Leaving the bluff trail of William R. Hearst State Park near San Simeon, CA on this Thursday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Weekend, we turn north on the the Pacific Coast Highway (California 1) thrill ride for Big Sur country. Though Big Sur is also a small hamlet 20 miles south of Carmel, Big Sur typically refers to the area north of Cambria along the coast to Monterrey in all its roller coaster glory.
Taking the wheel to plunge and climb along the Pacific Coast Highway, I appreciate that we are on the inside lane nearest to the mountain itself, farthest from the nearly vertical cliffs to the ocean below. Normally Hannah sleeps when I drive, but not today. With stretches of hairpin turns, I putter along at 20 mph as if I’m 68 years old. To quote Popeye, I yam what I yam. Driving over the 65 miles to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park in the next two hours, three times we will stop dead, waiting for the south bound traffic to pass when only one lane is open.
Now a veteran of driving this stretch with experiences over the last two years, I no longer find the drive stressful or anxiety producing. What I would say is that the drive demands my full attention. On some of the steep slopes to our right, there are heavy metal nets to corral falling rocks. A few times I pass over a sharply angled rock, something I never would have seen if I were driving at night; clearly the rock would have blown a tire.
Driving through sloping-to-the-ocean forests and pasture land, we pass the entrance to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (see the California category to the left of the blog for hikes there) on our way through the tiny burg of Big Sur. Pulling into Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, we pony up $9 for senior admission and $2 for a trail map, ready for a hiking adventure at the base of the Santa Lucia Mountains.
Asking the ranger for the signature hike at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, she tells us of Pfeiffer Falls, a popular two mile round trip trail. After the intense driving of the Pacific Coast Highway for the last two hours, this short, mellow hike sounds perfect.
Taking the river path through the shaded forest, we spot three deer within ten feet, nonchalantly eating their fill of green leaves and grass. They aren’t bothered by us in the least.
The trail gently climbs into the foothills above the Big Sur Lodge. Hiking on hard packed dirt and inconsequential rocks beneath our feet on the Valley View Trail, we have redwoods to our right and left. The coast redwoods have survived since the time of Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble (i.e., the Mesozoic era of dinosaurs).
Due to climate change, coast redwoods are now only found within thirty miles of the shoreline, from the Oregon border 500 miles south to Big Sur. Conducive to redwoods flourishing, weather in Big Sur Country is cool and moist year round with an annual rainfall of 30-50,” almost all of it falling from October to April.
As we approach Pfeiffer Falls we see a young mother and father with their seven month old son pressed against dad’s chest in a Baby Bjorn. Once we speak up and ask if they would do us a favor to take our picture (and it is clear we are not axe murderers), mom relaxes (possibly a mother bear reflex) and smiles; she goes from leery to attractive. Because of your smile, you make life more beautiful.” Thich Nhat Hanh.
Nearly a mile in, the Valley View Trail veers right and we take the switchbacks down to the base of the Pfeiffer Falls. Hoping someone is there to take our waterfalls picture, we come upon two guys who we learn are from Denmark.
We find that travelers from other countries often pass us without making eye contact, unsure of their English; or once we do get in conversation, they apologize for their “poor” English. In this case, the Danes apologize and we respond by noticing that their English is most understandable and note how few of us Americans speak a second language.
With only 30 minutes of hiking in the books, we opt for a side trail, the Valley View Vista Point, a half mile from the base of the falls. On the way we meet the Danes again. One tells us that Americans actively engage them regularly in conversation on the trail, something that is less likely to happen across the Pond.
The view up the Valley to the Ocean shows the green that has come with this year’s El Nino. A lot more rain needs to fall to end this five year drought. At some point in the not too distant future, will water replace oil as what wars are fought over?
Still a two hours away from our overnight in Santa Cruz beyond Carmel and Monterrey, we drive along the steep ledges of the Pacific Coast Highway amusement park. Hardly a burden, for my goodness, we are in California!