Dan and Hannah Hike to Pfeiffer Falls in Big Sur, California

PFB big sur map 2

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.

Pacific Coast Highway

Pacific Coast Highway

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.

Coast redwoods

Coast redwoods

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.

PFB 1 PBS sign

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.

From the parking lot to the Valley Vista Trail

From the parking lot to the Valley Vista Trail

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.

PFB 1A deer on river path

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.

Valley Vista Trail to the Pfeiffer Falls

Valley Vista Trail to the Pfeiffer Falls

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).

PFB 5A redwoods again

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.

Mom takes our picture on the Valley Vista Trail

Mom takes our picture on the Valley Vista Trail

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.

PFB 4B H at trail sign

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.

From the Valley View Vista Point

From the Valley View Vista Point

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?

PFB 5 redwoods

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!

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Dan and Hannah Hike in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur, California

Early morning Hannah on the Pacific coast north of Cambria, CA

Early morning Hannah on the Pacific coast north of Cambria, CA

Leaving Cambria on the coast of California early to hike at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, we have the highway to ourselves. With its hairpin turns and spectacular vistas to the west, the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) provides us with an amusement park ride of hairpin turns and steep drop-off thrills.

BS1B - Gorda Springs gasThink about it. By heading north on the PCH, we are always nearest the mountainside of the highway and away from the plunging cliffs that the southbounders must deal with. That is a good thing for the slightly acrophobic in the front seat next to Hannah. After driving just 33 miles in the first hour, we take a quick break to change drivers at Gorda Springs.  There, we see, despite falling gas prices across the United States this winter of 2015, Gorda Springs has the same price that it had a year ago.

Along the Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur

Along the Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur

On our way to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, we pass the entrance to the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (JPB); Hannah reads aloud about this park and we learn that a fifty foot waterfall overlooking the ocean, a stunning redwood grove and a 200 foot tunnel leading to the beach through the cliffs are just a taste of what awaits you…

BS2 - D at Ewoldsen TrailMaking a u-eee (U-turn) immediately, we change plans on the spot and drive four to five miles back to the park entrance at JPB.  At 930A, the drop dead gorgeous ranger suggests the Ewoldsen Trail.  The juxtaposition of a natural beauty among such natural beauty makes this trail an obvious choice

Let the redwoods begin.  Hannah on the Ewoldsen Trail.

Let the redwoods begin. Hannah on the Ewoldsen Trail.

Hiking under the redwood forest canopy, we start off in sweatshirts. The Ewoldsen Trail is a 4.5 mile loop with an invigorating 1300’ gain in elevation. Today redwoods are like the Beatles – here, there, and everywhere. Redwoods are found in deep valleys and gullies where the coastal fog bathes the towering redwoods in moisture.

Redwood twins

Redwood twins

Rising above the river bed, the trail has us in redwood heaven. A cool, moist climate is needed for the redwoods to thrive in this, one of the southern-most groves of redwoods. We find redwoods along the stream bed or up the north facing mountain slopes.

Among the redwoods on the Ewoldsen Trail

Among the redwoods on the Ewoldsen Trail

I have to say that any day in the redwoods is a great day. Ken Burns of PBS fame calls our National Parks America’s Best Idea. Well, California has its own best idea, too, with its spectacular Big Sur State Parks here on the Pacific. As we hike, I hum Woody Guthrie’s classic This Land is Your LandThis land is your land, this land is my land.  From California to the New York Island, from the redwood forests…

A VCU Ram on the Waters Trail

A VCU Ram on the Waters Trail

After two miles of hiking beneath this redwood paradise, we take to the recently blazed Waters Trail under a full California sun. Here the chaparral vegetation dominates as we see sage, coyote brush, and gooseberry; there is now a high desert vibe to our hiking adventure today.

Overlooking the Pacific

Overlooking the Pacific

The trail is cliffside and gives us a view of Pacific Ocean miles away. Lunching on a park bench near the summit of the trail, we deboot and desock and revel in how damn fortunato we are to be here in January while Mainers are preparing for Snowmageddon.

A baby redwood next to Mama

A baby redwood next to Mama

Upon our descent, we return to the shaded redwood forest and spot a baby redwood. As the tallest trees, redwoods are found on a very narrow coastal band from here at JPB to the extreme southwestern corner of Oregon. The thick bark and the soaring foliage protects the redwoods from both fire and insect damage.

Heading back to the trailhead

Heading back to the trailhead

Descending, we pass many hikers on this holiday Monday in January wondering about the next turn and how long it would take to finish the loop trail. We love the trails with the buzz of hikers. One, we love the interaction, and two, it’s less likely we’ll get lost on popular trails.   Though the trail guide says the Ewoldsen Trail could take a full day for an average hiker, we found its 4.5 mile loop with the additional 2.4 miles going up and back on the Waters Trail has taken just over three hours.

At the tunnel of love to the Pacific

At the tunnel of love to the Pacific

Once back at our rented Toyota Corolla, we know that there is just a quarter mile walk to the Overlook Trail above the Pacific cliffs.  Through the 200 foot metal culvert under the Pacific Coast Highway, we see the aforementioned waterfall, which falls quietly to the beach at McWay Cove.

Due to the unstable cliffs, the beach is not open to the public; as such, the Observation Deck is overrun with touristos.   Spent from the three plus hours of hiking and knowing we have at least two hours of driving ahead to Santa Cruz for the night, we know it’s time to boogie.

The magnificence of the Big Sur coastline

The magnificence of the Big Sur coastline from the Observation Deck at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

Nothing like the majesty of the redwoods!   The redwood forest trails not only puts the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park at the top of our list of hiking destinations on the coast of California, but anywhere from California to the New York island.

Dan and Hannah Knock on the Door of Big Sur in Cambria, California

AM map of big sur

Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo are just south of Morro Bay

Big Sur is not a town; it may be a state of mind; but it’s definitely a 100 mile stretch of California coastline from Cambria in the south to Carmel in the north. The Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) from Cambria to Carmel was built over 16 years (1921-1937) at cost of nine million dollars. Of course, those were depression dollars that put many men to work.

After four days in the coastal mountains and on ocean bluffs for hiking, we decide to chill this Sunday in mid-January.  A minor crisis arises as we pack up to leave Pismo Beach – I can’t charge my iPhone; stick with me – it’s the camera for my blog.  You might think WTF (Why the [long] face?).   I text and play Words with Friends and Lexulous (Scrabble games) to connect with mi amigos. But it’s the camera that I need. Fortunately we discover that there is a Verizon store in San Luis Obispo open this Sunday.

Before we head north to the gateway of Big Sur in Cambria, our plan is to find a little morning meditative peace at the Unity of San Luis Obispo service. With a small congregation of 25 or so, similar to our Unity of the Seacoast in Dover, NH, the service brings some calm to our world where we can be a little too focused on being productive and efficient.

CP verizonArriving at the Verizon store in, as the locals say, San Luis or SLO (pronounced es-el-oh), I explain my iPhone situation to the young woman who greets us. Immediately she says, I know just what to do.   Minutes later she returns with my charger working and my undying gratitude. Pocket lint builds up. I just used a heavy duty hand fan to clean it out. There is peace in my valley again.

CP1 motel sign

Thirty-five miles north on the PCH we arrive at the Cambria Palms Motel. Given high fives by former visitors on TripAdvisor.com, we find it the best deal in town, too. It’s AFC championship Sunday as our New England Patriots play the Indianapolis Colts for the right to go to the Super Bowl. Another plus of California is that sporting events start three hours earlier than they do in the East.

Greeted by a delightful, eager to please couple, we see that they have free bikes, wine glasses for our use, and a gas fire pit out back for guests.  Arriving early afternoon, Hannah and I have time to take the one speed cruisers to Moonstone Beach Drive before the game.

The bluff off Moonstone Drive in Cambria, CA

The bluff off Moonstone Drive in Cambria, CA

As the gateway to Big Sur’s amazing California State Parks – Julia Pfeiffer Burns, Pfeiffer Big Sur, and Andrew Molera – Cambria has the feel of Sedona, Arizona and Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Trendy, boutique-y in a small town way.

With the Cambria Palms not providing a morning breakfast as our Quality and Comfort Inns do, we figure we’ll breakfast in town at some funky diner. There are no funky diners to be had. Classy bistros and cafes where $8.50 gets you what’s known as a “simple fare breakfast” with one egg, toast, and home fries.  No thank you.

Thanks to another helpful Canadian

Thanks to another helpful Canadian

There is relaxing vibe as we pedal our cruisers four miles down the main drag. Crossing the Pacific Coast Highway, we head down Moonstone Beach Drive with no crush of traffic; the beaches and coast trails are active on this holiday Sunday of Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend but certainly not summer-time-on-the-Jersey-shore busy.

Our one-speed cruisers from the Cambria Palms

Our one-speed cruisers from the Cambria Palms

At Moonstone Beach, we ask the first person we meet to take our picture. Nicest guy. What a surprise. He’s Canadian. Let the stereotyping begin. We tell him you match all the stereotypes of Canadians – friendly, accommodating, pleasant. He’s from Alberta and says if that’s what you think of Canadians, I’ll take it. We’d like to take him home with us.

Windsor Drive front yard sign

Windsor Drive front yard sign

One speed bikes are ideal for the level ride along Moonstone Beach. As we bike up the hill to the upscale neighborhood of Windsor Boulevard, we see evidence how the local residents deal with the ban on watering their grass or plants – harvesting rainwater.

The bluff beyond Windsor Road

The bluff beyond Windsor Boulevard

At the end of Windsor Boulevard, we bike a wide, hard-gravel trail at a city park along the ocean while walkers follow the bluff path by the sea. Heading back to the Cambria Palms, Hannah stops to shop while I check out the beat down that our Patriots are administering to our son Will’s Colts; it’s on to the Super Bowl.

Early morning on Main Street

Early morning on Main Street

As we leave town the following morning to hike on the Big Sur coast, Hannah spots four players lawn bowling right along Main Street. In teams of two, they are playing what seems to be a variation of bocce. We stop, get out, and chat them up. They invite us to play and offer us coffee from the court-side pot.  Though Maine is home, I could get used to the small town California feel of Cambria, especially in January.

Dan and Hannah Hike the Bluff Trail at Andrew Molera State Park, Big Sur, California

AM map of big sur

Snaking north on the Pacific Coast Highway, Hannah and I do not pass a single burg, not a village, or even a hamlet.  A few cabins in Gorda with its $5.99 per gallon regular are the closest thing to a settlement that we see.  Today we have set our sights on a bluff hike in Andrew Molera State Park in Big Sur.  FYI, Andrew Molera was a rancher in the 1930s, whose family donated the park land to the state of California.

While there is a “town” of Big Sur, the Big Sur region is considered to be the 90 miles along the Pacific Coast Highway from San Simeon (Hearst Castle) to Carmel.  Once a hippy heaven back in the day, its Big Sur Folk Festival in the late 60s had musical heavyweights like Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.  Now along this stretch there are no chain hotels, supermarkets, or fast-food restaurants.  The mountainous terrain and environmental restrictions have kept Big Sur relatively unspoiled.  As a result, homes can be north of $2 million.

AM trail map

After four hours of the PCH’s hairpins, we have just five minutes more through the heavily forested mountainside from the Big Sur gas station/convenience store to the entrance of the Andrew Molera State Park.  On this Saturday noon time, the parking lot is packed; and why wouldn’t it be on a day that is 75 degrees and a location just some 20 miles south of Carmel and Monterrey.  For $9 admission for seniors, we park and lunch out of our rental car’s trunk on oranges, apples, trail mix, and motel muffins.

AM 1 first sign

Informed that the seasonal bridge over the Big Sur River is out, we un-shod and de-sock and dip our feet into the 6 to 10 inches of 47F water.  With no choice, there is little complaining by the hikers and beachgoers that we see as they cross the 25’ of flowing stream.  (At the end of the blog is a short video on Hannah re-crossing this stream.)

Big Sur River

Big Sur River

Taking the Creamery Meadow Trail we hike for the fourth day in a row in California under cloudless skies in the mid-70s.  The trail to the beach is sandy dirt that is easy on the feet, level and winding through a savannah similar to what we have seen in the grasslands of the Everglades.

Heading to the Pacific

Heading to the Pacific

While the park pamphlet recommends hiking this loop trail by starting with the inland Ridge Trail first, we choose the direct route to the water with its crashing surf and with the ocean extending to the horizon.  In less than twenty minutes we are at the beach with families and surfers giving it their best ten seconds.  (Does that sound like a shot at surfing?)

AM 7 arrive at beach

The bluff trail is clearly marked and spreading before us to the south.  Passing ten to fifteen hikers over the nearly next two miles of the Bluff Trail, we have brief, smiling conversations and then move on.

AM 8 bluff trail sign

The trail is narrow and distinctive, winding its way through the very dry grasslands above the shoreline.  Below us at low tide beachcombers can walk for two miles along the sandy shore easily getting around the rocky outcroppings.  The park pamphlet warns with CAPITAL LETTERS of the danger of misjudging the tides.  The bluff walls are no easy climb and often inaccessible.  The number one rule of the coast is Never turn your back on the ocean! 

AM 9B shore line with D

Transported into another country and time here in California, we have no responsibilities, no deadlines, no “to-dos,” just hiking and hanging out together.  Hannah loves her sun and I am equally enamored today with the pristine coast with no houses on the cliffs or any cell services.  At no point on this hike do we feel we may get lost.  The trail is well-laid out, easy to follow, and popular.

AM 9C H on bluff trail

On the East Coast there would often be mansions (euphemistically called “cottages”) on the water’s edge.  In New England, there would be laws (decrees from the King of England) from the 1600s giving rights to the low tide line to land owners effectively keeping the public out; the modern day landed aristocracy would have the ocean views to themselves, as is now in danger of happening in York County, Maine.

AM 9D bluff trail with sea

After nearly three miles of hiking from the parking lot in a little over an hour, we descend the steep side Spring Trail to the ocean shore through coastal scrub and grasslands.

AM 9E trail into mountains

Meeting a couple from Australia with an extreme sports camera that records their every step as they run the trail, we linger by the water’s edge; we are torn between just catching some rays on the beach and the fact that we have 2+ hours of mountainous hiking still ahead before the late afternoon January sunset.   We turn for the hills.

AM 9F beach waves

We look ahead to the climb ahead of us with oaks and redwoods in the distance.  As my friend Mitch says, these are Adirondack switchbacks (i.e., straight up!).  Climbing from the shore we have a serious 1000 feet of elevation gain ahead of us.  There is no shade and no mercy, but also no driveway with snow.

The "switchbacks" of the Panorama Trail

The “switchbacks” of the Panorama Trail

It’s amazing how willing hikers coming down the mountain are to give you the information they think you want.  As an entre to conversation, I ask everyone, Which is the top most peak? (which they incidentally have just come from).  They see my sweat-stained face, big smile, and just give me what I obviously want!  With their best intentions, they say, It’s just over the hill there, or You’re close.  Brimming with hopefulness, I am to blame.  Fact is, we are not close and it takes an hour to climb a mile and a third.

On the Ridge Trail heading back to the trailhead

On the Ridge Trail heading back to the trailhead

Though slow going, we are under a full sun as we arrive at the end of the Panorama trail.  There a bench in the shade provides us with, you got it, a panorama of the ocean to our left and the mountainous terrain of the rest of the Andrew Molera State Park across the Pacific Coast Highway.

But it’s all downhill from here (in a good way!).

AM 9J H on trail back

The Ridge Trail is wide, shaded, and our energy level returns.  Within the canopy of the forest we rarely see the ocean.  Taking the side Hidden Trail down the mountain to the River Trail, we are nearly done with our three plus hours of hiking over these eight miles.

Just 100 yards from our rental car, we ford the Big Sur River one more time.  Again, Hannah impresses.