In my last post, we explored beautiful Highway 1 from Point
Lobos to Point Sur. Let’s continue our travel south!
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!
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.)
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!
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?!
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.
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.
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.
Tip: The California State Park website (www.parks.ca.gov) 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 (www.bigsurcalifornia.org).
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…)!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.