Nature fanatics will be right at home in this beautiful
Few places on earth genuinely make you believe in fairy tales, but Big Sur, about 1 1/2 hours south of the South Valley, is one of those places. Lucky for us, it’s only a day trip away.
Even the drive to Big Sur is enchanting, meandering down Highway 1 along the edge of Monterey Bay, through part of Carmel and across the arching, Harry Potter-esque Bixby Bridge. On one side, sapphire-blue waves crash against rock formations along the Pacific Coast. On the other side, trees turn the rolling mountains into deep green velvet.
Depending on what side of the Highway 1 they choose, visitors can experience two different worlds in Big Sur. On the east side of the winding road are three state parks, each offering an assortment of hikes, vistas and panoramic views. The parks include Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and Andrew Molera State Park, which is the largest state park on the Big Sur coast. A kiosk stands at each park entrance where you can buy maps of the various trails and purchase a mandatory parking pass.
The west side of Route 1 is home to the picture-book-perfect beaches of Big Sur. These include Garrapata State Beach, Sand Dollar Beach and Pfeiffer Beach, among many others. Unlike a stereotypical “trip to the beach,” many of the area beaches require a short hike, so be sure to bring sturdy shoes for the trip down to the water.
A safe bet for a day trip is a visit to both Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and Pfeiffer Beach. Neither is overwhelming in size, but they offer the best of both worlds. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is home to Pfeiffer Falls, an 80-foot waterfall visible from the Valley View trail.
At the base of the trail, giant redwood trees stand guard over lush ferns, moss and the water trickling down from Pfeiffer Falls. The stillness under these majestic trees seems hallowed, leading visitors to believe that fairies, leprechauns or any other mythical creatures may be hiding nearby. Park rangers working at the nature center near the trailhead encourage hikers to sit a while at the Valley View Overlook and watch for endangered California condors.
Visitors young and old can take on the trail as long as they are in moderately good health. The trail is steep in some places, but gently sloping in most.
At Pfeiffer Beach, the surrounding hills and mountains seem to be racing to see which can reach the water first. Huge waves roar onto the sand, crashing against the massive rocks in the shallows. The waves send up a mist of sea spray that lingers in the air long after the water has receded, giving the beach an ethereal feeling.
The road leading to Pfeiffer Beach is hard to find, though, as it isn’t marked. The entrance is about a mile past the entrance to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, on the west side of the road. There is a sign saying the road is narrow and not suitable for trailers. Once you make the hairpin turn, a sign ahead announces the direction of the beach. Locals are very kind in giving directions if you think you’ve missed the turn.
Before you go on a Big Sur day trip, make sure to do your research. The Big Sur Chamber of Commerce Web site, www. bigsurcalifornia. org, has a plethora of information. If you don’t know where you’re going ahead of time, it’s very easy to drive past what you’re looking for. Buildings and signs are often partly hidden among trees and driveways sometimes seem to appear out of nowhere.
Other day trip-doable sites in Big Sur include:
• Monarch butterflies return to Big Sur every October to wait out the winter. They bunch together by the hundreds throughout the park, but particularly in Andrew Molera State Park.
• Countless art galleries, most featuring local artists, are tucked away in Big Sur. Many galleries are attached to lodges or restaurants, so it’s a good idea to call ahead for directions.
• Henry Miller, author of novels such as “Tropic of Cancer” and “Nexus and The Air-Conditioned Nightmare,” lived and died in Big Sur. His ashes were scattered at sea along the Big Sur coast. The Henry Miller Library (www.henrymiller.org) is a must-visit for literary fanatics.
• The Point Sur Lighthouse is a National Historic Landmark and the only complete turn-of-the-century light station open to the public in California. Get there early, as the number of visitors to the lighthouse is limited daily. First come, first served.
• For truly unique dining, try Nepenthe. Diners sit among the treetops looking down at a spectacular view of the coastline. Be prepared to pay for the view, however: One of their specialty salads runs about $16, but the experience is hard to beat.