by Scott McIntire
A View of the Big Sur Coastline from a Turn-out on US Highway 1
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Situated along a 90-mile stretch of California’s scenic central coast and extending inland to the flanks of the Santa Lucia Mountains, the Big Sur region is renowned for its stunning and picturesque views of natural grandeur that can be enjoyed through its state parks and beaches, and via the numerous coastal vista points in the form of well-placed unpaved turn-outs along US Highway 1. Big Sur is also famous for its tremendous biodiversity owing to its many climates and ecosystems, and offers miles of coastal and inland trails from which its flora and fauna can be appreciated. Given the low elevation of the coastal slopes and the nighttime fog that routinely moves in, Big Sur contains the southernmost habitat of the majestic coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), and a trip to the region would not be complete without some time spent on the forest trails amid the towering redwoods.
Point Lobos State Reserve
A View of the Point Sur Lightstation from Highway 1
The boundaries of Big Sur are roughly defined as the section of coastline extending from the Carmel River south to the San Carpoforo Creek. The Big Sur Valley is located 26 miles south of the boutique town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, nestled amid the Ventana Wilderness Area and Los Padres National Forest. The name Big Sur comes from the original Spanish-language el sur grande, meaning "the big south". The sparsely-populated Big Sur region contains nine state parks and two federal wildernesses, with the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge, Nineteenth Century lighthouse at the Point Sur Lightstation, and the seaside 80-foot McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park being noteworthy points of interest. The $10 vehicle fee paid upon entrance to any of the Big Sur state parks also allows one to visit the region’s other state parks, excluding the Point Sur Lightstation State Historic Park. Though Big Sur has no urban areas per se, there are a few clusters of gas stations, restaurants, and motels along Highway 1, with most located in the hamlet of Big Sur, about 2 miles north of the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park entrance. A good online resource for planning a day trip to Big Sur is bigsurcalifornia.org, particularly for finding out ahead of time which hiking trails for a given park may be closed for repair. It should be noted that poison oak is found in abundance at Big Sur.
As I made my way south down Highway 101 on a clear Sunday morning, the urban sprawl of Silicon Valley soon gave way to pleasing views of rolling foothills still green from the recent rains and accented with pastel yellow and orange patches of mustard flowers and poppies. Upon reaching the farmlands south of Gilroy, the sun began to fade behind a thin veil of approaching coastal fog, and completely disappeared by the time I entered the long grove of tall Eucalyptus trees that flanks the highway south of the historic mission town of San Juan Batista en route to Highway 156 west and Highway 1 south. The sky remained gray as I passed Monterey, the turnoff to the famous Seventeen Mile Drive and Carmel-by-the-Sea before entering the Big Sur region.
Scenery along the South Shore Trail, Point Lobos State Reserve
Pine Ridge Trail, Point Lobos
I visited the Point Lobos State Reserve, the northernmost state park within the Big Sur region which abuts a mile-long coastal strand of the Carmel River State Beach. The landscape artist Francis McComas once described Point Lobos as the greatest meeting of land and water in the world. The reserve’s extensive system of trails showcase the splendor of the area’s coastal and inland habitats; in addition to the variety of sea birds and marine mammals seen during a visit, migrating Gray Whales can also be spotted off the coast between December and May (binoculars recommended). As Point Lobos is a nature reserve, it should be noted that no dogs or any other pets may be brought into Point Lobos; exceptions are made for guide dogs for the blind and other certified service dogs.
A View of Bluefish Cove from the North Shore Trail, Point Lobos
Harbor Seals at Whalers Cove
I parked at a small lot facing the ocean along one of the sections of rocky coastline where visitors are allowed to walk down to the water, though dangerous surf conditions do exit throughout Point Lobos and extreme caution should be exercised along the water’s edge. The lot was located adjacent to the South Shore hiking trail and a fairly short distance from the Piney Woods parking and picnic area. Proceeding left along the South Shore Trail to its end near Hidden Beach provides some fantastic views of the rugged shoreline once the coastal fog has burned off. At the back of the picnic area is the start of the inland Pine Ridge Trail, which meanders through stands of Monterey Pines whose branches are trimmed with the gray stringy lichen which thrives in a cool and humid climate where there is little sun. A roughly 30-minute hike from the start of the Pine Ridge Trail will lead to the Whalers Cabin and Whaling Station Museums, which overlook Whalers Cove and the nearby nursery grounds of the resident Harbor Seals on the north side of the point. The route, which after a short distance branches left to follow a circuit which links sections of the Lace Lichen, North Shore and Cabin trails, provides picturesque views of Bluefish Cove and likely also some Harbor Seals sunbathing on the small patch of beach below the vista point that’s located near the junction of the Lace Lichen and North Shore trails.
Picturesque Coastal Views on the Drive South Along Highway 1 to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
On the drive down from Point Lobos to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, it’s easy to see why the stretch of Highway 1 through Big Sur is recognized internationally as one of the world’s most beautiful highways. Given the ever-changing and mesmerizing views of the spectacular coastline and mountains, it’s tempting for visitors to abruptly slow to enter one of the numerous turn-outs, hoping to frame that perfect landscape shot. As such, defensive driving within the 55 MPH speed limit is a must, as is avoiding quick stops and starts on unpaved turn-outs and shoulders. A particularly good section of wide shoulder and turn-outs for capturing an especially scenic coastal view, which also includes a rock arch and the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge in the distance, lies just beyond the turnoff for the Rocky Point Restaurant. Another turn-out about 1 mile south of the Bixby Creek Bridge also affords a nice partial view of the bridge set against the coastline.
A View of the Big Sur Valley from Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Trailside View, Pfeiffer Big Sur
In the vicinity of the historic lighthouse at Point Sur, Highway 1 leaves the coast and, after passing the Andrew Molera State Park, soon winds its way through the redwoods, campgrounds and scattered roadside conveniences of the scenic Big Sur Valley. I entered the popular Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park with roughly two hours to spare before the 6:30 PM closing time. I opted to hike the Pfeiffer Falls and Valley View trails, which take in the park’s finest redwood grove, the 60 foot high Pfeiffer Falls, and picturesque views of the valley and Point Sur in the distance from the trail’s end. Although most of the Pfeiffer Falls Trail (together with sections of the Oak Grove Trail) was closed due to damage from the 2008 Basin Complex Fire, the last open segment of the trail and the falls itself are accessible from the Valley View Trail.
The Path to Pfeiffer Falls, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Prior to my hike, I had a double-espresso and a snack by the fireplace at the coffee shop adjacent to the lobby of the Big Sur Lodge. The lodge features a souvenir shop and a restaurant which, like the coffee shop, stays open after the park has closed should a visitor want to have dinner before getting back on the road. The total time to hike the Valley View Trail up and back, including a stop at Pfeiffer Falls and numerous stops for photos along the way, was roughly 90 minutes. If hiking amid groves of towering redwoods is a priority, the hike can be shortened considerably, as the redwoods are mainly seen around the trailhead and for a short distance up the trail.
Deetjen’s Restaurant at Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn
Following my hike, I continued down Highway 1 about three miles under the cover of the evening coastal fog to the historic Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn to have dinner at the inn’s highly-recommended restaurant. The candle and fireplace-lit interior of the old site with its period décor was very appealing, and the aroma of the food coming from the kitchen mixed with the subtle hint of wood smoke was amazing. Unfortunately, I had not made a reservation, and the place was quite busy for a Sunday night.
Evening fog prevented me from photographing a spectacular Big Sur ocean sunset that I wanted to capture on the drive back north. The fog bank did recede towards the horizon as I drove, but not enough to reveal the setting sun, whose salmon-colored rays still nicely gilded the tops of the coastal mountains as I crossed back over the Bixby Creek Bridge. It’s safe to say that a single day trip to the region does not do Big Sur justice, as an entire day could be spent just exploring Point Lobos State Reserve alone. With so much to see and so many trails to explore, a first-time visitor to Big Sur will no doubt leave with a wealth of fond memories and photos, and most likely the desire to return.
Scott McIntire is an engineer who has worked in the aerospace and automotive industries, but whose true passion is traveling. He enjoys sharing his experiences on the road and abroad through his photos, videos and travel writing, and contributes to the travel blog globosapiens.net. He also wrote about his trip to the Shwedagon Pagoda, in Rangoon, Burma in a previous issue of Travel Curious Often.