Big Sur Coast #01

April 09, 2021  •  1 Comment

MARCH 2021

4 Days on the Central California Coast (Big Sur) #01

This travel-blog is for a 4 day trip from our home in the San Francisco Bay area, down to the Big Sur area in March 2021.  We stayed the 3 nights at the Big Sur Lodge which is pretty much in the middle of the Big Sur Coastal Region.

Entire Trip map
01 Map Full Trip01 Map Full Trip

Detail of places mentioned along Central (Big Sur) Coast
02 Map Central Coast02 Map Central Coast

One Year Later

It was almost exactly 1 year earlier that we took our last trip which was just prior to the COVID-19 lockdowns.  Who would have thought that it would take a full year before the light at the end of the tunnel even came into view.  This isn’t to say that we are out of the dark tunnel but we can see the end.  Vaccinations are well underway (now that we have a competent government in the White House), Ellen and I have both had both of our doses more than two weeks earlier, and spring was around the corner.  So, even though we had not been to a dine-in restaurant for over a year and are still wearing masks and using gloves when punching in numbers on public key pads or wrangling gas pump handles, we decided that the time had come to venture out into the world, just a bit, to see how things go.  Not to mention a March birthday ending in a zero for Ellen. 

We thought about this a bit and decided pretty quickly that we are still not ready to navigate airports and sit in a (supposedly well ventilated) metal tube with 300 strangers for many hours.  We also wanted to start easy with just a few days – sort of a test run – and be close enough to home in order to be able to bail at any time and get home the same day.  This of course limited our options to a driving trip in the 300-500 mile range.  So, as it was still winter in the mountains (and we’re not winter people), our choices were either the rugged coast north of San Francisco (Marin, Sonoma and Mendocino counties), or the world class Central California Coast south of Monterey (Commonly called the Big Sur Coast). 

As my wife's dad lives in Sonoma County, we tend to go north more often than south, and we hadn’t been to the Big Sur area since 2011, so we decided to go down there and booked 3 nights in the Big Sur Lodge in a cabin with a kitchen (so we could avoid restaurants most of the time), living room with fireplace, and separate bedroom.

We left Palo Alto mid morning so as to get to the North end of the Big Sur Coast around lunch time where we could gas up and eat in Monterey, Carmel, or Pacific Grove.  We pulled into Carmel around lunch time but even on a weekday it was just too crowded – couldn’t even find a parking space, so we headed further down to Pacific Grove which is much less pretentious, is less expensive and one can find parking places.  We found a charming little restaurant in an old Victorian house with both indoor and outdoor seating.  However, upon inquiry discovered that the heaters in the outdoor section were all out of propane and as it was pretty chilly we decided to do our first indoor dining experience in over a year.  We also discovered that in that year technology had passed us by once more.  As it turns out, there are no more paper menus.  Now you only get a laminated card on the table with a QR code.  One scans the QR code with your smart phone and you read the menu on line.  Assuming of course that your phone is not in the car and after going to get it, discovering that the phone’s camera does not react to QR codes as the phone is too old.  Even the waiter couldn’t get it to work.  So he recited the menu to us verbally – which he couldn’t do very well and resented having to do at all.  What a waste of time and quite inconvenient.  Come, on guys, print a few paper menu’s for us dinosaurs.  But, we got fed, filled the gas tank and headed into the target area.

Big Sur Coast

The Big Sur Coast in Central California is generally thought of as extending 71 miles from just south of Monterey Bay down to around San Simeon. Along this stretch of rugged coast line, the Santa Lucia Mountains rise directly out of the Pacific Ocean to a height of nearly 6,000 feet, making for one of the most spectacular coastlines one will ever see.

Sometimes these dramatic seaside cliffs have eroded into sea stacks (small rocky islands just off the mainland) and many of these have subsequently formed sea caves and sea tunnels.  I presume most of these have names, but for the most part people just refer to them by what beach or river they are nearest to.  They are literally all along this coast.  Pull off the road in one of the many parking areas and look closely – you’re very likely to see one.  Depending on the direction of the arch, in some cases early or late in the day the sun illuminates the inside of the arch making for a very dramatic scene.

Around every curve along this stretch of 2 lane road one will find a stunning view, each one surpassing the previous one.  One will also find dense redwood forests, hidden (and not so hidden) beaches, waterfalls, sea stacks caves and arches, flowing streams and an iconic bridge.  What’s amazing is that all of this is within a few hours drive for about 7 million people who live in the San Francisco or Los Angeles areas – not to mention the thousands of visitors from across the world.

It is among the top 35 tourist destinations world-wide and receives about the same number of visitors as Yosemite National Park, but offers only limited bus service, few restrooms, and a narrow two-lane highway that for most of its length clings to the steep coastal cliffs.

As one can easily imagine the ruggedness that makes this coast so visually awesome also made it impossible to traverse in older times.  Due to this most transport during those times was done with boats going up and down the western edge of North America or along “roads” set up by the Spanish missionaries to get from mission to mission which for the most part were on the east side of the coast range.  This mission to mission road was (and in many places still is) called “El Camino Real” (the Kings Road) and is roughly the route of US-101 today. 

During that time, what is now the Big Sur coast was left to the Native Americans.  The actual coast was mapped to some degree to aid nautical shipping but beyond what you could see from a ship at sea, not much was known about the area.  And, this brings us to the name “Big Sur”.

Like the names of most things in the southern half of California, the name “Big Sur” comes from the Spanish.  The original Spanish-language name for the mountainous terrain south of Monterey was El País Grande del Sur, which means "the big country of the south."  Later, English-speaking settlers anglicized and shortened the name to just "Big Sur" as the name for their post office which then became the name for the entire area.

Little Sur river meets the Pacific
Little Sur River meets the seaLittle Sur River meets the sea

Crashing Waves
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California Route 1

Other than a strip of land along the coast, most of the land to the east, including the Santa Lucia Mountains is the Ventana Wilderness.  The only road that services the Big Sur area is California Rt-1 running North-South hugging the coast between Carmel Highlands (just south of Carmel and Monterey) and Cambria (just south of Hearst Castle in San Simeon).  Between these two end points there are no roads going over the mountains toward the east and unless you have a boat or plane going west is quite damp. 

The interior region is mostly uninhabited and the sparse year-round population (around 1,800 people) are scattered along the lower western slope of the mountain range.  Other than 4 small settlements near Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park there are no villages or settlements and even those 4 settlements are really not more than a restaurant, gas station, campground and sometimes a motel.

The region was considered one of the most inaccessible areas of both California and the entire United States until 1937 when – after 18 years of construction - the Carmel-San Simeon Highway (now labeled CA route 1) was completed.  California Rt-1 through this area has rightfully been called the "longest and most scenic stretch of undeveloped coastline in the contiguous United States" and "one of the most beautiful coastlines anywhere in the world”.  Quite a reputation - but accurate and well deserved.  While officially it is a portion of California Route 1, when built it was known as the Carmel San Simeon Highway.  In Los Angeles the road right along the water is known as the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) so many folks from that area just apply the same name for the portions further north even though that is not technically correct.

Along with the ocean views, this winding, narrow road, had to be cut into the face of towering seaside cliffs in places and with numerous bridges over rivers crashing down the steep slope of the Santa Lucia mountains.  The highway was actually considered quite an engineering feat as most prior studies had declared a coast highway through the area impossible to build. 

With such a precarious landscape to plant a road on, keeping the road open is a constant battle.  The highway has been closed more than 55 times by landslides.  In May 2017, a landslide blocked the highway at Mud Creek near the San Luis Obispo County line. The road was closed for 16 months and reopened in July, 2018 only to be closed again in late January 2021 by another even bigger landslide.  Even though CalTrans (California state roads department) had been working around the clock to stabilize the mountains after the August 2020 Dolan Fire, a strong winter storm washed a big chunk of the road south of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park at Rat Creek into the Pacific Ocean.  So, now a 23 mile stretch of highway 1 is closed to traffic with a re-opening date of April or May of 2021.  Of course there is always a bright side.  With the highway closed, no traffic can come into the Big Sur area from the Los Angeles area without going all the way up to Monterey first.  This has greatly reduced the tourist congestion which is good, unless you’re trying to run a business there.

The suggested direction of travel for sightseeing is heading south from Carmel.  This puts the Pacific Ocean (where the dramatic scenery is) on your right.  This also puts 95% of the pull offs, vista points, and scenic overlooks on your right which makes it much easier to pull into a parking area on the spur of the moment than having to make a left turn across what could be a steady stream of traffic.  No matter which way you head on the road, be sure to take a look behind you as you go as sometimes the view looking the other way is better than the one in front of you.  Many a time I’ve glanced over my shoulder and spied a sea arch or dramatic cove which wasn’t visible from my direction of travel.

Typical rocky coastline scene
Big Sur Coast North of Bixby Br.Big Sur Coast North of Bixby Br.

State Parks and Hikes

From a terrain perspective, the Big Sur Coast starts with Point Lobos State Park which sits between Carmel By the Sea on its north side and Carmel Highlands on its south side.  Now don’t be confused by the name.  Carmel Highlands is not high up on the mountainside.  It is right along the coast highway – so why it’s called highlands is a mystery.  However it is a fully developed suburb, so I don’t really consider the Big Sur scenic road to start till after you pass through Carmel Highlands. 

Even though we didn’t stop at Point Lobos on this trip I’ll talk just a bit about it.  Its main feature is that it is always either closed or crowded.  It is quite scenic once you get inside with Monterey Cypress and Monterey Pine forests, rocky coastline, tide pools, rocky coves, and sandy beaches with plenty of hikes and trails.  However even somewhat off season and in the middle of the week they have to meter the cars entering the park using “a one out – one in method” resulting in a long line of cars idling on the shoulder of CA-1 waiting to get in.  Sometimes the wait is measured in hours.  To make matters worse – at least for photographers - they don’t open till somewhat after sunrise and start shooing people out before sunset  which are the best times for photographing the spectacular scenery.  So, by all means go if you’ve never been before but go in the middle of the week in mid winter and don’t expect to be able to be there for sunset (or sunrise for that matter).

Once you get south of Carmel Highlands, you’ll find yourself out in nature.  As you proceed you’ll come across a string of state parks with many miles of trails, interspersed between widely spaced private homes evidenced by the end of a long driveway going either down toward the ocean or up into the mountains, or a mailbox or sometimes a privacy fence.  However, most of the time what houses there are tend to be well hidden from road.

All along the road, even outside of the parks, there are many places where there is enough shoulder to pull off the road and find a trail out to the cliff edge or down to the water or on the other side up into the mountains.  These are well used by surfers and divers as well as just plain tourists.  Just look for some cars parked alongside the road for no apparent reason and you can be sure there’s a path to some scenic overlook or down to some sort of beach.  One caution for these non “park” trails is that many are just a narrow gap through the vegetation (unmaintained other than just by people walking on them) and much of that “vegetation” is poison oak.  So, try not to brush up against the plants, wear long pants, and use both preventative and post contact topical or you’ll have a very uncomfortable night later on.  Poison Oak is also along the trails in the parks, but those trails are usually wider allowing you to avoid contact with the plants.

Crashing Waves

The central California coast, geologically speaking, is a jumble of rock masses from literally dozens, if not hundreds, of different places.  The chunks of crust you find here have ridden a long series of geologic plates from different parts of the world and been jumbled up here as those plates slid under the North American plate more or less scraping off what was on top and piling it all up in what are now the Santa Lucia Mountains.  At the same time, rough seas and heavy winter storms have been eroding these mountains and coastline washing the looser soil and small rocks out to sea and leaving bigger chunks in the crashing surf. 

No matter where you stop you will see waves crashing into half submerged rocks or the cliffs that rise directly out of the ocean.  On calm days the water more swirls around the rocks but on rougher days the sea crashes over these rock formations in a rather dramatic fashion.

Calm waves at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Julia Pfeiffer Burns SP coast 2Julia Pfeiffer Burns SP coast 2

Churning surf flowing over wall of rock
Big Sur SurfBig Sur Surf

Sometimes you can feel a wave hitting a rock head on
Wave on RockWave on Rock

Garapata State Park

The first State Park you come to after Point Lobos is Garapata State Park.  Like most of the parks along this road it was someone’s ranch not too long ago and many “ranch” things like old barns and machinery are still present.  Unlike most of the State Parks in the area, Garapata doesn’t have its own “park road” into the park or any sort of entry gate or pay station.  It is just a series of parking strips along CA-1 that have trails leading away from the road.  One of the most popular is the bluffs trail which follows the top of the cliff edge with dramatic scenes.  There are also trails leading up into the mountains on the east side of CA-1. 

We stopped at the Sorbanes Trailhead, which is about in the middle of the park.  On Google Maps this is marked as Sorbanes Point Trails: Gate 8.  There’s another “Sorbanes Point Trails” gate further south.  We had been informed of an old barn a short distance up the trail to the east so decided to give it a try.  Turns out the barn wasn’t that old and was corrugated metal.  Not too bad but not what I was expecting.  However, near the barn was a nice scene of the trail going through a canopy of trees.

(Not so old) barn
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Sorbanes Canyon Trail (just east of gate 8)
Garapata State Park TrailGarapata State Park Trail

On the coast side of CA-1, the Bluffs trail comes very close to the highway at gate 8 so we took a walk out to the edge.  Our trip this year was the day after a rainstorm had blown through the central California area (including the Bay area) and the storm left behind a somewhat thick fog which gave the views quite a mysterious soft appearance.  Sometimes the fog was too thick to drive more than 25mph but at other times thinned out enough to see a mile or so.  As it turned out, even though there was no ground fog over by the barn, just across the road on the bluffs side, it was still socked in.

Foggy coastline from Bluffs Trail
Foggy day at Garapata State ParkFoggy day at Garapata State Park

On the stroll back to the car we met a full wedding party consisting of maybe 15 to 20 people coming down the trail the other way in full wedding attire including spike heels (on the muddy trail), strapless dresses covering shivering young women, men in tuxedo’s and one photographer in hiking boots and a warm jacket.  But, as cold they were, everyone looked happy.

Notley’s Landing Viewpoint

Continuing to the south our next stop was at Notley’s Landing viewpoint.  Like most viewpoints, trails and beaches this one is not marked with a name.  I was only able to determine the name after we got home using GPS coordinates and Google Maps.  As it turned out there was a big sea tunnel visible through the fog from this pull off.  The ocean was still quite rough from the storm with large waves that crashed into a little cove – totally covering it in a mass of white just in front of the sea tunnel.

Wave Crashing into cove through fog at Notley’s Landing
Rough Sea on Foggy Day near Big SurRough Sea on Foggy Day near Big Sur

Sea Cave at Notley’s Landing
Arch and Rough Sea on Foggy Day near Big SurArch and Rough Sea on Foggy Day near Big Sur

Bixby Bridge

A bit further south from Notley’s is the famous, and photographically iconic, Bixby Creek Bridge, commonly referred to as just “Bixby Bridge”.  It is one of the most photographed bridges not only in California but in the world due to its aesthetic design, graceful architecture and magnificent setting.

Prior to the completion of the bridge residents of the Big Sur area to the south were virtually cut off during winter due to blockages on the often impassable Old Coast Road which led 11 miles inland.  When completed in 1932, at a cost of under $200k ($3.2 million in 2019 collars), it was the longest concrete arch span in the California State Highway System (360 feet) and also the highest single-span arch bridge in the world and it remains one of the tallest.  In fact at 260 feet it is 40 feet higher than the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

Interestingly, the two massive, vertical buttresses (supporting pillars) on either side of the arch, while aesthetically pleasing, are functionally unnecessary and were placed there to make the bridge look more substantial.  An alternate plan for a bridge upstream would have required an 890 ft. tunnel along with a 250 ft. bridge, but it was rejected in favor of the current bridge location closer to the sea.  Some of the reasons were that the upstream plan would have been less safe, less scenic and more destructive to the environment.  

The next planning decision was what to make the bridge out of.  The debate over a steel bridge vs. a concrete bridge went in favor of the concrete design which would cost less in materials, would be easier to maintain, would fit in better aesthetically with the terrain, and would allow more of the bridge cost to be paid to workers rather than suppliers.  After all it was the depression and the New Deal.  Let’s hope we can get back to valuing people over profits.

While the bridge was completed in 1932, the actual highway was not completed until 1937.  So, even though there was this wonderful new bridge, what traffic there was still had to contend with the Old Coast Road (dirt in summer, a muddy bog – and closed - in winter) which meandered 11 miles inland.  This old road was one lane in most places (just one lane, not one lane each way),  And, to put things in perspective, the 30-mile trip from Carmel to what is now Andrew Molera State Park (10 miles south of Bixby Bridge) would take three days by wagon or stagecoach.

Bixby Creek Bridge from North end pull off
Bixby BridgeBixby Bridge  

Bixby Bridge from east on Old Coast Road
East view of Bixby BridgeEast view of Bixby Bridge

Bixby Bridge from pullout south of the bridge
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Old Coast Road

From Bixby Bridge to Andrew Molera State Park is an 8 mile drive along CA-1.  Along the way are many scenic pull offs.  The photo of the Little Sur River meeting the ocean near the top of this article was taken in this section.  A naval installation at Point Sur including the unimpressive Point Sur lighthouse (check the Internet for occasional guided tours of the lighthouse) is also along this section. 

However, if it hasn’t rained in several days, you have 4WD vehicle with decent ground clearance, won’t need a bathroom for several hours, and are up for an adventure, you should consider the Old Coast Road.  This is the 1 lane, dirt/mud road that preceded the opening of CA-1 which provides views of the Bixby bridge from the east side, goes through several old growth, never logged Redwood forests, does not skimp on sharp curves and is quite a scenic drive.  Do not start this drive past mid afternoon or if it has rained in the last day or two.  Don’t even think about it at night.  You will not see many houses (I think we saw two), there are no services, and on our drive (started at 11:00 am on a Sunday) we saw exactly 1 other car through the entire 12 miles.

The north end of this road connects to CA-1 right at the North end of Bixby Bridge.  It climbs up the north side of Bixby canyon for a bit under ½ mile providing several views of the bridge from the east side.  This section of road is mostly 2 lanes and not muddy.  Even if you don’t intend to drive the whole thing this section is worth the views of the bridge from the “other” side. 

From there the road narrows, and drops down into the valley eventually crossing Bixby creek 1 mile from where you started at CA-1. 

Bixby Creek from Old Coast Road bridge
Bixby River from Old coast roadBixby River from Old coast road

From there the road starts up the other side of the canyon and starts going through several patches of old growth Redwood forests.  In a few heavily shaded low spots what was a hard pack dirt road morphs into a muddy swamp,  Our sunny Sunday was 4 days since it had rained and the mud was maybe 4 inches deep in places.  Drivable with 4WD but I wouldn’t chance it with a 2WD vehicle.  Just take it fast enough to not get stuck and slow enough to maintain directional control.  If you’ve driven in 3 or 4 inches of snow much (you east coasters) this is about the same and comforting how quickly it all comes back to you.

Old Coast Road through one of several forest areas.
Old Coast Road through old growth forestOld Coast Road through old growth forest

Eventually you rise up onto a plateau of private ranch land (and pass one of the two houses we saw) with wide open meadowland carpeting the rolling hills.  At this point you are pretty high up on the flank of the mountains.  After a few more turns, the ranch land gives way to the natural scrub vegetation and you start getting vista’s all the way to the coast.

View to the Pacific from Old Coast Road
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Andrew Molera SP beach from Old Coast Rd.
Andrew Molera State Park beachAndrew Molera State Park beach

From here the road drops down and rejoins CA-1 right across from the entrance to Andrew Molera State Park where you can find a bathroom.  Speaking of bathrooms – if you decide to take the Old Coast road in the other direction, starting at Andrew Molera State Park, when you arrive a Bixby Bridge at the other end there will be no bathroom.  Our journey on the Old coast road was about 2.5 to 3 hours including photo stops.

Andrew Molera State Park

Like many of the State Parks and preserves along the California coast, the Andrew Molera State Park was recently a private ranch subsequently donated to the state.  It is located where the Big Sur River meets the Pacific Ocean and is mostly an undeveloped park. 

The property was part of the Rancho El Sur land grant, and later owned by California pioneer John Bautista Rogers Cooper and his descendants.  Cooper's grandchildren Andrew and Frances Molera inherited the property in 1918 and popularized artichokes in California.  Andrew died in 1931 and in 1965, Frances sold the property to The Nature Conservancy, stipulating that the park to be created should be named for her brother.  The park has miles of trails, beaches, a walk in campground and “the most reliable surfing area in Big Sur”.  In the winter they take out the bridges so to get to the beach entails wading across the Big Sur River which looked to be over knee high (we didn’t).

Having been a working farm/ranch as recently as 1965, many of the buildings are still present.  Some of these buildings are now used for various environmental groups such as Ventana Wildlife Society.  The oldest building on the property (and in the entire Big Sur area) is the Cooper Cabin built in 1861.

The White Barn
Andrew Molera State ParkAndrew Molera State Park

Oak tree in field in front of White Barn
Oak, Andrew Molera State ParkOak, Andrew Molera State Park

Main ranch road – hiking trail
Andrew Molera State Park 2Andrew Molera State Park 2

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

About in the middle of Andrew Molera State Park, CA-1 starts following the Big Sur River and veers away from the coast.  The Big Sur river goes up a valley which is for the most part parallel to the coast but behind a ridge.  This causes a distinct change from being right along the ocean part of the highway.  For one thing that ridge cuts off the incessant wind that one finds right on the coast.  The second feature once you get in behind the ridge is that the climate is much more hospitable to the growth of Redwood trees.

It is along this section that you will find the only real services between Carmel and San Simeon.  There are four clusters of businesses along this stretch in between sections of forest.  Each one basically consists of a gas station, eating establishment, gift shop, and a campground and/or rustic motel.  If you plan to overnight in the area, this is where you’ll wind up.  Make reservations well in advance as once spring hits, the entire area is sold out till late fall.  This is also the area you’ll come to for a meal or to spend some time in a bar.

All the restaurants offer outdoor dining and take out and a couple had an indoor dining room open at limited occupancy due to the pandemic.  The menu choices were somewhat limited and maybe 25% to 50% more expensive than the same thing in Pacific Grove. 

Near the south end of this stretch, just before the road diverges from the river and climbs over the ridge back to the coast you’ll find Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.  The park has a large campground as well as many hiking trails and swimming holes along the river (in designated locations).  The park is best known for its groves of Redwoods and abundant hiking trails.  One of the redwoods named “the Colonial Tree” is estimated to be 1,100 and 1,200 years old,

Big Sur River, behind Big Sur Lodge
Big Sur River, Pfeiffer Big Sur State ParkBig Sur River, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

This park is somewhat developed and has been in state hands since 1933.  There is a café, sort of upscale restaurant, souvenir shop, motel and several dozen modern cabins, some with kitchens, fireplaces, and separate bedrooms.  There is also a pool for those staying in the motel or cabins.  As mentioned the lodging is quite pricey – especially in peak season – but may be worth the splurge for a special occasion.

Cabins at Big Sur Lodge
25 Big Sur Lodge Cabins25 Big Sur Lodge Cabins

On this trip to the area, we stayed in one of these cabins for 3 nights.  As we weren’t quite sure about the restaurant situation in the area we opted for a cabin that included a full kitchen and as long as we were splurging, got one with separate living room including a fireplace for which they provided a free bundle of wood each day.

The first known European settler in Big Sur was George Davis, who built a cabin in what is now the park.  In 1868 Native Americans Manual and Florence Innocenti bought Davis' cabin and land for $50.  Then, in the winter of 1869, Michael and Barbara Pfeiffer were on their way to the south coast of Big Sur when they were forced to stop for the season in the Sycamore Canyon area near present-day Big Sur Village.  They liked the area so much they decided against moving on the following spring. They brought their four children with them: Charles, John, Mary Ellen, and Julia and subsequently had four more, William, Frank, Flora, and Adelaide.  I guess those winters can be long.  As the children grew up, got married and moved out, some acquired their own land holdings in the general area which is why just about everything has a Pfeiffer name in it somewhere.

In 1930, John Pfeiffer was offered $210,000 for his land by a Los Angeles developer who intended to build a subdivision.  Fortunately Pfeiffer wanted to preserve the land he and his family had grown to love, and instead sold 700 acres to the state of California in 1933 – and thus we now have Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.

Right next to the state park is something called “Big Sur Station” which is a multi-agency facility (Caltrans, National Forest, and CA State Parks) that includes a visitor center (closed for renovation when we visited).

Pfeiffer Beach

Pfeiffer Beach is National Forest land, but is managed by the California Coastal Commission.  As such none of the federal or state park passes work there.  It’s also why the turn off onto Sycamore Canyon Road is unmarked.  If you head south on CA-1 from the entrance to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park for 1.1 miles you will find a small road coming in on the right.  There is a large yellow sign there saying “NARROW ROAD – No Pedestrians - No RV’s – No Trailers” – believe them!  You’ll have to navigate a very sharp hairpin turn to the right to get onto the road down to the beach.  This is more like a U-Turn than a right turn.  If it’s busy you may want drive past the road and find a wide spot for a U-turn on CA-1 and come back to the turn from the other direction. 

Sycamore Canyon Road is 2.2 miles of winding single-lane pavement.  There are five spots along the road where two vehicles can pass each other.  So, when it is busy this can be a bit challenging if other drivers don’t understand to concept of letting opposing traffic go by before entering a one lane section.

Suffice it to say, this is a very popular destination as it is one of only places along the Big Sur coast where you can drive to a beach.  As it also features great sand and 2, magnificent sea caves very close to (or actually part of) the beach at low tide it is a popular destination for photographers as well as beach goers in general.  On a limited number of days in December and January photographers crowd the beach to obtain pictures of the setting sun visible through one of the arches.

The $12 per car parking lot at the beach accommodates 65 vehicles and is usually full on summer and holiday weekends and on most other days near sunset.  If you’re after sunset photography here, plan to get down to the beach one or two hours ahead of time as otherwise your sunset will happen while you’re sitting in a line of cars waiting at the pay station for some other car to leave.  During the summer, a shuttle operates from the US Forest Service headquarters at Big Sur Station to the beach.  It is a short walk from the parking lot to the beach. For the record, don’t confuse Pfeiffer Beach with the beach at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (where McWay falls is).

The beach itself is around 1 mile long and according to Wikipedia is known for purple patches of sand that are occasionally visible, especially after rain.  Since Pfeiffer Beach is on Federal land, nudity is legal and state nudity laws and state park nudity regulations don't apply. The north end of the beach is sometimes clothing optional. 

This beach is also quite famous for strong consistent wind.  Man, does it blow.  Don’t even think about changing lenses out there and bring your sturdiest tripod along with your lead shoes.  Staying closer to the cliffs is less windy but also tougher to photograph the sea arches from there. 

Double Sea Arch at Pfeiffer Beach
Double Arch at Pfeiffer Beach 1Double Arch at Pfeiffer Beach 1

Wind whipped waves crashing into rocks at Pfeiffer Beach
Surf , Pfeiffer BeachSurf , Pfeiffer Beach

Keyhole Rock, Pfeiffer Beach
Single Arch Sea Tunnel at Pfeiffer Beach 1Single Arch Sea Tunnel at Pfeiffer Beach 1

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

The farthest south we could get before hitting the road closure was about 4 miles beyond Julia Pfeiffer Burns Stat Park a bit past Lime Creek.  I talked about the massive landslide which caused the road closure earlier in this article so won’t bother with it again.  Suffice it to say that if we had wanted to see points further south such a Lime Kiln State Park. Sand dollar Beach, Ragged Point, Elephant Seal Beach, Hearst Castle at San Simeon and the entire southern half of the Big Sur Coast Region, we’d have to backtrack all the way back to Carmel, head east from there to US-101, head south to Pasa Robles, then east back to the Coast Highway and then north again to the southern end of the road closure.  This would be a 4.5 hour detour.  We didn’t.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is 12 miles south of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and its main feature is McWay Falls.  In addition to the falls, the park also contains Redwood groves with some trees topping 300-feet that are over 2,500 years old.  The park is named after Julia Pfeiffer Burns who lived in the area for much of her life until her death in 1928 but who never actually owned any of the land of the park that now has her name.  I’ll tell you about that in the McWay Falls section below.  The 3,762-acre park was established in 1962.

Unfortunately due to fires this past summer, the only part of the park currently open is a small parking lot, the bathroom and the trail to McWay Falls viewpoint.  The rest of the park is closed due to last summer’s fires.

McWay Rocks sea Arch from Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park Vista Point
Single Sea Arch,  McWay Rocks, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State ParkSingle Sea Arch, McWay Rocks, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

From Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park Vista Point
Julia Pfeiffer Burns SP coast 1Julia Pfeiffer Burns SP coast 1

Double cove Beach just north of McWay Cove
Double cove Julia Pfeiffer Burns State ParkDouble cove Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

Waves, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, South of McWay Cove and Anderson Creek
Big Sur Surf 2Big Sur Surf 2

McWay Falls

McWay falls is arguably one of the most beautiful and most photographed small waterfalls in the world.  It is 80 feet tall, with a year round flow from McWay Creek in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, that falls into McWay Cove.  During high tide, it is a ‘tidefall’, a waterfall that empties directly into the ocean. The only other tidefall in California is Alamere Falls.

Nestled into a hillside opposite the falls are the remains of Waterfall House, long-gone but for its imported palm trees, foundations, steps and terraces.

The house was built by the Browns.  Back in the 19th century huge tracts of California wilderness were deeded to pioneers willing to work it (homesteading).  One such tract was a big chunk of Big Sur going to Christopher and Rachel McWay who first homesteaded the land in 1887. They worked the land for decades, finally selling it in 1924 to the Browns, who built themselves a modern (for the time) home called Waterfall House.

The Browns used the place as a getaway until 1956, when they packed up and moved to Florida (what fools).  When Lathrop Brown who happened to be FDR’s college roommate and best man at his wedding) died a few years later Helen gave the entire property to the state, but with a couple of provisos:  First, it would be a park named for one of the old pioneers, her good friend Julia Pfeiffer Burns.  Second, Waterfall House was to be turned into a museum dedicated to the history and culture of Big Sur.  But she stipulated a time limit on the museum’s creation – if it wasn’t done within five years, the house was to be razed. When five years passed with no museum, the house was taken down.

The remaining terraces and foundations are still there, with the bottom level now a viewing station for McWay Falls and the magnificent coast to the south.  From the parking lot there is a short trail that goes through a tunnel under the Coast Highway and out to the cliffs above McWay Cove.  From there the trail is just sort of carved into the side of the cliff and at some spots is actually a wooden boardwalk hung out over the edge.  At the end of this trail is the area where the house and gardens had been with great views of the falls and cove with the falls being almost head on.  There are palm trees (unusual for this climate) left over from the when the Brown’s lived there as well as all sorts of exotic flowers – now gone wild.  This area has lots of room for visitors and plenty of places from which to see and photograph the falls (and take those selfies). 

Unfortunately you can no longer get to that location.  In February of 2021 the last section of the trail leading to the house site was closed ‘due to trail erosion that has caused dangerous conditions’.  So now the trail just abruptly ends with a formidable chain link fence just before where the boardwalk section starts.  You can still see the falls from the current end of the trail but it is more of a side view than what we used to get further down the trail.  There is now only short section where you can get a clear shot of the falls and as one might expect that section is in high demand.  I hope this closure is only temporary

McWay Cove and Falls from the house site (2011)
33 7d001-#504333 7d001-#5043

McWay Cove and Falls from the house site (2011)
McWay Falls Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park CAMcWay Falls Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park CA

McWay Falls from the 2021 end of the trail
McWay Falls, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State ParkMcWay Falls, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

Protection

The region is protected by the Big Sur Local Coastal Plan, which preserves it as "open space, a small residential community, and agricultural ranching."  Approved in 1986, the plan is one of the most restrictive local-use programs in the state, and is widely regarded as one of the most restrictive documents of its kind anywhere.  The program protects “viewsheds” from the highway and many vantage points, and severely restricts the density of development. About 60% of the coastal region is owned by governmental or private agencies which do not allow any development. The majority of the interior region is part of the Los Padres National Forest, Ventana Wilderness, Silver Peak Wilderness or Fort Hunter Liggett.

If you go

If you decide to go, avoid the peak summer season and holiday weekends as the road is often jammed with people taking in the scenery.  This makes it hard, if not impossible, to find space in the vista parking areas, and frustrating to be stuck in a line of 20 to 30 cars behind a slow RV driven by someone from the plains where this is their first experience driving a curvy mountainous road in a vehicle that is way too large.  In the summer months there is often a 20 mile traffic jam extending from Big Sur Village all the way up to Carmel where there are a few strategically placed traffic lights to assure that traffic doesn’t flow too freely.  The time to go is in the spring and fall.  It’s easy to tell when the high season is.  Just look at the prices for a room.  If the price is outrageous, it’s off season.  If the price is ludicrously outrageous it is a shoulder season.  And, if the room rate is approaching the cost of your car, then you’re in high season.

You should also be aware that aside from WiFi in restaurants and motels, there is no cell service from Carmel Highlands all the way down to San Simeon.  So, you may as well turn your phone off.  If you plan to use your phone’s GPS with something like Google Maps, be sure to download the map to your phone before you leave home as once you lose cell service Google maps can no longer get the map you see from its servers.

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PLEASE LEAVE COMMENTS AS I ENJOY HEARING YOUR REACTION TO WHAT I'VE WRITTEN

This blog is posted at:

        https://www.danhartfordphoto.com/blog/2021/4/big-sur-coast-01

These and other Images of this trip are posted in a Gallery on my website. 

         https://www.danhartfordphoto.com/2021-03-ca-central-coast  (all images)

Check out my travel blogs for other trips under the “Blogs” menu item at www.DanHartfordPhoto.com .

Thanks for reading – Dan

 

(All images by Dan Hartford unless otherwise stated (some from a trip in 2013).  Info from Wikipedia, other web sources, and pamphlets gathered at various locations along the way)

 

 

 


Comments

Margaret Isabelle(non-registered)
Hi Dan,
I totally enjoyed your trip to Big Sur. It looks like you hit beautiful weather from the blue
sky in all the pictures. It reminds me of some sights along Highway 1 on the Oregon coast.
Ocean scenery with mountains and rocks are breathtakingly awesome. Super pictures and
history of the places you visited were outstanding. Extremely well done.
Cheers,
Margaret Isabelle
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