Beautiful Big Sur (Point Sur to Limekiln State Park)

In my last post, we explored beautiful Highway 1 from Point Lobos to Point Sur. Let’s continue our travel south!

Little Sur River

Andrew Molera State Park

After crossing the Little Sur River and passing the Point Sur Lighthouse and Naval Facility, we reach Andrew Molera State Park, a less developed park with great hiking trails and beachcombing opportunities. A seasonal pedestrian bridge allows visitors to cross the Big Sur River. Check the website for more info. Andrew Molera also hosts the Ventana Wildlife Society’s Discovery Center, where you can learn all about the successful reintroduction of the stunning California condor.

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

Our next stop, after passing an area brimming with campgrounds and cabins along the Big Sur River, is Big Sur’s most popular park and camping destination, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Hike under the redwoods, take a summer dip in the river, or have a coffee or icecream in front of the fireplace of the Big Sur Lodge (accessible without entrance fee).


If you prefer ocean views over rustic charm, drive on to famous Nepenthe restaurant, which sits high on a cliff and has great views from inside and outside seats. This is also a great stop to purchase locally crafted gifts like Big Sur jade jewelry, books, and photography. The parking lot can get very crowded on summer weekends!

Soon after Nepenthe is another interesting stop: the Henry Miller Memorial Library, both an eclectic bookstore and event center.

Henry Miller Memorial Library

California condors

Driving southward, we are now entering condor country. Look out for these awesome vultures with a wingspan of up to 10 ft. soaring high above the mountains or sitting on cliffs on the side of the road. How do you know it is a condor and not a turkey vulture? The upper part of the condor wings around the head is white, the bottom part is black. The pattern is the opposite for turkey vultures. In addition, most of the condors carry radio trackers and numbers for identification. (I will write in more detail about the condors in a future post.)

Out of the fog, two condors appeared

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

As you drive through the awe-inspiring landscape that is Big Sur, you will see little pullouts here and there with a couple cars parked. Most of these are near trailheads, but no area is more crowded on weekends during the tourist season than that for McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. This incredible 80-foot fall is one of just two in California that empty directly onto a beach. The beach is not accessible but the view from the easily-walked Overlook Trail is well worth it!

Afternoon light at McWay Falls

Limekiln State Park

Compared to this busy park, Limekiln State Park is usually calm and peaceful, even though this little park has much to offer: walk under towering redwoods with the burbling sound of Limekiln Creek in your ears, check out the historic kilns, hike to the cascading Limekiln Falls, or enjoy the rocky beach. What’s not to like?!

Limekiln Creek

We have now traveled approximately 55 miles from Carmel, but who is counting?! The third and final part of this post will soon take us all the way to San Simeon and Cambria.

Beautiful Big Sur (Point Lobos to Point Sur)

One of my favorite areas to visit in California is Big Sur, an area that stretches roughly from Carmel to San Simeon and inland into the sparsely populated Santa Lucia Range. It is accessible by famous Highway 1, which was completed in 1937 and is considered by many one of the most scenic drives in the US. In some places, the winding two-lane road is close to the water’s edge and offers easy access to parks and beaches; in others, it precariously hugs the coastal cliffs high above the sea, making it an exhilarating drive with sweeping vistas. When it is open, that is… During the El Niño storms of 1998, the road suffered considerable damage in many places and was closed for months. In 2008, the Basin Complex fire, which raged in Big Sur, forced a closure of the highway for several weeks. In 2011, more unfortunate news arrived from the California Department of Transportation: a 40-foot section of Highway 1 crumbled into the ocean just north of Big Sur after a period of strong rain. In 2017, after heavy rains, Pfeiffer bridge got damaged by a collapsing hillside. And just a few months later, the Mud Creek slide saw 5 million cubic yards of dirt and rocks sliding down the hillside in the largest recorded landslide along the Big Sur Coast, altering the coastline forever and leaving a long stretch of Big Sur and its communities inaccessible.

Mud Creek slide, photo AP via Caltrans

As I write this blog, the beautiful highway is open and ready for your discovery. One caveat though: there is no cellphone coverage along some stretches of Big Sur, and services are scarce. So whether you are just driving through, come for the art galleries or plan a longer camping or cabin trip, some old-fashioned preparation ahead is recommended.

In that context, please note that this article does not claim to be “the complete guide to Big Sur”, it rather intends to give those who have never traveled there a first taste of “the big south”. There is more to see than I can cover on these pages and Big Sur literature in print or online is better suited to help you prepare your visit in depth.

Big Sur coast in spring

Tip: The California State Park website ( is a good starting point for your trip preparations. Choosing “Central Coast” as a region brings up a linked map from which information for every park shown can easily be accessed. Lots of useful information can also be found on the website of the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce (

Point Lobos

I like to start my Big Sur trip with a visit to Point Lobos State Natural Reserve just south of Carmel-by-the-Sea. This beautiful area of forests, headlands, and coves offers much to see and photograph: mossy trees, bizarre erosion-shaped rock formations, green and turquoise waters, tidepools, and abundant wildlife. The incredible underwater habitats offshore make it a great diving area. And during migration, one can see the spouts of whales passing by in the distance. No wonder then that artist Francis McComa called Point Lobos the “greatest meeting of land and water in the world”.

You can easily spend hours here and never make it to Big Sur (ask me how I know…)!

Harbor seals in beautiful Point Lobos

Tip: Point Lobos tends to get crowded late morning. The best time to go is early in the day before the crowds arrive, later in the afternoon, or during the week. People used to park their cars along both sides of the highway to visit but parking is now more regulated than it used to be. 

Leaving Point Lobos traveling southwards, I often find myself in a state of awe as I reflect on the beauty of the coastline, the engineering efforts that went into building this incredible road and its historic bridges, and the ever-changing weather that can spoil you with sun and mild temperatures in one moment and surprise you with thick fog or strong wind in the next.


A great place to take in the diversity of the landscape and feel the different micro-climates of the jagged Big Sur topography is the little-developed Garrapata State Park. It offers some coastal hikes as well as lesser known trails inland.

High surf at Garrapata

During a recent visit, we experienced temperature differences of about 25 degrees between the coastal trails and the more protected trails inland. Soberanes Canyon Trail is an interesting and relatively easy walk which follows Soberanes Creek and gives a taste of the biodiversity present in the inland pockets of this area (from heat-loving cacti to the magnificent Sequoia sempervirens, our fog-depending coastal redwood trees). In springtime, the sound of the burbling creek under blooming willow trees is a refreshing companion during the walk. The canyon trail can be connected with Rocky Ridge Trail to form a more strenuous loop through the park.

Soberanes Canyon trail

Tip: From spring to early summer, the coastline is covered with picturesque wildflowers. Later in the year, poison oak becomes a prominent feature along the coastal trails and long pants are advised.

A nice beach to hang out or see Calla lilies in the wild (do not pick) is Garrapata State Beach a bit further down the road.

Rocky Point

Need a little break from driving? A few miles south of Garrapata is Rocky Point Restaurant. This is one of the great places to enjoy a latte or wine with stunning views.

Rocky Point Restaurant with Bixby Bridge in the distance

Bixby Bridge

Our next stop traveling south on Highway 1, across Rocky Creek Bridge and past the glimpse of a natural bridge, is the photogenic Bixby Bridge which dates back to 1932.

Natural bridge on the way to Bixby Bridge

A pullout before the bridge lets you get up close and personal with the concrete arch construction. If the parking is is overrun by tourists, which these days happens all too often, continue to drive to Hurricane Point just up the hill for a sweeping view featuring coastline and bridge.

Bixby Bridge from the bridge pullout

Tip: Alternatively, if you have the time, a 4-wheel drive vehicle or a regular vehicle with high clearance, and are in the mood for some adventure, travel up the Old Coast Road, the north end of which is located across from the pullout. This 10-mile rough one-lane dirt road travels inland, bypassing the mouths of the creeks and rivers that are now bridged by the highway. Those who brave it are rewarded with sweeping vistas, rolling hills, and dark redwood groves. Do not attempt this drive in wet conditions!

Point Sur

Continuing our drive, the next striking feature is a dramatic volcanic rock offshore on top of which sits the Point Sur Lighthouse, now a historic park.

Big Sur coastline with volcanic rock and lighthouse in the distance

Point Sur is currently inaccessible due to bridge repair but tours are scheduled to resume in fall. More info can be found on the Point Sur website.

Some miles further, the road enters a real outdoor paradise: an area brimming with state parks that offer something for everyone.

We will visit this stretch of the road in my next post.

Autumn leaves

What is your favorite season?

Mine is hands down autumn or fall, whatever you choose to call it. It always has been. The smell of harvested fields, long peaceful walks through colorful beech forests, shiny horse-chestnuts, flying kites, fresh plum cake, feeding hedgehogs, family day trips into the Lüneburger Heide (Lunenburg Heath) foraging for wild porcini mushrooms, and hiking through colorful huckleberry fields towards stunning glaciers in Norway rank high in my favorite collection of memories growing up. You may say: “Wait, I was there! Autumn meant shorter days, greyness, fog and rain, bad road conditions due to British military exercises, getting stuck behind caravans of tractors, weeks of black fingers after collecting and peeling soaked walnuts, wasps in the pear tree, and the unique smell of the local sugar beet processing plant!”

Horse-chestnuts, a happy sign of autumn

Touché! I guess it must be a case of seeing the glass half full or half empty then 🙂

Autumn colors in California?

Each year when autumn announces itself through a change in the air, a first chill in the morning, and subtle changes in light, my camera gear and I get restless. We itch to go and play with colors!

Visitors and new transplants to California tend to believe that the Golden State has no autumn to write home about. I would argue that it’s a matter of expectations. We certainly don’t have the glorious color palette that leaf peepers pilgrimage to see on the East Coast. However, we sure can serve up some yellows!

Beautiful Eastern Sierra

Where and when to go

In good years, the Eastern Sierra can dish up stunning colors thanks to groves of quaking aspen trees. Populus tremoloides turns golden-yellow in fall, and even orange, when the stars align. And along creeks, cottonwood and willow trees add color. I prefer to stay in Lee Vining or Bridgeport (Mono County), which are easily reachable via Tioga Pass and provide access to hot spots like June Lake Loop, Lundy Canyon, Convict Lake, and McGee Creek. Mammoth Lakes is a bit further but definitely worth visiting as well, especially if you are ready to hit the trails!

To prepare your trip, download the Eastern Sierra Fall Color Guide from the Mammoth Lakes or Mono County websites or pick it up in the area.

If you are looking for a destination closer to the Bay Area, head to Lake Tahoe. Fall is the quiet season between summer lake fun and hitting the slopes, and there are some nice trails along the lake that offer fall colors, for example around the Tallac Historic Site. And if you are there, make sure to visit the Taylor Creek Visitor Center and check out a different colorful autumn spectacle: the annual Kokanee salmon run. You might even encounter a bear! One of the best color drives in the area with plenty of aspen groves is through Hope Valley.

Yosemite is not known for its colors but even here you can find color spots courtesy of bigleaf maples, dogwoods, and valley oaks. Of course, everyone’s favorite tree in the park (and a reminder of fall on the East Coast) is the lone sugar maple near Yosemite Chapel.

The wine country offers its very own version of autumn when the vineyards turn color. Napa, Sonoma, Russian River, and Livermore are all easily reachable from the Bay Area and make for a nice road trip … treat yourself with color for the eyes and for the glass!

Lastly, some of the best colors can be found in our cities and on university campuses like Stanford! Last year, I went up Mount Umunhum in late October and it was interesting to see how colorful the valley looked thanks to streets lined with Chinese pistaches and ginkgo trees.

Prepare your trip

Timing is everything when it comes to Eastern Sierra colors. The window to see the aspen trees is usually just a few weeks in September and October when chilly nights and sunny days do their magic. In addition, one storm, and the delicate leaves of entire groves can get knocked down!

A great resource for you planning is John Poimiroo’s California Fall Color website which features excellent reports and photos during the season. Google has a Foliage map which is good to get a quick overview.

Make sure to keep an eye on the weather! In late September, the “white curtain” can come down any moment. It happened to me more than once that I was photographing aspen trees around June Lake in the morning and snow started coming down in the afternoon quickly closing the pass roads back to the Bay Area. If in doubt, get out!

Photography tips

Have you ever photographed autumn trees and been unhappy with the results because the colors did not pop? If so, you are not alone! Here are a few things that help when photographing fall colors. Cloudy skies? It’s your lucky day! Photographing leaves under soft light leads to better color saturation! The reason is that the clouds function as a diffuser and filter the glare from the surface of the leaves. As a result, colors appear more saturated. Just make sure your camera settings factor in the lack of bright light or you end up with blurry photos. When the sun is shining bright, your DSLR’s best friend is a polarizer filter. It has a similar effect to your cloudy skies in that it dials out leaf glare and reflections. As a bonus, it saturizes the blue of the sky at certain angles. If you do not have a polarizer or shoot with a simpler camera, consider the technique of back lighting. Place the tree between yourself and the sun so that the light falls through the leaves. Now, when you take a photo, your subject literally glows. Also experiment with the composition of your photo. Creeks and lakes can add lovely reflections to your scenes and close-ups of leaves or pine cones complement your photos of trees and groves.

Close-up of aspen leaves

Happy leaf peeping!