Big Sur Beaches and Bluffs

Beaches, Big Sur, Big Trees, Hiking, Photography, Wildflowers

A Big Sur state park with a little bit of everything.

The ‘journey is the reward’ is the line that comes to mind.

Getting to Andrew Molera State Park is a journey down that iconic California coastline you’ve seen pictures of all your life. Mountains on the left, the rugged Pacific coast on your right; pull over just about anywhere and take it all in.

The opening trip to Andrew Molera State Park was on my first visit to Big Sur. Susie and I walked out of the North end of the parking lot (past the campsites) to Molera Point to see the beach and where the Big Sur river empties into the Pacific. The shoreline here is a big sweeping arc of white sand that is tucked behind the point and therefore offers some protection from direct ocean swells. I was hooked.

You can get to the the beach pictured above by exiting the other end of the parking lot to the Creamery Meadow trail until you come to the beach.

But there’s a hitch… Wet feet.

For a large part of the year the bridge you see pictured above is removed as the Big Sur river it crosses begins to fill, sometime suddenly, with winter rain. So be prepared to get your feet wet to access the beach. Check the park’s website to get the latest updates the rickety bridge, which I think you’re better off bypassing anyway.

The Creamery Meadow Trail also leads to the trails for exploring the hills and meadows that make up the rest of the park. These trails (Bluffs Trail, Panorama Trail, Spring Trail and Ridge Trail) are a loop that take you along the bluffs above the rugged beaches, with a short spur down to the quiet and somewhat isolated Molara Beach.

You can then continue uphill to the Ridge Trail, which runs along the crest of hills that parallel the ocean on the right and the Big Sur coastal ranges on the left, with photo-worthy views on each side, if the views are clear. The trail is often shrouded in fog as the chilly Pacific air is forced up over the top of this first rift of the Santa Lucia Range.

On one trip I crossed the Big Sur River next to the parking lot and instead of heading out to the beach or the trails that run along the bluffs, I took a left after the rickety bridge (which was in place this trip) onto the River Trail, then onto the ‘Hidden Trail’. This trail climbed 600′ up the east side of the ridge and proved to be a bit more of a challenge than the trails that ascend to the top of the same ridge from the ocean side. I managed to put the hiking sticks to great use. 

The Hidden Trail connects to the Ridge Trail, which is wide with a gentle grade. I saw a couple of people on bikes and made a note to drag the Trek on the next trip here. The Ridge Trail runs along the crest of hills that parallel the ocean on one side and the Big Sur coastal ranges on the other, with photo-worthy views on each side. The trail took me through a small grove of redwoods, which then opened into the highest reaches of the park, where the wind started to pick up and the fog started to obscure the views.

After some time at about 1200 feet, I headed back down the aptly-named Panorama Trail. Beautiful views, fresh ocean air, and… narrow footing. Someone had suggested on All Trails ( that this loop is better going clockwise and I heeded that advice.  It certainly was easier going downhill in this direction than climbing up would have been. Once again, the hiking sticks made a big difference.

The balance of the loop has some some slippery downhill sections, the occasional pass through chest-high brush and some outstanding Big Sur vistas. Take the time to spur down the Spring Trail to the quiet beach, before returning to the Bluffs Trail, which gradually flattens out on the ridge above the ocean.

I missed the Creamery Meadow trail and went straight to the Beach Trail, which might have added 10 minutes to the journey, but not much more. My round trip took about 4 hours, with plenty of stops for pictures.

There are photo ops all along the trails, especially in the summer months as the wildflowers are on full display.

So this loop gives me a little bit of everything: Flat meadows, a reasonable climb that puts you in cooler temps and fog, excellent mountain vistas and quiet beaches. All with enough of a workout to make you feel like you accomplished something.

Kid factor: (+) Plenty for kids to do and see, from the beaches to the trails. (-) Know what poison oak looks like and keep away from the pretty red leaves. Take the ocean around here seriously. Like the park brochure says; don’t turn your back to the waves. It can be just beautiful and gentle for an hour, then a single set will come in too big and sweep you out to sea. Happens all the time, all up and down the coast. Check for ticks when you get back to the car. I usually spray my shoes and legs with repellant before I set out. I wear lightweight long pants out here. Your call.

Fitness factor:  The route I took requires decent knees (hiking sticks are my new best friend) and I would say a 4-flight rule is in effect: If you can do 4 flights of stairs without looking for the elevator, then your probably OK for the loop I took. Otherwise, enjoy the hiking along the beach, Creamery Meadow and Bluffs Trails where it’s much flatter. Bring the mountain bikes; lots of official bike trails. Take it easy on the horse riders. Stop and say hello to the horses out loud… well before they get to you. That way they know you’re not a mountain lion riding a bike. Bring what you think you’ll need to drink, then double it.

Photo factor:  Classic Big Sur shots in every direction. Panorama landscapes and macro shots of flowers everywhere. I have a set of hiking sticks by Manfrotto where one of the sticks has a 1/4 20 standard camera thread at the top which then becomes a monopod. Sounds a little corny until you try it.