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.

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