Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Pfeiffer Beach

Pfeiffer Point rises above wave-swept Pfeiffer Beach
1 mile round trip, 20 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved but narrow and pothole-littered road to trailhead, $12 parking fee required (no passes accepted)

The purple sands, sea arches, and flying surf of wild Pfeiffer Beach are tucked into a small gap in the rocky coastal cliffs that define much of California’s Big Sur. This extremely scenic beach- reached by a short, easy, and flat walk at the end of an uncomfortable drive from the region’s main town- is no secret and is a highly sought-after destination along this stretch of coast, but it is still worthy of a visit if you come at times when the crowds are quieter.

Anna and I visited Pfeiffer Beach during an October day trip to Big Sur. From the last southbound traffic light in Carmel at Rio Road, we followed US Highway 1 south for 27 miles into the Big Sur Valley; after passing the turnoff for Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Highway 1 began a steady uphill climb. Part way through the uphill drive, we turned sharply right onto Sycamore Canyon Road, which was not well marked and dropped steeply away from Highway 1. Shortly after turning onto Sycamore Canyon Road, a sign indicated that Pfeiffer Beach was two miles ahead, reassuring us that we had made the correct turn. Sycamore Canyon Road was paved but very narrow as it descended a canyon towards the coast: in most places, the road was just a single lane accommodating two-way traffic with turnouts. As Pfeiffer Beach is a popular destination, this meant that the road was quite busy and had many tourist visitors unaccustomed to dealing with such roads. The road was also quite bumpy and had a number of huge potholes, especially as we approached the beach, so drive slowly for everyone’s sake. We paid at the entrance station (interestingly, no federal lands pass is valid here even though Pfeiffer Beach is on USFS land) and then parked at the closest of the two lots to the trailhead. On nice summer days at midday, both lots may fill and the narrow road leading to the trailhead can get congested; avoid visiting the beach at peak tourist times.

From the trailhead, the wide, short, and sandy trail led through the shade of a row of cypresses for about a hundred meters and then opened up to the beach. The views were immediately spectacular: rugged Pfeiffer Point rose to the southeast and a couple of seastacks, each punctuated by a sea arch, lined the beach. High waves swept in from the Pacific and sent spray soaring over 30 feet in the air as it crashed ashore; most spectacular were the bursts of seawater through one of the sea arches on the arrival of particularly large waves.

Beach below Pfeiffer Point
Pacific surf pounding Pfeiffer Beach
Pfeiffer Beach sea arch
Waves crashing through the arch
Sycamore Canyon Creek flowed into the sea here and cut the beach in two; the creek created a small, shallow pool in the middle of the beach. There isn’t as much to see on the far (eastern) side of the stream, as the beach on that side wraps around a crescent-shaped cove and terminates at the base of Pfeiffer Point. We first noticed the unique purple sands of Pfeiffer Beach in the streambed: the moving water created delicate patterns between the gray and the purple sands. As we started walking along the beach, we found the rich-hued purple sand everywhere. These violet streaks are eroded specks of the spessartite, a mineral found in the cliffs here that has been worn down by the pounding waves into manganese garnet sands.

Purple sand patterns at the mouth of Sycamore Creek
Purple sands
We walked northwest along the beach for about a half mile; the beach became much quieter as we went on, especially after we rounded a set of rocks that were at the tide line. Here, we had the purple sands of Pfeiffer Beach largely to ourselves; we also spotted more stalks of kelp and crab shells swept ashore. Once the sun descended below the clouds, we made our way back to the trailhead.

Pfeiffer Beach
Pfeiffer Beach is a lovely coastal walk. It’s probably too well-loved these days, so you may not want to schedule a visit to this beach at midday on a nice weekend; but if you’re visiting Big Sur at off times and don’t mind driving the unpleasant approach road and paying a fee, you’ll be able to appreciate the purple sands and magnificent cliffs that make Pfeiffer Beach so popular.

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Vicente Flat

Redwoods above the Big Sur Coast
10 miles round trip, 2200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

The sweeping coastal views and calming redwood forests of Vicente Flat combine to make this day hike along the Kirk Creek Trail one of the most satisfying one day outings along California’s Big Sur coast. The first half of the hike features ocean views from progressively higher heights while the second half delivers views of Cone Peak, Big Sur’s tallest coastal mountain, along with a small but enjoyable old growth redwood grove in Hare Canyon. Hikers looking for a shorter trip can turn around at the entrance to Hare Canyon for a 5-mile round trip with 1800 feet of elevation gain and still catch the best of the hike’s ocean views. While the elevation demands of this hike are merely moderate, the trail clings to precipitously steep mountain slopes at times and passes through brushy terrain infested with ticks, tarantulas, snakes, and poison oak, so wear pants and watch your step as you enjoy the hike’s big views.

I hiked to Vicente Flat via the Kirk Creek Trail on a sunny October Saturday, making the three-hour drive down from the Bay Area early in the morning. From the last southbound traffic light in Carmel at Rio Road, I followed US Highway 1 south for 55 miles past Lucia and Limekiln State Park to Kirk Creek Campground. I parked just off of Highway 1 at the entrance to Kirk Creek Campground; there is parking along the road for at least 20 or so cars. The trailhead was on the east side of the highway, across the entrance to the campground.

The first 2.5 miles of the hike consisted of a steady ascent along the mountainside facing the coast to reach the entrance of Hare Canyon. Leaving the trailhead, the trail initially paralleled the road as it climbed through chaparral and grassland, clinging to the hillsides above Highway 1. 

Kirk Creek Trail above Highway 1 and the Pacific
This initial stretch of trail was wide and well-maintained, a rarity for Big Sur paths- but unfortunately, the pleasant trail conditions here would not last. Switchbacks soon began to lift the trail uphill and as I rose above the trees lining the highway, views of the coast opened up to the north. Charred branches of bushes mixed in with the new, green vegetation was a reminder that this region (the entire hike, actually) had been burned just a year before by the 2020 Dolan Fire. At two thirds of a mile from the trailhead, the trail entered the Ventana Wilderness; this marked the end of the broad trail corridor. From here on, grasses, brush, and poison oak would alternately protrude into the trail until reaching Vicente Flat.

Entering the Ventana Wilderness
After entering the Ventana Wilderness, the trail stopped switchbacking uphill and began heading northwest along the mountainside, following the contours through gullies and across ridges. The views really began to open up as the coastal cliffs to the south emerged from behind the nearby hills.

Views of the Pacific
At 1.5 miles into the hike, the trail turned into redwood-shaded north-facing slope. The redwoods here were small and thin and had long burn scars running up their trunks- I was unsure whether these were from the previous year’s Dolan Fire or whether these scars predated that, as fires are a very common occurrence on the Big Sur coast. Here, the coast redwood is close to the very southern extent of its range: the southernmost naturally occurring redwoods are found just 15 miles further down along the Big Sur coast from here. The relative lushness of this gully was a welcome respite from the dried out grassy slopes that I had been hiking through earlier.

First redwood grove of the hike
Redwoods above the Pacific
Continuing from the redwood grove, I ascended progressively higher up the mountainside as I headed northwest, passing through a few more gullies, none of which were as lush as the previous redwood gully. Views continued expanding, with rugged mountains to both the north and the south dropping precipitously to the cerulean waters of the Pacific. The ocean waters were clear enough that I could see kelp forests floating beneath the surface of the waves.

Big Sur Coast north of Hare Canyon
The trail became more precipitous the higher that I ascended, with steep drop offs on the ocean side and a path that was at times perhaps just a foot wide. At 2.5 miles, the trail brought me to the entrance of Hare Canyon. Here, the trail headed northeast as it turned around a ridge; the views were stupendous. Not only did I still have all the coastal views that had accompanied me so far, but Cone Peak- the tallest peak directly rising from the ocean in the contiguous United States- appeared above the far end of Hare Canyon.

Big Sur Coast south of Kirk Creek
Cone Peak amidst the clouds
Turning into Hare Canyon, the trail continued traversing high grassy slopes for a bit but soon came to travel primarily through wooded- though still extremely steep- mountainsides. There were scattered redwood groves along the trail here, many with trees larger than the first grove; these trees also exhibited many burn scars, perhaps gained after Dolan Fire. At 3 miles from the trailhead, I passed Espinoza Camp, a small but dry campsite on the shoulder of a ridge with room for at least two groups to camp.
Soaring redwoods in Hare Canyon
Redwoods and the Pacific from Hare Canyon
After passing Espinoza Camp, the ascent leveled off and the trail undulated with a series of ups and downs for the remainder of the trip to Vicente Flat. Poison oak was very common here and was putting on a lovely display of fall color when I visited in October; the vivid colors helped me keep track of the poison oak around the trail and made avoiding the plant a little easier.
Poison oak was not the only surprise the brushy trail had in store for me: I ran into two tarantulas on my return journey on this stretch trail, each of which exceeded three inches in length. October is mating season for tarantulas, the time of year that California's mature male tarantulas- usually a few years old- hit the trails looking for the nest of a female tarantula that is down to procreate. Tarantulas are rare at other times of year but can be common in the drier California Coast Ranges in fall.

Trail tarantula
Although the trail generally stuck to forest in Hare Canyon, at times it passed through grassy slopes that provided open views over the forested canyon back towards the coast.

Hare Canyon
At four miles, the trail began a steady descent into Hare Canyon towards Vicente Flat. Cone Peak rose ahead of the trail while the canyon below was dotted with redwoods. The trail itself was quite challenging at times here: the Dolan Fire had resulted in copious deadfall in this area and I had to scramble over three-foot wide tree trunks and crawl under tree branches at various points. In some areas, the trail had washed away and been replaced by a one-boot wide loose dirt path; nothing was specifically dangerous, but hikers should watch their step.

Cone Peak rises above the redwoods of Hare Canyon
At five miles the trail made a final descent into the canyon. The terrain became gentler and the redwoods became larger until finally I arrived at the wooded creekside environs of Vicente Flat. A number of large, old-growth redwoods, including one tree that could be described as a redwood giant, filled the center of the grove, with numerous sizeable but smaller redwoods scattered through the rest of the flat. Groundcover was sparse in the grove and a picnic table had been installed near the base of the largest redwood. Backpackers had unfortunately chosen to pitch their tents directly in the most scenic part of the grove and thrown their gear in the goosepen of the largest redwood, so the scene was not quite as pristine as it might be on a quieter weekday.

Old growth redwoods of Vicente Flat
Soaring redwoods in Vicente Flat
The Kirk Creek Trail ended here at Vicente Flat. Hikers looking for more will find a junction with the Stone Ridge Trail and the Vicente Flat Trail across the creek; the Vicente Flat Trail continues up the canyon to join Cone Peak Road and is typically used as the access route for climbing Cone Peak from Highway 1. The most scenic stretch of redwoods, however, is in the main flat, so this is a good spot to turn around.

I encountered plenty of hikers on this day hike: many backpackers set up tent in Vicente Flat and there were dozens of day hikers that made it all the way to the Flat as well. However, with everyone spaced out over five miles of trail, there was still solitude at certain times. Arrive early at the trailhead to snag parking spots that are close to the trail.

The hike along the Kirk Creek Trail to Vicente Flat is a lovely day outing and combines incredible coast views with redwood forests, giving hikers a taste of two of the attributes that make Big Sur so special. While the trail is not terribly physically strenuous, the brushiness of the trail and the steepness of the terrain it traverses should be important considerations when deciding on doing this hike. If you can handle what the trail throws at you, you’ll be in for one of the best hiking experiences in Big Sur.