Trail Mavens


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Trail Mavens Guide | Big Sur: Andrew Molera, Pfeiffer Big Sur, and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Parks

We spent this past weekend in Big Sur scouting for our upcoming adventure there in December, and it was one of those weekends that makes you overjoyed to be a Californian: warm, breezy afternoons, crisp starry nights, and a glorious mix of turquoise ocean, dramatic cliffs, and towering trees. We're so pumped to head back in just a month with a passel of amazing ladies. 

Big Sur isn't one specific location: it can loosely be defined as the 90-mile stretch of Highway 1 from Carmel to San Simeon, which is dotted with state parks, beaches, five-star resorts, and quaint restaurants and B&B's. For the purpose of this article, we'll focus on the three northernmost parks - Andrew Molera, Pfeiffer Big Sur, and Julia Pfeiffer Burns - which are around three hours away from San Francisco, plus or minus twenty minutes. 

Andrew Molera State Park

Camping: Andrew Molera offers 24 first-come, first served, walk-in campsites. The distance from the parking lot to the camp (about a third of a mile) will dissuade some less-energetic campers, but we still wouldn't show up at 7 PM on a mid-summer Friday night expecting to find spaces left. When we arrived at noon on a sunny November Saturday, however, only about half the sites were taken. The downside? All the campsites are on one open meadow. While they're spacious and flat, there's very little privacy or shade, with the exception of sites 4, 20, and 22, which are nestled back into low trees. Max capacity per campsite: 4 people.

Hiking: Molera has 20+ miles of maintained trails (detailed here), but the hike in the park providing the best scenery is the Andrew Molera Loop, which combines the Beach + Bluffs + Panoramic + Ridge trails into an 8.8 mile loop. There's one significant ascent, and most of the hike features sweeping views of Big Sur's northern beaches and coastline.

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

Here's where things get tricky: plenty of people (understandably) confuse Pfeiffer Big Sur and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Parks, so it's easy to be misled when reading online reviews.

Camping: You're spoiled for choice at Pfeiffer Big Sur. With 172 campsites, a lodge, and rustic cabins, you have many levels of accommodation at your disposal. If you're camping, your best bets are riverfront sites (slightly pricier, but very scenic) or any of the even-numbered sites between 6 and 36. All the latter sites are enormous, with plenty of flat space for multiple tents, and most sites are quite wooded, providing privacy from other campers. (This is where Trail Mavens will be staying in December 2014.) At the time of this writing, campsites on Reserve America were still available most weekends through May 2015.

Hiking: Pfeiffer Big Sur only has eight miles of trails, most which are not terribly noteworthy out-and-backs. If you're traveling through Big Sur, save your hiking for Andrew Molera and/or Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

If one park provides Big Sur's most iconic scenery, it's Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. 

Camping: JPB State Park has two environmental walk-in campsites. Yes, you read that right: two. Lucky campers carry in their equipment/food/water half a mile from the parking lot (and carry out their trash) in exchange for the very, very rare opportunity to sleep atop McWay Falls.

What's the catch? Only that you have to be logged into your Reserve America profile at 8 AM PST on the first of the month, ready to click, because these sites fill up in minutes. Even if you've waiting at your computer, it's easy for these sites to be snapped up within seconds of reservations opening.

Hiking: If there's one hike ANY visitor to Big Sur absolutely must do, it's the easy half mile hike to the McWay Falls Overlook. It's where to watch for southbound whales in December and January, and it's where we took these photos: McWay Falls (pictured above) on one side, unreal blue coastline (below) on the other.

The other must-hike trail in JPB State Park is the Ewoldsen Loop, a 4.5 mile circuit that takes you along a lovely creek and through redwoods before gaining 1,600 feet in elevation and providing sweeping ocean vistas.

What other spots in Big Sur are you obsessed with? Let us know in the comments!