Big Sur Coast

The Big Sur coast is a national treasure. Mountains rise from the oceanside to heights of over 5,000 feet within a matter of miles creating a rugged seascape that inspires with spectacular beaches, picturesque rock formations, and paradisaical turquoise water on sunny afternoons.  The diversity on land is truly remarkable ranging from lush redwood-filled canyons and coastal oak woodlands to grassy meadows and chaparral. Sometimes the contrast in foliage can be found within a few foot proximity. The day after the Stone Ridge climb to Cone Peak, we toured some favorite spots along the coast:

  • Nacimiento-Fergusson Road: the only road across the Santa Lucia Range with stupendous views of the coast
  • Jade Cove: a rugged and rocky cove where you might find some jade
  • Sand Dollar Beach: a spectacular crescent-shaped beach with white sands set below the cliffs of Pacific Valley bluff with numerous rock formations 
  • Pacific Valley Bluff: One of the best short hikes in all of Big Sur with 360 degree views and great wildflowers in the spring 
  • McWay Falls at Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park: Perhaps the most photographed subject in all of Big Sur, the iconic McWay Falls is a special spot
  • Pfieffer Beach: a rugged beach with patches of purple sands and impressive rock formations near Big Sur.

There remains many spots I have yet to visit along the coast so I look forward to returning to Big Sur in the future.  Below are some of my favorite photos from the tour.

Rocky Ridge & Doud Peak

Rocky Ridge is located in Garrapata State Park on the northern end of the Big Sur Coastline. The terrain of the park is characterized by a rugged and rocky coastline with steep mountain slopes rising to over 2,000 ft. The vegetation is predominantly chaparral and coastal scrub with the exception of a pocket of redwoods at the bottom of Soberanes Canyon and some grassy meadows on top of Rocky Ridge to Doud Peak. The aforesaid meadows come to life in the spring with a palette of beautiful wildflowers. Owing to its close proximity to Monterey and Carmel, the Rocky Ridge hike is very popular, especially on weekends. Two routes lead to the ridge crest allowing for a logical loop, but both are quite steep with some loose sections. The grade is so steep in spots that it’s more efficient to power hike than run. The trail heading up to the ridge from Soberanes Canyon is technically closed, although it seems as if people ignore the signs en masse. However, the more scenic route in my opinion is the sanctioned route that follows the ridge from its base and provides continuous sweeping views of the coastline below. Near the top of the ridge there are several rock outcroppings with excellent views to soak in. Once on top of Rocky Ridge, virtually all hikers either turnaround or complete the loop, but few continue on a faint path to Doud Peak. This stretch of trail is particularly pleasant with little elevation gain and wonderful meadows. The panoramic views from Doud Peak are also excellent and look into a redwood canyon and beautiful hillsides along the Malpaso Creek canyon. One can continue beyond Doud Peak on yet fainter paths to the park border where more colorful meadows and great views are found along the way. See my hike route for the day on Strava.

Post Summit & East Molera Ridge

The meadows on East Molera Ridge burst with color during the spring producing one of the best coastal wildflower displays along the Big Sur Coast. The top of Post Summit provides a logical culminating destination with sweeping views of the coast and the interior Ventana Wilderness from a perch 3,455 ft above sea level. The East Molera Ridge Trail begins along a dirt road behind a white barn at the main parking area for Andrew Molera State Park. The trail goes under Highway 1 through a tunnel and then heads uphill, soon joining a wider trail that heads up through oak woodland and then chaparral. The path narrows to single track at the base of the ridge. On this day there was a stunning display of California poppy in incredibly dense patches. The density and vibrant orange color of these flowers was simply amazing. Continuing up, the single track makes a long switchback across the steep slope with views improving with each step.  Ultimately the designated trail ends at a point on top of the ridge with a strip of redwoods and views across the Little Sur Valley to Pico Blanco.

From the end of the official trail, an informal use path continue south along grassy ridges and wonderful meadows for a couple miles. The views of Point Sur, Andrew Molera, the LIttle Sur Valley, and Pico Blanco are remarkable and improve as you progress up the ridge. Pico Blanco, or “white peak,” is aptly named with a large deposit of exposed white limestone composing its distinctive pyramidal summit.  The peak forms an aesthetic background for the wildflowers on East Molera Ridge and begs to be climbed! The grassy meadows end at a knoll (2,500 ft) and the final 1,000 feet of ascent to Post Summit is on a steep path through brush (fairly tame by Ventana standards). Note that there are ticks in this brush so make sure to check your skin and clothing after passage. Soon enough we were on the summit and enjoying the views. One can continue along the use paths via a route to Manuel Peak and Pfieffer Big Sur State Park via Cabezo Preito. This route along the ridge crest was obvious, but a continuation of the tick-infested brush is inevitable. On this day, we decided to forgo the ticks and bushwhacking and returned the way we came, enjoying even better light for photography while coming down through the wildflower meadows. The aesthetic loop to Manuel Peak, down to Big Sur Valley, and back to Andrew Molera is definitely on my list for the future, although the best views and scenery are on the grassy meadows of the East Molera Ridge portion.

Austin Creek

Austin Creek State Recreation Area is an awesome wilderness next to Armstrong Redwoods. The park features extremely limited facilities, including a camping area at Bullfrog Pond and a few picnic tables. Access to the park is limited to a narrow and winding mountain road that first passes through Armstrong Redwoods. The park’s terrain includes a lovely variety of oak woodland, coniferous forest of mainly Douglas fir, pockets of redwoods, and grassy meadows. The East Fork of Austin Creek and tributary Gilliam Creek are the primary geographical features that cuts across the park. The best single track in the park is the Gilliam Creek Trail which is a real adventure. The trail starts on Pool Ridge at the Gilliam Trailhead and traverse the hillside before plunging down to Schoolhouse Creek on a technical and weathered trail. Once in the canyon, bay trees and lush ferns abound all the way down to Gilliam Creek and on to the East Fork of Austin Creek. There are numerous creek crossings and after winter storms, many of these crossings become wet or even impassable. The trail is also slightly overgrown with low lying poison oak encroaching in some spots. On my run through the Gilliam Creek canyon I spotted numerous newts and deer.

At the conclusion of the Gilliam Creek Trail, one must cross the East Fork of Austin Creek which was still a wet crossing for me despite the lack of winter rains the past few months. The trip back to Pool Ridge utilizes the East Austin Creek Fire Road which traverses the hillsides and provides fantastic views of the backcountry.  Another crossing of the East Fork of Austin Creek is also required (likely wet). The two other single track trails worth checking out at Austin Creek are the East Ridge Trail and Pool Ridge Trail which can be run in combination to make a nice loop down Armstrong Redwoods and back up Austin Creek at the Pool Ridge or Gilliam Creek Trailheads. Both trails entail fairly steep portions. The campground at Bullfrog Pond is pleasant with redwoods and nice sites. Near the campground is a Vista Point with spectacular views of the coastal range. The grassy meadows of the upper portion of the park are also known for fantastic wildflower displays in the spring. Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, a local nonprofit organization, works in partnership with the Russian River sector of California State Parks to keep the campground open. Many thanks to the volunteers of this organization for a their great work. My route through Armstrong Redwoods and Austin Creek is here on Strava. 

Mendocino Headlands

Mendocino Headlands State Park is an amazing meeting of land and ocean. The park is located literally next door to the quaint tourist village of Mendocino with its rich history and getaway appeal.  However, despite the park’s accessibility, this section of coastline is one of the more rugged and inspiring in all of California. The raw power of water is on full display with many intricate rock formations, numerous sea arches, hidden passageways, secluded beaches and jagged spires.  The dramatic views are truly memorable. We explored the park on an unseasonably cool winter day that was chilly despite the blazing sunshine. While we had to bundle up, the clear and crisp conditions more than compensated and we spent all morning venturing out onto the rock promontories and peninsulas, admiring the spectacular beauty of these headlands with every turn. Locals will confirm that the fall and winter season is the best time to visit this stretch of coastline to avoid persistent coastal fog common in late spring and summer. Further exploration on this trip to Mendocino included Russian Gulch State Park, Van Damme State Park, Jug Handle, Anderson Valley, Hendy Woods and Glass Beach in Fort Bragg. I’ll be posting photos and descriptions from these other destinations in the next entry.  For now, here are some of my favorite photos from the Mendocino Headlands with the complete album here.