The Big Sur/Ventana Wilderness area has captured my attention recently. Nowhere in the lower 48 does the meeting of land and ocean occur with such impressive, rugged relief. Add to that the pristine wilderness, much of which is remote and difficult to access, and you get a paradise for adventure running. I’ve already posted on several routes that I believe are classics and expect many more to come. Perhaps at some point I will create a summary post that will function as an online guide to my favorite Big Sur adventures. For this post I describe an aesthetic way to cover virtually all of the trails in Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park by running from Partington Cove to McWay Falls and back. The route includes the famous Ewoldson Loop, which is widely considered one of the best hikes in all of Big Sur. The praise for the Ewoldson Loop is for good reason: the trail features the most impressive stand of old growth redwoods in the Santa Lucia Mountains and spectacular coastal views. The sharp transitions between lush redwood forest and coastal chaparral are spectacular. A trip up the Ewoldson trail starts near the iconic McWay Falls, which plunges 80 feet over cliffs onto white sands and a turquoise cove. The loop gives a taste of virtually everything Big Sur has to offer. The 2008 Basin Complex fire closed the trail for over five years with heavy damage reported, but it has recently been reopened for the public’s enjoyment. On my recent visit I was happy to see that the redwood forest has made a vigorous comeback. Most redwoods appear to have survived the fire and new limbs and saplings are sprouting with vigor – a testament to the resiliency of redwoods. I imagine in 10 yeas it will be difficult to notice the fire that once roared through this forest. Work crews have also built a series a magnificent new hand-made bridges over McWay Creek, constructed with fallen redwoods on location. By doing an out-and-back from Partington Cove one can run down the Canyon side of the Ewoldson Loop on the way out and the Ocean side on the way back, thus covering the entire loop.
The turnaround point for the Partington to McWay is the iconic McWay Falls. It’s a special experience to follow McWay Creek through its journey down a steep canyon with lush redwoods forest and then to exit the forest at McWay Cove with surreal coastal scenery. If you do the loop in the early morning you will even be able to enjoy McWay Falls without the tourists. The other highlight of the route in my opinion is Alta Vista, an old homestead that burned in the 2008 fire. This destination is off the main route and unsigned. All that remains of the homestead is its foundation, a wine cellar carved into the mountains and a few burned artifacts. A plaque has been placed on the site to memorialize the history of the location and the property has been transferred to the State Parks. The best part of Alta Vista in my opinion, and the reason why I recommend making the side trip, is the incredible view across McWay Canyon and south along the Big Sur Coast. While the use trail to Alta Vista is not marked, it’s an obvious junction located at the high point of the Tanbark Trail before it descends to meet the fire road. The other portions of the Partington to McWay route are equally impressive. The Water Trail, which connects the Ewoldson Trail in McWay Canyon with the Tanbark Trail in Partington Canyon, is a narrow single track on a steep hillside that parallels the ocean with spectacular vistas en-route. There is a grassy section that is particularly scenic with views to sea stacks and turquoise waters below. The Tanbark Trail starts with a lush redwood forest in Partington Canyon and then ascends up to the ridge with great views across Partington Canyon to Partington Ridge and Boronda Ridge. On the other side of Hwy 1, a dirt road descends 0.5 miles to Partington Cove and Partington Beach. An old tunnel provides access to the Cove with rich history and the scenic beach features towering bluffs and ocean smoothed rocks. These coastal destinations are well worth the short extension to complete the tour of the Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park. These trails are phenomenal trail running and provide an excellent mix of all that Big Sur offers. Strava route here.
The Boronda-De Angulo Loop is a classic route of Big Sur. I like to describe Boronda Ridge as Stone Ridge’s little sister. Similar to Stone, Boronda is a prominent grassy ridge that rises steeply from the ocean with magnificent vistas of the Pacific Ocean and surrounding terrain. While Stone Ridge tops out at over 4,800 ft at the summit of Twin Peak, Boronda ridge reaches just over 3,000 feet at the summit of Timber Top. Boronda packs nearly as much punch as Stone Ridge in terms of rate of elevation gain per mile. The distance from the ocean to Twin Peak via Stone is around 5.5 miles with 5,000 ft of elevation gain while Boronda is only 3 miles with over 2,500 feet of gain. Despite its lower vertical, Boronda Ridge rises more steeply immediately from the ocean with truly impressive relief on the lower part of the ridge. From a vista at 1,500 feet above sea level, the topography is so steep that it’s almost as if you could dive into the ocean! The amazing views on Boronda are virtually non-stop owing to the fact that the ridge crest is almost entirely devoid of vegetation other than grass. The ridge culminates in an elegant arm at the upper part of the ridge, the highlight of the trail in my opinion. This photogenic rounded arm is separated by deep canyons of oak and redwood with the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean shimmering below. It’s a remarkable sight and now one of my favorite spots along the Big Sur Coast.
Beyond the elegant arm, a short traverse and final climb brought us to the summit of Timber Top. The view from Timber Top is gorgeous and worth spending some time to enjoy. From Timber Top, we took the access road down to the Coast Ridge Road, which clings to the crest of the ridge with more spectacular vistas towards Big Sur amid the many grassy ridge lines that characterize this beautiful section of Coast Ridge. Heading north along the Coast Ridge Road from the junction withTimber Top is also beautiful with more open grassy hillsides and excellent views to Ventana Double Cone and the Big Sur River drainage. After exploring to the north we retraced our steps and took the Coast Ridge Road south to the De Angulo trail. The De Angulo Trail starts by traversing a steep hillside and then descends the spine of Partington Ridge with a jumble of loose rocks. The trail then turns off the spine of Partington Ridge and commences a series of steep switchbacks down the hillside with very loose, poorly defined, and sharply angled tread. Suffice it to say this stretch is not very runnable, but at least it has been recently brushed. The De Angulo Trail finally pops out on an old fire road which is taken down to Highway 1. This fire road provides very nice views of Boronda Ridge and north along the rugged Big Sur Coast. Once at the highway, a 1.5 mile run brought us back to the Boronda trailhead. While the traffic can be annoying, there are enough turnouts and awesome views to make it worthwhile to complete the loop. The base Boronda-De Angulo Loop is a little over 10 miles but extensions along the Coast Ridge Road are worthwhile. The route is also near McWay Falls at Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park. We visited this iconic destination of Big Sur in nearly ideal afternoon light and I’ve posted those photos at the end of this post. Strava route here.
Andrew Molera State Park has some fantastic trail running and scnery. In the spring I did a hike up East Molera Ridge to Post Summit. The East Molera Ridge route has spectacular views with a gorgeous display of wildflowers and green grass in the spring. A use path continues beyond Post Summit along Cabezo Prieto to Mount Manuel and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, a loop that I look forward to completing soon. On this day I explored the trails on the west side of Hwy 1 with Erica where a great loop can be designed including Ridge Trail, Panorama Trail and Bluffs Trail. I did this loop back in 2009 so it’s been awhile. This route has classic Big Sur coastal scenery with steep hillsides plunging into the turquoise waters of the Pacific Ocean including rugged sea stacks and hidden beaches. While there trails are largely in exposed coastal scrub and chaparral, there are sections of beautiful oak woodland even some patches of pretty redwoods.
The run started out foggy along the coast but as we descended the Panorama Trail, the fog retreated from the coast dramatically revealing the amazing coastal scenery. The trails in Andrew Molera State Park are very runnable and moderate in elevation gain, especially when compared with most other trails in the Big Sur region. On this run we also checked out the Headlands Trail to Point Molera which is an awesome viewpoint including the Pico Blanco towering above. The great view from this promontory was an unexpected surprise which made it all the more sweeter. There was a group of guided horseback riders on the beach across the lagoon that produced a particularly photogenic scene. For history buffs, there is a very old cabin on the way to the Point Molera known as the Cooper Cabin. Strava Route here.
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.