Big Sur Condor Loop

The Big Sur condor loop is an awesome coastal loop at the heart of the Big Sur coast. The route starts with a direct route up Anderson Peak (aka “Anderson Direct”) from McWay Falls, gaining 4,000 feet in less than 3 miles by following an old firebreak/underground utilities line up the prominent ridge between McWay Canyon and Anderson Canyon. Anderson Direct is to Anderson Peak what Stone Ridge is to Cone Peak; an extremely steep ridge climb with stunning coastal views. Unlike Stone Ridge, Anderson Direct is not grassy and the upper two-thirds are essentially a continuous blowdown with literally thousands of burnt snags over the route from the 2008 Basin Complex fires. There are also some patches of festering poison oak to wade through, but the good news is the brush is relatively light. It’s an arduous route, but it’s easily the most efficient way to reach Anderson Peak on foot and remarkably scenic with enormous views up and down the Big Sur coast . GPS data here.

About 1 mile up the ridge we passed right next to the home of the local condor population. They were resting on the crowns of the redwoods in the early morning sunshine, presumably drying off from the recent rains. The condors were the closest I have ever seen so I could see their features in detail. The condor has a very prehistoric look. An extensive reintroduction program has allowed the majestic California condor to return to its native habitat soaring over the Santa Lucia Mountains. In 1987, the California condor was eradicated from the wild due to poaching, lead poisoning and habitat destruction. The remaining 22 birds were taken into captivity to prevent species extinction. Starting in 1992, the birds were reintroduced into the wild and Big Sur was one of the earliest release sites. Currently there are an estimated 237 free-flying condors in California, many of which still reside in Big Sur but the population’s range has expanded to Pinnacles National Park, Ventura County and the Transverse Ranges. On this day we were grateful to see 9 of these magnificent birds. Later on our ascent the condors took off and flew as a group showcasing there remarkable wing span that is up to 9.5 feet! The wings are so big that when the bird flies above enough air is pushed aside that it makes a sound like a kite. At one point we saw all 9 condors circling above us. It seemed as if the condors followed us throughout our journey as we continued to see these majestic birds from Coast Ridge Road and on the descent of the DeAngulo Trail, hence the name I gave this loop. While there is no guarantee of seeing condors in this area, let alone 9 at the same time, this was not the first time I’ve seen condors soaring above Torre Canyon, Partington Canyon and McWay Canyon. From Anderson Peak, we took the Coast Ridge Road for about 4 miles with a continuation of coastal vistas and also great views of the interior Ventana including the South Fork Big Sur River drainage, Ventana Double Cone, Black Cone and Junipero Serra. We then descended the DeAngulo Trail. Overall, the DeAngulo trail was in decent condition, and now even better since we cleared out branch debris and Brian did substantial pruning with his loppers. There were excellent views to Boronda Ridge and looking north up the coast. At the bottom of DeAngulo, we ran along Hwy 1 for one mile to connect into the Julia Pfieffer Burns Trail network including the Tanbark Trail, Waters Trail and Ewoldsen Trail, ultimately depositing us at McWay Falls to complete the loop. The highlight of this section was beautiful Partington Canyon, lush as ever with nice flow through Partingon Creek’s cascades. While McWay Falls is definitely touristy, it’s popular for a reason and a great way to finish the loop with afternoon light on the falls. GPS data here

Partington Cove to McWay Falls

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

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.