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.
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.
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
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
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?)
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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!).
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.