Blauert on Outdoors: Great time to visit the coast

12/17/2013 9:03 PM

12/17/2013 9:04 PM

As of this morning, China Peak, Kirkwood, Mammoth, Heavenly, Sugar Bowl, June Mountain, Squaw, Alpine Meadows, Boreal, Sierra at Tahoe, and Mt. Rose are open or partially open for skiing and snowboarding.

As we wait for more snow to arrive, it’s also a great time to enjoy the coast. The ocean moderates temperatures, so it’s almost always warmer than our valley. Not warm enough for wading or swimming, but as long as it is a clear day the beaches and trails are great places to walk and enjoy the sun.

Students in the Merced Union High School District’s Environmental Science Academy got to enjoy some of these things last Friday during a field trip to Monterey County’s “Big Sur.” This oddly-named region stretches for 90 miles from the Carmel River south to Ragged Point (just north of San Simeon). To the Spanish settlers of Monterey Bay in the 1700’s it was “el sur grande” – the “big south” – a rugged and nearly impassible country where steep mountains run straight down to the sea. They avoided it, routing their travel through the valleys to the east. It remained extremely isolated until 1937 when Highway 1 was completed.

Best-known of all of Big Sur’s wonders is McWay Falls. Made famous by photographers and postcards, it’s the iconic waterfall that pours onto the sand of a small beach in a cove. An almost completely level ¼ mile trail from the parking area leads to the best viewing spots along the bluff – it’s a short walk that anyone can do. An interesting interpretive sign explains how the beach was created by a 1983 landslide – previously the waterfall dropped straight into the ocean.

In addition to being a beautiful spot, it’s a great place to learn about erosion and how life adapts to harsh and changing conditions. Part of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, parking/day use costs $10/vehicle. Pfeiffer Falls is another easily-accessible waterfall: a graceful multi-fingered shower with a 60-foot drop. The trail starts at the Big Sur River footbridge near the first parking area. It parallels the river for a few minutes before crossing back over and passing through some impressive redwoods. Although it follows roads for a few minutes, before long it climbs above civilization. The climb is gradual but steady. After enjoying the falls you can extend your hike to a total of about 2 miles round trip by including the Valley View viewpoint, a great place to overlook the Big Sur Valley and gaze all the way out to where the Point Sur Lighthouse sits perched above the Pacific on a solitary rock. Pfeiffer State Park charges $10/vehicle for parking/day use.

For me, Pfeiffer Beach was the best new discovery of the trip. I’d never seen this great sandy expanse with its tide pools, natural rock arches, and backdrop of mountains and cypress because it is hard to find. There’s no sign indicating the turn from Highway 1 onto one-lane Sycamore Canyon Road. This hidden road winds its way down to a Los Padres National Forest parking lot where the $5/car parking fee is one of the best deals around. When we arrived in the late afternoon a group of 30 photographers were lined up to take photos of the sunset through one of the natural bridges.

To find the turnoff, look for an ungated road on the west side of Highway 1 about ½ mile south of Big Sur Station.

These 3 stops filled up our day. Each held its own surprise – grey whales spouting near the McWay Falls viewpoint, beautiful redwoods and views along the Pfeiffer Falls Trail, and some incredible tide pool life and natural arches at Pfeiffer Beach. Seeing sea otters, sea lions, seals, dolphins, deer, and condors is also likely along this part of the coast.

On your way there, look out for the tule elk near the San Luis Reservoir dam. We saw what seemed to be most of the herd – 50 or more animals – between Highway 152 and the power plant.

No matter what you choose to do, it’s hard to have a bad day at Big Sur. There are a lot of hiking, eating, lodging, and camping options. As long as the weather isn’t wet and you have warm sleeping bags, camping can be surprisingly enjoyable in the colder months. In addition to the places the students enjoyed last week, three other favorite spots are the beach at Andrew Molera State Park (a 2.5 mile round-trip walk), the beach, waterfall, and historic kilns at Limekiln State Park, and the historic Point Sur Lighthouse.

Note: a wildfire broke out near Pfeiffer Beach and Pfeiffer State Park on Sunday night. Check current conditions before making this trip.

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