described as “your synth DIY headquarters,” is a fantastic place to spend hours learning about analog sound synthesis. Run by Ray Wilson, MFOS includes tutorials and guides on analog synthesizer theory & operation, has a collection of projects ranging from introductory single–purpose musical toys to advanced, cabinet–sized modular synths, and even has an online store that sells specialty parts and whole synthesizer kits. Many projects caution that at least a basic level of electronics proficiency and knowledge is assumed and projects do not have step-by-step instructions to follow. The site’s mid 90s–style design fits it perfectly. There’s even a warning on the home page for mobile users: “You may experience difficulties navigating MFOS using a mobile device…We have our top people working on this.” Awesome.

Sound Lab Mini–Synth

I built the Sound Lab Mini–Synth, described by MFOS as “fun for someone with intermediate to advanced electronics skills who wants to make cool sounds.” It has two VCOs, an LFO, a variable filter, a VCA, an attack–release envelope generator, and a noise generator—all on a single PC board. There are plenty of cool knobs and switches to play with, but not so many as to overwhelm someone new to synths.


MFOS includes artwork drawings to make PC boards from scratch, but you can also purchase naked etched boards for your project. This makes it easy to get started—and while you wait for the PC board to arrive you can order all the electronic components to complete the kit (and wait for those, too).

To get the most precise tuning performance, stick to the recommended tolerances for resistors and other components. Otherwise, you can substitute 5% for the recommended 1% tolerance components. Things will still work, though you may not get linear voltage across an octave range, for example.

Enclosure and Panel

MFOS provides a very useful panel wiring diagram and a suggested front panel design, and he also includes front panel designs contributed by other builders. Of course, if you use someone else’s front panel design, the panel wiring diagram from MFOS won’t directly apply, but it’s you can still use it as long as you’re methodical and double–check your work. MFOS doesn’t give any more guidance on enclosures other than the panel designs, so this means you have to make or find your own. The enclosure, and especially the panel, are a key part of the design and should be carefully considered.

I used a 6" x 12" x 2" bamboo drawer organizer from The Container Store to house the synth. Its open–top design allows a front panel to be easily fitted, and it costs only $7.

After studying the user–contributed panel designs on MFOS, I designed my own in Adobe Illustrator, mostly because I needed to fit the front panel to the drawer organizer’s top opening. I made the panel from 1/8" white acrylic. I’m lucky to have access to a laser engraver at my office. Here’s a preliminary test fitting with a few knobs, switches, and buttons in place:

This was the first time I tried to use the laser cutter to engrave (instead of just cut) on white acrylic, and I wasn’t sure how readable the engraved design would be the acrylic, so I first tried a few pieces of scrap acrylic. The laser engraver doesn’t burn acrylic like it does wood, so it was nearly unreadable because it doesn’t produce any contrast (like burnt wood edges) to show the lettering. I used black acrylic paint to fill in the engraved areas, quickly wiping off the excess with a cloth before it dried. I later realized it’s not necessary to quickly remove the excess before it dries, and I found it slightly easier to wait for the paint to dry, and then use a paper towel to scrub off the excess. Getting the paint into all the lettering’s nooks and crannies required two or three coats (and wiping), with final edits gently made with a very fine–tipped paint brush.

Close–up of the lettering:

Integration and Testing

The clean front panel design hides a mess of wires behind it. Assembling the panel starts off easily with the mounting of switches, knobs, and potentiometers. From then all the work is done on the underside. It’s a clean, organized start:

Midway through wiring:

It’s pretty busy once connected to the PC board:

After finishing wiring I applied power and started testing. Not everything worked exactly as expected, so I carefully rechecked every single wire from point to point. MFOS provides very useful troubleshooting information with instructions on PC board probe points and the expected voltage or waveform to verify on an oscilloscope. I found and corrected a couple of mis–routed wires and one incorrectly placed resistor (I misread the color bands).


Here’s a short video of the synth.

AM/FM Radio Update

The radio has been in operation for a while, sitting above the sink in the kitchen. It’s pre-programmed to a favorite FM station, so each time it’s turned on it is tuned to this station. It’s loud enough to be usable while cooking or running water in the sink.


I decided not to use a wooden hardboard enclosure because I don’t have the tools to make precise cuts into it. Instead, the enclosure is made of 1/8 inch white acrylic, laser–cut to make a box about 12"x6"x3". The speaker grill is made of a grid of tiny holes each about 2mm in diameter. I wasn’t sure if the laser cutter would be able to cut fine holes with enough precision they wouldn’t bleed into each other, and I wasn’t sure if the acrylic would be strong enough to hold together once the holes were cut. It worked out very well and the acrylic is surprisingly strong, even with the dense perforation of the holes.


The telescoping FM antenna receives local stations quite well. Sometimes it needs to be rotated to get very clear reception but this is usually easy and doesn’t require much trial and error.

The internal ferrite loop AM antenna is heavily affected by local noise. It’s frequency dependent, drowning out most of the lower half of the AM band including strong local stations like KNBR 680, sometimes called “The 50,000 Watt Flamethrower,” according to Wikipedia. The noise may be coupled in through the power supply. I’m using an inexpensive AC/DC adapter delivering 12V and up to 1.5A, and it’s probably unregulated and poorly filtered. When powering the radio through USB (via the Arduino directly), most of the noise goes away.

Improvements and What’s Next

AM reception could use a lot of improvement. I could find a quieter power supply or add filtering on the supply line. A higher quality antenna would probably help, too. Adding internal shielding could also mitigate noise being coupled in through wires and boards inside the enclosure.

While it’s fun to listen to local favorites, I also enjoy listening to distant radio stations, like WWOZ from New Orleans or the BBC. I’m thinking of overhauling the radio to add streaming audio, probably with a handful of pre–programmed stations instead of a searchable directory. I’m not sure the Arduino UNO can handle streaming audio, so this might require a different controller, and a (preferably wireless) network connection. Ideally, the radio would have AM/FM and streaming audio. A slightly bigger speaker would probably be in order—maybe even stereo?