In the heart of Big Sur

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

Neil Wiley

This hike celebrates the people from our mountains who ran in the Big Sur marathon, walks, and relays. Although I was a week late, it was far less crowded. Instead of thousands of determined runners and walkers, I saw a few couples ambling along shady trails. I did see one runner. Perhaps she was training for the next Big Sur or October’s 10K Big Sur River Run. It was blissfully quiet. No bands. No cheers. No cries for mercy.

It’s a long drive down to Big Sur—almost one hundred miles—but after you pass Monterey, the spectacular scenery makes for a pleasant trip. Each curve brings new natural beauty. The rocky coast of Point Lobos State Reserve. Yankee Point. Abalone Bay. Garrapata Beach. Rocky and Bixby Point. Rocky and Bixby Bridges, both built in 1932, are still beautiful. The mouth of the Little Sur River. The strange lighthouse on the giant Point Sur rock. The broad expanses of Andrew Molera State Park. And then, the protected valley of Big Sur, the little town of Big Sur, and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. It’s tempting to keep right on driving to Morro Bay, but it’s good to stretch your legs at Pfeiffer.

Here at Pfeiffer you’ll find the rustic Big Sur Lodge. Reasonable rates include free admission to five Big Sur parks. A small store sells food and tourist stuff. Before taking a hike, a short walk takes you to the Proboscis Grove of 1,200-year-old redwoods. Or wander over to the group picnic ground to see the 27-foot-around Colonial Tree.

My first choice for a hike in this park is the Pfeiffer Falls-Valley View Loop. You’ll find the trailhead a short walk up the road to the left of the lodge. You’ll see a sign. The trail begins with a long series of steps, then up a more gradual slope through a classic redwood forest. The path zigzags upstream over four footbridges. At the intersection with Valley View Trail, take the right hand trail and two sets of stairs to the sixty-foot high Pfeiffer Falls. If you look carefully, you’ll see a second waterfall above. A large platform with a long bench provides a comfortable site for resting, viewing, eating, and taking pictures.

After your easily-earned rest, return to the junction, and follow the Valley View Trail over two bridges, up a series of switchbacks to another signed junction. Stay right to ascend to the Valley View Overlook. The grade is relatively moderate but occasionally rocky. You’ll see a few nice views, but keep going to the top where you can sit on a bench and enjoy a view of the Big Sur Valley. To the north, you should be able to see the Point Sur Rock.

A very short loop takes you back down the trail to the junction where you bear right to reach the canyon floor. You soon reach the Pfeiffer Falls Trail that takes you back to the lodge.

Behind the lodge, you’ll find the poorly marked Nature Trail. Although it is supposed to be self-guided, no printed guides or maps are available. A few steps take you to some big redwoods. The trail is flat, smooth, and less than a mile long, but it isn’t very exciting. When you reach the end, you can only retrace your steps or walk back on a parallel road.

Two other trails are available on the other side of Highway 1. Hike past the trail sign, then cross under the Big Sur River Bridge. A short way downstream, you’ll find a tunnel that crosses under the highway. Follow the river past large redwoods to an unsigned junction. The left fork goes up the hillside while the right fork takes you along the river. A set of steps rejoin the two forks. A short walk takes you to another junction.

Turning left takes you to Buzzard’s Roost. You climb a switchback up to a hillside ledge where the trail splits, creating a loop to Buzzard’s Roost. You end up on a ridge with an overlook. This walk is about 2.5 miles, round trip.

If, instead of taking the left to Buzzard’s Roost, you take the main trail, you’ll go north to a group campground and still another junction. The left fork takes you above the campground to Liewald Flat, an open meadow with oak groves. This is a shorter walk with a round trip of less than two miles.

Other short trails I haven’t explored include the Gorge Trail to swimming holes on the Big Sur River and the Oak Grove Trail. A much more challenging hike of over ten miles takes you up to a vista point near the 4,379-foot summit of Mount Manuel. It looks like a tough, sparsely shaded climb through chaparral, but the view could be worth it.

By this time, you’ll want to cool off. Drive out of the park, and turn south. When you see the Big Sur Ranger Station, drive a half mile south, and turn right on Sycamore Canyon Road. The narrow road ends in about two miles, but you can follow a short trail through a canopy of cypress trees to a sandy beach, complete with large rock formations, natural arches, and sea caves. One of the most photographed beaches in the world, Pfeiffer Beach was made famous by the film The Sandpipers starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

If all this walking has made you hungry, the road south of Pfeiffer features many good restaurants. The Big Sur walkers from Summit Whole Body Fitness recommend Deetjens Big Sur Inn. They enjoyed their breakfast and dinner. Even if it is a cliché, the cliffside restaurant Nepenthe is my choice. The views south along the coast are magnificent, and the Ambrosiaburger is tasty.


Entrance fees for Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park are $8 per car. A trail map is $1. Cottage-style units at the lodge, some with a fireplace, kitchenette, deck, or balcony run from $149-$199 from October through April, $189-$259 from May through September. (Barry Hill and Jennifer Straw who stayed at the lodge during the marathon found it a good value.) Gas is available in the little town of Big Sur, but to avoid worry, fill up in Carmel. You’ll get more out of your trip if you get a few published guides. I like Big Sur: A Complete History and Guide by Tommie Kay Lussier, and Bay Hikes Around Big Sur by Robert Stone. (Both are available at the park and many Big Sur tourist shops.)


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