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

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