Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Andrew Molera Panorama Loop

Point Sur and the Andrew Molera State Park coast
8 miles loop, 1400 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate, river crossing required except summer
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Andrew Molera State Park entrance fee required

Andrew Molera State Park preserves one of the only roadless stretches of coast in California's Big Sur region. This loop hike follows this stretch of wild coast before ascending a chaparral-covered ridge for expansive views before returning to the trailhead via a ridge walk that packs in both views and redwoods. Hiking options are often somewhat limited in the Big Sur region for casual hikers uninterested in tackling that brushy, rough terrain of the Ventana Wilderness: for many of those hikers, the Andrew Molera Panorama Loop (also known as the Bluff, Panorama, and Ridge Loop) is the best spot to explore a stretch of the famed Big Sur coast on foot. Understandably, this hike is one of the more crowded in the Big Sur region but it is still usually not overrun like the hikes closer to the Bay Area.

This loop utilizes four separate trails at Andrew Molera State Park. The hike starts on the Creamery Meadow Trail, which crosses the Big Sur River en route to reaching the start of the loop. The loop portion consists of three trails: the Bluff Trail sticks to the coast, the Panorama Trail climbs from the coast up to a nearby ridge, and the Ridge Trail makes a steady descent down a ridge to return to the Creamery Meadow Trail. I hiked this loop counterclockwise, which was definitely easier on my knees as I went up rather than down the Panorama Trail, which is the steepest portion of the hike. However, descending the Panorama Trail would give great views of the coast and so it would be reasonable to do this loop clockwise as well.

Although this hike is reasonably easy to access, it is necessary to cross the Big Sur River to start this hike. In summer, this crossing is made easy by seasonal bridges but by each autumn the bridges are gone and a river ford is necessary. While the water is typically less than knee-deep and not particularly fast, this hike can become inaccessible after storms when water levels are high.

Andrew Molera State Park is right off Highway 1 at the heart of the Big Sur Coast. Anna and I hiked this loop on a beautiful late December day. The trailhead was about a two hour drive from South Bay: I followed Highway 1 south past Monterey and Carmel. Shortly after passing the Point Sur, I made a right turn at the signed turnoff for Andrew Molera State Park. A short dirt road led downhill past the park entrance kiosk to a sizeable dirt parking lot with pit toilets.

The hike started by following the dirt road just outside the park gate to the right. After about 200 yards, we arrived at the ford of the Big Sur River. During our visit, water level was at mid-calf, as there had been some rain in previous days. We brought sandals for crossing the river and a towel to dry off afterwards and found both very helpful. After the crossing, the Creamery Meadow Trail made its way through the flat alluvial plain of the Big Sur River along the base of a ridge. Vegetation surrounded the trail here but while looking back we caught a few nice glimpses of Pico Blanco, a rocky, distinctive peak that is difficult to miss.

At 0.9 miles, we came to a trail junction: the right fork led to the beach, while the left fork led towards the Panorama Loop. We took the left fork, which made a brief, 50-foot ascent to reach an open chaparral plateau with views of the ridge rising ahead of us, Pico Blanco to the northeast, and the Pacific Ocean to the southwest. As the trail flattened out, we came to another junction at the 1 mile mark: the Ridge Trail led to the left, while the Bluff Trail broke off to the right. We decided to do the loop counterclockwise and started on the Bluff Trail.

The Bluff Trail quickly led to the edge of the coastal bluffs, where we had a stunning view over the water. Here, the waves of the Pacific crashed into the cliffs and beaches of Big Sur. This stretch of coast is frequently under fog but we were lucky to enjoy clear skies. On this clear day, we had lovely views west to Molera Point- a local promontory- and Point Sur, an inflection point on the Big Sur coast that hosts a lighthouse and a former naval facility for detecting Soviet submarines.

Molera Point and Point Sur
As the trail began to follow the coastline to the southeast, it ascended very gradually, leaving the bluffs directly by the water and retreating back into the chaparral. While the chaparral had grown quite high in places, we still had views of the ocean most of the time while hiking the Bluff Trail. The view ahead featured a wild, unspoiled coast- a rare stretch of shoreline left untouched because Highway 1 stays inland here.

Coastal views from the Bluff Trail
At 2.3 miles, the trail passed over the top of a local prominence that featured lovely views over pristine beaches below the trail. This was the high point of the Bluff Trail; the trail soon began a steep descent, passing the junction with the Spring Trail- which leads down to the beach- at 2.6 miles. We chose to skip the beach and instead continued onwards, with the Bluff Trail now becoming the Panorama Trail.

Beaches and seastacks along the Bluff Trail

The Panorama Trail began with a descent into a ravine but quickly climbed back out the opposite side and started along a steady ascent of 1100 feet over the next 1.7 miles. The early stretches of the Panorama Trail ascent utilized switchbacks to ascend this steep seaside hill and because there was no tree cover, we were treated to continuous views of Point Sur throughout the climb. The higher that we climbed, the more detail we could see along the coast: soon we could make out the headland of Molera Point and we watched waves roll in from far offshore until they crashed on the Big Sur coast.

Big Sur coastline from the Panorama Trail
A third of the way through the ascent, the switchbacks stopped, but the uphill did not. At times the trail was quite steep as it climbed through these chaparral slopes; the dirt trail will likely be muddy after rain storms. Views of the coast soon expanded to encompass views of the Santa Lucia Range, too, with a clear view of everything from the white-topped peak of Pico Blanco down to the waves smashing against Point Sur and Molera Point.

View from Pico Blanco down to the sea
The upper reaches of the Panorama Trail provided some of the best views of Pico Blanco. Pico Blanco is one of the most distinctive summits in the Big Sur area: its bare summit, made of an exposed formation of limestone, makes it look utterly different from any of its Santa Lucia neighbors. An early mineral prospector on the mountain claimed to have found an incredible cavern weathered into the mountain (quite possible due to the limestone geology!) but there is unfortunately no modern evidence of this claim.

Pico Blanco
After an exhausting 1.4 miles of ascent along the Panorama Trail, we arrived along the spine of the ridge at 4.2 miles from the trailhead. Here, the impressive westerly views of Point Sur and Pico Blanco that we had been enjoying were paired with an expansive view of the Big Sur Coast to the southeast. On that December day, we had the great luck of seeing snow covering the top of Cone Peak to the south. Winter storms occasionally bring snow to the highest peaks of the Santa Lucia, but as the height of the range is far less than the Sierra or the Transverse Ranges, snow cover is sporadic through the winter. Mighty Cone Peak, rising to the south, is the tallest peak directly abutting an ocean in the contiguous United States, rising a mile above the Pacific in just 3 short miles from the coast.

Snow on Cone Peak

Point Sur
Leaving this magnificent viewpoint, we still had another stretch of uphill left to tackle. Here, the Panorama Trail headed nearly directly up the ridge, with fencing to the right (east) of the trail defining the border between Andrew Molera State Park and privately held lands in Big Sur. There were a few more nice views to the west of Point Sur and Molera Point.

At 4.5 miles from the trailhead, we finally reached the high point of the hike, where the Panorama Trail met up with the Ridge Trail. A use trail continued slightly uphill here; I followed it briefly to come to another lovely view east of the Big Sur Coast, with snowy Cone Peak rising over the ocean. I returned to the junction and then we turned northwest onto the Ridge Trail to begin our descent back towards the trailhead. There were excellent views from the trail junction encompassing Point Sur, the coastal fields, and Pico Blanco.

View to the southeast along the Big Sur coastline

View of Point Sur from the Ridge Trail
Around 5 miles into the hike, the trail passed a stand of old growth redwoods that included some sizeable trees. While the trees here are no match for the great redwoods of Humboldt and Del Norte Counties or even for the groves in the Santa Cruz Mountains near the Bay Area, these soaring trees with their perfectly straight trunks still added some enjoyable variety to this hike.

Redwoods along the Ridge Trail
After leaving the redwoods, the trail alternated passing through stretches of woods and open chaparral. The open chaparral frequently provided views to the northeast of forested Big Sur Valley. We spotted the East Molera Trail switchbacking to the top of the ridge across the valley, which rose ever higher as it trended towards the east until peaking at Post Summit. The dry slopes of Mount Manuel were visible just past Post Summit; these peaks blocked views deeper into the Ventana Wilderness. Pico Blanco rose behind the East Molera Trail, the whites of its sublime limestone summit constrasting sharply with the duller chaparral of the surrounding mountains.

Post Summit and Mount Manuel rise above the Big Sur Valley
At a little over 6 miles into the hike, the Ridge Trail passed through a low saddle and then climbed briefly over a bump in the ridge before beginning the final descent down to the Creamery Meadow Trail. This stretch of trail had glorious ocean views, with the green fields around Molera Point and Point Sur defining the boundary of the Pacific Ocean. The descent was a bit steep at times.

View of Point Sur and Molera Point from the Ridge Trail
At 7 miles into the hike, we reached the bottom of the Ridge Trail and rejoined with the Bluff Trail. Continuing downhill from this junction, we connected back up with the Creamery Meadow Trail and then turned right and followed the trail back across the Big Sur River to the trailhead.

This is a good choice for hikers in Big Sur that want an outing more substantial than the short walks to Doud Creek Canyon or McWay Falls but aren't really looking for the bushwhacking experiences in the Ventana Wilderness. The scenery is superb throughout the hike and the mix of coastal, mountain, and forest scenery gives this hike plenty of variety.

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