Hiking in Big Sur

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Big Sur

Like most of California's coast, Big Sur is best explored in early spring and late fall, when chances of fog are very low. Summer is the worst time, as the fog is almost a permanent condition. If you visit it in the summer, most likely you'll never want to go back.

Near Big Sur there are excellent hiking spots: the Soberanes trail in Garrapata Park (from Soberanes Point to Doud Peak), Palo Colorado Rd to Bottcher's Gap (an entrance to the Los Padres National Forest), the trail from Andrew Molera Park to Pico Blanco (or, better, from the dirt road that starts across the highway from the park), Pfeiffer Big Sur Park (with the trail to Mt Manuel), the Sykes Hot Springs trail that starts at Big Sur Station (just south of Pfeiffer Big Sur Park), Pfeiffer State Beach (just south of Big Sur Station), McWay Falls on the beach in Julia Pfeiffer Burns Park, and Partington Cove (passed Nepenthe, Miller Library and two major bridges).

Big Sur information
Ventana Wilderness map
Big Sur camping
Ventana Wilderness camping
Big Sur webcam

  • Andrew Molera State Park offers a walk-in campground with 24 sites available on a first-come, first-served basis. This used to be the most popular place to camp (a vast meadow for anyone to camp anywhere), but the state has converted it into a concentration camp (only 4 people allowed per campsite) and a very expensive one ($25 per campsite in 2013).
  • Arroyo Seco Campground (Carmel Valley near Greenfield), the largest in the Monterey area (49 sites): from Highway 1, take Carmel Valley Rd east to Arroyo Seco Rd. All comforts, little sense of wilderness. Another concentration camp.
  • Bottchers Gap has only 12 sites ($15 in 2013), first come first served, max 8 people per site
  • Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park has two hike-in environmental campsites
  • The Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park (blame the bureaucrats for the confusing similar names) has 214 sites and it is closer to Carmel: $35 per site in 2013 (max 8 people per site)
  • By far the best sites near Pfeiffer Park are located right on the edge of the cliffs overlooking the ocean but, needless to say, they are impossible to get even if you book weeks ahead.
  • Generally speaking, expect more restrictions and higher prices every year. Many "first-come first-served" campgrounds now require reservations (as of 2016)

Note: due to human stupidity, there are two "Pfeiffer" parks. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is what most people call "Big Sur". It is south of Monterey and north of Nepenthe. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is south of Nepenthe and north of Lucia. Make sure which one you are heading for.

  • Deetjen's is famous for breakfast (just south of Miller Library which is just south of Nepenthe)
  • Nepenthe has a restaurant with views of the ocean. They serve lunch and dinner on weekend days.

Hiking in Big Sur

Pictures of these hikes
Weather forecast
Road conditions (many closures as of 2017)
Other hikes in California
Highway 1
Garrapata Park

Garrapata Park is located 10 kms south of Carmel off highway 1. The trail to Doud Peak is about 4.5 kms long from the straight northern side of the loop, Rocky Ridge trail. Returning from the southern side of the loop is about 5kms. There is no major visible sign on the highway so you have to know where the trailhead is. Until you park and get out of the car to read the trailhead signs, you will not know that you are there. The trailhead is only marked Rocky Ridge Trail. Take the first left and the the first right (both unmarked) and you'll be on the steep ascending trail. Not even to top is marked. The trail continues down the other side. When you are back to the highway, cross the highway and take the trail to Soberanes Pt, a short but very panoramic hike.

Andrew Molera Park

Andrew Molera Park is located about 30 kms south of Carmel. A 14 km loop is to hike from the parking lot along the Beach Trail to the beach and then south on the Bluffs/Panorama trail, returning via the Ridge Trail, the Hidden Trail and the River Trail.

Partington Cove, Creek and Canyon

This area is located about 20kms south of Big Sur proper, 3 kms north north of the entrance to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. The way to find the trailheads is to look for a sequence of famous milestones along highway 1: Nepenthe, Miller Library, Coast Gallery. After Coast Gallery, there are two major bridges. Then one gets to a curve (that looks like a bridge) with parking areas on both sides of the road and a creek coming down from a canyon. Those are the trailheads (unmarked, like most of the best things in Big Sur). The trailhead to the west of highway 1 (an unmarked iron gate) leads to Partington Cove (the trail actually forks and each fork leads to a separate cove). This is a 15 minute hike.

The trailhead to the east of highway 1 is marked only after a few meters "Tanbark trail". This one leads up Partington Canyon, coasting the creek first to the left and then to the right. Eventually very long switchbacks start leading west and east up the canyon. The trail ends into a fire road. Turn left and in a few minutes you reach the "tin house". This is a two hour hike. Contrary to what you may find on other websites, this trail is very well maintained and has absolutely no views of the ocean. On the other hand, the tin house has indeed an impressive view of the coast. Unfortunately, there is no connection with the nearby trails of Julia Pfeiffer park. If you can't resist the temptation and walk up the hill, you end up into private property. So the tin house is really the end of the trail. Returning via the fire road is recommended because the fire road does have the widely advertised ocean views. In fact, it has some of the best ocean views outside of Pt Reyes (on a clear day, of course, which are frequent in early spring but not in the summer). This is a one hour hike down. The catch is that the fire road ends on highway 1, and one has to walk about 2kms (easy 30 minutes) to get back to the trailheads. But this is not necessarily bad news, because the walk along highway 1 is through several postcard-grade viewpoints. Just walk on the ocean side of the highway to increase chances of surviving tourist traffic.

Pfeiffer Beach

This is one of the prettiest beaches in California, but appropriately difficult to find (despite being a state park). As of 2006, there still was no sign on highway 1 marking the right turn into the narrow winding road that goes to the beach (south of Fernwood and north of Nepenthe). There is only a yellow sign that forbids large vehicles from entering the road. After the ranger station, there is a parking lot. From the parking lot to the beach it is a short hike. The beach has two spectacular sights: the rocky island in front of it (easily climbed after walking a few meters in the water) and the hill to the left (also easily climbed). Further north (if the low tide permits) there are a few more coves that can be reached by just walking along the beach.

Ewoldsen trail

This is probably the most rewarding trail in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, famous (in the right seasons) for wildflowers and butterflies. The trail follows the McWay creek to the top of the hills. The widely advertised ocean views appear only at the top (7 kms). The trailhead is off highway 1. One can combine it with the short hike (5 minutes) to McWay Falls (the postcard-perfect waterfall on the beach).
Trail map