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!

Dan and Hannah Hike at Russian Gulch State Park, California

mendocino-county-map

As we wake this Monday in late January, the forecast from New England has bumped up to 18 to 24 inches of snow starting Tuesday morning. Though we have a rescheduled Tuesday night red-eye, the planets and the Weather Channel are aligning so that this monstrous storm may mean even one more day here in paradise.

Flashy interior of our Virgin America carrier

Flashy interior of our Virgin America carrier

Again, Virgin Atlantic Airlines has been terrific. After waiting on hold for 23 minutes (I had been alerted that it could be 25-40 minutes – they so get “under promise and over deliver”), I had a helpful agent get us on a Wednesday night red-eye.

RG Virgin Atlantic at SFOStaying in California these extra days is an unexpected bonanza. What I don’t want to do is get to the San Francisco Airport, have the flight cancelled, and sleep on the airport furniture.  Just too old and too soft.  That’s me, not the furniture.  I’d rather get an overpriced San Francisco city hotel room than be marooned for days at the SFO airport.

RG fox rent a carFox Rent-A-Car people are not so understanding. A deal is a deal seems to be the company line. Despite the airline cancelling our flight, they are going to penalize us $40 for a second extra day after docking us $29 for the first. Park, Ride, and Fly where we stowed our car outside of Logan Airport in Boston gets that this is an epic storm and flexibility is needed. They never charge us for the extra two days of sheltering our car and there is certainly no penalty for doing so.

You want snow?  We got snow for you!

You want snow? We got snow!

With open arms, our friends Tree and Scott welcome us for a fourth and then a fifth night at their place.  Nolan, Will’s best man and high school buddy, is set to plow our driveway (eventually he plows it twice because there is so much snow). Our new neighbors Marco and Jane have got Sadie’s back and are clearing out a path to our propane exhaust. Our ping pong friend George calls to see if he can be of help. It takes a village to take care of Dan and Hannah when they are on the road.

The deer in Tree and Scott's backyard

The deer in Tree and Scott’s backyard

Since the snow gods have given us a second bonus day in California, there is little for us to do but enjoy the hell out of another hike on the Mendocino coast. We have the same serpentine, cliff hugging drive north on the Pacific Coast Highway to Mendocino. Exiting west, we take a 10 mph one-way road back under the PCH to the Russian Gulch parking area. While beaches to our right are closed, we head inland on the campground road past a state park crew replacing a water main.

RG Russian Gulch signAt Russian Gulch, the tourist season has not begun and the state park campground is yet to open for the season. The overcast and fog are thick and we’ll be needing our sweatshirts.  As we hike east away from the Pacific Ocean, we wonder if this sopping, shaded trail beneath the towering redwoods and pines ever gets sunshine.

On the Fern Canyon Trail among the redwoods

On the Fern Canyon Trail among the redwoods

Native American Pomos lived in this part of northern California for 3000 years. Eventually they were drawn into the mission system in the early 1800s. The Spanish missions comprised a series of religious and military outposts that were established by the Catholic Church to spread Christianity among the natives. A generation of conflict and exposure to European diseases decimated the Pomo population.

RG3A  more redwoodsRussians who established Fort Ross in 1812 were probably the first white men to explore and chart this area. It is believed that U.S. government surveyors later gave the name “Russian Gulch” to honor these early pioneers.

Everything is soaked, from the campsites to the paved campground road with puddles that we easily step around and through. After a half mile, we begin the Fern Canyon Trail. It, too, is paved, as we step around dripping ferns along a rushing canyon creek.

RG2A  start of trailThe Fern Canyon Trail begins quite level following the Russian Gulch Creek Canyon, wide enough for us to walk side by side. As a bonus day on our California hiking vacation, we never give the snows of New England another thought.  Here, a mid-December deluge caused blowdowns that the state park crews have already sawed into chunks and moved from our path.

It is a banquet of redwoods again for two and a half miles.  Being before the season, we find few others on the trail – a retired couple here, another one there, here in the Amazon rainforest north.

RG3B more redwoodsAs you might guess, lumber mills for the redwood flourished here in the 19th century. Redwood was cut for railroad ties, and Russian Gulch produced many of the ties used on the transcontinental railroad. Once the lumber industry died here on the northern California coast, the state government fortunately stepped in to save the wilderness for the many, rather than have it exploited by the few.

RG4A H on trail w redwoodsSoon we take to the Falls Loop Trail anticipating the waterfalls ahead. Hiking at a 2-3 mph pace, we descend the rocky trail by the falls. There, the once hidden waterfall tumbles 36 feet below. Far too cold for skinny dipping, the pool beneath is ideal for an iPhone video.

RG4C H by stream by trailThe seven miles of hiking today does The seven miles of hiking today does not require one to be an uber hiker. There are climbs, but it’s a walk down a boulevard of redwoods. Once my Maine sweatshirt broadcasts where we are from, everyone comments about the storm in the East with sympathy and understanding. Despite three days of anticipation, as we hike this Monday morning, the storm still hasn’t even started in New England.

Virginia Commonwealth University  v. George Washington University

Virginia Commonwealth University v. George Washington University

Returning to Tree and Scott’s nest for another VCU basketball victory over George Washington University, we later hot tub it and sleep contentedly as we know there is little we can do about the storm. Thanks to the snow gods we have two more days in California – one to hike again in Mendocino County and then a full day to travel to Point Reyes National Seashore near San Francisco before we take a red-eye to Boston and all its snow.

It’s all good.

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 Hike the Ocean View Loop Trail in Muir Woods, California

MW map of area

A mere ten miles and twenty minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the redwoods of Muir Woods await to blow your mind.  Looking skyward at these 250’ towers of beauty, I wonder if anyone but the winter wrens and spotted owls have ever seen the tops of these majestic scrapers of the sky.  Named for the naturalist John Muir who was celebrated by Ken Burns in the PBS series on the National Parks, Muir Woods lies at the base of the winding Panoramic Highway in Mill Valley; an isolated paradise of redwood wonder.

MW map of trails

With the sun settling to the west this late January afternoon, we have an evening deadline to get to the San Francisco International Airport to fly East for Winter’s Revenge.  Seizing one last hike, we choose the Ocean View to Lost Trail to Fern Creek Loop.  The trail guide calls it a moderate hike with steep sections that takes two plus or minus hours; bring it on, for soon enough we’ll be thigh deep in Maine snow.

MW 5 Muir woods sign with D

With the weekend crowds two days away, we and maybe seventy-five others have the park to ourselves on this Thursday in January.  Due to its proximity to San Francisco, Muir Woods attracts one million visitors per year, mostly during the summer and on weekends.  This afternoon local school kids with notebooks and a running start are here to explore nature’s treasure that is Muir Woods.

MW 9 H on trail at MW

As with most trails at Muir Woods, the one mile long meandering boardwalk of the hall of redwoods begins our hike.  Ninety-five percent of all visitors seem to confine themselves to this stretch of majesty with its 1000 year old crimson towers.

MW 6 towering red wood

The entry to the Ocean View Loop is a well-identified right and takes us immediately above the Redwood Creek riverbed.  As we hike the 800 feet of elevation gain past redwoods and Douglas firs, we will soon learn that the Ocean View Trail has in fact no ocean view.  The cool, damp redwood forest belies the reality of a drought ravaged California.  Three years ago when we last hiked Muir Woods, the Redwood Creek was raging.  Today we can’t even see a trickle, a dribble, or a droplet during what is their quote rainy season.

Hugging the canyon-side, we climb a trail just wide enough for one.  Redwoods can only survive in the coastal California because the fog belt here provides the necessary moisture for the grand dames of the arboreal world to flourish during the dry season.

Climbing the Ocean View Trail

Climbing the Ocean View Trail

In the mid-afternoon we step purposely along the switchbacked trail occasionally passing hiking couples.  Breaking my code to converse with one and all on the trail, we pass others by nodding “a see-ya-later” in order to meet our flight departure deadline.  The redwood canopy blocks most of the sun which on this January day near 4P is beginning to set.  Old timers say that at one time the trees did not obscure the ocean view.

Descending the Lost Trail to the Fern Creek Trail

Descending the Lost Trail to the Fern Creek Trail

While the Ocean View Trail goes on further into the Tamalpais Mountains, we turn south on the Lost Trail, steeply pitched with railroad tie stair steps to ease the hilly descent.  A 1930s landslide covered this trail for 30 years and hence the name Lost Trail.  Later we turn back towards the Redwood Creek on the Fern Creek Trail.

MW 9L D between logs with redwoods behind

Focused on our upcoming departure to the Great White Northeast, we have motored through this two hour hike in 75 minutes.  As you can guess we don’t exactly stop to smell the roses or let the tannins from the six inch bark of the redwoods create any olfactory delight.  But we do get the exercise and soak in the redwood experience one last time.

Wrapping up an afternoon at Muir Woods

Wrapping up an afternoon at Muir Woods

Packing away our hiking boots and gear, we fit all our clothes and gear into a carry-on travel bag and a sizable canvas bag each.  Though it’s 5P, the traffic south to the Golden Gate Bridge is manageable and we sail across and then down 19th Avenue through the city.

From our front seat

From our front seat

Arriving at the airport we find our 11P flight to Boston is on schedule.  We crash in quasi-comfortable airport chairs playing with our iPhones as we await our departure.

Our California dream world hiking vacation is ending as we set our sights for home, our New England paradise on the coast of Maine.  It’s just that our East Coast nirvana may not be ready for us until May.

 

 

 

 

 

MW york temp

Dan and Hannah Hike the Ben Johnson Loop Trail in Muir Woods, California

MW map of area

On this mid-January day we put a bow on our nine days of coastal hiking in California.  It’s been Bluff Hikes up and down the coast: San Luis Obispo, Big Sur, Santa Cruz, and Gualala.  Though the snow and ice of Maine will snare us in its evil web tomorrow, this Thursday we will hike a mere three miles from the Pacific Ocean at the crown Jewel of the Redwoods, Muir Woods National Monument.

MW jet blue at night

We have “stolen” an extra day in California by leaving tonight at 11P on the evening red-eye from San Francisco to Boston.  Rather than fly today and miss hiking completely or fly tomorrow and pay for a motel room that we would use only til 4A in order to catch the 7A cross country flight, we are flying overnight.  Brilliant?  Yes and no.  The trade-off is a lousy night of sleep in the plane.  A small price to pay for another day in paradise.

Gas in Boonville, CA

Gas in Boonville, CA

Leaving the home of our friends Tree and Scott in Manchester, CA just after dawn, we drive inland by way of Mountain View Road heading to Boonville, CA some 25 miles away.  No lie, it takes an hour to drive this winding road to get to this one-horse town known for its wine festivals.  In need of gas, we have no choice but to put in an additional two gallons at $4.59 per gallon to tide us over til Cloverdale some 30 mountainous miles away.

MW 4 Muir woods sign with H

After Cloverdale, it’s a direct 80 miles down the six lanes of the 101 to Muir Woods.  Just three days ago we were caught in the Mother-of-All-Traffic-Jams on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day here at Muir Woods.  After sitting on the off-ramp for 25 minutes in five miles of car-clogged traffic ahead to the Pacific Coast Highway, we took the alternative six-lane 101 highway north to Santa Rosa, CA.

The trails of Muir Woods

The trails of Muir Woods

This Thursday we have no such traffic and cruise into Muir Woods.  Parking that can be non-existent on the weekend after 11A is ample and welcoming today.  Three years ago we hiked the Bootjack Trail for nearly four hours.  Today we are looking for another redwood-strewn  hike before we fly to the snowy tundra of Maine.

Taking to the boardwalk through the redwoods, we… But let me let my videographer tell his story.

 

 

MW 9AA Ben Johnson Trail with H

Named after legendary conservationist John Muir, the Muir Woods National Park has redwoods nearly 1000 years old.  When informed that this area would be named after him, John Muir said, This is the best tree lover’s monument that could possibly be found in all the forests of the world.  To that, Hannah and I add Amen!  My college roommate Big Steve used the word stunning to describe the spectacular in his life.  These redwoods are stunning.

Dan on the Ben Johnson Trail

Dan on the Ben Johnson Trail

Though this is the rainy season, after a mile on the boardwalk we take the fourth bridge over the now very dry Redwood Creek as the relentless drought of California rolls on.  On a quiet Thursday in January we choose the Ben Johnson Trail with its 1000 feet of elevation gain to celebrate our last day in California.  Called a moderate/strenuous hike by the trail guide, the Ben Johnson Trail is a steady climb under the redwood canopy.  FYI, Ben Johnson lived in a small cabin in what is now Muir Woods. In 1935, he built the trail that that bears his name.

MW 9F Han with trail sign

With redwoods here, there, and everywhere, the mile and third climb takes us 45 minutes of purposeful hiking.  In Muir Woods there lies the largest stand of ancient redwoods in the San Francisco Area; these trees are the tallest living things in the world.  We are grabbing last minutes on this California trail not knowing that this year’s icy and snowy Maine winter will take hostages all the way through April!

The Dipsea Trail

The Dipsea Trail

Turning south on the Dipsea Trail, we find the trails are well-marked.  Unfortunately we are leaving the redwoods behind as we hike through grasslands with pine trees bracketing the mini-meadows.  With the Pacific Ocean to our west, the Dipsea Trail is pedestrian and functional, but hardly stunning.

Dipping back into the coastal rain forest of redwoods, we descend rapidly back to the Redwood Creek and toward the visitor center.  With two hours of hiking in the books, we want more.  We are in denial that we are leaving paradise this evening.

Descending through the redwoods to Redwood Creek

Descending through the redwoods to Redwood Creek

It’s 330P, and negotiating San Francisco traffic to the airport south of the city is on our minds.  Traffic, schmaffic. It will be there whether we hike or not.  Throwing vehicular caution to the wind, we select the Ocean View Trail as our closing hike of the week (See the blog for May 3, 2014).