Mouth of the Big Sur River, Andrew Molera State Park
This beautiful 4800-acre state park is next door to smaller but sometimes overly-popular Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. It's much more primitive and less developed, so gets less traffic. Its walk-in campground is much less crowded, but less developed than Pfeiffer Big Sur's. Car access is only at the edges of the park, so long hikes are required to explore it. It has 20 miles of trails. It includes grassy meadows, riparian wetlands, coastal bluffs, and the Big Sur River. A 2-mile hike to the lovely beach takes you to the mouth of the river. Other trails lead along the coastal bluffs and through the forests. Links:
A .3 mile stroll from the main parking lot leads to Castle Rock, a huge 4-story tall sandstone rock formation riddled with tunnels and caves. Actually, it's part of a complex of similar smaller rock formations around it. Kids love to climb on and between the rocks and into the more easily-accessible caves. Rock climbers tackle the steeper climbs to the top of the rock. This is a good area to train for more serious rock climbing in the Sierras.
The trail down to Castle Rock Falls is a stroll of less than a mile from the parking lot, down a cool, shady canyon, following Eagle Creek. At the end of the trail is a viewing platform which allows you to see straight down the face of the falls and part of the canyon below. I've seen experienced rock climbers climb down and back up the sheer rock faces on either side of the falls. The viewing platform also affords a view of the Santa Cruz Mountains and Monterey Bay.
Two trails branch off just before the falls. The Ridge Trail, which passes by Goat Rock, splits off to the right and climbs up a hill. The Saratoga Gap Trail continues on past the falls. The two trails eventually join 3 miles farther at the trail camp, though there are connector trails closer in. The Saratoga Gap Trail continues on and leads to Saratoga Gap at the intersection of Hwy 9 and Skyline Blvd. The 6 mile loop trip along the Ridge Trail and Saratoga Gap Trail to the trail camp is a recommended 3-hour trip, going through a wide variety of terrain and with great views.
The Ridge Trail climbs up steeply along the rocky sides of Varian Peak and follows the ridge, winding through a wide variety of shady forests. It also goes by Goat Rock, which is another huge sandstone climbing rock, like Castle Rock, except it offers panoramic views of the area, unlike tree-shielded Castle Rock. There are many other smaller cave-riddled rock formations around it for exploring. A lookout point has views of Goat Rock, as well as Monterey Bay, the Monterey Peninsula, and a large part of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The Ridge Trail ends at the Castle Rock Trail Camp, which is a good rest stop, with walk-in campsites, a bad-weather shelter, a nature trail, drinking water, picnic tables, a pay phone, and pit toilets. The park headquarters and ranger station are also there.
You can take several trails from here, but the most scenic and adventurous way back is on the Saratoga Gap Trail. Be warned that this stretch of trail is not for the faint-hearted or acrophobic and is mostly an exposed trail with only sporadic shade. It winds along a narrow footpath cut into the side of Varian Peak. Some parts of the trail are near steep cliff dropoffs. One particularly steep and narrow part has a cable to hold onto while crossing. Other parts are scrambles up and around boulders. Unlike the Ridge Trail, which only has occasional views through the trees, the Saratoga Gap Trail has continuous awesome 180-degree vistas. The unusual rock formations above and below the trail are also visible. Eventually, the trail runs through shady forests, past a garden of moss-covered boulders, and has views of Castle Rock Falls just before it returns to it.
View from the Castle Rock State Park Ridge Trail--Saratoga Gap Trail below, Monterey Bay and Peninsula in the distance.
Here are some links on Castle Rock State Park:
Big Sur Coastline
The Big Sur coast is one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the world. The Big Sur area is the legendary retreat for poets, artists, and Bohemians. There are rustic lodges, religious retreats, and luxury resorts here. Pfeiffer Big Sur is one of the most popular of all the state parks, even though it's not a big park, at only 821 acres. Its attractions are the Big Sur River, Pfeiffer Falls, the Ventana Wilderness, access to the nearby coastline, and hiking and camping in the redwoods. Its campground is one of the biggest (over 200 sites) and best in the area. Camping here is so popular, booking a reservation far in advance is a must (I speak from experience). It's located 26 miles south of Carmel off Hwy 1 in the village of Big Sur, a few miles inland from the coast. The town of Big Sur, adjacent to the park, has stores, private campgrounds, restaurants, and inns. The Big Sur Lodge is on the grounds of the state park itself. There's plenty to see if the surrounding area. North of the state park along Hwy 1 are the Point Sur Lightstation, Andrew Molera State Park, Garrapata State Beach, and Point Lobos State Reserve. South are Pfeiffer Beach and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
Gorge Area, Big Sur River
Swimmng and wading in the Big Sur River is very popular, particularly on warm sunny days. The park is inland from the ocean, so is not as chilly as the coast. The river is mostly knee-deep in the summer, but there are some deep swimming holes. One of the most popular and spectacular is the gorge area (see above), a short walk from the end of the campground. The steep canyon walls converge into a narrow gorge here, with the river spilling over a rock shelf into a series of deep pools. Other swimming holes (see below) are next to the campground.
Swimming hole in the Big Sur River, near the campground
The park has several trails. There's a short nature trail that introduces you to the plant life in the park. A short trail, a 1-hour round trip, along Pfeiffer-Redwood Creek runs through redwood groves and ends at 60-foot Pfeiffer Falls. A more rugged 2-hour hike is along the Buzzards Roost Trail, which climbs steeply along the western edge of the park, through redwood and oak forests, ending at Pfeiffer Ridge, which has great views of the ocean and mountains. The Valley View trail climbs up from the Pfeiffer Falls trail to Valley View Overlook, which has views of the Big Sur Valley, Point Sur, and Andrew Molera State Park. The Oak Grove Trail runs through a variety of habitats, from cool redwood forests, to sunnier oak groves, and to sun-baked chapparal.
Here are some links about the state park and surrounding area:
Located 3 miles south of Carmel on Hwy 1, Point Lobos is quite possibly the most scenic spot on the entire Pacific Coast. Even though nearby 17-Mile Drive receives more tourism and publicity, it's only a foretaste of the natural beauty at Point Lobos, which has been called "the greatest meeting of land and water in the world." Point Lobos has inspired countless artists and photographers. Robinson Jeffers, who lived in nearby Carmel, wrote some of his most famous poems about Point Lobos. As a state reserve, its purpose is to preserve the natural beauty of the area, not attract tourists, so it has limited facilities and access. Only a limited number of cars are allowed in at a time, so there's often a line to enter the park. You can walk or bike in, however. The best way to see the reserve is on foot anyway. Short, easy trails lead from the parking lots to incredible views of sheer rocky cliffs, small islets covered with sea lions and seabirds, sea caves and tunnels, sheltered coves, pocket beaches, and teeming tidepools. Here are some more Point Lobos links:
Tomales Bay is on the eastern edge of Point Reyes National Seashore. It's a long, narrow finger of water that was created by the San Andreas Fault, which runs under it. The high ridge at Point Reyes shields Tomales Bay from the wind and fog from the ocean, keeping the bay calm and warm. The waters here are some of the warmest, calmest, and most swimmable saltwater in northern California. Hearts Desire Beach is the most popular and accessible place in the park. Trails lead from there through shady forests to other more remote beaches, such as Pebble Beach and bigger Indian Beach. Trails also lead up into the surrounding ridgelands. One of the trails, the Jeppson Trail, leads through a stand of Bishop Pines. Other parts of the park lie along the windier western side of the Bay, with short trails leading along the shores. Links:
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Ron Horii, San Jose
Created 10/8/97. Last update: 7/22/01