Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Pfeiffer Falls

Pfeiffer Creek flows through the redwoods
2.5 miles loop, 600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park or Golden Poppy Pass required

While Pfeiffer Falls is an unimpressive California trickle for most of the year, the trail leading to this small waterfall in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park passes through one of the more scenic redwood forests of the Big Sur region. As of October 2021, hikers can once again reach the falls via the Pfeiffer Falls Trail, which for its entire length runs through the shadow of towering old growth redwoods and was finally reopened in 2021 after a long closure after the 2008 Basin Fire. Nearby Valley View makes an excellent secondary destination on this hike that delivers a sliver of an ocean view and makes an enjoyable short loop for visitors looking to see more of Big Sur than just the famed coast. The trails of this loop are all wide and well-graded to handle the elevation difference and are far gentler than the brushy and steep wilderness footpaths that typically define Big Sur hiking. This hike sees quite a few visitors, but it’s still quieter than the more popular coastal destinations nearby.

I hiked to Pfeiffer Falls with Anna on a nice late October weekend on a day trip south from the Bay Area. The trailhead is about a two hour drive from South Bay. From the last southbound traffic light in Carmel at Rio Road, we followed US Highway 1 south for 26 miles into the Big Sur Valley and then made the turnoff to the left for Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Following signs for day-use parking, I parked in the first lot after passing through the entrance booth of the park. There are several additional lots further down the road in case the first parking lot fills, but those lots would add substantial distance to what is supposed to be a short hike.

The trailhead for this hike was at the southwest corner of the park, near the restrooms. Signs here guided us along the River Path towards Big Sur Lodge and the Pfeiffer Falls hike; the trail lived up to its name and closely followed the burbling waters of the Big Sur River, which flowed through a lush (by California standards) forest. The River Path took us past the state park’s amphitheater to reach the Redwood Deck, a wooden walkway that surrounded a cluster of towering, wide-girthed redwoods. While the coast redwoods here are far smaller than their Humboldt and Del Norte County siblings to the north, the trees here are among the most impressive redwoods in the Big Sur region.

Redwood Deck
Past the Redwood Deck, we walked past the Big Sur Lodge and then crossed the road to start up the trail towards Pfeiffer Falls and Valley View. This trail began to ascend through forest, paralleling a state park service road over the next three hundred meters; despite the nearby road and other structures, the forest on this stretch of trail continued to be quite scenic.

At 0.5 miles from the trailhead, we crossed the service road and came to the formal trailhead for Pfeiffer Falls and Valley View. From here, a broad path delineated by a wooden fence meandered into an open redwood forest, following the course of Pfeiffer Creek. A hundred meters in, the trail forked, with the right fork leading to Pfeiffer Falls and the left fork leading across a footbridge towards Valley View. We chose to do a counterclockwise loop here, taking the right fork to visit Pfeiffer Falls first and then stopping at Valley View on our return.

Pfeiffer Falls Trail through the redwoods
The Pfeiffer Falls Trail followed the redwood ravine of Pfeiffer Creek over the next 0.3 miles. The forest here was pretty, although the trees became smaller the higher up the canyon we went; the forest was also confined merely to the slopes immediately surrounding the creek, as we caught many glimpses of the dry, brushy slopes of the Santa Lucia Range immediately above the ravine. The understory was quite lush at times with ferns and sorrel coating stretches of the forest floor. The brand-new trail here was remarkably well built, with a wide trail corridor, solid retaining walls and a beautiful new footbridge over a tributary creek. This section of the hike through the forest to the falls was closed for over a decade after the 2008 Basin Fire and was kept closed due to the later mudslides and the Soberanes Fire until the rebuilt trail finally reopened in the summer of 2021.

Redwoods with sorrel groundcover
Stately redwoods along the trail
Footbridge on the Pfeiffer Falls Trail
At 0.8 miles from the start of the hike, the Pfeiffer Falls Trail arrived at the hike’s namesake falls. Pfeiffer Falls is not particularly impressive: it’s little more than a trickle flowing down a rock face with flow barely more than a household faucet. During wetter times of year, the waterfall may become slightly more impressive with higher flow, but ultimately this is a modest cascade that has difficulty stacking up to any of the waterfalls in the Sierra Nevada or North State. Still, the journey through the redwood forest to reach these falls was quite lovely and worthwhile.

Pfeiffer Falls
Hikers interested only in the falls and redwood forest can turn around and retrace their steps to the trailhead from here for a hike that is slightly shorter and easier than the stats listed for the full hike. Continuing through the loop provides a chance to visit a view overlooking the Big Sur Valley.

Leaving the falls, we took the other leg of the loop towards Valley View. This trail initially descended and crossed Pfeiffer Creek, providing a different angle on the waterfall. After crossing Pfeiffer Creek, the trail began ascending out of the ravine, soon entering drier oak woodlands. This stretch of the trail provided some opportunities to see some of Pfeiffer Canyon’s redwoods from base to crown. The trees here receive far less precipitation compared to their northern counterparts, so they often only reach about 200 feet or so, only a little more than half the height achieved by the tallest North State arboreal skyscrapers.

One mile from the trailhead into the hike, the ascent topped out on this trail and we came to a junction with the spur trail to Valley View. We turned right onto this spur trail, which was narrower and steeper than the main trail as it ascended along a minor ridge for a third of a mile through oaks and poison oak to reach Valley View. Valley View was a small, northwest-facing clearing with a bench from which we could gaze down the forested valley of the Big Sur River, with the Pacific Ocean and Point Sur visible through the gap at the end of the valley. We spotted the tops of many redwoods beneath us. The view is less than spectacular but is still enjoyable and we saw only one other group of hikers while we were on the spur trail to Valley View, far fewer than the plentiful hikers on the Pfeiffer Falls Trail.

Point Sur, the Pacific, and the forested Big Sur Valley
After returning from the spur, we followed the trail downhill through switchbacks through oak forest until we finally reentered the redwood forest, crossing Pfeiffer Creek again to rejoin the main trail and close the loop at 2 miles. We followed the path that we took in the final half mile back to the Redwood Deck and then the day use parking area.

Oak woodlands

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Soberanes Point

The Pacific meets Soberanes Point and Whale Peak
2.5 miles loop, 350 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to the trailhead, no fee required

The high, brushy ridges of the Santa Lucia Range plunge to the wild granite coastline at Soberanes Point, which juts out into the deep blue waters and crashing waves of the Pacific in Garrapata State Park on the northernmost stretch of California’s Big Sur coast. Whale Peak- really just a small hill- rises above this seascape, offering remarkable views of it all. This stunning tapestry of land and sea is easily accessible on this well-maintained, gentle, and short trail, which as an added bonus is just a short drive from the Monterey area and is still within reasonable distance for a day trip from the San Francisco Bay Area. The hike’s proximity to populated areas makes it quite popular, but as its trailhead is not marked along Highway 1, the hike sees far fewer visitors than nearby Point Lobos. Hikers looking for a very short leg-stretcher with minimal elevation gain can stick to the Garrapata Bluff Trail, which follows the coastline towards Soberanes Point, while those looking for a slightly more extended coastal experience can do the full hike by looping around and then climbing up Whale Peak for some commanding views of the northern Big Sur coast.

I hiked the Soberanes Point and Whale Peak loop with Anna on a nice late October weekend; the drive was about a hundred minutes from South Bay. From the last southbound traffic light in Carmel at Rio Road, we followed US Highway 1 south through Carmel Highlands for 6.5 miles into Garrapata State Park. Track your mileage closely here, as it’s the only straightforward way to get to this unsigned trailhead if you’re not using a GPS. At this point, there are a number of unsigned gravel pull-offs on the right side of the road; park in the first of these pull-offs, which can accommodate a handful of cars. If parking is full at the first access point, there are luckily three further access points to this loop trail over the next half mile on Highway 1, each also unmarked with their own gravel pull-offs, although starting from any of those parking areas will have you starting at a different section of the loop. The correct trailhead will have at the start of the hike for the Garrapata Bluffs Trail.

Leaving the roadside parking pull-off, the wide and well-graded Garrapata Bluffs Trail almost immediately came to an unsigned fork. The left fork led towards Soberanes Point, while the right fork was a short spur to a coastal viewpoint. We followed the right fork first, which quickly brought us out onto Garrapata State Park’s coastal bluffs. The views here were stunning: chiseled granite seastacks lay offshore, cone-like Whale Peak rose to the south, and the bluffs themselves had a highly eroded badlands look and were particularly colorful when coated with non-native ice plants displaying their fall colors. The spur trail ended after a hundred meters at a nicely built viewing platform where we had views north and south along the coast.

Waves meet the rocky coast
Waves pounding the bluffs of Garrapata State Park
Returning to the junction, we took the southbound coastal trail this time, which carried us over a small waterfall on Soberanes Creek via a sturdy footbridge. The trail followed the edge of the coastal bluffs and shortly afterwards came out to Painters Point, another spectacular ocean viewpoint from which we could admire the vista of Whale Peak and the granite coast. Massive waves rolled off the Pacific and sent spray flying 40 feet into the air as they crashed into the bluffs. Forests of kelp were tossed about with each oncoming wave in turbulent, cerulean waters beneath us, rich feeding grounds for the abundant marine life of the California coast.

Granite coast at Soberanes Point
Whale Peak rises above the Pacific
The trail briefly reconnected with Highway 1 at another roadside parking area before heading through a cypress grove and returning to the coast shortly afterwards. At 0.6 miles, the trail brought us to the foot of Whale Peak, where the trail split upon meeting the loop around Whale Peak. We did the loop counterclockwise, taking the right fork and enjoying the ocean views first.

Over the next 0.4 miles, the main trail circled around the west side of Whale Peak, staying high uphill above the coastal bluffs of Soberanes Point. However, a network of social trails here led down to the coastal bluffs, giving access to amazing views and tidepools at the point itself. These were likely official trails in the past, as I noticed retaining walls and other engineered features under the path, but seem like they are no longer maintained as the trail corridor Is brushy in many spots. We (and most other visitors) largely stuck to the social paths here to enjoy the great views, but when brush made the going tough we returned to the main path, which remained wide and well-groomed.

Big Sur coastline at Soberanes Point
Mountains meet the sea
The main path made a gentle descent as it rounded the south side of Whale Peak and came to another junction above the coastal bluffs on the southern end of Soberanes Point at 1.3 miles into the hike. The right fork was a short spur to a viewpoint with southerly views, while the left continued the loop around Whale Peak; we checked out the spur viewpoint before continuing the loop. The southerly viewpoint here allowed us to see the northernmost stretch of the Big Sur Coast from Soberanes Point all the way through Point Sur, about 10 miles to the south. Here, we could see the many ridges of the Santa Lucia Range dropping to the ocean at a boundary defined by the San Gregorio Fault, a quintessential Big Sur view.

View south from Soberanes Point to Point Sur
Leaving the viewpoint, we continued clockwise around the loop. The trail began to ascend gently but steadily as it began heading north again, this time heading inland towards the saddle behind Whale Peak. The trail soon began paralleling Highway 1, passing another roadside parking pull-off. At 1.6 miles, the trail came to an unmarked junction on the slopes of Whale Peak. The right fork continued the loop, while the left fork spur led to Whale Peak’s summit. We took the left fork, which wrapped up the uphill climb and ended up at a saddle between Whale Peak’s two summit humps. The southern hump featured fantastic views towards Point Sur, while views from the northern hump extended past Carmel Highlands to Point Lobos, with the Santa Cruz Mountains on the San Francisco Peninsula rising far in the distance. The summits offered commanding views over the Pacific Ocean; as Whale Peak’s name suggests, it is a good spot to look out for humpback and gray whales when they migrate through Big Sur’s waters.

Highway 1 winds south along the Big Sur coast
Soberanes Point view from Whale Peak
Garrapata Bluffs view from Whale Peak
Returning to the main loop, we descended the sides of Whale Peak, passing yet another parking pull-off, then rejoined the Garrapata Bluff Trail at the base of Whale Peak. We followed that trail north along the coast back to where we parked, enjoying some final coastal views on that last stretch.

The hike around Soberanes Point and Whale Peak is an easy and spectacular way to see the northernmost stretches of the Big Sur coast. Although popular, it's not overcrowded, lacking the name recognition of Point Lobos or Big Sur destinations further south. This is an excellent easy trail option for visitors to the Big Sur coast not looking to tackle the region’s overgrown and steep backcountry.

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.